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Meet Brian Wilson’s Secret Weapon: Darian Sahanaja


Darian Sahanaja has been Brian Wilson’s keyboardist and musical director ever since the Beach Boy returned to the road as a solo artist in 1999, but some nights he still looks around the stage and can barely believe what he’s a part of. “It can be mind-blowing,” he says. “If we’re playing ‘God Only Knows’ and I look around and see Brian and my buddies Probyn [Gregory] and Nick [Walusko] I can just lose it thinking about how we’re all here because of this music.”

Sahanaja has been a huge Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fan ever since he first heard “I Get Around” on Los Angeles radio as an adolescent in the mid-1970s. “It blew my mind,” he says. “I thought it was a current song, so I was surprised to hear it was 10 years old. The first record I bought with my money was [the 1974 Beach Boys hits compilation] Endless Summer. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I can own this music and play it any time I want?’”

As he got older, Sahanaja read the David Leaf book The Beach Boys and the California Myth and immersed himself in Pet Sounds and other post-surf-song compositions by the band. “I knew about Smile as this mythical, unfinished album,” he says. “Then in the early 1980s little snippets of the album started to leak. When I met Nick Walusko, who I formed the Wondermints with, one of the first things we bonded over was Smile bootlegs. We got to know [music historian] Domenic Priore and a small group of us became the Smile intelligentsia of that period.”

It was another 10 years until Sahanaja finally crossed paths with Wilson. His band the Wondermints were playing a Brian Wilson charity tribute show in Los Angeles on a bill with Alex Chilton and Apples in Stereo when the man himself showed up unexpectedly backstage. “We were playing his song ‘This Whole World,’” says Sahanaja. “Apparently he perked up and was like, ‘Who is that? What is that? It sounds amazing.’ Somebody had to remind him it was a song he actually wrote since he had forgotten about it.”

They met briefly backstage, and upon the urging of legendary L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, Brian agreed to let Sahanaja and the Wondermints back him on a couple of radio shows, and a few years later when Wilson agreed to tour in support of his solo disc Imagination Sahanaja and the Wondermints got the gig. “It was surreal and a bit nerve-racking at first,” he says. “He’s very fragile. I was concerned he wasn’t going to make it through a whole song, let alone a show. During those first few shows I remember thinking, ‘This is gonna be the one where he bolts after a song.’ But he made it through the next one and the next one. Before I knew it, we had a mini-tour in our pockets. We were so thrilled.”

“As a teenager I refused to see the Beach Boys because Brian wasn’t playing with them. I was a little snob.”

The tour was a huge success, and before Sahanaja knew it, he was touring the world with Brian playing the entirety of Pet Sounds night after night. Things got even more surreal in early 2004 when Wilson decided to resurrect Smile, with Sahanaja serving as his right-hand man on the ambitious project. The former Smile junkie now had access to the every second of archival tape from the aborted album in pristine audio quality, and eventually the albums original lyricist Van Dyke Parks joined them. “The whole thing was mind-blowing,” he says. “But it’s like that old superhero thing: with great power comes great responsibility.”

In the years after the long Smile tour, rumors of a Beach Boys reunion tour swirled. Oddly enough, Sahanaja had never actually seen a Beach Boys concert. “As a teenager I refused to see them because Brian wasn’t playing with them,” he says. “I was a little snob. I was such a fan of their production and recordings that the live performances always seemed dumbed down to me. I just couldn’t appreciate them as live performers when I was younger.” 

He made up for lost time in 2012 when he played about 85 concerts with the reunited Beach Boys. “We had Al Jardine as a guest singer [on Brian’s 2006 tour],” says Sahanaja. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, his voice!’ It added so much authenticity. And then later to have Mike Love and Bruce [Johnson] and all those voices together. Those guys have something very, very special and magical.”

Not long after the Beach Boys reunion tour fizzled out, Sahanaja got a call from the producers of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. “They had just cast Paul Dano to portray 1960s Brian,” he says. “They knew they had a great actor on their hands. but they wanted to know what kind of musical potential he had in terns of pulling off scenes that involved performances.” He flew out to New York and met the actor at the piano room in a Brooklyn music shop. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I loved him as an actor, but was worried I might be dealing with some prima donna with an attitude.”

His fears were quickly put to rest when he discovered that Dano was very polite, humble and extremely willing to learn. “He seemed like some of the fans I meet at shows that are extremely reverent about the music,” he says. “Much to my surprise, he had a great feel for the music and had done a little bit of singing in stage productions. He had never played piano and didn’t read music, but he was a fantastic study.”

Sahanaja’s work with Dano was so successful that the producers asked him to take on an expanded role, but he was hesitant. “I didn’t want to get involved with one of those Hallmark takes of this story,” he says. “There have been so many of those. I asked to meet with the director, Bill Pohlad. The first he he said to me was, ‘I’m not interested in making the typical biopic.’ He said he wanted to capture Brian’s creative process in the studio during the making of Pet Sounds and Smile.”

Most biopics have the actors lip-syncing to archival recordings, but they were determined to avoid that route. “I just thought we could do better,” Sahanaja says. “And if we’re trying to portray some of the greatest players of all time in the Wrecking Crew, they should be real musicians. It’s a major pet peeve of mine when the actors playing musicians in movie are unconvincing, so I ended up gathering my some of my super talented musician friends to play the parts.”

Sahanaja also worked extensively with the prop department to get the exact right vintage instruments. “It was really funny,” he says. “The prop master said to me, ‘Oh, you want them to be functional? You want the amps to work?’ Normally they just fake it and fix everything in post.” To make everything even more authentic, they filmed at original location of United Western Recorders (now EastWest Studios) where Pet Sounds was created, restoring it to exactly how it looked in 1966 and 1967. “It was such a thrill to play in that room,” Sahanaja says. “And 80% of the music you hear during those sessions is live. The rest were recordings of early takes so they can show a work in-progress.”

Dano also sings himself throughout the entire film and even plays the piano. “He worked his butt off and absorbed himself into the part,” says Sahanaja. “Something like ‘Surf’s Up’ is tricky for even an experienced keyboard player, let alone for somebody who has never played.”

The movie won rave reviews when it hit theaters in early June, just weeks before Sahanaja hit the road with Wilson for a tour in support of his new album No Pier Pressure. “When I did that first tour never in my wildest dreams did I think that 16 year later we’d still be out there doing it,” he says. “Over the years many people have thanked us for helping Brian out and that’s polite and sweet, but it’s really about the music. For so many years people thought the Beach Boys were superficial and insignificant. I used to take physical beatings from neighborhood boys for being a fan. Brian’s legacy was lost for a long time, so it’s been nice to see it get restored. It’s nice to have played a little bit of a part in making that happen.”

Wilson recently announced that he’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds next year with a European tour that will mark his final time playing on the continent. Does Sahanaja think that Wilson’s touring days are winding down?

“I gotta be honest,” he says. “Each of the past five years I thought to myself, ‘Well, this is probably going to be it,’” he says. “Brian is an interesting guy. He can be pretty lazy and you never know if you’re pushing him to do something he doesn’t want to do. But you don’t want him to veg out and just sit around all day and become a couch potato. He does have an aversion to anything that seems like work, but there’s that moment when he’s playing ‘God Only Knows’ or ‘Good Vibrations’ and we get that big applause and I love seeing that energy and love just take him over. He’s like a child in that he doesn’t feel it until it’s actually happening. It’s so sweet and it’s what keeps me going. Hopefully as long as he wants to continue doing this, I’ll be there.”

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