Goldmine spoke with Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson and Jesse Valenzuela about their new Mixed Reality album (shown above), the 25th anniversary of their string of ‘90s hit songs, their tour with Vertical Horizon and Tonic and losing a Grammy award to The Beatles.
Goldmine is also premiering the Gin Blossoms’ video for the song “Break”:
Plus, win a sealed CD from Gin Blossoms via the Goldmine Giveaway– see below for details.
By Warren Kurtz
GIN BLOSSOMS debuted 25 years ago in the Top 100 singles charts in 1993 with “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You,” sadly the same year that the songs’ composer Doug Hopkins died. Two more singles from the Tempe, Arizona quintet continued the streak in the following year, “Until I Fall Away,” written by Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson, and another Robin Wilson composition, “Allison Road,” making 4 singles from their breakthrough album New Miserable Experience all reach the Top 40. The rhythm section was comprised of Bill Leen on bass and Phillip Rhodes on drums. Scotty Johnson replaced Doug Hopkins. The group’s 1996 album Congratulations I’m Sorry brought more singles to the Top 100. The group disbanded in 1997 and reformed in 2002. In 2012, Scott Hessel replaced Phillip Rhodes on drums and now makes his recording debut for the group on the new Mixed Reality album.
Interview with Robin Wilson
GOLDMINE: Immediately, with the first two songs on Mixed Reality, which you wrote, I hear your voice and the multiple guitar sounds of the classic Gin Blossoms era. I was pleasantly surprised to hear flute sounds at the end of “Face the Dark.”
ROBIN WILSON: The album’s opener, “Break,” is also our first single and my first time to direct a video, which features a wonderful ten-year-old skate board girl, Paige Heyn. The flute sounds are from an old keyboard at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Recordings studio in North Carolina. I was surprised too, when I heard it in the mixing and noted, “Ah, there is a flute.” The song is about Doug. I wanted to do a song to sound like something he would have liked.
GM: Scott Hessel’s drums kick off “Shadow” very nicely on this one that you co-wrote with Scotty Johnson.
RW: Scotty is really the main writer on this, with me helping out by doing an arrangement, which is also what I brought to Bill’s “New Mexico Trouble.” Bill was unsure about it and I said, “This has to go on the album.” As it is written on the album jacket, there was heartache and compromise in making this album, and I tried to provide guidance.
GM: “Forever is This Night” is nice, steady and peaceful.
RW: I wrote that on my boat in Arizona, on Saguaro Lake. I like to anchor it to a tall cliff, which I use for shade, and rock out on a range of music from Duran Duran to Metallica. It is a peaceful place to spend time. Using my phone, I recorded the demo and had to have a few breaks in the recording process to wait for the jet skis to pass.
GM: Going back in time, was there an Allison or Allison Road where you grew up in Arizona?
RW: I lived in Detroit until I was five, then moved to Arizona, and spent summers in Louisiana swamps. My street in Tempe, Arizona was like Sesame Street. It was so diverse. We had every religion, race and ethnicity. There wasn’t an Allison Road there, but there is a real Allison Road that I saw in a photo and I liked how it sounded to sing it. I wrote the song for my girlfriend at the time, not named Allison. This was my first composition to be given to and be accepted by the band.
GM: You had a double-sided cassette hit single in 1996 with the A side, “Follow You Down,” written by the entire band, and its flip side, “Til I Hear It from You,” featured in a movie starring Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger.
RW: We were a young band under tremendous pressure. After we thought we completed the next album, Congratulations I’m Sorry, the label, A&M, said, “You need another single,” so we got together and created “Follow You Down.” A&M also wanted a lead single for the soundtrack for the film Empire Records and we needed to write another hit. Jesse worked with Marshall Crenshaw, whose work I knew from the ‘80s, and they did most of the music. I wrote the lyrics, and it became “Til I Hear It from You.” At A&M, I met Jerry Moss a couple of times. In the ‘90s Barry White was also on the label and I talked with him about an animated Ralph Bakshi film where he did a voice. I am a big fan of both animation and Barry White. Barry was super friendly and a formidable presence. The label also had Janet Jackson, The Police and Soundgarden. It was the old music industry and we were excited to be part of it. A&M wanted us to develop and were so patient with us. We failed at first and then toured a lot in the early ‘90s. It eventually paid off.
GM: Another cassette single charted in 1996 from your Congratulations I’m Sorry album, “As Long as It Matters,” with a live version of “Allison Road” on its flip side.
RW: On a Saturday morning, I was watching animated Batman. Jesse called me and sang me the chorus to “As Long as It Matters” for me to work on, which I did after the Batman cartoon was over. It became a Grammy nominated song for “Best Performance by a Duo or Group.” The Beatles’ Anthology had come out and we lost to “Free as a Bird,” but we can say that we lost to The Beatles.
GM: You have also been spending time recently as the lead singer for The Smithereens.
RW: I have done three shows so far and there will be more next January. Right now, Marshall Crenshaw is singing lead for them on the road. It is amazing how full circle it has come. I worked at record stores, like in Empire Records, in the ‘80s in the Tempe area, listening to Marshall’s music and The Smithereens.
GM: Now Gin Blossoms is on tour with Vertical Horizon, who I saw in August 2000, with a family friend, Daniel, while “Everything I Want” was still on the charts and “You’re a God” debuted, and Tonic, who have a ‘90s family favorite song “If You Could Only See.”
RW: The tour is going well. It is a solid bill. We’re on a bus and I can exercise and bike ride. I also promote the Love Hope Strength Foundation with a booth at most shows. With that group I have hiked Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, and in Nepal and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We are fighting cancer at hospitals in third world countries. We have autographed items including guitars and skateboards as fundraisers for the organization.
Interview with Jesse Valenzuela
GOLDMINE: When I was listening to your new song “Angels,” it dawned on me that Los Angeles Angels spring training stadium is in Tempe. “Here Again,” is a great pop song, reminding me of The Monroes from the ‘80s.
JESSE VALENZUELA: They are both pop songs, written around the same time to fit into our Gin Blossoms set. I guess “Angels” could be about baseball. It is in the key of B, which is unusual. The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a key of B example.
GM: On “Fortunate Street” you wrote about BBQ Pete’s and on “Mega Pawn King” Bill takes us to the Checks Cashed Here store.
JV: Yes, both are rich in imagery that we see as travel through many towns in America.
GM: While “Fortunate Street” is an edgier pop piece, it is immediately followed by your softer “Wonder,” with a beautiful bridge arrangement.
JV: I must have stolen that arrangement from The Beach Boys. I actually wrote more slow tempo songs like “Wonder,” but it is the faster ones we use in the band. I regret not including more slower songs, which fit us now that we are older, in the 80 to 110 BPM (beats per minute) range.
GM: Your New Miserable Experience CD was constantly in my wife Donna’s car in the mid-‘90s while our daughter Brianna was in middle school. “Mrs. Rita” is among Brianna’s favorites. Listening to it now she says, “I enjoy this couplet the most, ‘Tell me Mrs. Rita what’s it say in my tarot? Read my palm and tell me why do lovers come and go.’” She continues, “I don’t think I’ve heard tarot used in a song for a rhyme like that before. It also stands out because the rest of the song approaches love so practically and then you have these two repeated lines of pure mysticism thrown in, and it’s just a really interesting lyrical contrast.”
JV: Your daughter has provided such an astute interpretation of that song. There was an actual Mrs. Rita in Tempe while I was growing up there, but I never went or felt I needed to visit her. I had a dear friend, Bill, who was a really gifted psychic. He was in a wheelchair and really in tune with his psychic abilities. He died early from his physical ailments. I wrote this song dedicated to him.
GM: Two songs that you wrote for New Miserable Experience, “29” and “Hands are Tied,” were also used as the flip sides of your first two charting cassette singles, which Doug wrote.
JV: Doug was a brilliant guy who suffered in the end. He was the architect of the Gin Blossoms sound, with his vision. “Hands are Tied” is a fan favorite. It is the first song that I wrote in a minor key. You can really rock out in a minor key. It was years before I wrote another minor key song.
GM: You also have written with a Canadian songwriter, from the band the Odds, Craig Northey. I have watched the quirky TV show Corner Gas in Canada.
JV: It is one of the biggest Canadian TV shows and was also carried on Chicago’s WGN for the U.S. market. Craig and I wrote the show’s theme song, “Not a Lot Goin’ On,” over the phone. When I’m in Canada, I have to play that song. The Odds are still performing and Craig and I wrote a new song this year “I’m Going to Find Me Someone,” which I am considering for my upcoming solo album.
GM: In the meantime, you’re on tour throughout the U.S. as part of Gin Blossoms along with Vertical Horizon and Tonic.
JV: The Vertical Horizon and Tonic guys are wonderful and it is great camaraderie. It is nice to be out there with our contemporaries. We hope to see you Goldmine readers on the tour. Look for more dates in the fall too, maybe Florida, seeing you and your family.
To win Gin Blossoms’ CD Mixed Reality, all you have to do is put your email address in the box below by July 31, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive Goldmine’s informative weekly eNewsletter (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists). We will randomly draw winners from the entrants. We have two copies of this CD to give away, so your chances are doubled.