Brian Wilson on Love & Mercy, Creating Pet Sounds and More

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In Bill Pohlad’s new film, Love & Mercy, the director explores two different eras of Brian Wilson. One is the mid-’60s Wilson (portrayed by Paul Dano), who had stopped touring with the Beach Boys to work on songs that would eventually end up on Pet Sounds. The other is the ’80s Wilson (played by John Cusack), who was under the strict control of his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. “I think it was a very accurate and factual movie,” Wilson says. “I thought the actors that both portrayed me were letter-perfect. They hung out with me for about a week and got familiar with my mannerisms…. It was a beautiful movie.”

In Love & Mercy, a fair amount of screen time is spent in the studio during the making of Pet Sounds, considered by many to be Wilson’s masterpiece and one of the greatest albums in the history of rock and roll. To create it, Wilson recruited the Wrecking Crew, a group of some of Los Angeles’s finest studio musicians, among them drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, pianist Don Randi and guitarist Barney Kessel.

Wilson says it was easier working with studio musicians, as they were more accomplished and worked a little harder than the other Beach Boys.

“It started out where I’d just talk to them a little bit, you know?,” he recalls. “I told them who I was, and we got to talking, and then I handed them some manuscript papers, where I wrote out the notes for them to play and the chords and the drumbeats.”

Pet Sounds was mostly written and recorded while the rest of the Beach Boys were touring. Wilson and collaborator Tony Asher explored personal themes on the album; Wilson notes that it was a departure from songs about surfing and cars.

“I listened to Rubber Soul by the Beatles and was so impressed with it that I went to my piano and started writing ‘God Only Knows,’” Wilson says. “And then a few days later, me and my collaborator wrote the rest of it. Then we started writing the Pet Sounds album.”

Wilson also arranged and produced the recording, using some of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound techniques in the studio. It was the Spector-produced “Be My Baby,” which Wilson listened to every day for many years, that inspired him to produce records in the first place.

“It got me in the studio producing records with a positive type of sound, like the Phil Spector sound. I learned how to write positive music,” he says.

While Wilson was quite prolific in the ’60s, he acknowledges that writing takes longer these days: “I’m not quite as active as I used to be, so the songs don’t come real fast. They come a little slower.”

Wilson’s eleventh studio album, No Pier Pressure, was released in April on Capitol and features guest appearances by She & Him, Kacey Musgraves, Nate Ruess and Sebu Simonian of Capital Cities. He collaborated on the songwriting with Joe Thomas, a producer and director with a long history in the music and television industries.

“I have a collaborator who plays a lot of good chords,” Wilson says of Thomas. “He plunks out chords on the piano, and I come up with melodies — and he comes up with some of the melodies — and then we both write the lyrics. And it’s absolutely a joy to work and to write a song.”

The two hoped to recapture the mid-’60s Beach Boys harmonies on No Pier Pressure. “The thing that makes the album so good is the harmonies that we used with our voices,” Wilson says.

Beach Boys singer and guitarist Al Jardine is helping out with harmonies on the current tour, along with Blondie Chaplin, who briefly sang and played guitar for the group in the early ’70s. (Both musicians also appear on No Pier Pressure.) Wilson says the shows comprise Beach Boys classics and several songs from No Pier Pressure.   

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