Brian Wilson on His New Album and Biopic

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

To Beach Boys fans, Brian Wilson is a god, but this is not true. Brian Wilson is a songwriting genius and a national treasure, but he’s more like your dad than a god. He’s awkward, gracious, loves oldies-but-goodies, doesn’t listen to Kanye West, and really wants his kids to think he’s cool. Vulture caught up with him via phone this week to talk about his 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, which comes out on April 7, and the upcoming Bill Pohlad–directed biopic, Love & Mercy, starring Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti. He didn’t regale us with legendary anecdotes or throw shade at Mike Love, but he was pretty chill. Here’s our conversation. Pregnant pauses have been deleted.

Hi, how are you?
Very good. How are you?

Great! Thank you for taking the time to talk with Vulture.

Congrats on the new record.
Thank you!

There are a number of younger artists on No Pier Pressure, including She & Him, fun., and Sebu from Capital Cities, but Lana Del Rey and Frank Ocean were also supposed to contribute. What happened to their tracks?
Well, Frank Ocean didn’t want to do the song. He wanted to do rap, so we canceled him. Lana Del Rey, uh, she just canceled out on us.

In the liner notes, you dedicate the album to your kids, who, you write, for the first time will “actually think I’m cool.” What about today’s generation or music makes you feel uncool?

I don’t listen to today’s music. I listen to oldies-but-goodies.

So, all of the guest artists on your record — you had no exposure to them before?
Oh, no. We knew them. We knew them. Yeah, we knew them.

Another big artists of our time is Kanye West. You’ve worked with him in the past for charity. Have you ever listened to his music?
No, I haven’t.

What are you listening to right now?
Paul McCartney’s record, the Bee Gees, Rolling Stones. You know.

Speaking of the Bee Gees, one of the songs that stands out on this record is “Runaway Dancer.” It sounds like a disco track. What’s the story behind that song?
Well, the story is there’s not really a story. I wrote it a long time ago [1998], and we finally recorded it with what’s his name.

Sebu, yeah, right.

Former bandmates Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine joined you in the studio as well. What was the reunion like?
It was fantastic! They were both really good and I hadn’t worked with them for a while, so it was quite an occasion to work with them.

This is going to be a very big year for you. You have the new record and the tour, but you also have a new biopic coming out called Love & Mercy. What was it like to see your life on the big screen?
It was a thrill for me, but the parts where I took drugs were not fun to watch, you know? Wasn’t. Fun. To. Watch.  

Is that because it was too painful for you to relive those days?
Right, it was very factual, actually, yeah. Very factual.

Whose portrayal was more accurate, John Cusack or Paul Dano?
The Paul Dano one was more factual. More to my life.

Do you plan on retiring after this album and tour?
It’s possible. I might retire, but I don’t know. Actually, I shouldn’t really say that I’m going to retire. I don’t know yet.

If you did, what would you end up doing?
Uhhhh, I don’t know. I don’t know.

You famously signed over the “Surfin’ USA” copyright to Chuck Berry after he claimed the Beach Boys stole the melody from his song “Sweet Little Sixteen.” What are your thoughts on the recent “Blurred Lines” copyright case? Do you think the jury’s decision to compensate the Gaye family is justified?
Yeah, I do.

You feel like Pharrell and Robin Thicke basically ripped Marvin Gaye off?
Right. Right.

What advice do you have for young artists who want to pay homage to sounds from a different era?
I would tell them to write the whole song and do it good.

What are your favorite songs on the new record?
“Sail Away,” “Runaway Dancer,” “On the Island,” and “Guess You Had to Be There” are my four favorites.

What do your kids think of the record?
My kids? They love it! They love it!