We caught up with Pittsburgh’s own talented illustrator Joe Mruk of Red Buffalo Illustration. His concert posters have been used to promote some of the biggest local concerts in the city for the past few years. These masterpieces are like no other, with unbelievable detail and an imagination run wild. Joe decided to put together his own concert, for a cause that is dear to him. 15 bands will be performing songs by Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys for this unique event called “Please Let Me Wonder: A Tribute to Brian Wilson.” Doors open at 9pm at Spirit in Lawrenceville with a $5 cover charge. Proceeds for the event will go to MindFreedom International. Check out our interview with Joe below.
Sound Scene Express: Why did you choose Brian Wilson as the theme for this event?
Joe Mruk: There’s a commonality a lot of us share in the memory of listening to the Beach Boys from the backseat of whatever car drove us through our childhood (in my case, a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass SE). And going somewhere fun, like an amusement park or, you know, a beach. Add well-built and often gorgeous harmonies and it quickly just becomes something cemented in the more blissful parts of your past, this box of wonder you sort of forget about as childhood fades and life gets complicated.
The Beach Boys are a band you get to love in different ways at different points of life. From adolescence through teenhood and young adulthood, we spend a lot of time deciding who we are, and a lot of that depends on what it is we’re listening to. So we develop in acute ways, beginning to bat aside pop consumerism as our passions deepen. Then at some point, we’re exhausted by how we define ourselves musically, so we begin to let the mainstream back in. Down the mainstream floats the Beach Boys like a great ship of perpetual summer decked out in orange and gold, and it’s so familiar, and you just let it back in your harbor where it can stay forever, warming your soul.
And then a new chapter in an old book opens, and we find out how good Pet Sounds truly is, and blow our minds with Smile, which none of us heard as kids. Latter day Beach Boys is a darker chapter; it resonates with our more developed adult selves. We dig deep into the shadows of Brian Wilson’s psychoses, Carl Wilson’s alcoholism, Dennis Wilson’s relationship with Charles Manson and his drowning death, Mike Love and his militant conservatism. All this horror bracketed by increasingly haphazard sonic palaces of sunshine is somehow timeless. It’s rooted in the vision and symbolism of the American dream, and the myth of California. And standing above it all is this damaged, yet triumphant musical genius named Brian Wilson. He’s by far the most interesting Beach Boy, and his story is so compelling. He sings and writes as though he’s got a death grip on his innocence. There’s a somewhat square, stubborn sort of honesty filling his songs. It’s a beautiful thing to observe. I chose Brian Wilson because I think it’s worth sharing his love with the world as much as possible.
SSE: How long has this project been in the works?
JM: I’ve been thinking about putting this show together for about a year now. It’s my first time organizing a tribute show, and I’m extremely excited!
SSE: Have you ever seen Brian Wilson/ The Beach Boys Live?
JM: I have not, but it’s definitely a goal! He came through fairly recently, and I was super bummed to miss it.
SSE: What is your favorite song and album from Brian Wilson and/or the Beach Boys?
JM: Favorite album’s Pet Sounds. Obvious choice but it’s just killer. To me, it’s the first Beach Boys album that sounds distinctly un-beachy, if you don’t count the two instrumental tracks. It’s more relatable and is the deepest shade of any preceding albums. At first it was hard for me to understand how an album that often sounded like children’s music was so highly respected, but then you realize how the album’s details can take a lifetime to unfold. Sounds are produced at the same time by different instruments that somehow coalesce into a third, mythic instrument. It’s amazing. The album is a mix of raw talent, baroque structure, and psychedelic wonder.
My favorite Beach Boys song definitely isn’t the best–it’s actually written by Mike Love. “Big Sur” is the first part of a three-song “California Saga” on the Holland LP. It’s a country-tinged ode to nature, and it’s really simple and sweet. There’s a sort of bigheartedness in it that I love, and it’s sandwiched between ominous piano phrases, followed by a monologue/song about eagles that somehow ties to American history and the nature of man. It’s crazy and ambitious for a band whose labels would have been fine with more beach music.
SSE: All of your artwork is extremely detailed. Does this poster have any symbolism? (explain your thought process with this design)
JM: I wanted it to be this self-contained little bubble of a Beach Boys world. It’s fun to think of your musical heroes as multifaceted spiritual structures, Like, if you were a building, what would you look like? I hollowed out a piece in Brian that reveals his heart, which in turn is connected by a gold thread to southern California. He’s sitting in a sandbox that, in reality, was placed inside his home so that he could imagine the beach while writing songs on his piano. The orange poppies are the California state flower. The dog is wearing one of the toy fireman’s hats that Brian had his session musicians wear for one of the Smile sessions. The horse and Indian imagery is woven into a lot of late-period Beach Boys stuff. The Beach Boys weren’t content with telling the story of California–they eventually began to tell the story of the entire nation. Smile was supposed to be a psychedelic settlers’ journey from Plymouth Rock in the east, through the wilds of America and into the heart of the West. By the 1970s, the band that started out singing the irritating and racially insensitive “Ten Little Indians” had developed a better empathy for pre-Colonial America. An Indian crying for a vision is seen on the Brother Records logo, and another one is slumped over in apparent defeat or exhaustion on the cover of Surf’s Up.
SSE: Why did you choose Mind Freedom International as your charity?
JM: As these are Brian’s songs, it would be wrong to profit from playing covers of his material. Brian has a history of mental illness, and was subjected to psychiatric abuse by his therapist in the ’80s. He was overmedicated and manipulated in countless ways by a maniac with a degree. Mind Freedom is a grassroots organization that fights against forcible methods of psychiatric therapy, such as involuntary electroshock treatment. My friend Nina Trimbath recommended it to me when I was organizing the event, in lieu of charity organizations that feed directly into pharmaceutical corporations. I’m one of many who has been at the receiving end of unnecessary medication, and I resent losing creativity at an early age as a result.
SSE: Is this a sign of more Red Buffalo Illustration events in the future?
JM: Absolutely. If this goes well, I will be hosting more tribute shows in the future. I have some in mind but I don’t wanna spoil the surprise yet.
SSE: What was your biggest challenge with organizing an event like this?
JM: It hasn’t been too difficult, and everyone at Spirit has been awesome. The biggest challenge will probably be moving all those bands along on the night of!
SSE: Are you surprised by the overwhelming response to the event?
JM: I couldn’t be more thrilled that so many people are helping out in making this a reality. Those songs aren’t easy to play. And it’s great that there’ll be a number of experimental sets to offset the bands doing more faithful covers. It’ll be fun to see interpretations by experimental scene mainstays Seth LeDonne and Richard Magnelli (Secret Paper Moon).
SSE: What can we expect from this event?
JM: A lot of range! Thousandzz of Beez drips with atmosphere, Delicious Pastries is one of my three favorite Pittsburgh bands and they just kill it, and we’re bringing it into the late night with garage, surf and punk from The Lopez, The Spectres and the Hi-Frequencies. The Sky is gonna blow your mind with some of the most classic Beach Boys tracks, Jeff Betten’s got a special performance with the hugely talented Circles and Squares, and everyone’s gonna lose it when Sea Rights plays the only non-Wilson song in the show! And Dave Zak will be spinning vinyl all through the rest of the night. Don’t miss it!
SSE: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JM: Many thanks to Brian, and Pittsburgh, and Spirit!