Having skipped Nashville on both his Pet Sounds and Smile tours, and having not toured as a member of the Beach Boys since 1965, not even Brian Wilson himself can remember the last time he was in Music City. (Apparently, he doesn't recall his Fourth of July Riverfront Park performance in 2003.)
Asked to recount his past experiences here, he says simply, "I wouldn't be able to answer that question. I don't know. I just like the people, you know?" He says this in a tone that begs for the discontinuation of this or any other line of questioning not specific to his new record or tour.
Considering the amount of lost time he has to make up for in Middle Tennessee, it goes without saying that news of the Ryman's upcoming transformation from former Opry House to groovy sandbox came as a pleasant, albeit overdue, surprise. What came as an even greater surprise was that the normally reclusive Wilson agreed to an interview with the Scene, as part of a grassroots press junket—which will also include an in-store signing at Grimey's—to promote his new record That Lucky Old Sun.
Wilson has always been a complicated savant. A man of exuberant wide-screen vision and grand musical ideas, but also of few words, he has always best expressed his sentiments sonically rather than rationally. This was made evident in our interview, in which he answered 27 questions in seven minutes. In that time we touched on his excitement over the new record, his love for his band, his renewed joy for performing and his wistful affinity for Southern California, as well as what we can expect from his upcoming appearance at The Ryman, a venue he says he is excited to play.
On performing live, Wilson says that it's "a much happier scene for me now.... I've had a lot of practice [and] it's great to see so many young people coming out to see us." He says this tour will include "some Beach Boys favorites...my anthems, the ones that made us famous—'California Girls,' 'God Only Knows,' 'Don't Worry Baby' and 'I Get Around'—as well as That Lucky Old Sun in its entirety."
Harkening back to the pet sounds that made the Beach Boys a cornerstone of 20th century pop music, TLOS is a "love letter from Los Angeles," as Wilson calls it, with "picturesque poetic images of drive-in theaters, hot rods, restaurants and stuff like that." With the help of long-time lyrical confederate Van Dyke Parks—who shapes the album's narrative through a series of 35-second spoken-work interludes—Wilson envisions L.A. as the same emerald city that he wrote about in the heyday of the Beach Boys. "It hasn't changed all that much," he says. "There's new restaurants, new buildings and new businesses, but it hasn't changed all that much." Another thing he says hasn't changed is his writing style. "The material is similar, but the performances, the playing and the singing are better than they were with the Beach Boys."
Wilson often answers questions with an "us" as opposed to an "I," making it obvious that he gets a great amount of support, both personally and musically, from the singers and performers who comprise his band, The Wondermints, whom he claims as his inspiration. One member in particular, Scott Bennett, has become his chief lieutenant, contributing heavily to the album's lyrics and arrangements. Much of the album was actually conceived and recorded in Bennett's apartment, where Wilson says, "We took our time. We didn't have to do everything at once. We did one instrument at a time and one voice at a time."
That Lucky Old Sun is an album that expresses a great amount of joy and lust for life, but with lyrics like "I cried a million tears, I wasted a lotta years.... I laid around this old place, I hardly ever washed my face," the record is also autobiographical. When asked about his wilderness years and whether or not this record is a testament to the fact that he's finally found happiness, Wilson answers emphatically, "Yeah, actually, I have. I found happiness with my band."
At 66, Wilson says that it's his family, himself, his collaborators and "stuff like that" driving him to continue making records and performing. He concedes that while he does feel some pressure to live up to a certain expectation his audience might have of him, "I don't really have anything to prove. I have a lot of my love to give them."
Let's hope that these good vibrations continue for Brian Wilson—whose eccentric genius was, for so long, hindered by personal demons—as he settles comfortably into the twilight of a career that has brought to the world some of the most beautifully life-affirming music of this, the last, or any other century. God only knows what we would be without him.
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