An hour with Probyn Gregory

From the Concord Monitor, 10/29/09

The N.H. native has backed up Brian Wilson for 10 years as a member of his acclaimed touring band

Monitor staff

When Brian Wilson plays “God Only Knows” at the Capitol Center on Tuesday, the memorable horn line that begins the song will be played by New Hampshire native Probyn Gregory.

Gregory, 52, joined Wilson’s 10-member touring band in 1999 and has traveled the globe with the formerly reclusive musical icon. Besides French horn, Gregory plays guitar, other wind instruments and Tannerin (the spooky woo-woo sound that features in “Good Vibrations”).

In an hour-long telephone interview, Gregory spoke about his history and the enduring appeal of Wilson’s music. This interview is edited and condensed from that wide-ranging conversation, as well as an earlier e-mail exchange.

What are your connections to New Hampshire?

I spent most of my growing up in Keene or Jaffrey, where my family next year will celebrate 100 years of New Hampshire-ness. I graduated KHS in 1974.

Do you still have family and friends here?

Yep. Two sisters and aunt in Jaffrey, dad in Fitzwilliam, brother in Keene, cousins in Jaffrey and Brattleboro. I began being a camp director at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Nelson in the 1970s and continue on sporadically today in that role.

Most of the folks in the Brian Wilson band have been there for the last 10 years. What accounts for that cohesion?

Brian likes to see the same faces around him. He feels comfortable not having a revolving cast. Also, the music is so joyful. It appeals to everyone. When we very first went out, in 1999, we saw a lot of “blue hairs” — meaning people who were probably already in their 20s or 30s when the songs were hits in the first place — who now had grown older but were still wanting to come out and hear the music. And we’ve also seen 12- and 13-year-old kids just discovering it for the first time. The music of Brian is really — I don’t want to say timeless, but it appeals to a large section of the audience. It did then, it does now.

And we’re happy to be part of that, because it’s so good. I mean, I still am not sick of “I Get Around” and “California Girls,” even though I’ve played them a thousand times, literally. It’s good music, and I stand behind it. And we all feel that way. We’re proud to be part of the renaissance of this guy who is a seminal figure in American pop music.

What’s the biggest challenge of going on the road and playing these songs?

Aside from the tough micro-tuning of vocal doubling (harmony is much easier), being away from the family for extended periods is the hardest thing. When they get teleportation together someday, I will be happy. Couple hours for a gig is fine — weeks away is not.


How many instruments do you play during a show with the band?

It depends on the show. If it’s Smile [Wilson’s legendary unreleased album from the 1960s, which he revived for live performance in 2004] I play quite a bit. I play seven or eight things: banjo, guitar, some keyboard, a slide whistle, the Theremin, the French horn, sometimes I have to play trombone.

What are the challenges of being a dual guitarist-winds player?

Some of the challenges are just getting to the instrument in time. Some of the things in Smile demand that I’m stuck to the microphone, playing guitar and singing, and then I have sometimes as little as two beats to get over to the French horn and pick it up and start playing. The main challenge about being a winds player is if it’s an outside show and the temperature is not right, the horn is not warmed up.

On of my greatest disasters was when we were playing at the Neil Young Bridge School concert. It was rather late in the evening, and it was an outside show at the Shoreline Amphitheater. There were a lot of people on the bill: The Who, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins. So it comes time for “God Only Knows,” and I look over at the drummer, and I see the drummer turn to me and count off the song. But no one else in the band heard the count-off; the drummer was turned away from them. So I got out my French horn – it was in the 50s, the horn was very cold – I put in the mouthpiece, I started to play, and the horn was so cold that it was not even in the same key. And the keyboard player had missed it. So it was the drummer tick-ticking and me playing these horrible notes in front of 20,000 people.

It was just awful. Someone sent me a YouTube of it, which I think I managed to remove.

Does re-creating Beach Boys vocal parts onstage give you a new appreciation for the originals?

Oh yes. This band knows we will never sound like the Beach Boys. There’s something magical about that collection of voices. You can make instruments sound like other bands. If you have the right amp or guitar combination, and if you have the right style, it can be close. But vocals are very much harder to emulate, especially when you get into a group vocal situation.


What was your path to becoming a professional musician?

I played trumpet and French horn in the concert and jazz bands and sang in choir in Keene junior high and high school. Attended and graduated Oberlin College, where I didn’t major in music but took many conservatory classes, including the nascent electronic music curriculum. Attended and graduated Guitar Institute of Technology (now Musician’s Institute) in Hollywood. I began playing guitar, bass or keyboard in original bands in L.A. and got a Grammy nomination with surf band The Wedge in 1982. We lost to the Hill Street Blues theme.

How did you end up in the Brian Wilson band?

I ran into members of the Wondermints [an L.A. power pop band] in the late ’80s as fellow fans of the Beach Boys and ’60s music in general. Joined their group around 1993 and have been a member since then. As part of the same scene, was a member of the Negro Problem, whose leaders have gone on to win a Tony last year for the rock musical Passing Strange.

The Wondermints played at a Brian Wilson tribute show circa 1993 that Brian attended, and he liked us. We backed him up a few times over the next few years around town, and then we got the call to audition for a then-newly forming Brian Wilson band in 1999.

How has Brian changed over the time you’ve known and worked with him?

He really seems to like touring. In the very first year, we weren’t sure that he would continue on touring. He was very shy, and he didn’t seem to like being in the public eye at all. But he’s really warmed up to it over the years, and I think his voice has gotten stronger. And I think he has a good time out on the road, too.

It seems like you have a lot of connections up here in New Hampshire and the Northeast. Have you considered coming back?

I would like to go back to New Hampshire. I like New Hampshire a lot. My wife and I thought of starting a school of rock in Keene, and there’s definitely demand for it among the students. But there isn’t the level of funding from the parents. I do maintain a lot of connections back in the New England area. I used to do a coffee house gig in Keene when I’d come home for Christmas in the ’80s and ’90s.

What’s something most people don’t understand or realize about Brian Wilson?

He’s a very sweet and loving person. He would give me the shirt off his back. That doesn’t really come across when he’s performing, maybe, but he’s a really sweet guy. We all love him to death in the band.