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BRIAN WILSON BAND – ‘Smile’ tour backstage exclusive

March 2005

It’s the early sixties. The Beach Boys’ main songwriter Brian Wilson is enjoying the rewards reaped by million selling surf rock singles like ‘”Fun. Fun, Fun’, and ‘Surfin’ USA’. The Beatles then release their ‘Rubber Soul’ album. Inspired by the fab four’s “Sophisticated-feeling” music, Wilson sets about writing instrumental tracks, expressing his inner feelings of the time, the results of which become the classic Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.

Propelled by the critical acclaim of Pet Sounds, Wilson sets about writing elements for Smile, a concept album he describes as a “Teenage symphony to god”. Brian approaches odd ball Van Dyke Parks to write lyrics for the album. Components of the songs are constructed in intricate detail riff by riff. Some of the music is written in a sandbox in the middle of Wilson’s home to emulate the feeling of being at the beach, others in a tent in another room where he smokes dope and takes LSD to enhance creativity. Paul McCartney is recorded munching a carrot for the track “Vega-tables”, and some tracks are recorded at the base of an empty swimming pool. The other Beach Boys and the band’s record company however, view the project as madness and disassociate themselves from it. Only the single ‘Good Vibrations’ survives the sessions. Van Dyke Parks is forced out. Suffering spiralling paranoia, Wilson believes the recording of a track with fire themes, is directly responsible for an outbreak of blazes in the LA area. The final nail in Smile’s coffin is the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a music history-changing concept album. The Beatles had beaten him to it again. Smile is shelved. Wilson locks himself in his bedroom for years (literally) and so begins a life long battle with drugs and depression.

In the decades following Smile’s inception, Wilson loses two brothers, attaches/detaches himself to/from svengali psychologist /record producer Eugene Landy, loses legal rights to the Beach Boys name, is estranged/reunited with his daughter Carnie, and now 37 years later at the suggestion of his wife, and with the assistance of his musical director Darian Sahanaja, finally completes Smile, rock music’s long lost album.

To the ticket buying public, the renovated Regent Theatre is the grand old lady of Melbourne’s entertainment world. Backstage I suspect not much has changed since it was first built. Surprisingly, contemporary music icon Brian Wilson seems to have the same humble, compact dressing room as everyone else in the band. On Brian’s dressing room door his name is not so much featured in lights, but on a hastily blu-tacked computer print out.

Wilson and his personal assistant precede the rest of the 18 piece band for soundcheck by around an hour. He paces the backstage area enquiring about food. “Is this catering? Where can I get some salmon” he asks. His manner is calm and polite. His gaze reveals a hint of a man who has experienced a lot in life, not all of it good.

The band arrives, laundry bags in hand disappointed to hear that the promised laundry service pertained to Melbourne’s Forum Theatre, the venue originally booked for this gig. Everyone however, seems in good spirits. Only hours earlier Brian had been informed that the Smile album had been nominated for 3 Grammy awards.

It’s 4pm and Brian’s personal assistant is already asking for set up of the quick meet and greet for a few select fans following tonight’s show. The plan is that Wilson will do two songs (‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and ‘Love & Mercy’) following the Smile album performance, dash back for a five minute meet and greet, then he’ll be out of there. However due to the incredible audience adulation on the night, and in celebration of the Grammy nominations, Wilson performs six songs after Smile, including Beach Boys classics like ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘Do it Again’. In fact Wilson performs for almost three hours in total, playing 45 songs including stunning versions of ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Sail On Sailor’.

In the context of contemporary music history, this day was a triumph. With the three Grammy nominations, Wilson’s masterwork had finally been vindicated, and those fortunate enough to be in the audience tonight, witnessed the fulfilment of a man’s dream.

Without Darian Sahanaja, keyboardist/vocalist and musical director of Brian Wilson’s band (and frontman of his own band, The Wondermints), the completed ‘Smile’ recording may not have been possible. It was Darian’s impeccable musical credentials and immense knowledge of the history of the Beach Boy’s music that allowed Wilson to place enough trust in someone to help him complete his musical vision. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke with Sahanaja about this incredible project backstage at soundcheck for Wilson’s first Melbourne show of the ‘Smile’ tour.

GP: You were entrusted to download the original Smile tapes to your laptop and sort through them. Obviously you would have been excited, but was part of you also terrified?

DS: Yes, yes, more about the magnitude, the scope of it …of what we were dealing with. In my mind at the beginning, this was Pandora’s Box. There is so much mystique and mythology built around it. My second level of wariness came from just not knowing how Brian was going to handle it all. I had to have Brian’s faith, but we just took it one step at a time.

GP: Was there anything that you found that you didn’t expect?

DS: Most of the completed works I was familiar with. The most surprising stuff for me was when I was able to isolate stuff on the multi tracks and I could hear other things going on. We got a lot of arrangement parts for this record based on some of the headphone bleed. For example there’s an isolated vocal of Carl Wilson singing on one track, and you can hear this track that he is singing, but we can’t find it anywhere else. We can’t find the other parts, they just don’t exist. They’re either stolen, erased, taped over … whatever.

GP: So was anything of the original tapes used?

DS: It’s all new, nothing was used. All new recordings.

GP: Not even Paul McCartney’s carrot chomping?

DS: Especially not. No, if we were to use any of the originals it would then have been a copyright issue.

GP: In that case, for how much of this project was Brian trying to remember where he was going musically back then, and how much was Brian just being in the moment?

DS: The majority of Brian in general is of the moment. You can’t sit Brian down and say ‘do this like you did back then’, or ‘try to remember what you were doing’…he’ll tell you ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember’. Like a pure artist does, they do stuff and move on. So the beauty of this record is that he’s almost thinking of it as his latest thing. At least it feels that way, he doesn’t see it as an archival thing that he is finishing up. Maybe emotionally he is overcoming a hurdle but musically, arrangements wise, it’s just all music to him.

GP: The gear that was used on the original Smile sessions was quite different to what’s available now. Did Brian use any of that old gear this time?

DS: Well we certainly did! We did because that’s part of understanding the sensibility of what made that music great in the first place. Keyboard wise, we used Hammond B3s and I had a unit custom built based on the unit originally used for ‘Good Vibrations’. It’s an electro theramin. It’s a common misconception that it’s a real theramin being used on ‘Good Vibrations’, it’s not. It was a custom built box. I found someone who had inherited the design for that. Just going for authentic sounds. I say authentic but really it’s whatever it takes to capture that feel. Nelson our percussionist went hog-wild. He’d be saying there’s this percussion sound on ‘Vega-tables’, there’s a certain thing about it that’s unorthodox. And he ended up finding refrigerator parts, and it actually made a lot of sense. Brian would never be able to remember that, but it’s completely possible that there was an abandoned refrigerator in the back lot of Western Studios and I could picture Brian pulling out the racks and scraping them and saying ‘That’s the sound!’

GP: And the way he was piecing together the music back then, is the way that we work in hard disc recording today…cutting and pasting parts of songs.

DS: Yes. Unknowingly he was pioneering an approach to recording that nobody else was doing. The traditional way to record songs then was to do them all the way through. Maybe an intro would be done separately and then added on. It all started with ‘Good Vibrations’ of course. He would get musicians in a room and get them to play a riff, and he’d have them play variations of that riff for two or three hours. Then he’d change the instrumentation and change the tempo, things like that and that would be just that section, one groove or one riff. Then he would come in the next day and try another section, another riff. Then he would go to a different studio and try it there because they would have a different sound. In the end he would have all of these different variations and he would somehow place them all together and it became the masterpiece single that we know today, ‘Good Vibrations’. He got great satisfaction out of that and he thought … ‘well that’s where I’m at now. I want to do a whole album with that approach’. That’s what I believed Smile was going to be based on, going by all the different parts I found in the vaults. Like ‘Heroes and Villains’ too. There’d be three minutes of one riff, over and over, and a minute and a half of another riff.

GP: So is Brian comfortable using a computer for recording now?

DS: I don’t think he intellectualises it like that but I think he just thinks to himself, what does it take to get the results. He’s all about feel. Back then when he had all those sessions, all he could do was cut it to an acetate or make safety copies. But either way he would have to organise in his head how one part began and one part would end, I can’t even imagine trying to keep all of that in your mind.

GP: Is he into technology?

DS: Not really, he still proposes things in feeling. He’ll say he wants something ‘Thicker’ or ‘Trippier’ and you try to define it. The beauty of it now is that with a non-linear format, the hard drives, it’s exactly the way he used to think. If he had this back then, maybe he would have finished it.

GP: I think too, that the beauty of Smile coming out now, is that the sound quality is so much better than if it would have been as a sixties release.

DS: I suppose it is. I’m so close to it that I can’t be objective about it. That was a fine line to walk as well because we could have recorded Smile almost too modern. There was a danger that it could have been done so modern that it lost the spirit and original vision. It could have been something different if we used all synthesisers and drum machines. But there is something about the original vision that Brian and Van Dyke Parks had and it’s just something that happens when those two guys bounce ideas around. It’s of another era. It’s absorbed in Americana, in American history and you couldn’t do that with synthesisers. You had to have a real clarinet and real strings.

GP: Was there one particular moment in the last six years with Brian when his musical genius became obvious to you?

DS: I think his genius lies in that he is completely shameless. And what I mean is that he sees no limits. He’s almost like a child. He is very innocent and curious and wants the best and like a child always wants to feel good. In his case a lot of his music is trying to overcome a deep sadness. He is striving for something beautiful, something uplifting. I think an example of his genius is this…he could be doing something incredibly complex and well crafted, and it can all be coming together and it’s sounding amazing OR he can be doing something really way out and minimalist, and either way his reaction will be ‘I think it’s going to be a million seller!’ That’s his attitude. He is so caught up in the moment that he knows no boundaries. I think that’s the genius.

GP: What gear do you use on stage?

DS: I use a Kurzweil K2600. Ideally it would be great to have a real B3 and a real piano on stage but logistically it’s impossible with the way it’s staged and the budget. So I take out the Kurzweil K2600 with as many as the sounds programmed in as possible. I worked with a fellow at Kurzweil named Dave Wiser and he’s one of the sound engineers there and he helped me out. I do a lot of my own programming because I don’t like the factory patches. He helped me create a lot of the de-tuned pianos and things like that. That’s so much a part of the feel of Smile, the mystery of the slightly out of tune pianos and it’s almost ‘scary-good’ as Brian would say. Haunting I would say.

GP: You’ve been on the road with Brian now for six years, so your own band The Wondermints has been placed on the backburner. What’s happening there?

DS: I don’t know, it been such a ‘Smile’ year and today it was nominated for three Grammy Awards. Best Pop Vocal, Best Instrumental for ‘Mrs O’Learys Cow’ of all things, then Best Engineered Album. That’s sure to generate even more of a campaign for this record. We were all in the dark as to what would happen in 2005. So I don’t think there’s much of a window of opportunity for The Wondermints, but our songs will come out one way or another in their own time, naturally. That’s the greatest thing about this whole Smile thing is that it had come together naturally. It all started off with a ‘hey..what if?’ and ‘OK maybe we should try this.’ One thing lead to another. Brian was very nervous up front. Every step of the way he was never forced. He was given the freedom to say, no it’s too scary for me.

GP: Do you see Brian getting stronger emotionally?

DS: In six years of touring this is the happiest we’ve ever seen Brian, I mean consistently happy and it’s got to be because of the music. Part of it was just this big heavy weight that was lifted off him. We didn’t know to what extent that was going to effect him, but it has made a huge difference. It’s fantastic, he is so proud of it. Who would have thought … of all things…’Smile’

GP: You must be proud too?

DS: I am proud. It’s still a little close and too soon but maybe some time I will look back and see what happened. It’s only a year ago I got together with Van Dyke for the first time. It’s been a whirlwind since.

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