Smiles Away

Bittersweet symphonist: Brian Wilson.

I realize it now: I am one nervous interviewing dude. That's the reason I'm a songwriter and a record producer, not a journalist. Not only do I detest deadlines -- I've never handed in a project on time --but I'm really more interested in made-up stories than real ones. Also, I don't look good in one of those Jimmy Olsen-esque hats that say "Scoop" on the front.

But my poor interviewing skills didn't reveal themselves until today, when, in the back room of my house and witnessed by my three cats, I interviewed Beach Boy Brian Wilson.

The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" was the first song my band, the Apples in Stereo, ever learned how to play. "Heroes" was originally intended to be the centerpiece of Smile, the ambitious followup to Pet Sounds that Brian Wilson began in 1966 -- but abandoned a year later after 85 exhausting and frustrating studio sessions. Although some of the songs, including "Heroes," wound up on 1967's Smiley Smile, it took Wilson almost forty years to complete and release Smile in the sprawling, ambitious form he first envisioned.

Smile was a massive part of my early musical identity. To me, the unfinished album took on mythological proportions. The bits and pieces of it that leaked out on bootlegs and boxed sets over the years filled the air of my old basement apartment in Denver. My world was immersed in these mystical sounds. No album ever seemed so magnificently hopeless.

But now there is hope: SMiLE is proof that, given talent and perseverance, rock and roll can be high art -- as valid as jazz or classical music, even painting, poetry or film. One of pop culture's most discouraging tragedies has become the preface to one of its greatest masterpieces.

Anyway, back to my story. Today, I interviewed my greatest hero in the whole world, and I freaked him out. Brian Wilson doesn't know anything about me or my band. He doesn't know that I'm famously just as spacey as he is. He doesn't know that, like him, I'm good at singing pop songs and making records for stoned college kids to listen to through headphones. All Brian Wilson knows about me is that I am one nervous interviewing dude. Brian Wilson might tell you that, despite my ambitions, I should not be a journalist. Brian Wilson might even have my "Scoop" hat revoked.

See, I have a lot of nervous energy. I talk too much. I talk too fast. I've really tried to cut down on my sugar intake, but sugar just makes me feel so happy, you know? Still, I think I did a pretty good job of containing my excitement when I answered the phone and it was Beach Boy Brian Wilson. But as things went along, the pace of our conversation picked up speed like the brakes had been cut. He fed off my nervousness, and I fed off him feeding off me.

Today I irritated Brian Wilson. I flustered Brian Wilson. I out-spaced-out Brian Wilson. Magazines of the world, is there anybody else you want me to interview? Let me at 'em.

Robert Schneider: I wanted to start by telling you that I love your music, and I love you more than anybody else I don't know in the whole world. I'm not a journalist. I was asked to do this interview because I'm a songwriter and a record producer like you. But besides the fact that you're my musical hero, I just want to tell you that I think you're a sweet, gentle person.

Brian Wilson: Thank you.

And I think it's because you're such a neat person that you've had such a beautiful artistic vision.

Thank you very much. Now let's get on with the interview.

Okay, sir, let's go! Are you relieved to have finished SMiLE?

Oh, very relieved. It's been 38 years of tension.

Was it hard to remember all the melodies to the song, and also the background vocal parts which you didn't originally record?

No, it wasn't hard at all.

They're fantastic, Brian. It's such an amazing record. It's the most psychedelic, beautiful, wonderful, fun record I've ever heard. I think that it makes all other rock records look like amateur garage bands.

Right! [Laughs.] Another question now!

Okay. How have Mike [Love] and Al [Jardine] reacted to you finishing SMiLE?

Mike and Al and Dennis [Wilson] hated the Smile tapes.

How about now? Are Mike and Al happy that you finished?

I don't talk to Mike anymore. I don't know what he thinks.

Okay, great. How many original Smile sections were left out? Or did you use everything?

We used almost everything.  

Wow. Okay, I'm going to tell you something that I really love about music: how a single chord progression can have a million different melodies over it and a simple progression can have almost an infinite number of melodies. But it's a matter of taste to choose the best melodies, to allow them to move and be heard and not overburden the song with too many parts.

Absolutely. I agree with you 100 percent. So what's the question?

The question is, on SMiLE, the arrangements are sparser and the chord progressions are simpler. It's as if you took what could have been all the parts on one song and stretched them out over a bunch of sections.

Right. They were all sequenced together by computers and ProTools.

How do you like working in the studio on the computer, seeing all the music laid out in front of you on the screen?

I like that. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

I really like it, too. It's neat to see, like a painting or something. Do you miss the old way of working in the studio, with a lot of session players?

I'm glad I have my new, modern band now, my new orchestra. They're amazing. They're much better than the Beach Boys.

Back to SMiLE stuffŠ Actually, I guess that pretty much covers the SMiLE stuff. Can I ask you a few other things?


What's your favorite candy? When I work in the studio, I tend to take in a lot of sugar.

My favorite candy is chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate.

Ooh, that's good. Do you eat more candy in the studio than the rest of the time?

Yeah, when I'm in the studio, I have to have candy around, or I can't do it.

What's your favorite color?

Color? I don't know. Brown.

When I'm mixing and arranging, I feel like I'm kind of blending colors. Is there an aspect of recording that makes you think of colors, or that makes you think of other things besides music?

Not really, no.

Okay, what's your favorite chord on the piano?


Do you arrange vocals and instrumental parts on the piano?

I sure do.

Do you read music?

No, I can't read music.

You're a really talented background vocalist. You have the best pitch, and I love the way you layer your vocals and double them.

Why do you say that?

You sound like a group of different singers. You change the timbre of your voice. I love it. Do you usually come up with the harmonies while you're writing songs?

No, no, no, no. I write the songs, then I come up with the harmonies.

When you write a song, how much of the finished arrangement comes to you while you're writing it?

About a third of it.

And then you work out the rest in the studio?

And then I work the rest out in the studio, right.

I saw you perform SMiLE twice last summer in London, and I also saw Pet Sounds a few years ago in Denver. You seem really happy and relaxed, like you're enjoying yourself. It's really impressive to me. Being on tour for me is kind of weird, because you're kind of in this suspended state, and your environment's always changingŠ.

Okay, what's your last name?



Yeah, I play in a band called the Apples in Stereo.

I see. Okay, now I see what's going on here.

But I like being on tour, because my responsibilities are very limited and specific. Are you enjoying touring and playing with your new band right now?

Uh, yes.

Does it wear you out?


Yeah, you seem really energetic on stage. Do you ever feel that your voice gets scratchy when you're on tour?

No. I try to get sleep at night so that I rest my throat.

Do you warm up before shows?

Yes, I do.

How do you do it?

I go, "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!" I do vocal exercises.

Is that something somebody taught you?

Yeah, my vocal coach.

Sometimes after a few shows, my voice will get weak, and that sucks.

Yeah, I know.

I've heard it said that Smiley Smile was a bunt, whereas SMiLE was supposed to be a grand slam. But I really disagree. I think Smiley Smile was an amazing record. It's really sparse and strange and psychedelic, and it's kind of warm and fun and very human. Which is sort of a relief, since Pet Sounds was so sophisticated and church-like and sad. I really love Smiley Smile.  

It's nice. It's a very nice album.

It's beautiful, and I think it stands as one of the best albums of that period, along with Pet Sounds.

I have to agree with that.

Robert Schneider is the lead composer, arranger, and producer of the Apples in Stereo, Marbles, and Ulysses, and was one of the founding members of The Elephant 6 Cooperative. He is also a well-known producer-engineer, having worked with such notables as Beulah, Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.

You can listen to the whole interview right here!
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