“The Low Down on the Low End”

Interview Conducted by Dale Turner

(As originally appeared in Bassics Magazine's June/July 2000 issue. Used with kind permission)


What happens when you blend the compositional detail of Beethoven and Gershwin, the lush harmonies of the Four Freshmen, and the finesse of Phil Spector, then sprinkle in a little California sunshine? You get Brian Wilson: The brains behind the Beach Boys. Almost solely responsible for such classics as “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls,” and “Good Vibrations,” in the ‘60s, Brian Wilson's chart-topping efforts transformed a family business (brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love, friend Al Jardine) into a worldwide sensation, profoundly influencing his peers in the process. Beach Boys albums like Pet Sounds were praised openly by the Beatles, Brian Wilson himself was acknowledged by the late Leonard Bernstein as “one of today's most important pop musicians,” and “Good Vibrations” was—and still is—regarded as “the greatest pop single ever.” But believe it or not, of all the accolades, it seems one of Brian Wilson's contributions in contemporary music has been overlooked: His innovative use of electric bass during this ‘60s “heyday.”

Though session players rounded out the instrumental tracks on many of the mid-‘60s era Beach Boys cuts, Brian was the man holding down the low end on all the Beach Boys live dates from the band's inception to his nerve-wracked “retirement” from the road in late 1964. In a brilliant move, by enlisting Bruce Johnston (after a brief stint by Glen Campbell) to cover Brian's bass and vocal parts, the Beach Boys were able to remain on the road, providing their leader with sufficient time and space to freely embellish the Boys’ Southern California sound. (In short, to crank out more hits!) With the Beach Boys on tour, in need of musicians, Brian borrowed from producer Phil Spector's studio elite to help him fine-tune his new material. To name but a few: Hal Blaine (drums), Barney Kessel, Billy Strange, and Glen Campbell (guitars), and Don Randi (keyboards). And for electric bass, Brian had to look no further than Fender Precision picker, Carol Kaye, whose unique bass playing approach was further augmented by four-stringers like Lyle Ritz (string bass) and Ray Pohlman (Fender bass). Within a year of laying down classic lines on Beach Boys tracks like “I Get Around” and “Help Me Rhonda,” Carol Kaye and the Beach Boys’ new studio crew would play an invaluable role in helping Wilson realize his breathtaking masterwork, Pet Sounds.

Today, Brian Wilson has three successful solo albums under his belt, and is back on the road—and enjoying every minute of it! But it seems he has some unfinished business, insofar as Pet Sounds is concerned... To commemorate (almost) 35 years of Pet Sounds and celebrate Brian's forthcoming Pet Sounds orchestra tour (which opens at the Hollywood Bowl, September 24, 2000, followed by appearances at select cities), Bassics revisits this landmark album with Brian Wilson and bass ace (and Bassics columnist) Carol Kaye. Lastly, if you weren't aware of Brian's bass playing abilities, don't feel bad. You're not alone. Even the studio musicians on the Beach Boys’ dates—like Carol Kaye—were oblivious. “I never knew Brian was a bass player until much later,” Kaye recalls. “He never played bass in front of me.”


Carol, can you paint a picture of what it was like working in the studio with Brian during the Pet Sounds sessions—particularly the rapport Brian had with the studio musicians?

Carol: Brian was a great person to work for. [Speaking to Brian:] You were strong. You didn't waste time or anything. You didn't have to pander to us at all because we were hired there to work for you. And I think that you liked us, and we loved you.

Brian: I enjoyed the whole time.

Carol: We used to sit in the studios, and we'd talk about the Beach Boys dates. It was like, “Do you have a Beach Boys date?” “Oh yeah! We're working for Brian today!” It was like a special thing, because we were doing all those rock dates and everything. But when it came to work for you, we knew it was going to be just one tune for a three-hour session. And you were so funny on the dates; you'd kid with us, and we'd kid back. And we knew that the music was monumental, what you were doing.

Brian: Thank you.

Carol: It's like playing jazz or something, to play your music Brian.

Brian: Yeah, I guess so.

Carol: And the fact that you didn't even go to school to learn how to write that or anything, but it all came off the top of your head... It was great. And I saw you kind of grow up in the studios. I mean, you were just a young guy.

Brian: Yeah. I went through a lot of changes in the years from when I first started out.

Carol: You sure did.

The recently issued Pet Sounds Sessions box set—the portions where you can hear your “talk back” to the studio musicians during tracking—clearly shows you were aware of the variety of tones and timbres that are possible from just one instrument. You can really tell how in control you were of...

Brian: The sound. It was quite a good sound.

One of the unique aspects of the Beach Boys' sound seems to be taking the bass and maybe doubling that part by a completely unrelated instrument.

Brian: Right.

Can you describe how you experimented in the studio to get the sound combinations you were after?

Brian: Well, I would have the musicians keep playing over and over again till the sound made sense. I worked overtime on that; I worked hours to get it right. If the sound didn't make any sense, then I wouldn't know what to do—I'd be lost! It's instinct that tells me. I have an instinct for music, or a feeling about it, and I'll have my feelings guide my hands.

Would you maybe start with the bass, and then bring in a guitar to see if that gave you the right combination of sounds?

Brian: Yes, we would do that. Sometimes we would bring in a guitar, or bring in a piano. And it's pretty fantastic.

So the single notes on the piano would be doubling the lines played by the bass?

Brian: Yes.

Carol: It was all part of his whole writing and arranging. And the focus was on sound. On “God Only Knows” I think there are only two basses, but there might be more. And the string bass is very hot in that; [upright player] Lyle [Ritz]'s very hot in the mix of that record. And I think, being a bass player, it's the sensitivity of the tune, why he had that hot.

You also seemed to experiment with varying the attack on electric bass—picked for a brighter tone, or plucked with fingers for a warmer sound.

Carol: Yeah. I played it with a hard pick.

Brian: It sounds much better with a pick. It's more percussive. I wanted it to have a “pluck” sound, like Motown. And I really liked that a lot, the way Carol played it.

The Beach Boys were essentially created in 1961 when you and your brothers, Dennis and Carl, spent the “food money” your parents gave you, to use while they were away on a trip.

Brian: Yeah, we bought instruments with it.

How did you end up being the one to play bass?

Brian: My brother Carl taught me how to play the bass. I went through the motions with him.

He showed you some boogie-woogie bass lines?

Brian: Right. He taught me all that stuff.

When you played bass on the live Beach Boys dates in the early '60s, you were playing bass, stroking the strings using only your thumb. How'd you develop that approach?

Brian: I just learned that from Carl.

Playing using only your thumb?

Brian: Yeah. But it was kinda tedious, plucking away with your thumb. So then I started using a pick about a year after I played the bass. I was very, very adventurous [laughs]. But it was fun.

In much of the press over the last 35 years you've said that you primarily compose at the piano. But have any of the Beach Boys' tracks originated from bass lines?

Brian: No, I never did that. I never wrote a song from that standpoint, always piano. All my songs were piano.

With the bass line coming from your left hand?

Brian: Yeah.

Carol: That's the beauty about Brian though. I worked for [Motown string arranger] Gene Page too, and Gene would come up with bass lines from his left hand too. But Brian wrote from the piano as if he was writing a whole symphony orchestra. And Brian put the bass lines into a symphonic thing, and I don't think anybody has ever done that since you did it.

Brian: No. I know.

Carol: You came up with the ideas for it, see. Were the ideas from the top hand first, or were the ideas from the left hand first?

Brian: The top hand first, and then the left hand.

After you composed a song sitting at the piano, would you write out the individual parts from your piano part and distribute them to the studio musicians?

Brian: Yeah, I did. I would learn it all, arranged on piano, and then I'd start writing for different instruments.

So you'd be passing out manuscript paper at the session?

Brian: Right.

Carol: He sure did. He passed out music all the time—the horns, all the parts.

Today, musical breakthroughs are usually the result of modern technology. But Pet Sounds was a breakthrough that's still cutting-edge sounding today, but you did it on an ... eight-track? Or was it a four-track?

Brian: Yeah. It was a four-track.

Does that ever amaze you?

Brian: Yeah [laughs]. You gotta be on your toes when you do it like that—when you go kind of like “live.” It puts you up on your toes [laughs]. It was fun. It was an adventure. Believe me, it was.

It was a pretty competitive scene back then, both musically and production-wise, wasn't it?

Brian: It was. Yeah, it was very competitive in the '60s. And everybody caught the bug, y'know? It was like a “competitive bug.” And, as far as I could see, everybody was turning everybody on. The “heyday” was 1963-66. And when Phil Spector was around, that was a heyday [laughs]. I still think he was “the law” on production. He could be the one that got it all going! I just sorta picked up on what was happening and started trying to do my own thing.

You had a healthy competition with Spector, and the Beatles at that time.

Brian: Yeah. The Beatles were a part of that whole “competition” thing. Rubber Soul blew my mind. It really made me wanna record; it made me wanna cut. It sounds like a collection of songs that belong together, and it was an uplifting feeling. So I thought I'd make a collection of songs—called Pet Sounds—together. That's how I got that idea. Because they all sound like they came from a similar [place] in time.

I remember reading an interview where Paul McCartney said you not only had a profound influence on his music, but his bass playing in particular. I believe he said that when he heard Pet Sounds, it was the first time he realized you didn't have to sit on the root as a bass player. Did you know you had an influence on his bass playing?

Brian: I never realized that. No, I never did. I'm just too naive, I guess, to realize it.

A lot of your chord voicings in Pet Sounds feature the 5th in the bass, for instance.

Brian: Yeah, I know. It was perfect. I was taught that from Phil Spector.

Carol: To me, when Brian wrote the parts like that, it's like “this” piece fits with “this” piece. And he didn't treat the bass like, “You have to do ‘this’ on the bass.” He didn't think on the bass like I would do as a bass player: “I'm trying to fit something to the tune; I'm gonna go for the root.” So a lot of times, he didn't go for the root. He went to the 5th or the b3rd, or whatever it was.

Brian: Yeah: Beethoven’s 5th [laughs].

Many of the early Beach Boys tracks resolve around boogie-woogie bass lines and implied mostly I-IV-V progressions, but at a certain point you seemed to really shift towards writing more symphonically for bass—“Sloop John B.,” for instance.

Brian: That's exactly what I did. I raised it up. Instead of sitting on the tonic I played a 5th, and then I graduated down to a tonic note, and back up to the 5th in “Sloop John B.”

Carol: That “Sloop John B.” record is one of my favorite records. It has a lot of positive vibes. I think we were all happy that day, you could tell. And I remember somebody said, “Well the bass line’s so simple.” But it really fits the tune so well. That thing that you wrote in the front... How did you come up with that lick?

Brian: I don't know. I was sitting at the piano and I was just goofing around for hours. And I finally came up with something I kind of liked.

Carol: Oh Brian, I don't think it's “hours” with you. I think it's just a minute or two, and you got it, because you're so fast. You used to sit down at the piano and you'd come up with all kinds of ideas in the studio. I mean, I don't mean to correct you on that, but you're pretty modest about the way that you do stuff.

Brian: Yeah, I know. I'm a modest person.

Carol: Yeah. You're the last person to give yourself credit—and you wrote all the stuff. We were there; we saw you doing that.

Brian: It was wonderful.

“Wouldn't it Be Nice?” has another standout bass line in the bridge.

Brian: We did that over at Gold Star.

Carol: That part starts out with a walking bass line, but the second part of the tune you switch the role of the bass and make it like a solo-type of bass line. What gave you that idea?

Brian: I don't know. It's just a feel you get. I sort of feel my way through the line. I can’t explain how it's done, in terms of words. [The verses are] similar to the Phil Spector-type bass. It's a one-note walking bass that goes [singing with triplet feel:] “Bom-buh-bum-bah, bom-buh-bum-bah...” It keeps going one scale tone up [“bah”], then down like a walking bass.

Carol: So it was Phil Spector that was inspiring you for that bass line?

Brian: Very much.

What was the first Phil Spector-produced tune that you noticed that type of bass line on?

Brian: [The Ronettes'] “Be My Baby,” mostly. I think it's a great record. It's my favorite. I can feel it as it's playing, y'know?

After Pet Sounds, you released a single called “Good Vibrations.”

Brian: Right.

Carol: We did a lot of dates on that tune, and you were changing me all the time—you had me playing fuzz-tone on one of the cuts, and a lot of different lines too.

Brian: I know. That song remains to be a mystery to me. I don't know how I actually got it recorded [laughs]!

Carol: But it got better and better with each date. In other words, it got simpler and simpler with each date, I thought. How'd you come up with that line in front, where you had me play up high [in the verses]?

Brian: We wound up with the flat bass [electric bass with flat-wound strings], just picked. The pick gave it that click; it really made it fantastic.

Carol: The contrast between the front part of “Good Vibrations” and when you finally got us into the walking [bass line in the chorus] was so great. That's what you aimed for, right?

Brian: Right.

Carol: But it took you a little while to get to that point though.

Brian: It took me a couple years, yeah.

Carol: We did about 12 dates on that tune.

Brian: I know. It was amazing how we just kept doing it and doing it.

Carol: But it was fun, because we all knew it was gonna be a big smash for you.

Brian: It was. It was a smash hit record. It was great.

How do you feel about Pet Sounds, today?

Brian: I'm proud of it. I think it's a very everlasting album. I'm very proud of the love that went into it. A lot of love went into that album. And people pick up on that too, and they really like it 'cause they feel the love.

Carol: I can remember that it was an act of joy when you did Pet Sounds.

Brian: Yeah.

Carol: And though it didn't reach #1, I know you had to feel a little bit down about it, but you didn't create it to be a #1, I don't think.

Brian: No, I didn't.

Carol: It was like something that you had to say, yourself. You had to say something that was not a “#1 record,” so to speak—not in the “surf rock” [vein] and all that.

Brian: Right.

Carol: With Pet Sounds, you were really writing your tail off.

Brian: I know.

Carol: It must feel good these days to know that people finally know about Pet Sounds.

Brian: Yeah. It's a wonderful album. It's an uplifting feeling.

How do you feel about having such a solid group of fans that have been around for 35 years, loving your music?

Brian: I'm very proud. It makes me very happy, and gives me a good glow inside. It's really quite an amazing feeling that it creates.

Now there are also a lot of younger people that are rediscovering your vast body of work.

Brian: Right. That's also quite a pump-up.

Do you still listen back to your older material much?

Brian: No. I don't wallow in the mire, actually. I don't sit around playing our records.

Patting yourself on the back?

Brian: No. I don't do that game anymore. I used to, but I don't do it anymore, ‘cause you can get too “hung up” in it, y'know? You waste your time. You gotta leave what you've done behind, then go forward.

What's next on the “recording front” for Brian Wilson?

Brian: A live album from my solo tour. It's coming out; we're recording it [April 7th and April 8th, 2000] at the Roxy Theatre. Then I'm gonna start my tour up again probably some time in June. And then a studio album a little bit later.

I heard your next studio album was gonna be a “hard rock” record.

Brian: It might be. I don't know. We want it to be. I just want it to rock. I would like to try a good thumper—a toe-tapper, with a good crashing drum sound, y’know? We're gonna do it with the Wondermints. They're fantastic. They are fantastic players. I think it could rock!

© 2000 Bassics Magazine

All Rights Reserved

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