Catching up with Beach Boy Brian Wilson before he hits St. Petersburg

Wilson performs at Mahaffey Theater this Tue., Nov. 17, behind new album No Pier Pressure

It’s been a banner year for Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys frontman turned 73 on June 20, saw his life story unfold in the summer blockbuster Love and Mercy and released his first solo album of original, standard-pop tunes in a little more than a decade.  

No Pier Pressure features a handful of younger stars and vets guesting on various tracks. Among the record’s highlights are She & Him — Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward — adding their woozy charms to the rhumba-kissed “On the Island.” Horn player Mark Isham brings his stylings to the sparkly instrumental “Half Moon Bay.” Other pop-ins include country star Kacey Musgraves and Sebu of Capital Cities.

“I really enjoyed working with Nate Ruess,” Wilson shares during a recent phone interview. “He learns really quickly and he’s a great singer.” While recording the tune, “Saturday Night,” the vocalist from You Oughta Know inspired Wilson to compose on-the-spot verses and stacked harmonies.

Beach Boy Al Jardine, his son, Matt, and longtime collaborator Blondie Chaplin appear on No Pier Pressure and are also part of the touring lineup. The seven-piece ensemble delivers the requisite big sound you'd expect from the father of "wall of sound." 

Wilson still grins ear to ear like he’s 16 again when he performs live, endearing crowds even if his voice sounds a little rougher these days. “It’s going really good,” Wilson says of the tour. “(Al) and I have a great relationship and bandleader Paul Merton is right on.”

On tour, Wilson performs on a grand piano, and his seven-piece plays a long list of Beach Boys hits and a few solo tunes, including a couple featured in the soundtrack of Love and Mercy — the title track of Wilson's first solo album after a long hiatus in 1988.

The film, if you haven’t seen it, offers a lush sonic and visual tableau that conveys Wilson’s warmth, wonder and moments of improvisational genius — all of which Wilson still effuses today. The film also reveals a little (just a little) of Wilson’s artistic conflicts. His clashes with the more commercially minded Mike Love resulted in the dumbing down of Wilson’s experimental opus, Smile, which was renamed Smiley Smile. The album, re-released decades later, is alluded to in the film but not explored in any depth. Its sessions became a nightmare for Wilson. It was then that he succumbed to a nervous breakdown, drugs and personal demons.

On a lighter note, Love and Mercy captures the undeniable chemistry between Wilson and later-life spouse Melinda, who spent their courtship waging legal battles to remove Wilson from the care and custody of oppressive therapist Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti).

How did Elizabeth Banks do as wife Melinda? "I think she got her right by the way she laughs, the way she moves, stuff like that," Wilson says.  

Overall, Wilson says he was very happy with the film. “I thought it was really well done. I loved it ... but some of it scared me a lot. ... John (Cusack) and Paul (Dano) spent about a week with me before working on the movie so they could get used to my mannerisms and capture me on film.” 

With Dano playing 1960s-era Wilson and Cusack playing him in his middle-aged years, Love and Mercy is among 2015's best films, a coming-of-age triumph. It not only accounts how Wilson survived an abusive father but his harrowing lapses into mental illness, drug addiction and long period of decline with the explosive and tyrannical Landy.

After seeing the movie, you realize how easily the pop icon could have been relegated as another sad showbiz casualty, but Wilson's warmth, all-out creativity and affection for music — and playing and experimenting with others — helped him transcend his troubles when he composed pop masterpieces like Beach Boys’ iconic Pet Sounds album, its hit tune “God Only Knows” (Wilson’s personal all-time favorite) and the follow-up game changer, “Good Vibrations.” Both can be heard live when Wilson plays St. Pete, along with a deeper cut or two, such as “Wild Honey.”

"I guess I am an eternal teenager," Wilson admits, quoting a recent magazine story about him. Unclouded and unhindered by the daily cocktails of liquor, street drugs and pharmaceuticals of his younger years, Wilson says he won't even smoke the occasional joint. 

His advice to younger musicians: “Write songs, not on drugs but on the natch ...” (meaning natural, of course).

Brian Wilson performs Tues., Nov. 17, 8 p.m., at the Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg; tickets are $49.50-$79.50. More info at mahaffeytheater.com.

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