Photo by MARK HANAUER via Rock Paper Photo
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Brian Wilson is not a big talker. Music, glorious music, is his gift, not gab. He partnered with a lyricist for his greatest works — Tony Asher on Pet Sounds, Van Dyke Parks on Smile and Mike Love on “Good Vibrations.” He’s not one of those artists who like to use the celebrity interview format to deliver expansive ruminations about the world according to Brian Wilson. In fact, having interviewed him several times over the years, it is patently obvious that he sees talking to the press as a necessary evil of the business that is show. I’m told that when he came through town recently on a press junket for Love & Mercy — the shockingly great Brian Wilson biopic of his life starring Paul Dano as the young Brian and John Cusack as the older Brian — he told WHYY film critic Patrick Stoner that the interview was over after just one question. Fortunately Brian was a little more generous with his time when he called for a chat about Love & Mercy a couple weeks back. I must say, he sounded more engaged and in-the-moment and, most importantly, cheerful than in any of the handful of interviews I’ve done with him over the years. In fact, given the monosyllabic responses my queries have usually elicited over the years, he was positively chatty. Still, don’t dig into this Q&A expecting My Dinner With Andre. As I’ve said before, a Brian Wilson interview is what they call in the journo biz a ‘talking dog story’ — it’s not so much what the dog said, it’s that he talked at all.
BRIAN WILSON: Hi, Jonathan.
PHAWKER: Hey, Brian. How are you?
BRIAN WILSON: I’m good, how you doing?
BRIAN WILSON: I’m calling from the New Jersey airport.
PHAWKER: Oh, ok. Are you guys flying somewhere next?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, we’re flying to Chicago.
PHAWKER: Oh, right you’re going to do a big thing with John Cusack there, right? For the movie?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Ok, great. You’ve talked to a million journalists in the course of your long career so you probably don’t remember me but we’ve spoken several times over the years. I’m a big fan and it’s always such an honor to speak with you. I just watched the movie and I think it’s really, really great. I’m assuming you’ve seen the movie, I’m wondering what you thought about it?
BRIAN WILSON: Well, I was quite thrilled with the way it was casted and the portrayal of the actors was really good.
PHAWKER: Yeah. When you heard that they were going to make a movie about you were you worried or excited about that?
BRIAN WILSON: I was excited, yeah.
PHAWKER: There was a lot of turmoil and distress in your life that is covered in the film; that must be hard for you to watch, though.
BRIAN WILSON: It was rough to see the hard parts in my life, yeah. It was pretty rough.
PHAWKER: Who did you like better: John Cusack’s performance or Paul Dano’s?
BRIAN WILSON: I liked them both.
PHAWKER: Very diplomatic answer. You spent some time with John Cusack, right, before they filmed it?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, about a week, yeah.
BRIAN WILSON: We just hung out at my house. He got to know me a little bit so he got the feel for my personality and went and did the movie.
PHAWKER: How about with Paul Dano? How did you guys meet up or what did he do with you to prepare for the movie?
BRIAN WILSON: Same as Johnny, just hung out with me for a week and then he went and did the movie.
PHAWKER: John Cusack delivers a great performance but he doesn’t really look like you, which is not a problem, I think it’s actually a benefit to the film because it’s not distracting in that you feel like your watching someone impersonating you, but Paul Dano, it’s uncanny how much he looks like you back in the ’60s if you look at those old photos.
BRIAN WILSON: I know, I know.
PHAWKER: He’s an amazing actor. They’re both really great actors. Paul Dano is an incredible actor and I just thought he so nailed you and all those scenes — really powerful. So, I just want to go through a couple of things that are covered in your biography in the film. I’m wondering: I know that when you first started out, The Four Freshman was a big influence on your life or your music, etc. Your whole family sang and sat around the piano and things like that. I’m wondering, do you actually remember the first time you heard a song in your head? Not just that you made up plinking around on the piano, but that you heard a song or part of a song in your head.
BRIAN WILSON: Yes, “Surfer Girl.”
PHAWKER: Do you recall the first time you started hearing voices inside your head? Was it around the same time?
BRIAN WILSON: No, that happened in the mid-60s.
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah.
PHAWKER: You take medication now that mutes those voices and you’re able to lead sort of a normal life etc. I’m wondering if you’re ever worried that the medicine that would shut off the auditory hallucinations would also shut off the music inside your head?
BRIAN WILSON: No, it wouldn’t shut the music off, no.
PHAWKER: Well, that’s good to hear. There’s a scene in the movie where, at the end of Smile, your father comes in and tells you he sold off all the rights to the Beach Boys music for just $750,000. The scene kind of ends there. What happened after he told you that?
BRIAN WILSON: I said: “why did you sell for so low?” He said “I Just wanted to get out of the music business, you know?” And that’s why he let it go for so cheap.
PHAWKER: But you were able to get the rights back, right?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Okay. A couple questions about Dr. Landy: obviously, he was a controlling and corrupt person and there’s a lot of negativity that’s portrayed in the film about your relationship with him but I’m wondering if you thought that he did any good things during the 14 years he treated you, as far as getting your life back together.
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, he turned me onto exercise and health foods. He got me running and swimming and eating a lot of health foods.
PHAWKER: You were in very bad shape when he started working with you — morbidly obese, snorting alarming quantities of cocaine, wouldn’t get out of bed for four years — the physical transformation of you was extraordinary. I remember how much weight you lost and looked 30 years younger and you started making music again for the first time in a long, long time. I wanted to ask you about a scene in the movie where you and Melinda jump off a sailboat and swim to shore. Did that really happen?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, that actually happened.
PHAWKER: Oh my god, I’m kind of afraid of the ocean; that would terrify me to jump off a boat and swim to shore but I guess you’re a really good swimmer?
PHAWKER: So, I’m wondering what happened there – the next scene in the movie you guys swim ashore and you go up to your house and you guys hang out and make love or whatever and you wake up and you ask her to leave because you know that Landy and his henchmen are going to show up and there’s going to be some terrible repercussions for the fact that you ran away from your minders. I’m wondering, do you remember what happened when Landy finally showed up after that, after you jumped off the boat and swam to shore? What happened when Landy and his goons showed up at your house?
BRIAN WILSON: He told Melinda that she can’t see me anymore.
PHAWKER: And did she not see you anymore for a while?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, for a while, yeah.
PHAWKER: And there is a scene at the end where you almost got hit by her car, did that really happen?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, she swerved. Didn’t hit me but she swerved and swerved.
PHAWKER: Wow. Just a couple more questions and then I’ll let you go, I’m sure you have a busy day here but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the new album, the No Pier Pressure record?
BRIAN WILSON: Right.
PHAWKER: I see you’re doing some stuff with Al Jardine?
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin both worked with me.
PHAWKER: How was that? How was working with those guys again?
BRIAN WILSON: It was great, they’re great singers. They really are.
BRIAN WILSON: I just remember how quickly they learned it. They learned it very quickly.
PHAWKER: My last question — how old are you, Brian?
BRIAN WILSON: Seventy-two.
PHAWKER: Seventy-two! Do you still enjoy performing? I mean it must be a really hectic schedule with flying all over the place. I’m just wondering if you enjoy your life, because a lot of the time you look like you are not having much fun.
BRIAN WILSON: Yeah, I still like touring though.
PHAWKER: Brian, listen, again thank you very much for taking the time to call me and thank you for all the wonderful music over the years and I wish you the best of luck.
BRIAN WILSON: Thank you so much, bye-bye.