Can you tell me what sort of literature affected you when you were growing up in Hawthorne, California?
The Act of Creation, by Arthur Koestler, and it turned me on to some very special things. It explains that people attach their egos to their sense of humor before anything else. After I read it, I saw that trait in many people.
It made you look at people differently?
Yes. The book’s about the logic of laughter, and I noticed that people are very self-conscious about being funny. They sort of watch themselves as they’re being funny, and there’s even a competition—it’s [affects tone of mock horror] “You’re funnier than me?!" I think [seeing] a sense of humor is important to understanding what kind of person someone is. Studying metaphysics was also crucial, but Koestler’s book really was the big one for me.
How about other media—did any movies have a similar impact on you, for example?
House of Wax scared me to death. That affected me a lot.
Did it turn you on to horror movies?
No! After that one I realized that horror movies are not for me.
I know you were heavily influenced by black vocal groups
of the fifties, but I’m curious to hear what singers
Rosemary Clooney, Chuck Berry, Perry Como, and early-sixties record producers. And “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” That was a great record, and I think it always will be a great record.
Was there a “see the light” record that changed everything for you?
When I heard Phil Spector’s productions, I realized, “A-ha! I see—you can use echoes on the drums, and you can combine three guitars together to get one sound, add pianos to that, and you can get one big wall of sound!” I just loved that kick drum, that BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-POW! BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-POW! That’s the trademark of Phil. He influenced me, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and Motown—quite a lot of people.
I’ve heard that you were particularly obsessed with “Be My Baby.”
Yeah, I played that song when I woke up every morning.
For how long?
For about four years. [Laughs.]
I liked the way Beautiful Dreamer, the documentary
about you that’s included with the DVD of your Smile performance in L.A., dealt with your psychedelic experiences. Can you talk about the drugs behind your albums?
Pet Sounds was marijuana. The Van Dyke Parks songs [on Smile] was Benzedrine. Psychedelics put you in a vocal mood. They make you want to sing. It’s like when a bird lands on a wire.
Were you really involved in the psychedelic movement?
No, but I liked the whole idea of flower power, and I thought that the “be-ins” in San Francisco were great things.
In the new documentary, you use the phrase “rock opera”
a lot to describe Smile—do you have a favorite classical composer?
Bach. He was an innovator.
After Smile fell apart in the late sixties, you had a long period of isolation. Did you manage to stay connected to culture?
I was snorting cocaine, which I shouldn’t have gotten into. It messed up my mind, and it unplugged me from music. I just remember reading magazines. I would say, “Get me a Playboy! Get me a Penthouse!”
When you came out of that dark phase in the eighties, what were you listening to?
David Lee Roth. I thought that his version of “California Girls” was really, really good.
When you were putting together Smile, was there any new technology that impressed you?
Pro Tools! Smile was sequenced with Pro Tools—I got somewhat familiar with it, but mostly I got off on other people’s ability with the program. I’d like to learn how to use it now.
You’ve done rock operas and pop. Is there any music left for you to tackle?
Christmas songs! I have a Christmas album coming out on Arista for the holidays.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with? Or is there anything from your back catalogue, like Smile, that you’d like to finish?
Celine Dion. She has nice legs, and she’s a great singer. And yes, there’s plenty of stuff in the vault. Let’s just say that we’re well stocked.