Q&A: The incomparable Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ ‘Friends’

Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, Something Great from '68 Tour

Brian Wilson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Brian Wilson is a legend. The Beach Boys cofounder, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Kennedy Center Honors recipient and Grammy winner is responsible for some of the best songs ever written not only by an American but by rock and pop artists anywhere: “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations, ” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Get Around” and “California Girls” established the Beach Boys as America’s answer to the Beatles.

Brian Wilson
The Zombies

8 p.m., Friday
The Fox Theater, Oakland
Tickets: $80-$230.

And the now-77-year-old Wilson was the innovative mastermind behind the band’s biggest songs. He incorporated complex time signatures and new recording and production methods, and added heft to many of the band’s songs, which may have sounded simple but were anything but. He’s also written 11 solo albums and was the subject of critically acclaimed biopic, Love & Mercy.

The film spotlighted Wilson’s extraordinary talents, as well as his personal demons, as he has battled mental illness for decades, and continues to do so to this day. Last June, Wilson postponed several shows on his Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour after a third back surgery reawakened those demons.

“I started feeling strange and it’s been pretty scary for awhile. I was not feeling like myself,” he wrote at the time.

Now Wilson and his 10-member band, which includes Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin—is back on the road on his Something Great From ’68 tour with the Zombies. The focus this time is on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album, Friends, as well as 1971’s Surf’s Up, though his band will cover the Beach Boys’ biggest hits as well. The Zombies, meanwhile, are playing their ’68 masterpiece, Odessey & Oracle, front to back.

Though Wilson has been known to be reclusive in the past, he was cordial—though not long-winded or detailed—in a phone conversation on Wednesday.  In the call, the iconic songwriter addressed his connection with Friends’ songs, his future songwriting plans and whether he, Jardine and Chaplin could again reunite with the Beach Boys’ Mike Love (his cousin) and Bruce Johnston, like they did for the 50th anniversary of the band in 2012. He followed up by email to clarify several of his points the next day.

Wilson and the Zombies play the Fox Theater in Oakland on Friday.

RIFF: You currently are on a four day break from shows; your longest break on the tour. Do you use the time to go home and recharge?

Brian Wilson: Yeah, I watch television; the news. … Some of my favorite shows are “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.”

In a comment about this tour you’ve said that Pet Sounds (ranked by Rolling Stone as the second greatest album of all time) is your best album, but Friends is your favorite. How do you separate best from favorite?

I don’t. [chuckles]. … Pet Sounds is the best album I made because of its complexity and Friends is my favorite because [it’s] collection of folk songs and more of a mellow vibe.

What are your fondest memories from recording Friends?

Being in the studio.

With bandmates or by yourself, writing? And which do you prefer; to be by yourself or group settings?

I preferred to be by myself.

What are you most looking forward to or excited about touring with the Zombies? That’s not something that’s happened before. Have you spent time talking to them about the times earlier in your career or about what you’re up to now?

Yeah, the other day we had a discussion—an interview—together. That was fun. … I like the Zombies very much [and] looking forward to share the stage with them. They are very talented guys. And I’m glad they are on the road with me.

I heard that on at least a couple of nights you performed the first three Friends songs—”Meant for You,” the title track and “Wake the World”—in order. What is it about the order of those that calls for it?

Because I want to stay as true to the album as possible and playing those songs back to back make sense to me.

What songs from that record have the most personal meaning to you right now?

“Little Bird” and “Passing By.” They’re good songs.

Friends is uplifting while Surf’s Up has darker, cautionary tones. How do you approach those now?

I approach them at my piano. … I approach them same way I did back in the day. Me and my band rehearse a lot to make sure we do them justice.

How about in terms of emotional impact on you? Some of those seem like they would have been pretty painful to write. Are they still painful to perform sometimes? Any that you avoid even today?

Yes. “Little Bird” [is more emotional to perform]. [Editors’s note: Wilson sang on the Friends song, but it was written by his brother, Dennis Wilson, who drowned in 1983]. … I don’t avoid singing any of my songs. I like them all.

Is it true that some of those Friends tunes were played for the first time on this tour? What kept them out of your shows before?
I felt like I wasn’t ready to play them live, and after much rehearsal we finally got them right.

“Student Demonstration Times” name-checks Berkeley. Any chance that song will make an appearance in Oakland?

It might, yeah.

You’ve talked openly about mental health and your battles with it over your life. Last June you cancelled some shows because you said back surgeries had affected your mental health. This week is mental health awareness week in the U.S. I was wondering if you have a message to others who are battling their own demons.

I would suggest they don’t write a song [and] don’t take drugs. … It’s hard living with mental issues but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. I would advise people to seek help. It gets better.

I was fortunate to be in the pressroom at the Grammy’s in 2012 when the band reunited for your 50th anniversary and made that announcement. Is that something that all your fans may see again?

I don’t think there will be another Beach Boys reunion. I got my own thing going on.

After this tour, what are your plans for the rest of the year in terms of music; do they include more shows or writing more songs?

There will be scheduled writing sessions. … I haven’t written songs for a couple years now. But maybe I’ll start sometime soon. For now I just hope people enjoy the shows we got left to perform.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

(5) Comments

  1. D. DeFore Burdine

    Love this interview! Thank you, Brian, for the songs that reflect so much of my teenage years in So. Calif! Fun Fun Fun, In my Room... God only Knows & Calif Girls! So glad you’re back on the road sharing your Genius & allowing us to re-live those days! You’re the best & will always be! Xoxo

  2. Ross P McCulloch

    Everlasting, positive memories. From our dining room window in 1964, seeing the fog rolling over the Santa Cruz mountains and comparing the sight to the Surfin' U.S.A. album cover! The music still swirling around my mind to this day making everything alright.


    In 1971, I went to work at A &M Records rewriting The Beach Boys' lyrics to the Sea of Tunes catalog and, specifically, wanted to rewrite Passing By. To that end I was able to enlist songwriterTandyn Almer (Along Comes Mary) and Sail On Sailor) along with Brian Wilson to join me in that endeavor. Brian, Tandyn and I got together late in the evenings and proceeded to record our collaboration of the new song in Tandyn's Laurel Canyon home. Unfortunately, the studio executives at A & M railed against that particular union and I wound up walking out of a scheduled meeting (with the recording in hand) letting them know how stupid I thought they all were... "you idiots would reject Beethoven over a personality clash"... I kept one copy of the recording and, sadly, returned everything else to Brian. I shared my only copy with The Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd and subsequently discovered it 'missing' from my collection. According to Alan, it resurfaced some time later, but, to this day it's no longer a cherished entity to my collection. The entire episode remains a heartbreaking experience in my past I wish Brian continued joy and success in his stellar career... he's truly one of the greatest songwriters I've ever known.

  4. Tom

    1968, I was four years old and strictly forbidden from entering my high school-age brothers room without permission. But they were at school and I wasn't so I'd sneak in there and play their stacks of 45 records on a little portable record player all day long. At some point I started playing B sides because I'd played the A sides to death. That's when I stumbled onto "Little Bird" and I just loved it! I thought I was so cool for having discovered my own little "obscure" song. I still love it.

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