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Brian Wilson and his wonderful band were in Australia in early April performing the legendary Pet Sounds album in its entirety, a recording which celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 16. In a rare exclusive interview with band members Nelson Bragg and Probyn Gregory, Australian Musician’s Michael Witheford learns what it’s been like to work and record with Brian Wilson for the past 17 years.

Show photos by Mary Boukouvalas

Probyn, Nelson and AM's Michael
Probyn, Nelson and AM’s Michael

It’s about an hour and a half after Brian Wilson’s triumphant Melbourne show at The Palais Theatre. A refreshed Wilson, having rested after three long haul flights and several difficult gigs has been in fine form, and the concert has left the audience in raptures.

Wilson doesn’t do a lot these days. It’s up to his stunning band to re-create the complex harmonies and finely crafted complex arrangements of the Beach Boys songs. They’ve performed one set of the songs from Beach Boys albums, then Pet Sounds in full, celebrating 50 years since its release.

Later at Melbourne’s iconic Cherry Bar, New York rockers Endless Boogie are putting the “endless” into literal effect, vowing to play until they have to catch an early morning flight home.

I’d taken Brian’s percussionist Nelson Bragg and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory to Cherry on a previous visit, but it was soul night and not quite as blisteringly loud as this. It’s hardly conducive to relaxing and winding down.

Mercifully the mercurial boss of Cherry and local rock identity James Young opens the back bar so we can sit in comfort and quiet, plied with free drinks and entertained initially by Young’s AC/DC stories, explaining how he came to have personal letters from Bon Scott to his wife framed on the wall, and much more besides.

Realizing my phone does clever stuff like recording, the two long time members of the Wilson band are happy to talk about their own histories and life on the road with the figure many see as the greatest talent in pop history.

I begin for no reason in particular by talking about ‘Surfer Girl’ the first song Wilson ever wrote, and ‘Warmth Of The Sun’ the 1963 classic which still boggles the mind.

Nelson: ‘Surfer Girl’, that’s like your brain introducing you to something, and saying ‘You’re going to be a great writer’. That’s Brill Building quality. That’s just too good, right? But ‘Warmth Of The Sun’ is like ‘Ok, something in the universe is controlling me; this is not me, I’ve been gifted. That’s like a scary fucking song, that’s like a savant song. (He leans towards Probyn) Don’t you think he was afraid? That song was so ahead of its time.

Probyn: Yes, but I don’t think Brian ever had that feeling that he had a special talent. His dad knew, and knew he could make money out of it.

Things jump around a bit and we’re soon talking about Nelson and Probyn’s musical histories.

Probyn: I majored in English but by the time I graduated I’d taken every electronic music course my college had. From 80-98 when I got in the Brian band, getting signed was the goal. Even though the people who did get signed, it lasted two weeks then the money ran out.

Probyn on guitar

Probyn joined LA pop band The Wondermints

Wondermints was the brainchild of Nick Walusko and Darian Sahanaja (both now key members of Brian Wilson’s band). Darian and I met because I saw him wearing a Smile t shirt at a club. I said, ‘Where did you get that shirt?’ He said, ‘I made it’. I said, ‘How can I get one?’ and he said, I’ll just give you one’. We ended up bonding over Beach Boys and other music, and became friends. Nick and Darian originally just made demos, then they got Mike D’Amico, the drummer (now Wilson’s drummer). I was on the periphery. I went to their gigs. They said, ‘We need a trumpet player’ and I said, ‘I play trumpet’, and ‘we need a guitar player’. ‘I also play guitar’, so I joined. Wondermints records were just done in our rehearsal studio by us, and we never got signed to a major label. The Austin Powers Theme was our biggest splash. Then Brian saw us at a tribute to Brian, that he himself played at. Who would play at their own tribute? Brian of course.

Nelson: He sat down and claimed that he wrote ‘I’m A Little Tea Cup’

Probyn: Yes! The first thing he said was, ‘This is a song I just wrote’. I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s worse that I thought!’ Now I know he was joking, but…Anyway we were on his radar, and every now and then he would come out and sing ‘Do It Again’ with our band. Which was nice, a feather in our cap, have Brian Wilson come to our shows and sing. Although he did do a little crazy stuff that I’m contractually obligated not to say. Anyway Carl Wilson died in ‘98 and we got asked to audition in ‘99, and we passed the audition to be part of this huge band, most of which you saw tonight. Our first show was in Michigan. Brian was still very fragile and we couldn’t even say the words ‘Smile’, or ‘Heroes and Villains’. Melinda (Brian’s wife of about 20 years) pushed a little bit because she knew the fans wanted to hear that stuff. And for him it ended up being GOOD, it was like getting closure on a big problem.

Probyn delves deeper into Brian’s idiosyncrasies and how to draw out the best from him

Probyn: What we’ve learned over the years is that Brian is sometimes like a turtle that’s fallen on its back. Your impulse is to turn the turtle over, but the thing you should do is, when he says, ‘Oh guys I can’t come up with any new harmonies for this new song. Does anyone have any ideas?’ Well we’re musicians – of course we have ideas, but someone will accuse us of putting our footprint on his music, so rather we all sit back and say, ’Well I dunno Brian, think about it for a minute, what you got for us?’ So then we let him turn his own turtle over and he’ll come up with things are better than the shit we’d suggest, cos I have ideas but they’re kind of generic. If Brian Wilson has an idea, it’s unique because of where his brain chemistry is at. He doesn’t think like you and me.

We had a recording session and he said, ‘I want a melodica on this’, so I brought my melodica in and he said, ‘Play something’ so I played something. He said, ‘Well, that’s okay’ but he wasn’t really into it, so I said, ‘Well what would you do?’ and he said, ‘Well I’d probably do this’, and he went over to the piano and he played something, and I thought it was kinda weird but I copied it. I thought, ‘Oh man he’s lost his mojo, it doesn’t fit in the song’, which is what the Wrecking Crew (LA session guns who played on Pet Sounds) used to say about him, so we lay it down, we play this part. It’s PERFECT. I thought ‘Oh my god that is the genius of Brian Wilson right there’.

Nelson and Brian

Nelson talks about his road to the job with Wilson

Nelson: I moved to LA, and I was in the melodic pop scene playing drums and singing with this band at the Wondermints studio, and I think I spent three or four years at that place working on this obsessive soft pop masterpiece, and eventually I got a call from Darian, and I auditioned just so they could see I could play. Then Foskett (Jeff Foskett was the falsetto guy and band spokesperson for many year before crossing the floor to the Mike Love Beach Boys camp) saw me playing with Andrew Gold in this band called Byrds of a Feather, this amazing Byrds cover band, THE best cover band. Gold was Linda Ronstadt’s guitarist for ten years.

Probyn: And Nelson and I were two of the revolving Crosbys in that band!

So you both played some shows with Brian then the band consolidated and became a full-time concern. When did you first leave the US?

So you both played some shows with Brian, then the band consolidated and became a full-time concern. When did you first leave the US?

Nelson: The first overseas tour with Brian was Japan in 1999.

Probyn: But the producer who was in charge, Joe Thomas didn’t come. And he bankrolled it. He was musical director. He claimed he had visa problems but we suspect it was other matters (more contractual obligation to zip it here).

Nelson: Joe Thomas is … (Nelson says some things about Thomas which can’t be published.)

Probyn: So we got our then-background-singer Scott Bennett and taught him the whole show in one day, and he did it that night in Osaka. Scott was a successful singer, he did a lot of jingles, he had his own band. They were on the verge of breaking big several times, but eventually nothing really happened for them. So he joined the band… Brian seemed comfortable out of the country. He got back into old patterns on the road.

Tell me about how you managed to bring Smile back to life. It was probably the most famous unfinished album in pop folk lore.

Probyn; Brian had fragments that he knew. Then Darian had collected parts. He had a computer with almost everything that was known to be connected to Smile on there. Some of it was just words printed out and some of it was the music. In some cases the words were already married to the music – in other cases it was just the music. Van Dyke Parks got involved, and Brian would have these back and forth sessions with Van Dyke, and in at least one case this third party David Leaf (renowned Beach Boys expert) was involved. He had a napkin with lyrics which were from Smile. But I call it Smile 2004 cos they might have come up with something different in a later year, or the year before. In 2004 they came up with the thing that got recorded, so we all practiced it and played it live first and then went in and recorded it. But it was a long process, and Brian was dragging his feet a little bit. He hadn’t made his peace with the whole thing yet.

How do the Brian Wilson (and band) 2004 version of Smile and the 2011 eventual release of the Beach Boys Smile compare?

Probyn: They’re not too similar because as I recall, there was an actual sequence to our version and the Beach Boys one is more a hodge podge of what the Beach Boys themselves actually recorded not knowing what the final order was going to be, cos Brian didn’t know himself.

Nelson has a different take on that. A very interesting one.

Nelson: The 2011Beach Boys box was based on the 2004 version of Smile.

Probyn: They based the sequencing on that? Nelson: Yes. It was exactly the same. They couldn’t put out the box set until Brian and Van Dyke finished it. Then Capitol went ‘Ooh now we know. Now they had a template. The thing was done. Smile was set in stone by us when we did it. Now they could do the closest approximation they could, and got in a bunch of producers, that’s why the Beach Boys version of Smile was created.

Probyn and I (and possibly a lot of fans) have both learned something about Capitol and The Beach Boys’ Smile there. There are more free drinks and the chat goes into weirder territory.

Probyn: Wasn’t there a Brian Wilson action figure?

Nelson: Yes and the key word here is ACTION (Nelson raises his eyebrows) … that was during the time we were doing the Pet Sounds 40th.

So what era Brian was that?

Probyn: I think he was wearing the black coat so it was like the 1966 Brian. I tried to get one but couldn’t.

I believe he likes a feed?

Probyn: I think the second gig we ever had was in Michigan – he was doing some promo, and the band was downstairs eating, and he never misses a meal, he loves food. So he comes into catering and he says ‘Hey guys what’s good?’ I say ‘Mashed potatoes today’. Well, you have never seen a guy eat mashed potatoes so fast!

Back to the music and the importance of Brian. I could never figure out why he always looked up to Phil Spector so much when he overtook anything Spector could do by 1965.

Probyn: Well by ‘63 in my opinion he was better than Spector, but he’s never believed it. Some of these audio hallucinations, they tell him that his music is bad; or sometimes he hears that someone’s going to kill him; really sad, really sad.

Brian Wilson still has his demons. But in concert with talent like Nelson and Probyn behind him you can’t help but feel the pure joy of some of the greatest songs in pop’s canon.

For further reading on Brian Wilson and his band, you can also check out an interview we did in 2005 with Darian Sahanaja about the recreation of the Smile album. Read it here

Wilson band courtesy Nelson's Facebook page
Wilson band courtesy Nelson’s Facebook page











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