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Brian Wilson on his new CD, favorite recording gear, and more –
March 2009: Brian Wilson surprised both music critics and his fans when he released his long lost masterpiece, Smile, in 2004. Although Wilson started work on the ambitious album in 1966, he abandoned the project less than a year later after completing only a few tracks. Over the next 37 years, observers wondered if Smile would ever see the light of day in its proper form or if it would be forever lost to time.

Brian Wilson in the Vintage Room at Guitar Center Hollywood –

While the release of Smile offered considerable relief to both Wilson and his fans, the inevitable question arose as to what Wilson was going to do as a follow up. His answer was That Lucky Old Sun, which continued forward on the ambitious path blazed by Smile but also paid tribute to the halcyon days of Wilson's youth. The album, which Wilson describes as "poetic images of California and what it's like to live in Los Angeles," evokes the spirit of a bygone era immortalized by Beach Boys classics like "California Girls" but seen through the eyes of an older, wiser man instead of the innocent gaze of a teenager.

That Lucky Old Sun features many familiar elements of a classic Brian Wilson production—rich, complex vocal harmonies, "wall of sound" instrumental arrangements featuring strings and horns, and clever melodic twists interspersed with timeless I-IV-V song structures. Narrative passages written by Van Dyke Parks, who Brian has collaborated with since the Smile days, form a bridge between songs, helping listeners along the musical journey.

"Van Dyke was very in tune with the trip," says Wilson. "It's the idea of chopped and channeled cars, restaurants and waiters, and to be or not to be. He came through with some great stuff for me. His words are very poetic and original."

That Lucky Old Sun was recorded using a similar approach to the one Wilson used to complete Smile in 2004. Although the original recordings for Smile were pieced together "bar by bar," this time around the recording process was more linear. Because Wilson's band had already performed the songs on Smile live on stage before work on the studio album commenced, they were able to perform together in a single room and lay down most of the basic tracks in a single pass.

"The band and I learned to play all of the songs on Smile before we premiered it in London in 2004," says Wilson. "We wanted to see if people liked it before we decided to record it. We had to test it out first. It went over so well that we were inspired to record it. We took the tapes from the archives and re-recorded them. We stayed pretty faithful to the way the recordings originally sounded. We updated the rhythms and made some changes in the chords, but basically it was the same album. Then we created a third movement, and we had ourselves an album. Playing it live gave us the feeling of playing it together, and we took that inspiration into the studio."

"Playing it live gave us the feeling of playing it together, and we took that inspiration into the studio." – Brian Wilson

Similarly, Wilson and his band first performed the material on That Lucky Old Sun live before entering the studio to record it. "We cut all of the basic tracks for That Lucky Old Sun in two days," says engineer Mark Linett, who has worked on Brian's solo albums since the late Eighties and mixed numerous reissues of the Beach Boys' classic recordings. "We recorded the album in sections, basically working on individual songs except in one case where there was a segue. When everyone already knows the arrangement it's a lot easier to do that. We set everyone up in the same room except for the drummer, who was in his own booth. We moved musicians around as need be."

"My band is the best group of musicians I've ever played with," says Wilson. "They're young guys. They all sing really well with very tight harmony and their voices blend really well. They've been a wonderful inspiration to me for the last 10 years. They learn fast, don't forget anything, and make sure they do it right the first time. They never say, 'Oh, if we'd only played it that way!'"

Instrumental tracks for That Lucky Old Sun were recorded in the renowned live room at Capitol Records Studio A. "The deep, layered, cavernous sound of Brian's recordings was not the product of recording in a huge room," explains Linett. "Actually you want to record in a smaller room where nobody has to play very loud. When you have a mic across the room that's open and waiting for the horns to play, it's going to pick up the drums and other instruments and add dimension to the sound through the bleed. When you record in a big room it's much harder to do that because the bleed is so delayed that it winds up sounding like you're playing in the Grand Canyon."

Although Brian's albums are not your typical, guitar-dominated rock and roll recordings, guitars do play a significant role on many tracks on That Lucky Old Sun. Layers of up to three acoustic guitars provide the instrumental tracks with much of their rhythmic drive. Clean Fender Jazzmaster and Stratocaster electric tones give several songs classic rock and roll energy. Acoustic and electric 12-string guitars add depth and sparkle to melodic lines much in the same way those instruments did on classic Beach Boys singles like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B." Scott Bennett played nylon string Spanish guitar on "Mexican Girl," to give the song its essential Mexican folk and flamenco-inspired flavor.

Although Brian played a Fender Precision bass with the Beach Boys in the early Sixties, these days he rarely picks up the instrument except to play a handful of songs live on stage. Most of the bass lines on That Lucky Old Sun were performed by Brett Simons on either electric or acoustic upright bass, the latter being a crucial but often overlooked element of many classic Beach Boys recordings.

Linett says that the main reason why drummer Todd Sucherman was isolated in his own booth was because he was one of the only musicians who hadn't played the material previously live. Because Sucherman wasn't as familiar with the songs, Linett wanted to be able to fix potential mistakes in the drum tracks without having to worry about previous takes bleeding onto the instrumental tracks. Linett notes that Smile was recorded with the drummer in the same room with the other instrumentalists.

The mic setup on Sucherman's drums consisted of a Sennheiser 602 inside the kick drum to capture the attack and a Neumann U47 outside the kick drum to capture the body and ambience; a traditional dual Shure SM57 setup with individual mics pointed at the top and bottom of the snare drum, an AKG D190 on the toms, a pair of Neumann U48 overheads, and a pair of Royer 121 ribbon mics capturing the room. Linett recalls that a Neumann KM84 may have been used to mic the hi-hat but it was left out of the overall drum mix. "The sound of the drums stayed the same throughout the entire recording," says Linett.

Nelson Bragg handled percussion chores on the album, adding shakers and castanets to songs like "Mexican Girl" and "Cinco De Mayo," clock-like wood blocks to "Between Pictures" and glittering tambourine flourishes throughout. Other percussive elements on That Lucky Old Sun include bells played by Darian Sahanaja and vibraphones played by Scott Bennett, which gave "Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl" that classic, dreamy Pet Sounds atmosphere.

With the exception of strings and horns, which were overdubbed later, the overall approach of recording all of the instrumental tracks at once was almost identical to how the Beach Boys recorded their early tracks. However, in the early and mid Sixties when a four-track recorder was state-of-the art technology, recording engineers didn't have the luxury of being able to devote each instrument to its own individual track. "We would put all of the background instrumentation on one track," says Brian. "That left the rest of the tracks open for recording vocals."

Brian passes on a little West Coast wisdom –

Vocals have always been the focal point of Brian Wilson's music, especially his unique harmonies. Wilson records his vocals with "a nice, big Telefunken" microphone, either an ELA-M 251, U47 or U67. Linett cuts Wilson's vocals using an original Universal Audio mic preamp. "It's exactly the same as what the Beach Boys were using back in the day," says Linett. "The background vocals went through some older Neve modules at Henson Studios, which are the old A&M Studios. We used a very straightforward approach, relying on the talent instead of the technology. It took a week or two to record Brian's vocals, and the background vocals took a week.

"Brian can lay out harmonies about as fast as you can record them," Linett continues. "Sometimes he'll do all of the harmonies himself. He'll start off with the first part and then double, triple or quadruple it. Then he'll do the second part and do the same thing, and the third part and so on. Sometimes when he reaches the third part he'll start experimenting with different ideas, but once he finds something he likes it's locked and he can do it again as many times as is necessary. You never have to change the balance or take a part out so he can sing the next part."

When Brian's band records vocal harmonies, they usually perform them together at once. "On That Lucky Old Sun we set up four mics and baffled everybody so we had control over the individual parts and could replace them if need be," says Linett. "Then we doubled everything. On Smile we used two mics and grouped singers together."

Lost in the music, Guitar Center Hollywood Vintage Room –

The approach to recording harmony vocals on Smile was not much different than what the Beach Boys did on their Sixties recordings. "Back then we would all stand around one microphone in a circle so everyone could hear each other," says Wilson. "I would teach everyone the parts, and then we would record about six to eight bars at a time. We didn't do the whole song. We learned songs in sections."

When Brian wrote "Good Vibrations" in 1966, it was one of the first instances in pop music that a song was written by piecing numerous, different sections together. "That song took six weeks to make," says Brian. "The process of recording that song was very exciting, but later on it drove me crazy. The cello and the theremin, scary this and scary that—it really drove me nuts. I don't listen to it any more. I listen to 'California Girls' but I can't listen to 'Good Vibrations.' I don't even consider it my production."

Brian continues to use a cut and paste approach when composing songs, using either Pro Tools or his Yamaha Motif workstation to work out arrangements. "Modern production technology like Pro Tools gave me carte blanche to make the kind of music I felt like making," he says. "It definitely made it easier to complete Smile. But I still like to write songs on my Yamaha keyboard. I work out melodies and full arrangements with it."

Considering that Brian's ambitious production and arrangements on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album marked a significant turning point in pop music history, forever changing the way that rock music was recorded and written from that point onward, Wilson is modest about his numerous achievements and contributions to music. "I've always tried to make music that people can relate to," he says. "The Four Freshmen taught me harmony. Phil Spector taught me how to produce. Chuck Berry and Carole King taught me how to write. All of that was my music education."

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