Gin Blossoms 'getting together' at The Mahaiwe
GREAT BARRINGTON — Gin Blossoms' first big single, "Hey Jealousy," was so ubiquitous for a few years in the early 1990s — on the radio, on MTV, on a stereo down the hall if you happened to live in a college dorm at the time — that you might have overlooked what the song is about. With its bright guitar hooks and upbeat melody that everyone seems to describe as "jangly," you might miss the words — a pleading, increasingly urgent litany of uncertain hopes and promises. It's like the sound of a young adult trying to find a place in the world.
"We were all in it, trying to get there — wherever there was," singer Robin Wilson recalled about the band's early days. He spoke in a phone interview on his way from the gym to the computer store near his home in Long Island, taking a moment away from dodging early spring potholes while reflecting on how unlikely it was that he landed there, so far from Arizona where most of the rest of the band still lives and where he grew up.
They all get together pretty regularly, including Friday night (March 6) when they will play the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Famous for their string of hits like "Hey Jealousy," "Found Out About You," and "Allison Road," they were a part of a wave of guitar rock pop bands that seemed like a counterpoint to grunge's heavier sound. For a few years, their albums sold millions of copies, which obscures what happened before and after: How they came up through their indie rock scene; faced up to the demanding expectations of a major label signing; had to make wrenching decisions about their bandmates and friends. They wore themselves out and they wore on each other, saw their kind of music's popularity evaporate, and had to rebuild themselves as professionals trying to make a living.
Their story began in the late 1980s in Tempe, Ariz., a local scene that was a smaller version of a template set in Boston, Minneapolis, Austin, or Seattle. It was a college town with its own set of clubs that would support live music, a local press, record stores, and radio stations. The members of the band grew listening to a familiar list of influences — Tom Petty and Cheap Trick, newer bands like R.E.M., the Smithereens, and, Wilson noted in particular, the Replacements and Australian band, The Church. Tempe had its own set of particulars — there were heroes to look up to, like alt-rock legends the Meat Puppets and locally famous but now forgotten bands like the Jetzons. There were clubs with names like Long Wong's, the Mason Jar, and Edcel's Attic. And a stew of bands — the Moral Majority, the Psalms, Algebra Ranch.
The Gin Blossoms first appeared in late 1987 around scene veteran Doug Hopkins, a gifted guitarist and songwriter, and bassist Bill Leen, and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. They took their name from the exploded capillaries long-time alcoholics get around their noses.
Wilson described himself as "a bedroom songwriter" who sometimes went to open mic nights, who knew Leen from his job at a record store. They invited him to join the band, at first on rhythm guitar and backup vocals, but then lead singer Valenzuela suggested they should switch. "I was so relieved," Wilson said. "I was so out of my league as a guitar player, and I always wanted to be a singer."
Hopkins wrote most of their songs, and was the guiding spirit of the band, even as Valenzuela and Wilson tried to assert themselves writing their own.
"From the time I joined the band for the next few years, Doug and I spent so much time together he had a huge influence on me," Wilson said. "I knew I was competing with him as a songwriter, so nothing less than excellence was going to fly."
Wilson said he finally earned their respect with "Allison Road," (though Hopkins told him it only worked because of his guitar parts).
The band became a big draw locally, touring around the Southwest, and earning a reputation as a solid live band. Wilson said a highlight from those years was making it to South by Southwest, the big alternative music festival in Austin, in 1989 and 1990, the later year getting listed as one of the top 10 acts by a local alt-weekly. "I remember feeling this is as big a deal that is every going to happen to us," he said. "To this day I take as much pride in that accomplishment as anything we've ever done."
But they didn't always get along, and when they signed with A&M Records in 1990, one local writer who knew the scene wondered if they would stick together long enough to actually get in the studio. Tellingly, they titled their first EP "Up and Crumbling."
Things came to a head in 1992 when they headed out to Memphis to record a full-length album, aware that they were running out of chances and that Hopkins' alcohol abuse and depression was becoming a major problem. After many tempestuous sessions, and under heavy pressure from their label eager to protect their investment, they chose to fire Hopkins and brought in Scott Johnson.
That album, "New Miserable Experience," came out in 1992 and the band's life became a blur of constant touring and appearances. Over time their singles caught on, with videos in heavy rotation on MTV, a lot of radio play, and regular television appearances. They fit in with a wave of emerging pop rock bands like Better than Ezra, Counting Crows, Hootie & the Blowfish.
While they worked for and found their fans, it wasn't all acclaim. A reviewer in The Washington Post sniffed that the band was "so democratic in their derivativeness that their sources can't be fully cataloged in a short review," and that they "play tidy, tasteful pop-roots-rock that probably won't offend — or overwhelm."
Hopkins watched his former band earn success from home in Arizona, making fitful attempts at new projects, but falling deeper into drinking and depression. In December 1993, a few weeks after he received his copy of the gold record for writing "Hey Jealousy," he took his own life.
It was a dark cloud that hung over the band just as everything was coming together, and it never really went away. "He's always in my thoughts and I miss him terribly, but mostly when I think about him I get angry," Wilson said. "Mostly because he's not here — like he never met our kids — but mostly for the missed opportunity."
The band recorded another album, and had another big hit single with "Til I Hear it From You," but tensions within the band didn't go away and they broke up in 1997. The members scattered to various projects — Wilson tried a harder-edged rock project called the Gas Giants — but pop music had already moved emphatically away from guitar rock.
They were regularly approached about getting back together, and in 2001 decided to give it another chance. "We were so lucky that we had established the band and had a catalog of songs that would allow us to make a real living," Wilson said. "We didn't just get to just step right back where we were, we had to take a couple steps down the ladder and work our way back up again."
The terms of their relationship had changed. Wilson said that Leen ("the moral rudder of the band") phrased it as "each of us are allowed to have our own Gin Blossoms experience." They still disagree — Wilson mentioned that an idea for new t-shirts in a death-metal style with flames and the band name written in blood had been emphatically shot down — but the stakes seem easier to keep in perspective.
They returned to the studio to record a new album in 2018, "Mixed Realities," which Wilson described as a natural sequel they would have made in the '90s.
"This is the kind of record we would have wanted to make in those days," he said. "I felt very connected to a younger version of myself, to the same guy who wrote `Allison Road' and was trying to impress Doug and Jesse."
They've seen a music industry that has changed dramatically from the one they tried to break into.
"A lot has changed, but starting a band nothing is different — what's different is the delivery mechanism," he said. "The core of it, kids in the basement trying to write songs, that'll never change." He said he hears it with his own teenage son's band working out their material in his basement recording studio.
Now they are busy with their tour schedule, though no longer packing and unpacking into a van for overnight trips and giving each other the same cold. Today there is more time for hitting the gym and taking naps. They keep up their YouTube page and Instagram account, and work on other projects to keep busy — Wilson has been playing regularly with the Smithereens. And the band is currently looking forward to a big summer tour with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Barenaked Ladies.
"We have a real legacy, we're a part of the big rock and roll story," Wilson said. "I have no illusions about our standing in the grand scheme of things, but we really did it. We pulled it all off, we faced down so much adversity and so much pressure to survive, I'm just so happy and proud of that."
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