Something Incredibly Emotional: Down the Beach Boys Rabbit Hole with Jeremy Warmsley

Fans of the Beach Boys are a curious breed. We can’t just listen to the music. We need to do something with it. We need to spread the word. Take, for example, my good friends Matt and Greg Coffey who spend a few hours every Tuesday night hosting their wonderful Beach Boys Talk web series. Or, for that matter, take a look at my book Tired of California: The Beach Boys Holland Revisited. Or give a listen to the spectacular forthcoming album from London-based musician Jeremy Warmsley, American Daydream. It’s a loving, heartfelt tribute to the genius of Brian Wilson that perfectly captures the good vibrations of the band’s Pet Sounds and Smile eras. Being a fan of the Beach Boys (and now of Jeremy Warmsley), I reached out with a few questions…

Let’s start with the Beach Boys. What do you love about their music? 

Oh man, where to start? As a musician myself, I like to think that I’m drawn to sophisticated and unusual arrangements and instrumentation, surprising harmonic turns and powerful performances, and the Beach Boys certainly have all that. But past all that there’s just something incredibly emotional about their music that defies all my attempts at analysis or categorisation.

And beyond that there’s just that deep, deep Beach Boys rabbit hole that you can lose yourself in for years. From the myriad unreleased albums (American Spring is a favourite right now) to the unbelievable anecdotes (Dennis meeting Charles Manson for the first time 36 hours before recording “Be Still” comes to mind), and all the session out-takes we get on box sets — the Pet Sounds box set taught me how to produce music, really.

And finally… Sometimes the Beach Boys are just a bit crap. And I love that too.

Where did the idea for turning your love for the Beach Boys into an album come from? 

Inspired by the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom, I’ve often used high-concept ideas to give projects a reason to exist. For instance, my other musical project — a duo with my wife, the filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey — is called Summer Camp and our first album Welcome To Condale was set in a fictional Californian suburb. It was just a fun setting for the stories we were telling in our songs. And my last album, A Year, was twelve songs, one for every month. 

When I was deep, deep, deep into the BB rabbit hole in late 2019, I decided I wanted my next album to sound like Pet Sounds: Part Two. But I couldn’t think of a good reason to do that. Meanwhile, I was reading every Beach Boys book I could get my hands on and boring my wife rigid with every random BB fact, until she finally suggested that I make an album about Brian. So it’s her fault really!

I have to say that I’m completely bowled over by American Daydream. It feels like the soundtrack to a musical, complete with characters and, given the subject matter, plenty of drama. Do you have any plans to adapt it to stage? 

Wow, thank you so much. Only a few people have heard it so far so that really means a lot to me. Despite that, you’re actually not the first to suggest that. My feeling is that a stage show about the Beach Boys would really have to only have music by the Beach Boys or it would just be a huge disappointment. Imagine turning up to American Daydream: the Beach Boys Story and not hearing “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” – it would be bewildering. 

Fair enough! In addition to making a number of overt references to the Beach Boys and their music, I feel like you’ve also given die-hard fans plenty of subtle nods to play with. How did you decide which details of their story to include in your musical narrative? 

Well, as I mentioned, I read about a thousand books about Brian and the Beach Boys (including Mike and both of Brian’s autobiographies – though I somehow missed your book about Holland), and then let it marinate in my head for a couple of months. Then I made a list of all the most memorable things I could think from their story that had stuck in my head. I went back and fact-checked everything, and a few nuggets didn’t make it onto the final album. Other things were just too hard to cover: I wanted to dive deeper into the whole Eugene Landy thing (Brian’s abusive therapist) but I just couldn’t find an angle that didn’t feel distasteful. I also wanted to give Carl, Dennis and Mike their own songs but ultimately I realized that this album was Brian’s story, not the Beach Boys story.

Big Beach Boys nerd question: Are the clicks in “Spiral” a reference to Brian’s autobiography Wouldn’t it Be Nice? They sound to me like a camera shutter. 

Great question, and one which I leave to the listener to decide!

I’m struck by the fact that you address Brian Wilson directly in many of the songs. What was behind that decision? 

I’ve never thought about that before. It just felt natural I suppose.

As beautiful as the music on your album is, you’re not sugarcoating anything. Much of Brian Wilson’s biography is painful, and you deal with it in an open manner. How did you strike a balance between the darkness and light of the story you were telling?

I do believe that being open and upfront about mental health is a good thing. My wife actually went through a major mental health event in 2020, when the album was about halfway done – after giving birth to our son, she suffered terribly from severe post-partum anxiety and was hospitalized for a month. Thankfully, she made a full recovery. She was really instrumental in pushing me to make sure the album didn’t shy away from that side of Brian’s life. (If it seems like I mention her a lot – she’s really my closest collaborator as I self-produce my music – and we write songs together in our other project, and I produce on her films. So thank you Elizabeth!)

As I said before, there was plenty of moments that felt too painful to really confront any more directly than I did, so I’m really glad that it felt balanced to you. 

The production on the album is amazing. I mean, you’ve really captured the mid-to-late-sixties Beach Boys sound—right down to that ringing snare drum. What was your recording process? 

I’m really glad to hear that from you. I don’t like to discuss the recording process publicly because I feel it affects how people hear the music. The main thing was colossal amounts of research – I listened to every track the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson ever released, all the session tracks from the box sets and plenty of bootlegs too. I have to mention the videos of Joshilyn Hoisington which were an incredible resource, plus the people in #beach_science on the Beach Boys Discord, especially Will and John, who always seemed to know which drum machine or synthesizer was used on every song. The Sail On podcast was another great resource.

(I also want to add that I don’t mean to hoard production knowledge – if anyone ever wants any specific tips I’m always happy to talk production – I’m on jeremywarmsley at gmail dot com.)

The harmonies are amazing. Are you singing all the parts? 

Once again, thank you so much. I can’t sing as high as Brian or as low as Mike but I do my best! Elizabeth bolsters a few high harmonies here and there. I would name my tracks in Logic after band members to get me in the right frame of mind…

You also have a couple of big names on the album—members of Brian Wilson’s touring band. Is that right?

Yes, Probyn Gregory played tannerin (the theremin-like whistling sound heard on “Good Vibrations,” “Wild Honey” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”) on “Beach Girls” and Paul Von Mertens played wind instruments on a track which sadly didn’t make it onto the final album (though I will hopefully be releasing it later). Other notable musicians included John Brode (of Sail On and #beach_science) played bongos on “Brother Sound,” my good friend Pete Fraser who  played clarinet and sax on several tracks, and one Kristin Weber who played violin on “A Day in the Life of Brian.” Funnily enough, I didn’t realise when I booked her, but it turned out she had played violin on the 2020 “Add Some Music” remake!

What’s next? 

I have no idea! I was thinking about applying the American Daydream concept to another musician but it feels a bit formulaic. I actually got really into classical music over lockdown, so I was thinking about trying to make an album about Beethoven, but that feels like it might be biting off a bit more than I can chew…

Like Getting My Balls Kicked In: An Interview with Dino DiMuro

Dino DiMuro is a true renaissance man. In addition to working as a sound effects editor for some major films (more on that later), he’s the author of a book based on his adventurous youth, an incredibly inventive and talented recording artist, and visual artist as well. Given my own interests, I naturally see him as a kindred spirit and wanted to know more, so I dropped him a line…

Your Twitter bio says you’re a former sound effects editor. What kind of work did you do? What was involved?

My job was to edit sound effects and create sound design sequences for movies, TV and cable. I began by working on 35mm sound film (like regular movie film but with a magnetic stripe instead of pictures) by literally cutting pieces with a splicer and matching sounds to action. When the industry converted to digital, I learned to edit on both PC and Mac. The skills I learned doing movie tracks were later utilized to make my albums when I moved away from four-track tape.

I would create sound for most things you saw onscreen, except for dialogue and music (though sometimes I did that, too). Anything from door handles to cars to explosions to space ships. Most people have heard of Foley Walkers, and part of my job was to take their sounds and tweak them into perfect sync.

I was sometimes credited as a Sound Designer, though strictly speaking a designer spends most of his time creating new sound effects with a huge arsenal of outboard gear, or by recording new and interesting effects. My skill was taking standard library sounds or newly recorded effects and using them in unique ways, often creating movie sequences that were technically “designed.” It’s a distinction I never cared about, but the people who assign credits always wanted to know.

The credits I always point to are: the Home Alone series, Gladiator and other films by Ridley Scott, JFK, Jackass, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, the Bond film Skyfall, The Revenant, and finally the cable series Narcos where I did about 80% of the sound effects.

You recently posted a fairly large selection of digital images on Twitter – really wild stuff that included what I’m guessing are digitally enhanced photos of rock icons like Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, as well as pop culture mash-ups like Batman drinking beer. And my favorite, Train Ride In Hell – Dedicated to Thomas, Kavanaugh, and the Rest. How did you make these images, and what was the idea behind them?

That’s an online site called Craiyon.com where you can enter any kind of prompt, and their AI interface will draw the pictures for you. It’s fun and addictive, though there’s limitations. I’m thinking of using a Craiyon picture for a future CD cover. As I tried some of my ideas, it became clear that some ideas worked better on the program than others, which is why I started doing musical artists. As you noted, these turned out quite interesting!

Like me, you seem to have a love-hate relationship with SubmitHub. Can you comment on that?

Just to wind back a bit, I had been out of the music networking scene for several years. I got remarried, and though my wife Sharon is 100% supportive of my music, we had to move several times in a few years. Also, my work career had to change because feature film jobs became difficult to find, and cable TV took up most of my creative time. Finally, my recording software went out of date and I wasn’t ready to upgrade.

When I finally reemerged, the entire music scene I had known was gone. All the indie music zines had folded, along with most review websites. The Mail Music Network had morphed into online sharing and Spotify playlists. I wrote emails to as many websites or Playlisters as I could, but my entreaties were totally ignored. Then I discovered SubmitHub, which guarantees at least one listen and a Yes or No, but you’ve got to pay for the privilege. Turns out some of the people I’d already reached out to actually responded on SubmitHub, because there was now money involved.

Anyway, though I found a few sites that did accept my music, for the most part my stuff is too offbeat and “primitive” for Playlisters to bother with. They don’t like my vocals, or it’s not their genre, or it’s not slick or modern enough. These are things that rarely would have mattered in the old home taping network. The better zines would review a tape based on what it tried to be, not what it WASN’T. Also, it’s amazing to me how so many Spotify curators have no frame of reference for my music, even when I point it out. They’ll criticize a Beefheart tribute track like I made it up out of thin air!

So any time I use SubmitHub, I know it’s going to feel like getting my balls kicked in over and over, just to find one or two open-minded sites. As a result I’m trying to use them less often, but I’m sure I’ll be back under the whip soon.

You also write indie music album reviews for Divide and Conquer. Does writing reviews of other people’s music give you a sense of perspective on reviews of—or just reactions to—your own music?

Absolutely. Part of the reason I wanted to review for Divide was because in the old cassette days, it really helped that I was a writer for Option Magazine, which was the most slick publication for indie musicians in the ‘80s. I would often get to know the people I reviewed, or artists would contact me based on my name. I thought a similar thing might happen by reviewing on a blog, and I was right: between Divide and Twitter, I’ve pretty much rebuilt a music network for myself that is almost as rewarding as the old one. Sadly, though, without getting zines or physical media in the mail, it will never be quite the same.

But to answer your question: yes, I am always hyper aware while reviewing new music that it could be ME I’m listening to, and if I have a problem with a track, I try to put myself in that artist’s shoes to see where they’re coming from. If I note that the EQ is off or there’s too much reverb, I know damned well that similar things can and will be said about me, and I try to remember that when it’s my turn on the chopping block.

I’m also curious about your book, Elmwood. I understand that it’s based on true events from your childhood: forming a rock band without instruments and setting out to create the greatest school newspaper ever (among other things). What inspired you to look back on your early years and write it all down? Was there something bittersweet about doing so?

My friendship with the guy I call Elmwood was the greatest time of my life. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I hadn’t met him when I did. We were very different people from each other but total misfits around our peers, so we locked into each other’s worlds with a shared love of music and the desire to be Rock Stars. Not sure how it is now, but when I was growing up, pretending you had a rock group was something that could get you beat up or at least humiliated. We had to keep it a secret, and that bonded us even more. I can’t believe it’s that way for kids nowadays, with all the affordable starter kits you can get from Guitar Center. Wish they had those then! My generation had to shop with the “grownups.”

Because that time with my best friend was so important, I was constantly documenting our adventures on paper, along with countless tapes and a good memory. As a result, the earliest versions of “Elmwood” were started just a couple years after the events happened, and then revised over time. I’m so glad I did that because I would have lost so many of those memories by now. The memories themselves are bittersweet, but finally finishing the book was only a good thing. I was hoping someone would buy it for a feature, but… oh, well!

And, of course, there’s your music. Your latest single, “Comma Visit Hollywood” offers a quirky take on tourist culture, and one of your previous releases, “Like an Almond Joy,” is funky paean to the candy bar and the consequences of over-indulging. Lyrically, I feel like you’re balancing humor with a little bit of cultural criticism, or maybe vice-versa. Is that a fair assessment? What’s your approach to writing lyrics?

Most of my lyrics turn out somewhat humorous. I’d like to be more like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan but you can’t hide who you are! It’s always been hard for me to keep a straight face in my everyday life. I don’t start out saying: “Here’s a funny song!” But often the topic just lends itself.

The Hollywood single follows a tradition of “Hollywood Songs” that my friend John and I have done for years, because there’s so much you can say. Hollywood is a great place and it’s a horrible place. Good weather, and horrifically hot weather. Movie Stars, and lame reality stars. So I guess my approach is to let the topic take me wherever it wants to go.

Generally I get a song idea or a title, then grab a guitar and just start playing and singing whatever comes out. Later I edit both the music and the lyrics, though I admit that the lyrics get the least amount of changes. I always try, but then I start missing what I began with and often go back. Or, I’ll have a guitar track and then “graft” some lyrics on top of it. “South Bay Wine Bar” from my last CD is an example of that. It was originally called “South Bay Brothel,” but I was no longer interested in that idea and did a complete rewrite. That’s rare, but I’m starting to do that more often.

I’m hearing echoes of Frank Zappa in your lyrics as well as your music. What draws you to his music?

My first exposure to Frank was “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and you can imagine the effect that song had on a twelve-year-old! It was nasty, of course, but also had this wild balance of classical complexity and unbridled madness, like a bunch of friends just making it up as they went along.

But my first full Mothers album was “We’re Only In It For The Money” which was a total life-changer for me. I don’t mean to say that Frank “taught” me to do music like this, but hearing that kind of stuff coming off a real vinyl record – crazy songs, phone calls, voice snippets, experimental sounds, razor-tight editing – only confirmed that the music I wanted to do really COULD be done. It took me much longer to appreciate what Frank was doing musically because I was so blown away by his presentation and audacity. Of course, Frank led me to Captain Beefheart, who is probably my favorite artist of all time, but you can probably hear more of Frank in my music because we were already in sync when I discovered him. With Beefheart I really have to make an effort to “pay tribute” to his sound.

I’m also hearing a bit of Brian Wilson in your voice—latter-day mature-voiced Brian, if I can put it that way. Plus the album art for your Project 5 album is reminiscent of Pet Sounds. So I’m guessing there’s a little bit of an influence there. Are you a fan?

Yes, I love Brian, always have. I hate to age myself but I grew up when the Beatles and Beach Boys were new! In fact the studio where Brian cut “Surfin’” is literally two blocks from my house right now. I was a little young to buy or understand Pet Sounds when it came out, but by the time of the Surf’s Up album I started to see what Brian was doing and have been following him ever since. I think I literally cried when I first played the Brian version of SMiLE after waiting so many years. My friend Greg designed the Project 5 cover. All I wanted was the Pet Sounds font, but Greg decided to go all the way and I was totally thrilled with the result.

And you have a double-CD coming out soon—Heatstroke Alley. It’s definitely an evocative title! Is it a concept album? When will it be available?

Not really a concept album, except that I’ve started to prefer double albums because I can stretch out thematically. I can include spare instrumental interludes or jam fragments that might unbalance a single disc. They also take longer to finish making, and I was getting so prolific that I wanted to give both my wife and my cover designer a little break. Of course that’s a lot of music to ask my few fans to absorb, but I have always loved epics (Uncle Meat, Trout Mask Replica, Mellon Collie, Double Nickels on the Dime) and even if it takes more time to listen, I’m hoping the effort is worth it.

Heatstroke was supposed to be ready around now, and it’s getting closer, but now that the summer heat has settled in, my pace will be slowing. It could be a couple or three months from now. But besides the first two singles already released, there will be two more. Even hoping for a surprise guest who many Twitter people will know!

Intriguing! Anything else on the horizon?

I always have at least three albums planned in advance, but the main one after Heatstroke will be called Machine. It’s another double and will be totally based on drum machines, beat samples, and a few specially recorded drum tracks (by Rob Steadman of Kritters). Musically a lot of it will be built on improvisation. This is because there’s probably another move in my near future, so If I record a big hunk of raw material first, I can spend any spare time I have editing what I’ve got without worrying about my entire studio being up and running.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

Thanks for asking!