An exclusive interview with the Maestro of California pop on his mid-90s masterpiece with Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson was at a low point in the 1990s when his friend Van Dyke Parks came by to see if he’d be interested in making a new album with him.
The two had previously worked together on the ill-fated SMiLE project in the 1960s, which had been abandoned and wouldn’t see release (in its studio iteration) until 2011. Now Parks had written a song called “Orange Crate Art” for a new project. “And I wondered who should sing it,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word ‘orange,’ let alone rhyme it! So that’s when I decided that Brian would be the guy who would decide how to pronounce the word ‘orange.’ My people are from Florida, and we don’t pronounce ‘orange’ the way they do over here in So Cal! So Brian did it.”
Orange Crate Art was eventually released in 1995. There was initially much excitement at the time about a new work by the two SMiLE collaborators, but the album received mixed reviews, failed to chart, and eventually fell out of print. As Parks said with chagrin to the Guardian in 2013, “The record came out and sank without a trace.”
Fast forward to the new century, and Orange Crate Art has received a new lease on life, reissued on CD, and, for the first time, vinyl. Parks’ paean to California has returned to cast its warm glow, and the album’s ever-loquacious creator was delighted to be able to talk at length about it.
How did the project get started?
I’d done six or seven albums at Warner Brothers. This would be the last studio album. Things were changing at that time. The record business was collapsing for a bunch of reasons. And I just knew that I had spent my — I spent the best years of my life! — in recording and enjoyed it. And I wanted that last record with Warner Brothers to mean something to me.
Why did you choose to work with Brian Wilson?
I thought I would let Brian know I was grateful for the opportunity he gave me as a kid. Brian had nothing else on his agenda at the time; he was at the nadir of his professional life and personal life. And darn it, so was I! So I decided I’d put these two backstories together and let’s just get to work!
So Brian did the first song. I took it into [Warner Brothers president] Lenny Waronker’s office and played it for him. And he went bananas and said, “This is sliced bread!” And I said, “May I proceed on the album with Brian doing the vocals, which is my dream?” And he said “Absolutely.” So that’s what happened.
And Brian was up for it. But he did not want to lift a finger. Why should he? He didn’t want to see another studio. And so it was a very pivotal moment, and critically important to me that he trusted me completely in continuing with the album. I knew it would not be the earthshaker that the front page article of Smile became later. But it encouraged him to continue his career. And at no cost to me, really, in the long run. And so I’m happy, because it matters to me. How can it matter to anyone like it matters to me? I don’t think it can. But there it is and I did my best.
There’s a story that when you were first recording, Brian stopped and said, “What am I even doing here?” And you responded, “You’re here because I can’t stand the sound of my own voice!”
And right away, he said, “I don’t blame you!” He’s a very funny guy. I can see that in our first effort, the Smile effort, we had a cartoon consciousness. That kind of an evolved sense of humor. Looney Tunes cartoons was the closest I could come to wondering where we were going with Smile. I’m drawn to that, to people who maintain a sense of humor, especially in adversity. And we needed all we could get at the time we went into Orange Crate Art.
How did the California theme develop?
Well, there are several things. Let’s talk about first of all the mania to be positive. The mania to leave ‘em laughing, or certainly never leave them wanting less. The fact is, the record has kind of a jollity to it — almost. It’s almost jolly. And there’s a reason for that. Because what drives me is an artist who know how to turn a bitter pill into a confection. So that you can still talk about things that matter, of enduring importance.
I notice in the lyrics an absolute determination not to be about bad vibes. I’m talking good vibes. This was an album to heal. And to heal us, our relationship, and take that rust off that old hinge. And also to console and comfort; what can we do for others, that’s a governing ethos. There’s no reason why we should engage if we can’t be here to serve others. And that’s what I do in my work.
And if you notice, the record feels like a confection of a sort. Some reviewers might take that as treacle, born of a Pollyanna-ish nature. No, there’s blood on the tracks. But I’m not here to sing the blues. This is not what I do. It’s not my métier. I was born in Hattiesburg [Mississippi]; I know what the blues are. But that’s not my job. My job, at that point, was to try to do something that was confirming.
And how does California come into that?
It was important to me to write lyrics that would have some universality and still talk about what it is that we know. And that was the California that we shared, the Methodist hymns that we both learned as children, and the barber shop quartets that we heard; both of us had those experiences. I love the record because it talks about Wilson’s relationship to California. I’m an invader. I’m an enemy alien, I’m new to the game, I first came here in ’55. But Brian’s family had been here since the 1880s. And on the tray of the original CD is a picture of the Wilson grape ranch, in Escondido in 1886. It certainly was an effort to explain us both, and to write what we both knew.
The album has such a dreamy, poetic quality, both lyrically and musically.
I think that the record is a fair example of both extemporaneous work, and there’s a lot of well thought out arranging going on as well. I put a lot of rhythm in the strings. I love strings; I think strings are eminently more convincing percussive instruments than a trap set. And that’s the way I use them. I use them to preserve the rhythm. I use them because they have such great physicality, and so this was a chance to try to enter that arena where people before me had gone. Look at “Ode to Billy Joe,” the Bobbie Gentry piece. I turned to that piece simply because it’s a real example of how strings can relate to the song without engulfing it and devouring the singer. They’re supposed to simply be a proscenium, a fancification, to uplift, to pronounce the singer and the thoughts that might come out of that singer’s face. And so I tried to do that.
“Lullaby” is a previously undiscovered George Gershwin piece; how did you find it?
I wanted to put my publishing with Warner Brothers Music. So I went over to them and talked to them about it. And while I was there, one of the guys at Warner said that they had just found, in a cardboard box in a Warner Publishing warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, a copy of a string quartet written by George Gershwin for a musical that was rejected. It was called “The Lullaby.” I said, “I’ve got to see that!” They sent me a copy of the piece, and I fell in love with it.
I wanted it to be epic. And I really had some ulterior motives. I was using an orchestra for “Movies is Magic.” That song also has the artist’s cliché. At the beginning of the song you hear the first notes of the theme from Gone With the Wind. Then, I thought, how am I going to get out of it, to get back into the key of C, where I want to put it? Play two notes from the theme from 2001 — but reversed! So I got two musical jokes that apply to movies and that’s how I started “Movies is Magic.”
So that was roughly about 20 seconds of music that cost me about $1000 a second. So I decided, hey, I better put that orchestra to good use while they’re here. It would be extravagant not to have more music for orchestra! So that’s when I decided to a have full orchestra for “Lullaby.” My beloved friend Fred Myrow did the orchestrations. It’s the first orchestration of “The Lullaby,” which is now part of many good summer symphony pops concerts. Isn’t that nifty? That was a great opportunity. But I wanted the rest of the record to sound more intimate, you see, so I only had those two moments of big orchestration. Nothing sounds so good as five French horns playing one note.
Sounds like you had great fun making the record.
This was an entirely collaborative album. Everybody mattered. Every single one of them mattered.
Tommy Morgan. He’s one of the greatest harmonica players of our time. Brian had used the services of Tommy Morgan [on Pet Sounds]. Almost like in a triple harmonic in a soprano range, he would use a harmonica as a member of the woodwind section. So that maybe instead of having three saxes, he would have two saxes and a harmonica, which was very interesting. Very interesting.
And Tommy introduced Brian to the bass harmonica. I wrote notes for the bass harmonica and for the treble, and Tommy played the treble, the solo-istic stuff; you’ll hear a quasi-Stevie Wonder solo on “Summer in Monterey.” And you’ll also hear the bass harmonica, played by David McKelvy. In fact, I feel like a damn genius for having brought Brian together in a room with Tommy Morgan after a decade of not being together. Twenty years, actually. It meant a lot to get Tommy Morgan, who was with Brian on Pet Sounds. So it was a family affair. I know it sounds, maybe mawkish is the word, but in fact it was therapeutic for all of us to just get together in that kind of environment.
“Sail Away,” I did that to annoy Randy Newman, with that title.
And did it annoy him?
I hope so! I’m here to agitate. To agitate the complacent, absolutely I’m here to do that. But I don’t know; that might be the difference between nine figures, between eighty million and not much to speak of. But I’m not sure. Not all grapes are sour with me. I applaud Randy Newman’s success. But that was time for me to remind him that titles aren’t copyrightable and I went ahead and wrote the song. I recorded it, but the only thing I hadn’t recorded due to scheduling was a guitar. So Grant Geissman, who is my first-call guitarist in LA, came in and put a guitar on that track, and it provided such an ebullience, just bouncing along, amazing. And it was the last thing to put on the track, which was a completely ass backwards way to hope that somebody would nail on a groove. “Would you please add a groove to this?” It was crazy!
It must be gratifying to see it being reissued at long last.
I just tell ya, it took somebody some courage to print up the copies. I hope they get into black ink soon. I was very disappointed [with the album’s original release] because it wasn’t less than a month after the record was delivered that Lenny and Mo [Ostin], who was the chairman of the board, both left to start a record company called Dreamworks. And with them they took any chances for any promotional funds whatsoever that would insure publicity for the record, or performances; there was just no one at the label to take up the cause. So that’s when God reminded me that the joy is in simply doing it. And that takes me back to my thesis. That’s all that I depend on, with of course with the loyalty of 42 years of marriage with a loyal wife.
The benefit in doing music is doing music. It’s nothing else. I’m humbled by the fact that a record company chose to re-release it, because they realized that it hadn’t been really released. So yeah, I’m happy about it. But I’m happier that we simply got to do it.