Brian Wilson

June 28, 1988

In 1988, Brian Wilson ended eleven years of musical silence on wax with the release of his self-titled debut solo album. Knowing Wilson's proclivity for unfinished, ill-fated, and abandoned projects, the release of the album alone was cause for enormous fanfare, but few were prepared for the excellence of the final product.

The lead single, "Love and Mercy," has become one of Wilson's most iconic songs, and the album's closer, "Rio Grande," was as expansive and ambitious as any other studio-bound creation in his catalogue. Wilson sat down with Deirdre at KCRW on June 28, 1988 to discuss the album's complicated genesis and his struggles with solitude and loneliness.

It's a simultaneously delightful, vulnerable, and heartbreaking listen — the sound of someone who hasn't talked for a long time — as Wilson offers candid glimpses into his relationship with the controversial Dr. Eugene Landy, his own musical genius, and a tender kinship forged with Deirdre over the course of the conversation about their respective challenges with isolation and connection. 

Brian Wilson
Photo by Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

Deirdre O’Donoghue: What got you started, after all this time, working on your solo album “Brian Wilson,” which is just being released? And how long ago did you begin working on it?

Brain Wilson: Well, about a year and a half ago, [Wilson’s psychologist and business partner] Dr. Eugene Landy and I had a meeting. We met in a restaurant somewhere and he brought up the idea, he opened up a can of worms, for me to consider doing a solo album. And I thought … “Well, if he's that positive, then I'm gonna be positive, too,” and he talked me into it. He said, “Look, I know you can do it, you already have like 80 songs that you've written that we could choose from.” By the time we started, I had up to about 130 songs. Now, isn't that one way to go?

Did you not feel that you could do an album on your own? What was the doubt that you had in your mind that Dr. Landy had to talk you out of?

The doubt was vocally. I thought in my head, “Can I vocally do it, can I get the voice thing together?” Finally I walked in the studio on our very first recording and I literally nailed the vocal. I said, “That's me? Oh, my God, man! I can do anything!” It really is really quite an awakening for me, because my doctor and partner Gene Landy has great aspirations for me and for himself, involved in the recording industry at this time. So what happened was, we met Seymour Stein at a [Songwriters] Hall of Fame awards banquet in New York. I inducted Lieber-Stoller, if that means anything. They're great. I mean, they're pros. They’re all-time. 

And what happened was that we had a deal about a month later, after we met Seymour Stein from Sire Records. He said, “Look, I want you on my label. I want you to do your album on my company, please, can we talk?” We talked. Gene, he carrie on conversations from New York to Los Angeles, every fucking morning, they're on the phone. So finally, what happened was we made a verbal agreement. I've never signed anything with him. It's all verbal. Now, by the time we had gotten back to Los Angeles, Gene had already had aspirations for Seymour and [songwriter] Andy Paley to come out and listen to my songs that I've chosen. We've narrowed it down to 25. Finally, what happened was, Seymour was flipped about “Love and Mercy.” “Melt away,” he flipped. He just flipped out. He said, “I can't believe that! That's really great.” 

So Seymour said, “Well, why don't we start recording?” Gene said, “Fine, let's go in the studio.” Next thing we know, a week later, I was in the studio. I said, “This is gonna be a smash album! This could be my vocal album,” right? We wound up on it so fast that I didn't know what the heck happened. So I did make an agreement with Dr. Landy. And that agreement was that could we do it at my pace and not rush it. So I got my way, and it worked out perfect. ... A song a week at about the most. After we did about 14 cuts, he wanted to go back and start redoing things. He said, “Nah, there's something wrong with that clarinet. No, there's something wrong with the background voices [or] the bass here. No, you don't even have drums on this song. Why?” And we all the people working for us, Michael Bernard, our synthesizer programmer … he's the greatest programmer in the whole world. Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac worked with me ... Um, who else worked with me?

"I thought in my head, 'Can I vocally do it, can I get the voice thing together?'"

Well, tell me about Andy Paley.

Now, Andy Paley came over that night with Seymour Stein to my house. I was living on Pacific Coast Highway, and he flipped. And Andy is the A&R man for Sire Records. That's my company, so obviously he's gonna have an interest in me personally, right? So what happened was, we got going so fast on the project that we'd lost sight of good or bad, or if I could have had my way of doing it differently. I never would have done it any way but the way that Gene and I agreed on doing, and it worked out great. I did a slow pace, but the other guys working were working fast, you know? So we really did get it done. 

Do you have a favorite song on the album, one that you're particularly fond of?

I have to say “Love and Mercy” because it was the first song we did. I did it in Honolulu, and we worked with some really bright guys there, the engineers ... and then this this one programmer guy was exceedingly, exceedingly intelligent, as far as getting a sound on an instrument. The song “Love and Mercy” was all done by myself. I did all the background voices. As a matter of fact, I did all the background voices on the whole album, except for “Rio Grande.” I think Andy Paley did a couple. And Terence Trent D’Arby on “Walkin' the Line.” He was like a real gangbusters type of an artist.

How'd you get hooked up with him? Were you familiar with his music? 

He called Gene,  he wanted to get in touch with me and work with me. And I said, “Terence D’Arby wants to work with me?” I had heard his album. It was great. He's really full of energy, you know? The deal was, he attempted a vocal and did a vocal with me. But Columbia Records poo-pooed the deal. They messed the deal up. They said, “Nah, we don't want him on anybody's record.” So we just kind of put him in the background. 

“Walkin’ the Line” struck me in two different ways. There was an ambivalence, in which it is very much a love song, “Every day I'm walkin’ the line for you,” but it also struck me that it might be a song that Brian Wilson was writing to himself about the emotional maturing process you've been going through in the last couple of years.

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Yeah. “Walkin’ the line” could mean anything. I tried to choose a title that did not necessarily limit the song to just a specific thing like, “I go through hell,” you know what I mean? “I walk on thin ice.” Why? Well, “I walk the line. I get scared every day.” You know, those kind of thoughts, those kind of things you can relate to, rather than, say... you can call a song, anything you want, you know what I mean? But “Walkin the Line” is the best title for that song.

From the moment when I first heard it, I didn't quite have it memorized, but it was there running like a tape loop between my mind and my heart. I put it in the tape machine and it has hardly been off since. My birds love you, by the way. Tell me about composing “Love and Mercy.” This is a very sad time in our culture, and this song feels like a very special person coming in saying “It’s a mess, I know, but we can fix it. It's okay, I'm here with you.”

Yes, it’s a personal message. Rather than an objective message that might go out. … It means “here is some love and mercy for you.” … It's not a message saying like, “Well, if you look for love, you'll find it,” or whatever. Any message you want to bring out, you know, is a message, but [this is] a personal message between myself and the audience.

When I first heard it, I just felt — not just like when a friend hugs you or a pal, but it was like one of those really warm, deep hugs you get, like when you’re gonna melt into somebody. Okay, let's run through some songs. Tell me about “Little Children.”

“Little Children” was a song that I had written a melody [for] a long time ago, ten years ago. And what happened was I put it into new context. I said, “I'm gonna write a song about kids,” because kids are so cute, you know? So I worked on the lyrics and then Gene threw over some list and I threw back to him. We chewed the rag on it and bounced ideas off each other. And eventually we bounced right into the nitty gritty of the lyric.

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It’s a very accurate perception of a childlike view of the world, where children think so simply. It rains, you put on your coat, you go stomp in the puddles. You refer to your daughters in there, it’s very nice.

Yeah, how’d you know that? 

Because you say their names!  

That's unbelievable! 

Carnie and Wendy, right?  Have they heard the song yet? 

They haven't heard it. It’s released tomorrow.

Let me ask you about the a capella piece on the album, which is a heart stopper called “One for the Boys.” 

“One for the Boys” was suggested to me by Gene. We were in New York and I was in the bedroom playing a DX7 [synthesizer] and it had an amp and got a real nice, pretty sound on and I was kind of just drifting with the music, you know? And he goes, “I want you to write an a capella song, no instruments ... here's the lyrics, now try to write one to these lyrics.” And I said, “Gene, it doesn't work.” And he goes “Make an a capella without any words, just oohs and ahhs.” So I worked on it for about ten hours off and on for the next three days. I was trying to locate a bag that I thought would be fitting for everyone, not just say, like, people in their 40s and 50s that know a lot about the Four Freshmen or the Hi-Lo’s or modern harmony, something like that. 

It took me a long time. I kept working and working, and I couldn't seem to find a magic formula that worked. But I finally did, and it worked great. We cut it in New York at the Hit Factory recording studio. Later on, we got back to LA, and Jean and I both agreed it was flat, that the voices weren't on key in some of the places. It's a funny thing, you can listen and you don't hear the flats, but later you listen with earphones on, and you go, “Wait a minute ... hold on ... Whoa, yeah.” Then we go into A&M recording studio, and I do it again. No, no, I did it at Larrabee. We edited it at A&M. They used an instrument called the Fairlight. And I'm telling you, it can correct any note that you sing and put it in the right place.

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It's like, this is just is an album of hit singles.

I hope to have at least six singles. I'm hoping. Never know.

You've written my theme song on this new album, “Nighttime.” This is a song for night owls of the world. Are you a night owl or a day person?

Day person. Oh, no, wait. Did you hear “Nighttime”? 

I love “Nighttime.” It's my song. I'm a night owl.

Well, then in that case, it's really one of my very favorites, because it's about night. And night is the only time for me. I hate daytime. Daytime is too much on the eyes. I think nighttime is much much better for the eyes.

Let It Shine” — how did you write that one? Where's the beginning of that?

That was written with Jeff Lynne, from ELO

He just also produced George Harrison's most recent album, “Cloud Nine,” which was… ooo, what a good one.

He’s saying he wants a number one. So Jeff was sitting on “Cloud Nine,” and he was like, out of his head. There’s only one problem with Jeff: He wore shades too much. … He never took them off, you know? Nighttime, daytime, anytime.

"Night is the only time for me. I hate daytime. Daytime is too much on the eyes."

But he certainly does produce good music. So he produced “Let It Shine?”

Yes, with me. He co-produced it. And [he] wrote the lyrics. He already had the song done. 

Let me ask you about your song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” from back in the old Beach Boys days. Do you imagine that you might have been happier or maybe more comfortable in another time? 

Oh, no, no, no, no. Fantasy imagination, all the way. The only problem I can see [in these times] is loneliness. I’m personally lonely inside my head. But not over any one person. It's just that I just suffer from loneliness, you know?


Brian Wilson with Dr. Eugene Landy in 1987/1988 (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns).

Yes, I do, actually. Well, there's that difference between loneliness and solitude. I think there are times when you do feel really alone, because I'm very much a loner myself. And I enjoy the solitude. ... This is a philosophy. This is a way of life. You get behind the doors, and you barricade yourself in there. And it's me and the birds and the garden. And that's it. And I really liked that. But then there are the moments when it, you know... Yeah, I know what you mean. Excuse me, slap this girl into place. 

With the release of your first solo album, Brian, there's been a flurry of articles in the press referring to your return to the music business — “Brian has been away from the music business for 10, 15, 20 years.” And yet I would imagine that there have been very few days during that time when you haven't had music in your head, thought of music, then composing yourself. Would you say that you went away from music, or just away from the music business?

Away from music business? That's it. That’s what I meant. It’s confusing. I always go to my piano, almost all the time. I can't live without it. I mean, a piano is like… it’s a total trip.

"I’m personally lonely inside my head. But not over any one person. It's just that I suffer from loneliness."

Well, that's your instrument for expressing yourself. Let me see. Did we talk about all the songs? Oh, “There's So Many!”

“There’s So Many?” That's a love song.  think the greatest thing in that song is that I lay out some harmonies that sound so pure that they almost disappear on you. Like a sound illusion, you know what I mean? The voices sound so good, they literally disappear. That's what I tried to achieve on that song. And I achieved it.

Anything more you want to say about “Rio Grande?” That's a very accomplished composition. A lot of very sophisticated musical ideas in there.

Well, it started out with Lenny Waronker of Warner Brothers Records. He's the president of Warner Brothers Records. And he suggested that Andy [Paley] and I write a song about old America, about cowboys. So we did that successfully. We put together all the sounds that we thought would be appropriate for cowboy music. And Lenny flipped. Everybody flipped. They said, “ Brian, you and Andy have really come up with something really creative here. An eight minute suite!” [Whistles] Really something. I mean, really, to get behind and create something like that, it's really on a trip, in your heart. It's really a trip.