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Catch a Sound Wave 

Back to the beach with Brian Wilson

And if you want to find me I'll be out in my sandbox,

Wondering where the hell all the love has gone,

Playing my piano and building castles in the sun,

And singing "Fun, Fun, Fun,"

Lying in bed like Brian Wilson did.

-- Steven Page, Barenaked Ladies

There's laughter on the other end of the phone as Brian Wilson picks up. It sounds like the atmosphere between tracks on the Beach Boys' Party album. It's intimidating enough starting an interview with one of pop music's greatest songwriters -- the man who held down the fort for the American music scene during the British invasion in the '60s. It doesn't help to hear the tail end of laughter from an inside joke before even saying "hello."

Brian Wilson is on the road again, taking the legacy of The Beach Boys back into his own hands after a 25-year absence from touring that began in the mid-'70s and didn't end until he hit the road last year. He's got an inspiring 10-piece band behind him, and in many cities -- including Denver -- he's backed by a 55-piece orchestra that follows him through the entirety of Pet Sounds, the classic album so timeless that it is still blowing away listeners more than 30 years after its release.

"It took some hard work and practice," Wilson said in an exclusive interview with the Indy, explaining what it took to get him back on tour after a quarter century. "Learning all the songs, going through them. Getting my throat stronger and stronger. It took a lot of hard work."

The hard work has paid off. Wilson's tour, captured on Brian Wilson Live at the Roxy Theater earlier this year, may be the best live performance of his Beach Boys catalog to date, supplied with all the instrumentation and vocal power necessary to recreate his mind-boggling studio work. It's a remarkable feat to put together a performance of predominantly classic songs from another era without making it seem like a nostalgia tour. Wilson brings a fresh energy to the stage, drawing on half a lifetime of bottled-up performances to make the material seem new once more.

"It's fun," Wilson says of playing live music again, noting that the stage has finally become a comfortable place for him, despite his ongoing battles with stage fright. "I pray for the show," he explains of his technique for overcoming his legendary stage fright. "I pray that it goes over good. I sit there real quiet and mediate a little bit for a half hour. Then I just force myself to go on stage."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Wilson creates a spiritual window around his performances, since he has always seen making music as a spiritual experience. "I think Pet Sounds is the most spiritual album we've made," Wilson said. "It's probably the most spiritual music that I'll ever make." And although that spirituality is strongest at the moment of creation, he admits to tapping back into the moment when he performs these songs some 30 years after he wrote them.

"I go back to the very time when I did it. I relive the song," Wilson explains, and a quick listen to his new live CD backs up the claim, with Wilson's dusted-off vocals rediscovering all the color and energy that informed the original sounds now held as sacred in the pop pantheon. "It brings back all the memories that we had when we made it. I go back to the very place where I did it. It's an unbelievable memory thing."

The disc's mini-trip through Pet Sounds finds the band sparkling on instrumentals "Let's Go Away for Awhile" and "Pet Sounds." Wilson then takes the vocals to recapture his brother Carl's watershed moment on "God Only Knows" and follows the song with a new song, "Lay Down Burden," a beautiful elegy to Carl, who died a couple years ago.

"Carl was one of our best men," Wilson confided.

One thing that has never changed for Wilson is his unending respect for his hero and mentor, producer Phil Spector. He admits to being out of touch with current music, in part because he still prefers listening to Phil Spector's records. Wilson's cover of "Be My Baby" is a fitting tribute to the man who taught him everything he ever needed to learn about making records.

"He called me up on the phone one day and told me to come down," Wilson recalled of his first exposure to Spector in the early '60s. "He was recording a song that I wrote called 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister.' I came down to the studio where he was and I watched him. I learned how to produce just by watching him that one time."

"Just the way that he would have people play together and then he would have just the guitars and pianos for a while," Wilson explained of the layering process going into Spector's "wall of sound" approach to the studio. "Then he'd add bass and he'd put the drums on. He was just a master."

Wilson borrowed the technique in crafting his multiple layers -- once dubbed as the "wave of sound" -- that defined the Beach Boys throughout their career. He was already pushing the envelope on studio technology, challenging the medium to catch up with his imagination, when he was blown away in 1965 by hearing the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the album he credits for reinventing the notion of what an album could be. The two bands had been competing for chart positions and racing to keep up with each other during a decade of musical revolution.

"I don't know if there was a rivalry or [if it was more] mutual inspiration," Wilson reflected. "They did Rubber Soul, which I thought was a brilliant album, and it turned me on to write Pet Sounds. And that turned them on to write Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." There's little of that competitive camaraderie apparent in the music business these days, and Wilson laments the loss. "It was good, because it kept you on your toes and made you go out there and achieve something better."

Another force Wilson credits for the creative inspiration that produced Pet Sounds was his new experimentation with drugs. He wrote -- and subsequently self-censored -- the more controversial lyrics in "Hold On to Your Ego," an LSD outtake that challenges the status quo and questions reluctance to take risks and expand minds.

"I smoked a lot of marijuana when we did Pet Sounds," Wilson said of the atmosphere that helped produce the ground-breaking musical adventure. "That was one thing that helped me get it. It helped the creativity, the creative part of me."

Further immersion in the world of drugs, coupled with mounting mental anxieties and a struggle to come to terms with the abuse he suffered through his childhood, eventually led Wilson to withdraw from Beach Boys tours and ultimately from the band entirely. Though it's easy to characterize the tumultuous years with the family band as filled with conflict and tragedy, Wilson doesn't see it quite as darkly as his chroniclers have. "It was just as fun as it was heavy," he says of his Beach Boys experience.

His current comeback is a triumphant return from decades of inactivity, highlighted by an extended period of years where he made the self-destructive choice to turn his wellbeing over to therapist Eugene Landy, who kept him medicated, bedridden and isolated from his friends and family. Landy went so far as to become Wilson's business partner and manager, splitting the profits with Wilson and losing his license to practice psychiatry in the process. Rolling Stone rock critic David Felton observed of Wilson's recovery program in 1976 that he "has certainly turned his life over to a higher power, but one wonders if he was ever allowed to freely make the choice. And over the years I've heard a lot of bizarre definitions of a higher power. I've yet to hear about one who demands half the publishing."

Wilson's return to life has been a slow journey through the '90s. 1993 found him emerging from inactivity to be part of Rob Wasserman's Trios album, joining Wasserman and Wilson's daughter Carnie on a fitting new tune co-written by Wilson, Wasserman, and Sam Phillips called "Fantasy is Reality/Bells of Madness." It was the first time the two Wilsons had recorded together. "It was a thrill," Wilson told the Indy of the experience. "I was out of my head." Since then, he made a 1995 documentary movie directed by Don Was called I Just Wasn't Made for These Times that found him enthusiastically revisiting Beach Boys' classics with his brother Carl, his mother and both of his daughters. He released a solo album, Imagin-ation, in 1998, and most significantly, he is back on tour in 2000.

As he returns to activity and productivity Wilson reflects on his lost decades, citing them as "a waste of life and breath. I didn't go anywhere." After producing an unfathomable Hall-of-Fame catalogue of music in his twenties, Wilson ran into one of the most celebrated and lengthy periods of writer's block in the business, and he admits to still having difficulty reigniting his creative fire as a songwriter. "I'm trying to. I've been trying to. But I can't seem to get a song written. Weird trip," he said.

The fact that studio technology is finally catching up with the sounds Wilson heard in his mind and painstakingly recreated on vinyl has not helped his creative process. "I'm an old-fashioned guy. Technology makes it so you can take your time more, yeah. But it's not like capturing the feel of the moment when you have a live band. When you record the modern way you don't really get to hang on to the inspiration very long."

Wilson maintains a degree of the childlike wonder that fueled his creative insight at its peak. Listening to him talk over the phone, it's easy to be fooled into thinking you're talking to the 23-year-old Brian Wilson, fresh from a session mixing the early tracks for Pet Sounds. He sounds animated, rejuvenated and happy about where his life has led him.

He's eager to keep playing live music in the coming years. "I'd like to, yeah, to keep my hands busy and keep circulating my name and my love," he concludes. "I need to get my love across, you know? I think love is an important force in life."

-- owen@csindy.com

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