Brian Wilson has created some of the most memorable and enduring music of the last sixty years. His remarkable career with The Beach Boys and as a solo artist includes the classic songs “I Get Around,” “God Only Knows,” and “Love and Mercy,” as well as unforgettable albums such as Pet Sounds and Smile. JEM Records Celebrates Brian Wilson, a tribute to Brian’s remarkable body of work, will be released on July 16. The album is a follow-up to 2020’s excellent JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon.
The record features songs from throughout Brian’s career, masterfully interpreted by JEM’s all-star lineup of artists, including The Grip Weeds, The Weeklings, The Anderson Council, and Johnathan Pushkar. I recently spoke with several of the talented people who worked on the album, including Marty Scott, the founder of JEM Records; Glen Burtnik of The Weeklings, who’s also been a member of Styx and The Orchestra; Kurt Reil of The Grip Weeds, who played on and produced several tracks on the record, and Richard Barone, founder of The Bongos, and a long-time staple of the New York music world, who’s currently working on a book about the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene.
Q: Was it tough to put this project together during the difficult times last year, when everything was in lockdown?
Marty: Actually, this one was easier to put together than JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon. When we were working on that project, the artists didn’t quite know how to approach the recording process during the early part of the pandemic. Some people recorded at home, others went into a studio. By the time we did JEM Records Celebrates Brian Wilson, everybody really knew what to do. For example, Richard Barone literally recorded “In My Room” in his room and The Weeklings recorded all their parts individually at their home studios. The Grip Weeds recorded at their own studio, which is also where The Anderson Council did their songs for the record. The whole project came together much more quickly than the Lennon tribute. We started working on it in March, the bands began to record their songs in April, and we continued to work on it throughout May and June, for a July release.
Q: Did you select the tracks, or did the bands pick the songs they wanted to record?
Marty: In some cases, like with The Midnight Callers, who ended up choosing “Do It Again,” if the band wasn’t sure what song they wanted to do, I’d send several tracks along, and let them choose their favorite. Nick Piunti, who didn’t know what song to do at first, ended up picking “Hang On To Your Ego,” and he just killed it. The last song to be selected ended up being the first track on the record. Glen Burtnik of The Weeklings called and said “We’d like to do an a cappella version of “Warmth of the Sun.” The cool thing about that song is they weren’t even in the same room when they did those vocals, which is incredible. I’m really pleased with the way the record came out, and the results really show the enthusiasm everyone had for the project.
Q: Are you a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fan?
Marty: The first album I ever bought was Shut Down, Vol. 2. But in 1964, I turned my attention to England and the music of the British Invasion. I wasn’t a big Beach Boys fan, but the guitarist in a band that I was part of in high school was, and he always wanted to perform obscure Beach Boys tracks, while I wanted to play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “I Can See For Miles.”
Glen: I’m a Brian Wilson freak. The Surf’s Up album is just unbeatable. “Til I Die,” off that record, is fantastic. The 20/20 album, all of Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” you just can’t beat any of it. Brian actually did backing vocals for a song I produced on the Styx album Cyclorama. I re-arranged Tommy Shaw’s song “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)” and did an a cappella treatment of it. The wife of Styx’s drummer had played with Brian and knew him really well. So we asked Brian to sing on it. He came into the studio, and while I was producing his vocals, I was pinching myself. It was one of the thrills of my life, working with Brian.
Kurt: I’m a huge fan of Brian and The Beach Boys. I think when I was about ten years old, there was a period when The Beach Boys were my favorite band in the world, even more so than The Beatles. Ever since then, I’ve always been a fan. I met Brian a few times and got to work with him in the mid-1990s when I played in his backing band at Lincoln Center in New York. That was an absolute thrill. I was literally singing at his feet, learning the parts to “Do It Again” and “California Girls.”
Richard: I think the first Beach Boys record I had was “When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” which my brother got for me. I was actually on the radio in Florida at age seven, hosting a weekly segment of a show called Beach Party, so of course, I had to spin Beach Boys records. I started listening to their harmonies, and I was really intrigued by them. They combined a lot of elements of folk and rock in their music. It’s very deep stuff. The Beach Boys are one of the best American bands ever.
Q: JEM Records Celebrates Brian Wilson is filled with terrific performances of Brian’s songs. Was it tough to choose a track from Brian’s extensive catalog to record, and is it a daunting process to re-interpret such iconic songs?
Glen: Choosing songs to cover can be a very difficult thing. Normally I would have chosen something from the band’s middle period, maybe post-Pet Sounds, but The Weeklings are a democratic band, and John (Berjave) really likes “The Warmth of the Sun.” Doing that one allowed us to show off our vocals, and we also decided to go for an obvious hit, so we picked “Help Me Rhonda,” hoping we could open up eyes with our version. If you’re going to do a song that everyone knows and loves, there’s a real opportunity to re-arrange it, and put your own spin on it, which is more fulfilling for me. I’d rather do that than a note for note reproduction. Look at what Jimi Hendrix did with “All Along The Watchtower” or Earth, Wind and Fire’s version of “Got To Get You Into My Life.” The re-arrangements are beautiful, and those songs are great art.
Kurt: As an artist, when choosing the songs, the challenge is to find a way to present them in a style that fits the band, in my case with The Grip Weeds. And as a producer, I’m thinking about how we can realize the vision I have for the song. If you want to hear “You’re So Good To Me,” you’re going to go back to the Beach Boys version. How do you make a cover of that song exciting and something you’d listen to outside of the original, where someone will say “I really love this. I’ve got to hear this version.” You need to amp it up and make it your own. When you record “Heroes and Villains,” if you’re The Beach Boys, the focus is on vocals, and everything else is in service of that. When The Grip Weeds looked at the song, our approach was different. I felt we could rock it up a little bit, and take it in a direction that no one has heard before. Where The Beach Boys went down, we went up, where they did only vocals, we added a guitar solo. We tried to do the unexpected thing, even adding a bit of “Roll Plymouth Rock” from Smile into the song.
Richard: “In My Room” was an appropriate choice for me because I’d been “in my room” since March of 2020 when the pandemic began. That’s a very special song for me. It was the first time I’d done a track completely at home. I’ve been in recording studios all my life, so it was a new experience to record in my literal bedroom, doing all the parts, except the low harmonies, which were added later by Johnathan Pushkar. That was a very isolating experience, but a good one, and it was appropriate, given what we were all going through and feeling at the time. It put that song into a whole new context for me. During that process, Johnathan asked me to sing on his version of “I Get Around.” We weren’t sure how it would turn out, but it ended up sounding great. I had so much fun with that song.
Q: It’s been often discussed and written about that Brian was inspired to take his music to the next level by the Beatles, and they in turn were inspired by him. Do you think that mutual admiration informed Brian’s work?
Marty: Yes. A lot of bands had hit songs back then, but who else besides Brian Wilson was writing albums that were competing with The Beatles in terms of intensity, with such great lyrics and complex melodies. Back then, every six weeks or so, there was a great new Beach Boys or Beatles single. We didn’t realize the depth of what was going on in the studio in those days.
Glen: What an amazing era the mid to late 1960s were; Brian and The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Motown, and Bob Dylan. It’s unbelievable what was going on. It was a competition, but a friendly one, and all those artists kind of ruled the world for a while. They were vanguards and pioneers, and were creating completely new ways to do things.
Kurt: Brian and The Beatles were looking to get their music on the charts, and they were competing with other groups that were also making astounding records, so everyone had to up the ante artistically. They had to go for it and dig deep, and make their records more evocative. That created this irresistible listening experience. That was an unbelievably and undeniably fertile period in musical history, which was pretty close to something like the Renaissance, except that it’s a lot closer to our time and some of us actually grew up in it.
Richard: That was a good competition. I’ve been in the music industry most of my life, and sometimes it can get nasty. Things aren’t always as friendly as they were then. It was a very positive thing. We got great work out of it from both groups, and they moved the music industry and the genre of pop music forward, way further than it had been. That was a big part of our musical history, which will be looked on as even more important in future years.
Q: The word “genius” gets tossed around a lot these days, but in Brian’s case the term feels completely accurate. Do you think that the deeply emotional aspect of his music is one of the reasons it resonates with so many people to this day?
Glen: That’s really true. I saw an interview with Jim Steinman where he said Pet Sounds made him weep, and I can totally understand that reaction; it’s a haunting album. I think genius is often accompanied by a little nuttiness, and Brian was always a little off-center. He had his family problems to contend with, and there was a lot of hallucinogenic drug use during that period, which I wouldn’t necessarily prescribe for someone with his issues. But even when he took years off from performing, he was still busy, and he kept coming up with great songs.
Kurt: Brian really went for emotional depth in his music. He married that emotional depth to accessibility. Take a song like “Good Vibrations” which works on a superficial level, but also has a lot of depth to it on a whole other level. That’s why the music has stood the test of time, and you can still find new stuff in it 50 or 60 years later. The music was recorded really well, and now that they’re remastering and remixing those albums, it sounds even better. As a modern band, you’re almost competing against that stuff. We feel in a way, a healthy competition to be relevant and do work that has quality and depth, because of what came before, which is the work that influenced us to begin with.
Richard: Brian was writing and expressing himself in a very real and introspective way. Whenever you can inject yourself into what you’re doing at such a high level, like he did, that’s when you get really unique and lasting work. The realness of his music will always live on, and that’s why it’s still appreciated by, and speaks to, later generations.
JEM Records Celebrates Brian Wilson is a fantastic album, featuring fifteen outstanding tracks, including The Anderson Council’s dynamite version of “Girl, Don’t Tell Me,” Lisa Mychols, and Super 8’s deeply girl-group infused take on “Don’t Worry Baby” and The Gold Needles’ glorious rendition of “Love & Mercy.” For more information on the album, visit the JEM Records site. For a taste of what to expect on the record, check out The Grip Weeds video for their extraordinary version of “You’re So Good To Me.”