Music & Nightlife

I’m pickin’ up bad vibrations from this interview with Beach Boy Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson performs at Durham’s Carolina Theater on Nov. 19, 2015.
Brian Wilson performs at Durham’s Carolina Theater on Nov. 19, 2015. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

God only knows why Brian Wilson agreed to do this interview.

After all, he didn’t really need to. If the singer doesn’t sell out his Sept. 19 performance of the Beach Boys’ seminal pop album “Pet Sounds” at Belk Theater, he’ll certainly come pretty close based on my read of CarolinaTix’s interactive availability map. And that’s often the only reason living legends like Wilson ever agree to spare the time to do interviews with daily newspapers that aren’t the New York Times or the Washington Post in the first place: to get some help selling tickets.

So, why? Why would a musical genius who has nothing left to prove acquiesce to a 15-minute phone call with an entertainment reporter, only to spout off answers so perfunctory that they almost seemed specifically formulated to inflict maximum discomfort on the interviewer?

Asked for thoughts on the deluxe edition of “Pet Sounds” – which at the time of our chat was about a month from being released (it came out June 10) – Wilson said: “Yeah, well, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m gonna listen to it soon. ... They said it’s fantastic. I was told that it’s fantastic.”

This was the longest response he gave me to any of the 37 questions I asked him when we spoke by phone back in May to discuss his touring 50th-anniversary celebration of “Pet Sounds.” And although I was allotted 15 minutes, we were done after just nine.

“Alright, um,” I stammered, staring blankly at higher-end questions I had originally hoped to ask about, specifically, one of the greatest love songs of all time, “God Only Knows,” and about – more generally – the art of songwriting and the craft of creating lush melodies and arrangements.

However, before I could say anything else, Wilson said, abruptly but cheerily: “Well, thank you very much for the interview.” Then he was gone.

To be fair, this is actually not new news; he’s been like this in interviews for years. Among other examples:

▪ In his May 2010 profile of Wilson, Martin Cizmar wrote for the Phoenix New Times: “He (Wilson) interrupted our opening pleasantries with a terse, ‘Let’s do the interview’ and, at the end of the interview, he said, ‘Bye,’ like a seventh-grader who’d just been informed the principal was overruling the conviction that condemned him to after-school detention, leaving him free to go.”

▪ In an April 2015 Q&A with Wilson for Canada’s PostMedia Network, reporter John Williams wrote about “having to endure a mostly silent conversation, with the interview painfully clocking in at ... just over six minutes, with much of it being a lot of dead air – and my own voice.”

So, what gives?

Wilson’s past struggles with drug use and mental illness have been well-documented (and dramatized, in the 2014 biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as past and future versions of Wilson).

But the 74-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is faring well enough to write a book (his new memoir, “I Am Brian Wilson,” comes out Oct. 11) and to headline this hugely ambitious concert tour, so presumably he’s capable of telling people who work for him that he’s not up for interviews, if he isn’t.

He didn’t do that. And no one made excuses for him. So we really have no choice but to take his comments at face value.

All that said, here’s a slightly abridged version of the interview I did with Brian Wilson back in early May, minus the most inconsequential Qs and As. Read it, and you might come to the same conclusion I did: that maybe we’re not supposed to read too much into his brief and rather terse responses to reporters’ questions.

That maybe he’s doing the best he can.

That, maybe, we’re simply supposed to sit down, shut up, and be grateful for the opportunity to spend a few minutes – however awkward they may be – with one of the most creative and most innovative musical minds of all time.

Q. How’s the tour going so far? You’ve been in Australia and Japan, is that right?

New Zealand, Australia and Japan. The “Pet Sounds” album went over fantastic.

Q. What are some of the more striking differences between audiences in Australia and the U.S., or between audiences in Japan and the U.S.?

Well, the audience reaction in Japan and Australia was very, very good for “Pet Sounds.” They loved it.

Q. And so just in terms of how they react to that album in particular, any differences?

Actually, no. What we did was we reproduced the album on the stage to sound exactly like the album.

Q. I understand you wrap other Beach Boys songs around the re-creation of that album, is that right?

Yeah, we do about 25 Beach Boy classics.

Q. So how long is the show?

About two hours.

Q. How many band members do you have with you?

10.

Q. No opener?

No.

Q. Do you have any particular connection to or affinity for North Carolina, or South Carolina?

No. I haven’t been there for a long time, so I don’t know what to expect.

Q. In terms of the other songs that you guys are doing, how did you go about choosing which ones you wanted to do?

Well, we’ve been doing the same songs for a long time. We do the same set every night.

Q. But when you first created that setlist, how did you go about choosing? Was it just personal favorites?

Yeah, yeah.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the CD? The box set that’s coming out next month?

Yeah, well, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m gonna listen to it soon. ... They said it’s fantastic. I was told that it’s fantastic.

Q. Is it hard for you to believe that the album is as old as it is?

Yeah, I couldn’t believe that it stood the test of time.

Q. What do you think it is about that particular album that has held up for so long?

I think “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are two songs that people like the most.

Q. Can you still hit the high notes like you used to?

No, I have someone – (Beach Boys co-founder) Al Jardine’s son – named Matt Jardine, he sings some of my higher parts.

Q. Has getting older been more or less difficult than you thought it would be, in regards to touring? This tour’s pretty demanding in terms of number of dates.

Yeah, well, I have to make sure that when I get on stage that I sing good enough, you know?

Q. How do you make sure your voice gets enough rest?

Well, I practice for a half hour before I go on stage.

Q. What has it been like to put your life out there more and to open up old wounds, first in “Love & Mercy” and then in this book you’ve got coming out?

Well, it’s been a very interesting year. I did hours and hours of interviews for the book. And it’s finally done.

Q. What was the process of putting together the book like? Was it cathartic or –

It was cathartic. I re-lived some of the times in my life.

Q. Was it mostly painful? Or were there times when re-living those periods was enjoyable?

Enjoyable and painful both.

Q. I gather that thinking about and talking about the painful parts of your life has never been a pleasant experience, but has opening up about your personal struggles helped to make you feel more comfortable discussing them?

Yeah, very much so.

Q. Can you give us some idea of what people can expect from the book?

Well, they can expect my whole life story told in full. My happy parts and my unhappy parts.

Q. You wrote it with someone?

Yeah, with a friend of mine (Ben Greenman).

Q. And whereas the movie covered just a couple of different points in your life, this is ... everything?

Right. Childhood, and on to old age.

Q. Shifting topics: Do you go to many concerts yourself?

Haven’t been to a concert in 20 years.

Q. Do you remember what the last one was?

No, it’s been a long time.

Q. Do you just not enjoy them? Just not interested?

I like to listen to oldies-but-goodies on the radio.

Q. So are you into any new music at all?

Not really, no.

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

Brian Wilson presents Pet Sounds

The Beach Boy leads a live re-creation of the 50-year-old album, bookending the performance with more of the band’s greatest hits.

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $20-$84.50, with VIP packages ranging from $129.50-$499.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.

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