Culture Q&A: Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys

Ahead of this week’s concert in Indy, the vocalist (“California Girls”!) and songwriter (for Barry Manilow!) talks about touring with one of pop music’s all-time great groups.

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Bruce Johnston (right) and Mike Love (center)
Bruce Johnston (right) and Mike Love (center)

Photo by Udo Spreitzenbarth

It has been a few years since The Beach Boys released any new music, but the group has kept plenty busy—and managed to stay in the news.

After a 50th-anniversary reunion tour in 2012, founding members Mike Love and Brian Wilson split, fueling rumors that the two men had come to odds. Since then, a biopic about Wilson released earlier this summer, Love & Mercy, has renewed interest in the enigmatic musician, who has continued touring with his own band (composed partly of former Beach Boys).

Meanwhile, Love continues to perform with “The Beach Boys” (he legally owns the name), who are making a stop in Indianapolis (along with The Temptations) at the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park on August 5.

Accompanying Love is singer and songwriter Bruce Johnston, a native Midwesterner who joined the group in 1965, replacing Glen Campbell, and lent his voice to classic recordings such as “California Girls” and the groundbreaking 1966 album Pet Sounds.

IM caught up with Johnston before the show to reminisce about Brian Wilson, hanging with The Beatles, and writing one of Barry Manilow’s most beloved songs.

“California Girls” turned 50 this year. It appeared on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), one of your first albums with The Beach Boys. What do you recall about recording that song, and why do you think it has endured?

What I recall is Brian was really excited about the track. He goes, “Mike! Come on, you’ve gotta write words to this.” I watched Mike [Love] write the words to “California Girls.” I think that’s the cornerstone song. They’re all so good, but man, that’s the one. In the Beach Boys world, it’s girls, surf, cars, school, and then it starts graduating—getting mature—to “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” It’s all about life.

You have played these songs countless times. Do you find yourself rediscovering them, so to speak?

I don’t think “rediscovering” is really it. I am always surprised at how much it sounds brand new every night. It’s all good. I never get bored. That’s important. There’s nothing worse than musicians walking through a performance like they’re bored. We’re not bored. How could you ever approach art like that?

What is it about performing that you enjoy?

There’s a saying: You go to a stable and rent a horse. It wants to boot you back to the barn. We don’t have those tendencies to get the show over with. In our band, it’s never that way. Not only is the music really interesting and challenging, we change the set list every night. That makes it very interesting to me. We get to play with symphony orchestras. We get to travel: We’ve got England, Germany, and Australia.

You wrote a huge hit for Barry Manilow, “I Write the Songs,” which went to No. 1 and received a Grammy. Does it bother you that the song is associated with another artist?

Why would it bother me? It honors me that he chose my song to have such a great success and popularity and sales.

Have you seen Love & Mercy?

I have not had the time. I’m sure by the time I have time, they’ll release a DVD of it. I have no idea where it is because we jump around so much. I don’t think it would be fair to give it a review.

How are you different as a musician compared to the early days of The Beach Boys?

I know a lot of interesting chords and when not to use them. I’ve learned the art of less is more. I don’t let that stuff get in the way. “Hey, here’s everything I know, check that out!”

I have read that when Pet Sounds came out, you flew to London and played the album for John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

I had been introduced to The Beatles by Keith Moon [of The Who]. At that time, [Pet Sounds] wasn’t released in England yet. I played the album for The Beatles twice, and they loved it. I brought the album, but I didn’t have anything to do with the album, except I was a voice. I wasn’t there to take the thunder from the creators.

What’s the appeal of The Beach Boys? Why have you guys been able to continue performing?

I think the message about growing up in America is really interesting. We often see three generations of families at our shows singing the songs all together.

 

The Beach Boys and The Temptations, Surf & Soul, Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m, $27 to $198.88. Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park, 801 W. Washington St., 317-776-8181, inwhiteriver.com.

 

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