Inside the Beach Boy's super-productive sessions with collaborators like Al Jardine
"Im nervous as hell!" says Brian Wilson, over a tuna melt at his favorite Beverly Hills deli. "But it's a good kind of nervous. I'm on a roll. I have so many songs, I can't believe it. I keep thinking, 'What's this record gonna be? I have no idea!'"
Actually, the record that Wilson started working on with longtime collaborator Joe Thomas almost immediately after wrapping up the Beach Boys' 50th-anniversary tour last fall has morphed into what could be three records: an album of new pop songs, recorded with his touring band and Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks (both of whom will also join Wilson at solo shows this Summer); a set of mostly instrumental new songs with an unlikely collaborator, British guitar legend Jeff Beck (who may also appear on the Wilson solo album); and a complex, melancholy group of interwoven tracks he calls "the suite," created in the modular style of SMiLE, and dealing with loss, vulnerability and hope as Wilson approaches the final chapter of his career.
At Los Angeles' Ocean Way studios the next day, Wilson and his bandleader, Jeffrey Foskett, spend the morning cutting vocals, then Wilson guides two band members – Scott Bennett and Probyn Gregory – through vibes and French-horn parts for one of the Beck tracks. Over a lunch of takeout chicken tacos, Wilson plays back a dozen unfinished songs, including an unnamed Motown-like organ jam; the lush pop tracks "Right Time" (featuring a superb Jardine vocal) and "Guess You Had To Be There," which recounts wild nights in the 1960s at the L.A. club the Troubador; and a heavy jam with Beck called "Metropolis" that sounds like prof surf music.
The most exciting track features Beck picking a 12-string electric guitar over a haunting "ooh-na-na" vocal line from Jardine, bathed in layers of Wilson's vocal harmonies. It may be the spookiest song he's ever recorded. "Jeff showed up in the studio and we just got it going – it was a natural thing," says Wilson. "I think we're doing to be doing a lot together."
The burst of work comes as a surprise even to Wilson, who started cutting tracks after the Beach Boys tour ended on a sour note, when co-founder Mike Love pulled the plug on additional reunion dates. At the time, Wilson said he was disappointed the reunion didn't continue. Now, he says he is relieved. "I loved being back with the boys, but things got a little rough at the end," he says. "It took everything out of me. I'm just really into doing my own stuff."
After lunch, Wilson asks a studio engineer to place an order for "supershots" – a viscous concoction of wheatgrass, spiraling and cayenne pepper, with a lime chaser. The rest of the group gags to get it down, but Wilson savors his. "I love the energy! I feel great already!" he says. "You think if I give them, like $100 they'll deliver eight or 10 of these to my house?
"I'm 70 years old," Wilson continues, leaning over the console, "but when I get to work I feel like I'm in my twenties again. I don't know why. I'm just in the groove."
– Jsson Fine