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A Smiley Conversation With Brian Wilson

Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist.
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With the arrival of the Beach Boys’ Smile Sessionson Capitol Records today, rock’s most famous unfinished album is finally on shelves in close-to-complete condition. It’s an occasion that many feared would never come, due to the decidedly Bad Vibrations evoked in the mind of Brian Wilson every time he heard those tunes. But after his eventual completion of the piece - with the assistance of co-writer Van Dyke Parks and his touring band, in 2004 - he proclaimed the experience “healed my soul,” and by then, fans figured it was just a matter of time.

Time has rewarded the diehards, as well as the general public, who finally have the chance to hear one of the best rock albums ever made in optimal sound quality, using Wilson and Park’s 2004 version as the blueprint. The result is incredible, an improvement of some the weirdest, warmest Americana you’ve ever set ears upon. The 2-CD version includes the sequenced album and the meat of the interesting bonus tracks, more than enough to satisfy the casual listener. But completists will find the 5-CD/ 2-LP box set, in an elaborate 3-D replica of the Smile Shop with the original LP-sized book in full color, impossible to resist. At $150, it's a lavish package for a work that truly deserves it. (And if money is no object, rock relics don't get much cooler than this $600 lightbox edition.)

We spoke to Brian Wilson over the phone about Smile, his new album In The Key Of Disney, and the prospects of a golden-anniversary Beach Boys reunion.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the last two days listening to the Smile Sessions box set. There’s a track on there I’d never heard of called "Teeter Totter Love" by a guy named Jasper Dailey, and I was curious to know how that became part of the package.
Well I really can’t answer that question. I just know that I produced him on a cut called Teeter Totter Love, which was kind of a funny kind of a vocal, you know.

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So that wasn’t part of Smile, just something you were working on at the same time?
That’s right.

To what extent were you involved in working on the box set that’s about to come out? Did you spend any time in the studio?
No, I had my engineer and my co-producer there. They’d do like five minutes at a time, and send me a CD, and I’d listen to it and I’d say “Wait a minute, I want more vocal here, more trombone there.” You know what I mean? I approved of the album. They send it to me and then they continue on.

What do you think of the final result now that it’s finished?
Well I think that it’s fantastic! I think it’s well done, and I hope people like it, ha ha, because it’s a very good album.

Listening to the session tapes that are detailed on there, one thing that’s interesting is listening to you direct these musicians to create these sounds that are so unique. You usually have a very practical idea for them how to get there.
Well I write out a manuscript for them. You know, a manuscript, music paper?

And I write that, I put those together for the guys.

Did you spend time thinking about how you were going to coach them to get these sounds? I’m thinking about you telling the percussionists how to “stomp out” the bass players on the Fire track…
Right, well that’s the role of a producer. That’s what a producer does.

In the reading I’d done, there was a lot of talk about a suite representing the different Elements…

And since you have a fire piece and a water piece, I was wondering if any of the songs were meant to be be the “earth” or “air” pieces.
That’s something we didn’t really have in mind, we just did that spontaneously. It wasn’t really planed that way at all.

So with all of the releases we’ve seen in the last ten years from the vault, there’s still a lot that people know to exist. Do you supervise these archival releases and have input into what gets left off?
Yeah. That’s what I do. I tell my engineer to start ripping down the top of the song. He sends it to me and I approve it. That’s what I said before.

Is there any material left in the vaults that you would like to still see come out, see the light of day?
No, not really. I think we’ve covered it, you know?

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It’s kind of coincidental that Smile is coming out at the same time as your album of Disney songs. Did you ever have the idea to do a film or a piece of animation to accompany Smile?
No, actually never considered that, no.

Did you ever have a favorite Disney character that you would have like to write songs for?
Oh yeah! Pinocchio! (Laughs) Pinocchio was my favorite.

What was the first Disney movie that you saw with your kids?
I actually cannot remember. I saw Pinocchio when I was a kid.

In the last album of original music, That Lucky Old Sun, it seemed like a really productive collaboration with Scott Bennett, are you two going to work together creating original music?
I have not considered that, no… probably not this year. But maybe next year.

And the last time we talked you were talking about doing an old fashioned rock and roll album, is that still something you’re still thinking about?
Yeah, I’m considering, after this new album I wanna do a hard rock album, like the Stones, you know? I’m really interested to head into rock and roll, you know. I like to rock, to rock and roll!

Next year is going to be the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys, and we’ve certainly been hearing about what some of the other guys are hoping to do for the occasion. How would you like to see that celebrated?
Well I have no idea. I don’t really know. I haven’t heard much about that… there’s some talk, that the group might get back together. But I know nothing about it.

Do you feel particularly inclined to go down that road if it seems like a possibility
It’s a possibility, yeah!

Is there anything that you see an opportunity to do with those guys today, that you maybe would have like to have gotten done earlier?
Not really, no. I mean, I haven’t written any songs for them so I’m not really sure what we’re gonna do.