Wouldn’t It Be Nice: An Interview with Melissa Weikart
by Melissa Weikart
Melissa Weikart is a performer, composer, and educator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2018, Weikart recomposed the classic Beach Boys album Pet Sounds for a 17 member all-female band. In an interview with Magdalena Abrego, Weikart discusses the challenges of using an iconic album as raw material for recomposition.
“I feel like some people just don’t understand the ways in which Pet Sounds is tied up with masculinity and patriarchy. So, their response is, ‘How dare you?'”
I/O: Can you recall first listening to Pet Sounds? How has your relationship to the record evolved over the years?
MW: I first heard Pet Sounds when I was in high school, because my brother was obsessed with it one summer. I would hear it from his room, but I was kind of skeptical, because it was my younger brother being like, “Oh my god, I listened to Pet Sounds again today!” Then a couple of years ago, my friends at the New England Conservatory started listening to Brian Wilson a lot. That’s when I started to listen to it again too, especially in the summer of 2017 during long drives.
I/O: It’s a good car ride record.
MW: I really enjoyed it, but I still felt that same skepticism because of this phenomenon where so many people are obsessed with Pet Sounds and are really protective of it. And those people are mainly men. I felt like that was not a coincidence. There was something a little weird about it.
I/O: So what was the catalyst for your decision to recompose the record?
MW: I decided to recompose the record for a number of reasons. I liked the album as a whole, and how it’s this awesome space for male vulnerability and how it revolves around themes of teenage innocence and angst. I could appreciate it, but at the same time, I felt kind of excluded from the narrative as a woman. Obviously, it’s The Beach Boys- they’re all men (except for Carol [Kaye], the bassist, which is an interesting thing to talk about). I was also interested in how famous the record is, and how Brian Wilson is regarded as a genius. Pet Sounds comes up in many different musical contexts. It sort of transcends the boundaries of what’s often referred to as “baroque pop” or “surf pop.” I wanted to invert the record and look at it from my own perspective as a female musician in a male-dominated space.
I/O: Right, and then there’s the cult around Brian Wilson as a person. One of the things that you brought up is this idea of Pet Sounds as a cultural treasure. I’m wondering if that was a source of motivation for you or a source of discouragement?
MW: That was definitely an anxiety provoking notion that subjected me to a heightened level of criticism, from myself and others. But, something that I am particularly passionate about is investigating these musical artifacts in our society. I feel like people are often shocked and offended when Pet Sounds is removed from its cultural pedestal. I’ve had conversations with people where they’ve said, “Oh no, don’t touch Pet Sounds. It’s in its own league.” But I feel that it is important to examine the cracks in artifacts, like this record. Pet Sounds seems so innocent, but if you listen closely, it is really a snapshot of 60’s male culture.
I/O: What were some of the more problematic aspects of the music and lyrics, and how did you approach recontextualizing them?
MW: I kept all the lyrics the same. When I was experimenting with lyrics early on, I tried rewriting some of them from my own perspective and it felt really ineffective and cheesy. So, I played with juxtaposing the lyrics with musical content that I reinvented. There are some lyrics on the record that make you stop in your tracks. At least, I stopped in my tracks. I think a lot of people don’t even notice them. For some of the creepier lyrics, I used some riot grrrl aesthetics to highlight the words. If you change the context and reveal what’s going on with the lyrics, you can see clearly that some of the narrative content is very uncomfortable.
I/O: It sounds like you looked at Pet Sounds as raw material that you could work with.
I/O: That seems especially challenging, but I also think there is more integrity to that too. It wasn’t like you were out to completely rewrite an iconic record. It was a process of dissection, magnifying certain aspects of the album.
MW: Right. What was really helpful when approaching this project was working within parameters I defined for myself. I decided I would keep the lyrics, not stray far from the instrumentation of the original record, and focus on lush vocal harmonies.
I/O: I think creating your own limitations is something that you have to do with a project of this scale.
MW: As an improviser, that is important to me too. Another big thing with this project was subversion of expectations, which can be fun and satisfying. For instance, I would reference little bits of material that stayed true to the original, then pivot unexpectedly. I think that can be very effective.
I/O: What a great launchpad to subvert expectations- working with a record that so many listeners are familiar with. You mentioned your background in improvisation. How would you describe the role of improvisation in your recomposition? Was it important for you to incorporate improvisation into every piece?
MW: It wasn’t a main part of the project. But, whenever I write music it feels very improvisatory because I test things out. That’s how you compose! I would just sing into Garageband and see if I liked how things sounded. For the live performance, there were a lot of transitions or interludes that featured different artists in the band. I gave them a general starting point for a short improvisation, which I thought was a cool way to feature individual improvisers.
I/O: And you had some heavy hitter improvisers as part of the group.
MW: Yes they are. I thought it made sense given that most of them consider themselves improvisers. Improvisation is a powerful tool for radical music. I think that using it to push boundaries is important for a lot of us, so I thought it would be cool to showcase that. It was especially important in the beginning and the end. I bookended the album performance with vocal improvisation. I’m really passionate about group vocal improvisation and artists like Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk. That decision to include vocal improvisation felt like a nod to them.
I/O: You spoke to this when you mentioned riot grrrl, but in terms of signifiers of genre, how important was it for you to retain elements of surf rock, and what role did genre play in the overall recomposition? Were you thinking in terms of genre or did it become a byproduct of your own compositional process?
MW: I think it ended up being a byproduct of my personal inclinations, which can be complicated because it’s important to move away from natural tendencies while composing. It felt natural for me to go from surf rock to a genre that is feminist in its roots. It’s complicated because, at this point, riot grrrl is an older signifier of radical feminism. While it may be a little bit anachronistic, I also think that a lot of musicians listen to that music and like it, because it’s something we can identify with. In terms of vocals, that also felt very personal. I embraced Brian Wilson’s mode of extravagance and indulgence because that’s at the root of the record. I was like, “Okay, you know what? I’m just gonna see: what are my guilty pleasures?” Dissonant harmonies. I love vocal harmonies in general. The more, the merrier. And the more dissonance, the better.
I/O: Let’s talk about the premiere of the project. You drew a huge crowd and filled the room. I know that your emotions and adrenaline must have been running high, but do you remember the response to the live premiere?
MW: It’s hard to remember. I was so nervous because of all the logistics of the day, the sound, the tickets, just everything! But, I think it was really positive and it felt good to perform for such a full house in an elegant church space. It felt really special.
I/O: With that in mind, I would love to hear how you managed the negative criticism in response to this work and stayed positive when faced with judgement and skepticism. That’s something we all deal with as artists.
MW: After the premiere I felt exhausted, emotionally and physically. There were six months where I just couldn’t think about it. It was too personal and too vulnerable. I needed to spend some time away from it. There were so many aspects of it – the leadership aspect, the content, the performance – that could have been better because you can always improve. I also feel like it’s so easy for people to criticize overtly political music. It’s easy to say, “This is trope-y” or “This is a fake feminist critique” or “Okay, you had all women, but what about the meat of the project?” I think it’s easy to criticize all-female projects for being superficial, simply in the optics of having all women onstage. It can be exhausting to defend yourself, especially because I was extremely conscious of the issues that arise when representing voices that have been erased from the canon.
Photo by Sasha Pedro
I/O: I can definitely relate to how you felt. Whenever I finish a really big project, I never want to think about it. This is something I’ve noticed in my friends, too. In terms of the all-women critique, it’s hard, because you’re expected to create the perfect cross-section of representation, which is often impossible. So you do the best you can, but it still leaves you vulnerable for attack. I think that’s just a part of taking on this responsibility, which brings me to another question. I revisited some of the video you recorded at The Record Company in Boston, and noticed a negative comment that isn’t worth reprinting, but it does beg the question: Why do you think people are so protective of Pet Sounds, specifically?
MW: “Butchering of a classic?” *laughs*
I/O: Yeah, that’s the one. *laughs* On one hand there’s the normal, troll-y comments we all get, but this particular comment stood out to me because of that phrase.
MW: I feel like some people just don’t understand the ways in which Pet Sounds is tied up with masculinity and patriarchy. So, their response is, “How dare you?”
I/O: I think it’s problematic for Brian Wilson and for you, this idea that when you create something and put it out into the world, it’s not yours anymore. And people get to do with it what they will and that’s kind of cool, and kind of scary.
MW: It’s like the intentions of the author almost dissipate after it’s released into the world, which can be really cool, but you’re going to have to bear the burden of how people interact with it and how they position it within their experience.
I/O: Right, exactly. One quick question about instrumentation: at the show, I remember that you used a bunch of non-traditional instruments, if we can call them that. The oversized harmonica and those honking, squeaking toys?
MW: Yes, the bass harmonica and the bike horns.
I/O: Where did you get a bass harmonica?
MW: *laughs* I borrowed it from Carla Kihlstedt, who I was studying with at NEC.
I/O: Oh, amazing! Of course she has a bass harmonica.
MW: In “I Know There’s An Answer,” there’s a famous bass harmonica solo and I was like, “I need to keep this somehow!” It’s kind of funny that it’s so extreme. People really remember that. Then, the ending in “You Still Believe in Me,” is this nostalgic childhood memory, and the bike horns are like: 1-2-3-honk-honk. I wanted to keep that in the piece, so I ordered bike horns on Amazon. They ended up having a slightly different sound, but I just went with it. *laughs*
I/O: Do you think you might perform this project live again? Are there any plans to record the full recomposition?
MW: I don’t have plans right now, but I have been looking into it. The logistics of organizing the performers and the financial limitations of it are difficult, because I want to pay my musicians. But, I definitely feel like I owe it to myself to do it again. I would want to change it a little bit; I would want to open up the charts for more improvisation.
I/O: In another interview, you mentioned potentially doing a lecture about the project. Can you tell me more about that?
MW: Depending on the context of the lecture, I think it would be cool to do a performance followed by a conversation about the male genius, criticism of women in musical performance, and the voice-versus-instrument dialectic. I’d like to talk about our conceptions of vocalists and the intersection between instrument and gender. I really want to challenge the typical rhetoric around vocalists.
To learn more about Melissa Weikart’s Pet Sounds Reimagined project, visit https://www.