Gin Blossoms: Blossoming Beginnings To Timeless Tunes – A Chat With Robin Wilson

Gin Blossoms

Growing up in the 90s, my days were filled with the joys of watching Nickelodeon, playing games on my Super NES, and immersing myself in the rock revolution that unfolded before my very ears. Gin Blossoms were an integral part of that musical landscape, providing the soundtrack to countless memories and experiences that still hold a special place in my heart.

Hits like “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” and “Follow You Down” became anthems of our youth, seamlessly weaving their way into the fabric of our lives. Their gorgeous blend of infectious pop melodies and heartfelt storytelling resonated with listeners, establishing them as one of the definitive voices of the 90s alternative rock scene.

As we sat down for this wide-ranging interview, Robin Wilson reminisced about the band’s early days, their challenges, and the moments that made it all worthwhile. He spoke fondly of the band’s greatest moments and the magic that occurs when like-minded individuals unite to create something greater than the sum of its parts. As we delved into the band’s journey, Robin also shared his thoughts on the music industry’s evolution since their heyday. He acknowledged the transformative shifts brought about by technology, from the rise of digital streaming to the omnipresent influence of social media. He opened up about the inspirations that fueled their music and the stories behind their most iconic songs.

Join me as we take a deep dive into the world of the Gin Blossoms, guided by the insights and reflections of the one and only Robin Wilson.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: You’re about to embark on a nostalgic tour with Sugar Ray, Tonic, and Fastball. With 34 years since you independently released Dusted, how has your perspective shifted in those nearly four decades? How does it feel to look back at your incredible career?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: It’s very humbling and very gratifying. It’s been such a complicated ride to get here, and it’s just amazing to look back and have some sense of our place in the big rock and roll story. It never ceases to amaze me sometimes, the fact that we survived and we’re still together.

We still have this partnership that’s all built around performing music. Songs we wrote ourselves in our bedroom. And then to have some small place in the big rock story. It’s amazing. Just the other night, I went to see Matchbox 20. To be told by them personally that we had a hand in inspiring them to start a band, it’s humbling. I feel really, really grateful that this is what I’ve been able to spend my life doing. And just amazed that I was able to find the exact right place on planet Earth for me to be and for how to live. 

Altwire/Derek Oswald: And I’d like to rewind back to the early days of Gin Blossoms. Could you walk me through your earliest days in music and the moments that led up to you joining the band in the late eighties?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: I’ve been on this path since I was eight years old. I saw Queen debut the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the “Midnight Special” when I was in the third grade. And that was the moment that I knew that I wanted to be a rock singer.

As a teenager growing up in Tempe, Arizona, reading the Phoenix New Times, we used to look through the ads for the local clubs and stare at the pictures of the local bands and dream about being a part of that. And to have pulled it all off and become a huge part of that music scene alone is incredible to me.

I started writing songs, terrible, terrible songs, and then I got outta high school. I got a job at Tower Records, and the entire local music scene was in and out of that store.

And so, it was on the periphery of everything that was exciting in music around Phoenix. And it was just a constant barrage of music. Listening to records, going to work at the record store, and then we’d get off work. We’d go home, listen to records, or go to shows, local bands, acoustic nights, or major concerts. When you’re working at the record store, you get a lot of concert tickets.

So it’s just music, music all the time. And I was still dreaming about it, trying to write songs and trying to develop as a songwriter. And every once in a while, doing open mic nights and playing my shitty songs for a small audience at a bar that I would go to all the time. I felt like I was, trying to be a part of it all.

And then, you know, I knew the guys in the Gin Blossoms, and I was a fan. They started the band, and then they were only together for a few months before they had to fire somebody. And I got his job. And at that point, I had never actually been in a band before. I’d only ever done jam sessions and songwriting sessions with friends. I was beginning to start a band with my closest friends, and I had just finally bought a microphone, and I was so out of touch with the whole thing.

I bought a microphone but didn’t even buy a mic cable; so I just had a microphone. But it felt like a way to sort of commit myself to it. It felt like the beginning of something, and it was kind of like when I decided I was gonna buy a jet ski. I went out before I bought a jet ski, and I bought a wetsuit.

You know, it was kind of the same sort of thing.

So I was on the verge of starting my first band when Gin Blossoms were doing their first couple of shows. And then, as I said, they were only together for a few months before they had to fire a guy. I got his job, and I joined as a rhythm guitar player doing backup vocals for Jesse, who was the lead singer. And then they would let me sing lead on a couple of songs a night. By the second week, I was singing like four to six songs. And then a week after that, I was singing like eight songs, ten songs. After a few months in the band, it was just decided that Jesse and I would switch positions, and I would become the lead singer.

And I’ll tell you, I was so relieved because I was way out of my league as a guitar player. All I had ever wanted to do was front a rock band. So suddenly, I was fronting the best band in the state, the most popular band in my town. I went from not being in a band at all to suddenly being a part of the most exciting thing that was happening in our local music scene.

And I guess it’s just lucky for everybody that I had the skillset and the instincts to pull it off. And, you know, as a songwriter, suddenly I’m in a band with some guys who are way more experienced than me, way better songwriters than I was.

I was bringing in my songs, and it was hard to compete. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm to let the new guy who had never been in a band suddenly start introducing songs. So it was really hard, and it was humiliating, but I somehow managed just through osmosis; just being around Jesse and Doug made me a better songwriter. I guess it’s like if you’re a third-string quarterback on the Patriots, you know, just being on the same team with Tom Brady’s gonna make you better. And I think that’s what happened to me as a songwriter.

Doug and Jesse’s influence rubbed off on me and what we were doing and accomplishing as a band playing four or five nights a week; the cover songs we were doing all just added up and ripened in my brain, and I somehow became a real songwriter. I’m extremely grateful for that opportunity and for having been in the right place at the right time.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: And speaking of being popular, within a year of New Miserable Experience coming out, you had two top 40 singles. As a young 20-something, what did you recall feeling as everything started taking off?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: Well, you know, it was exciting. But, honestly, we didn’t have a sense of just how much success we were achieving. We were sort of naive to what was happening around us. You know, we were just in the van trying to get to the show, and it’d be like, okay, well, now you’re gonna do Letterman on Thursday, and it’d be exciting. You knew you were doing something extraordinarily cool. But it was hard to have the perspective to realize what exactly that meant and how we were becoming a part of the national scene. The impact we were having on, say, bands like Matchbox 20, which hadn’t even formed yet.

And, you know, mostly it was just kind of thrilling to be able to open for Toad The Wet Sprocket, and things would happen. Like I remember, we did the American Music Awards and not realizing at the time how huge that was for any band. You know, most of my peers, all my friends in music like Tonic and Fastball and Sugar Ray, never got to do the American Music Awards. They never did Saturday Night Live.

We got to do these things, and at the time, we’re just trying to survive it all and get to the next show. And it’s only with the perspective of time that you can look back and see what an incredible career we had. And so, to go back to your first question, I look back, and it’s incredibly satisfying to have just pulled it off. To now be at a place in our career where for the most part, everything is pretty easy.

We’ve earned our place in the mid-level touring scene, and sometimes you get to open for a band that’s like way bigger than you. And you look up, and you’re like, wow, there’s a lot of wardrobe cases. They must have a really big crew, which means they’re earning a lot more than we are. Then we play with other bands, our peers that don’t have all the resources we have but are still in the fight, you know?

And I used to feel this way about the local music scene here in Arizona, but it just felt like we were all in it together. You know, all equals, peers and friends, just on the front lines trying to accomplish the same thing.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: The sound of Gin Blossoms has always been very captivating to me. What I find interesting about when you guys came up is that all the rock music of the time was trending towards a grungier, gloomier sound. You guys always had a very poppy, almost Beatles-like sound. Was finding happiness in the sadness a deliberate choice by your band? Did you always want to contrast the more anxious lyrics with a happier sound?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: We didn’t really consciously think about an image; we were never a band like Ghost that crafted an image and a theme; we just always did what came naturally to us and followed our instincts, inspired by our heroes. We were never one of those bands that would turn on MTV and be like, “Oh, now we gotta dress like “The Black Crowes.” – we just always did what felt right to us.

And it came naturally to us just trying to be like our favorite bands, like The Replacements, REM, or Cheap Trick. So that would be the kind of thing if there was ever any conscious decision-making about our image or our sound.

It’s like I’d introduce a song, and I remember saying for the intro, let’s do it like this Cheap Trick bridge, and take what they did in this one little section of the bridge, and we can make that into an intro for this song—just sort of cherry-picking bits from our influences to flesh out our own material.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: One of my fondest memories of Gin Blossoms is your appearance on the Empire Records soundtrack. How did that collaboration come about for you to be featured on that soundtrack?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: Well, our label A&M Records, was the label behind the soundtrack, and since we were one of their up-and-coming properties, they saw it as an opportunity for us. So they tasked us with writing a single. And they told us, “You go write a hit, and it will be a hit. We will make it a hit.” And at the time, we were a part of the music industry machinery in the same way The Beatles were. After the gig, [they were in] the van writing songs on the way back to the hotel because they’ve gotta make another record in a month. The Beatles are pumping out three records a year, and the machinery was in place for them to simply record something good, and “pow” there it was.

And the same thing happened with us with “Till I Hear It From You.” We were tasked with writing a song for a movie. All we knew was that it was a movie that was gonna be set in a record store. Which made sense since three of us in the band worked at record stores, and we were basically formed in the back room of a record store.

So, you know, that had a certain quality to it that made sense. And so I think we were told in, like, I think this was 95. So in January, they said, “There’s gonna be this movie; you guys need to write a song. And then, I think in February or so, Jesse gave me a cassette of the initial demo that he had put together with Marshall Crenshaw. The melody was there, the basic structure of the song was there, and there were lyrics for a chorus. Then it was turned over to me, and it was my task to finish the lyrics and the vocal melody. And I remember hearing the demo and thinking, “All I have to do is not fuck this up.” I sat down with that demo and figured out how to complete the story.

In a collaboration like that, I’m given a chorus. So that’s basically like, say, the punchline of the joke, and you have to work backward and figure out the rest of the narrative that leads up to that punchline. There’s a Dave Chappelle bit that he does where he talks about how he has a fishbowl full of little scraps of paper. Each scrap of paper has a punchline on it. Every once in a while, he’ll challenge himself to reach into the punch bowl, pull out a punchline, and then write the joke.

And writing a song like “Till I Hear From You” as a lyricist, that was basically what I had to do. Just work backward to tell the rest of the story. And so, again, the timeline was amazing. We heard about it in January, the song was written in February and March, and then we demoed the song like by the end of March.

Then we went into the studio and recorded it a few weeks later. So by April, there was produced version of the song. And then, in May, we made the video. By June, it was a hit song, and we were on Letterman performing it. And, again, going back to this realization that we were a part of this machinery of the music industry in a very old-fashioned way.

Much like, you know, how it was done in the sixties. And it was an amazing realization to come to that and also to have a sense of satisfaction that we pulled it off. That we were tasked with this huge challenge, and we wrote what turned out to be what other people might refer to as a classic song, and that song has been a big part of our story.

It’s a foundation of our live shows, and it’s one of the reasons we still get booked to go out on tours with bands like Sugar Ray and Fastball, and Tonic. It’s because we pulled it off, you know? And it’s incredibly gratifying, and I’m extremely proud of us.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: You should be! I understand your band had a lot of success, but can you describe a challenging moment? Or obstacle your band faced during your career and how you overcame it.

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: Well, I guess I could think of a few. I remember there was one moment that was a very divisive situation for us. We were offered a lot of money to license one of our songs to a Japanese cigarette commercial. And this tore the band apart because, you know, we wanted to succeed. We wanted to participate in show business on some level, but to some of our members, this felt like a betrayal of our ethics.

And so the way we overcame it was just to turn it down, you know, just to say no, and nothing changed. We just kept moving forward; it’s just a blip on the radar.

But another good example would be “Follow You Down.” Much like the story I just told you about, “Till I Hear It From You,” “Follow You Down,” was written under intense pressure. We had finished recording. We thought we were finished recording our second record, and we turned it in. Then the label came back to us and said, “No, you need to go write another hit single.”

Altwire/Derek Oswald: Oh no.

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: And so that is really the moment where a band is under the most pressure that it can possibly be under. You know, we’re following up on our hugely successful debut, and we’re suddenly told that we’re not done, and we needed to go write a hit. They were very clear we needed to write a hit, not a B side, not an album cut. We needed something that was gonna stand up and get on the radio. And so again, this was the first album that we had to make without Doug [Hopkins], and you know, it’s a terrifying prospect.

Doug was the main songwriter in the band before this. He was far and away the best songwriter in the band. And suddenly, now we have to live up to that. The amount of scrutiny and pressure that we were under was titanic. And so to have faced that and written “Follow You Down,” which went on to become a Top 10 single – and, you know, we were performing it on Saturday Night Live, the same week that it was in the Top 10 – there’s no bigger success that you can have as a rock band. It’s a seminal moment in our career. It’s where we proved that we could do it without Doug, and it’s where we proved to ourselves that we were what we wanted to be.

I would consider “Follow You Down” our single greatest accomplishment.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: Honestly, if I had to think about it, it’s one of my favorite singles you guys have ever done, so I can totally agree with you there. Going back to what you said [previously], being part of the machine, you’ve been in the music industry for so long at this point. How would you consider the music industry to have changed since the Gin Blossoms first started?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: Oh, Jesus. Well, for one thing, there’s no way to recoup. I mean, we didn’t think we were gonna recoup. We were nearly a million dollars in debt by the time we got done recording New Miserable Experience. And now, you don’t sell records.

It’s just so different, and it’s hard. You know, we were fortunate that we were a part of what was really like the last gasp of the “old” music industry. And we were with a label that believed in creating careers, not just hits. There’s a newer band that I’m a huge, huge fan of. I’m not gonna say their name, but they’re an up-and-coming alternative band that I just think is one of the one of the best groups of their generation.

And they’ve recently released what I consider one of the best albums of the last 25 years. And I sort of reached out to the band just to let them know that I was a huge fan. The other day, I texted one of ’em and I asked for their manager’s number. I had a chat with their manager just a couple of days ago just to try and encourage them.

And it was depressing as hell because this band has so much promise in this purity of spirit and music. They’re in a situation that is so precarious, you know, they’re fighting it out in the van. They’re not making any money, and they’re getting a little bit of airplay. In a lot of ways, they’re a success, but it’s so precarious, and I just wanted to let the manager know that if they ever needed to talk to someone that didn’t want anything from them, they could turn to me.

If they ever had a question about their label or a decision that they had to make, if there was anything I could do to help them through it, I wanna see this band succeed and survive. And accomplish everything that they deserve to. And it’s just like I say, so precarious. The whole situation is just so tenuous.

You know, if they lose their A&R guy, they could be fucked forever. If one of ’em gets their girlfriend pregnant, it could all just fucking go up in a whiff of smoke. In the meantime, they’re doing something that is so powerful and so meaningful.

And I just wanted to somehow communicate to them that it’s not all for nothing. In talking to their manager, it came up with the financial situation that this band is in. That’s a huge part of the equation in keeping a band together. How viable is it to make a living and support your families?

It’s nearly impossible, you know? So, I don’t understand the whole, you know, viral thing. I make a video for what I think is one of the best songs I’ve ever written. And, you know, it gets like, I don’t know, 30,000 views. Then like, some hot chick dresses up like a superhero, and she’s got a quarter million views. You know, like, how can you compete with that? I remember an episode of The Simpsons where Bart Simpson says, “Wow. So I’m gonna be on the internet right next to the Nabisco cookie website?” You know, and that’s kind of what it is. You put something up on YouTube, and it’s just this ocean of content.

And it was always tough. I mean, you had to have everything going for you. It always comes down to the songs. To start with, you gotta have great material, but then you need everything else working for you to end up with a hit. You know? And every once in a while, it can happen sort of accidentally. but generally, it’s situations like ours where you’ve got the material, and you’ve got an artist in a van going from one ass-kissing event to the next. Just trying to please everyone around them because they believe in what they’re doing.

And then, even then, there are no guarantees. It’s the chaos mathematics involved, and it’s staggering, overwhelming, it’s frightening as hell, you know? And now it’s worse. And in a way, yeah, anybody has the opportunity, has the potential to put up a YouTube video and suddenly go viral, but in a way, it’s harder than ever, you know?

Altwire/Derek Oswald: Agreed.

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms: So I’m glad we did it the way we did. We were fortunate to be where we were, and none of it was easy, and it was paid for with blood and sacrifice, and hard work. But, again, that’s one of the reasons I find it all so incredible and gratifying. The biggest worries I have now are of which gigs to accept.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: The last album that you guys released was in 2018. Is there currently any talk and any plans to release another album, or are you guys just comfortable with the output that you have now?

Robin Wilson/Gin Blossoms:  Well, I want to make another record. And there are some casual discussions about starting to put together the material. There’s no timeline established. There’s nothing on the books saying, “We need to have the demos done by a certain date” or anything like that. We don’t have any plans, but there is a desire, and it will happen at some point. And I’m in the same boat with The Smithereens right now, where we’re writing songs, and we keep saying we wanna make a record, but nothing’s been put on the books yet. And I feel, as a songwriter, in both The Smithereens and Gin Blossoms, I work better when I know that there’s a due date.

If we needed to make a record, suddenly, I’ve got a handful of songs I could turn in and be pretty satisfied with.

So I feel like I’m kind of ready to go, and it’s not on me to write the entire record. I’m pretty much ready anytime. But I would love to set a date and then for myself personally, like set a goal to write a batch of songs. I would wanna write a batch of songs by myself, and then I would want to collaborate with my bandmates and maybe potentially outside songwriters.

But for me personally, I would want to show up with a batch of songs that I wrote myself that I’m proud of, and I’m kind of nearly there right now – but there’s no set plans. But it will happen at some point. I’d like to hope that we could get a record done before next summer and have something new to talk about.

But it’s not like it was. We don’t need to make a record. If we make a record, it’s not like it’s gonna get on the radio or sell a bunch of copies. That just doesn’t happen anymore. My peers, they do it too. Matchbox 20 just released a new record. I have no idea how well it’s doing.

But you know, the only artist to go platinum in the last five years is Taylor Swift. It just doesn’t seem likely that any veteran group could release a record and recoup. I mean, I guess maybe there are exceptions. Maybe The [Red Hot] Chili Peppers; they got something relatively new out right now.

Maybe they’ve been able to pull it off and recoup and actually crack the charts on radio and stuff like that. But I wouldn’t expect that to be something that we could do. So we’d be making a record entirely for our own reasons. Entirely just to satisfy ourselves so that we’ve got some fresh material in the set and that we still feel connected to what motivated us in the first place.

Altwire/Derek Oswald: Fair. And just to close it out for people reading this, is there anything you would like to share with your fans?

Hmm. Well, yeah, I would love to share my favorite bands. Who do I listen to anymore? For me, things kind of changed somewhere around 2000. So I think about everything before 2000 as being like from my era, and everything after 2000 is sort of after my era. The groups that have kept me young spiritually are The Darkness, My Chemical Romance, Volbeat, The Strokes, The Killers, Johnny Marr – Johnny made some incredible records in the last ten years. White Reaper, Ghost, you know, I never want to be one of those people that just stops listening to new music. I think it keeps you fresh.

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