An Interview with Al Jardine, original founding member of The Beach Boys

Al Jardine (Photo: Spud)
Original founding member of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, is coming to The Chapel on his "A Postcard from California: From the Very First Song With a Founding Member of the Beach Boys" tour on Sunday, April 8th. We had a chance to catch up with him earlier this week to discuss the tour, Pet Sounds, hidden tracks, and much more. As of this writing, tickets for the show at the Chapel are still available here.

SFBayAreaConcerts: On your 2010 album, A Postcard from California (Amazon), the new version of "A California Saga" is particularly exciting.

Al Jardine: Thank you. I wanted to turn it around a little because, you know, it deserved to be addressed. I liked Neil Young and Steven Stills’ tone—it really brought the song to life.

SFBAC: With so much of the thought and care you put into A Postcard from California, how do you approach those songs in a live setting?

Al Jardine: For that song, we do it acoustically. It’s a story put to music as much as anything. It seems to work whether you have a full band or not — that’s how we treat most of the songs on the set. We treat them as stories — as little vignettes. Then we put the music to it as best we can as a trio. We have to be clever about arranging the vocal parts, but I think we do a pretty great job!

SFBAC: We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Chapel in San Francisco on April 8th!

Al Jardine: I start the show with the very first song the Beach Boys ever recorded. I have the correct instruments for that. In this case, I ordered an upright bass — standup bass we used to call it — because I played that instrument on the first song. I wanted that to sound really authentic. I was able to do that, thank goodness, because that first song was simple, but nostalgic. I haven’t played upright bass in years; in fact, I got a blister when I first did it.

SFBAC: Speaking of first songs, the first song on your Postcard album has a shout out to the Bay Area in the first track. What are some of your favorite things about San Francisco in relation to Big Sur, Hawthorne, LA and all the other California locations that have inspired you?

Al Jardine: The eponymous titled, Postcard from California is a reflection of my experience coming to San Francisco as a boy back in the 50s when my dad sought a better life post-war for the family. Some of my first imaginings came from that experience, especially my first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. In that song I sing about sunshine shining on the Golden Gate, but in actuality, fog was so thick that I only saw the sun reflecting off the tips of the bridge — as I’m sure you know. It gave me a real hopeful feeling. It was so beautiful.

SFBAC: What we love about that album is how it encapsulates so many California experiences — it’s a journey through the state.

Al Jardine: It’s really a ride down the coast via Route 1. Primarily from San Francisco and Monterey down to the Hearst Castle, reflecting on places along the way. That first experience in San Francisco— I’ll never forget it. Interestingly enough our home away from home was the Russian Embassy converted into a boarding house in Haight Ashbury. It was an amazing experience to explore the city that way. I always come back when I can.

SFBAC: So many of the people who performed on the Postcard album are iconic Californians: Steve Miller, David Crosby, Brian Wilson. They help guide the listeners through the state.

Al Jardine: With one notable exception: Glen Campbell, who sings on Postcard with me. His wonderful interpretation of my experience just resonates with that authenticity. I’m still amazed at how he interpreted that second verse even better than I could sing it!

SFBAC: You’re still making such good music with Brian Wilson through the years. As people dig more deeply through the Beach Boys oeuvre, your accomplishments seem to be brought to light. Specifically, I’m thinking about the role you played in bringing "Sloop John B" to life.

Al Jardine: Thank you. I rejoined Brian on the 40th re-issue of Pet Sounds (iTunes). We’ve been doing it for years but it never gets tiresome, because it’s such an amazing piece of music as a whole. I’m never disappointed when we do it — it’s an epic piece of music. I even discovered something recently I never caught about "God Only Knows" (iTunes) when I was looking over the liner notes. An old friend of mine, Terry Melcher, is listed as playing tambourine on "God Only Knows." Terry produced a lot of records — Mr. Tambourine Man (iTunes) [by The Byrds] at Columbia. And later on, "Kokomo" for the Beach Boys. That’s an amazing fact in itself to me. I keep discovering stuff about Pet Sounds. Every time I look into it I learn more and more. It’s a musical masterpiece.

SFBAC: Absolutely.

Al Jardine: But, you asked about Sloop. Well, Sloop didn’t originally belong on Pet Sounds. The label didn’t see a hit on the album. They couldn’t conceive of us doing something like that, so they insisted on Sloop as a “hit single.” It was ironically something that Brian hadn’t conceived of — it was my idea. I wrote the arrangement for the chords and we released it as a single; it became a hit. It was an afterthought to “rescue” Pet Sounds. It stands on its own merits — it's right up there among the best of our songs. But, it doesn’t fit thematically in with the picture. That was one of Paul McCartney’s complaints — if he had one — about the album.

SFBAC: Complaints?

Al Jardine: I know, it’s hilarious isn’t it? Of course we’re talking about one of the greatest songwriters of all time, so I have to give him that [laughs]. “What did you put that crummy song on there for?” [laughs] I do agree with his complaint about the artwork — that ridiculous shot of us feeding animals. That’s one I’d love to see erased. We will be doing Sloop at my show. I’m starting it with the Kingston Trio arrangement. I tell the story about how I discovered the song in high school with my own group. I do it exactly as the Trio did it. Then, with a little transitionary move, we go into the Beach Boys’ version. It shows you how the two are kind of married together by history. They are both changed by the addition of a single chord.

SFBAC: The supertonic?

Al Jardine: It’s called a two-minor chord. I explained to Brian how this really fits our style, because this is how we’ve been singing for the last four, five, six years. It really fit our style of arrangement of minor to major to minor transitions. Brian agreed, and we put some masterful harmonies that allowed us to extend the song. During our show, you see how that evolves into that masterpiece.

SFBAC: Speaking of evolution, "Help Me Rhonda" was obviously a major song for you as a vocalist. Today it is still unquestionably one of the strongest Beach Boys songs. How has Help Me evolved for you over the past few years?

Al Jardine: It also has evolution and stages to it. I sing it as an encore song. I could easily change that into a story, because we had two versions of that song. One was on the album, Beach Boys Today! (iTunes), with a different style, different baseline. Then a guy named Terry Melcher came along (remember that name), and said, “Hey do you mind if I record that? I think it could be a hit.” Brian said, “I’d like to have another go at it, if you don’t mind Terry.” In those days Terry had credentials; he could have very easily recorded it and had a hit. We put together a much better version as a single. I should probably do a medley of those two — it never occurred to me until you asked. That would be kind of cool. Especially the baseline -- I would love to explain that to the audience. Maybe we’ll work up a little something just for fun.

SFBAC: Any other hidden gems?

Al Jardine: I recently found another version of "California Saga," which is technically called California according to the publishing, but I always call it "California Saga."

SFBAC: You mean "California Saga: California"?

Al Jardine: [Laughs] Yeah it’s so weird. I don’t know how that got done — I guess because of the trilogy thing. I found a version of it, Willie Nelson style, in Nashville. Just yesterday I was playing it. Accidentally I ran across it on a CD I was given by my archivist. He threw that on there with a bunch of Beach Boys outtakes. It was a real rarity. In fact, I’m doing an interview with Sirius (XM) tomorrow and I might just play this — I might just play some of these for them. I’m listening to this version of Cal Saga and I’m thinking, “Holy crap!” It’s so completely country, just Willie Nelson, down on the pipe. I remember wanting to give it to him years ago when I originally did it. I don’t know why, it just didn’t work. I must have caught his inflection. It’s real slow though — think of Marty Robbins, but slower. Who knows, maybe I’ll play it and see if I get some reaction.

SFBAC: This has been fantastic — we’re really looking forward to having you in the Bay.

Al Jardine: Maybe I can try giving a crack at one of the verses during this upcoming show — in that Marty Robbins style. And then move into the original style.

SFBAC: That would be amazing!

Al Jardine: If I could play the guitar that good again, I would. This guy in Nashville just had this incredible acoustic guitar.

SFBAC: What kind?

Al Jardine: It was a homemade guitar. Just gorgeous. It weighed like a feather. I’m sure we could get a close approximation to that sound, but it was very specific. Like a flamenco style.

SFBAC: That would be fantastic! Well Al, this has been such a treat for us and we can't wait for your show in a few weeks at the Chapel!

Al Jardine: It was nice talking with you!

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