Arizona’s Gin Blossoms were unlikely candidates for fame in the early 1990s, plying well-crafted, melodic pop-rock in an era of loud and anxious alternative music. However, the band’s formula of bright, guitar-driven hooks, sweet vocals, and melancholy undertow made them radio staples. “It’s just pop music,” singer Robin Wilson told the Los Angeles Times. “I want to touch people on some fundamental level, in the same way that I’ve been touched when I hear a pop song that I really love.” The Blossoms’ dedication to melody has stood them in good stead in the face of various crises, including the firing and subsequent suicide of one of their songwriter-members. Yet the band emerged in 1996 with a sophomore album, the lead single of which was soon in heavy radio rotation. As Wilson noted in a record company bio, “Everything that’s happened in the last four years has helped to make us a stronger band and stronger individuals.”
The band began in Tempe, Arizona. Bassist Bill Leen and guitarist-songwriter Doug Hopkins had known one another since childhood and previously played in a
Members include Doug Hopkins (bandmember 1987-92; died, 1993), guitar; Scott Johnson (joined band, 1992), guitar; Bill Leen, bass; Philip Rhodes, drums; Jesse Valenzuela, guitar; Robin Wilson (joined band, 1988), vocals.
Group formed c. 1987 in Tempe, AZ; released debut album, Dusted, on San Jacinto label, 1989; signed with A&M Records and released EP Up and Crumbling, 1990; released debut album New Miserable Experience, 1992; toured with numerous acts, including Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Goo Goo Dolls, and Neil Young, 1992—; contributed song “Til I Hear It from You” to soundtrack of film Empire Records, 1995.
Awards: Gold Records for New Miserable Experience, 1994, and Congratulations I’m Sorry, 1996.
Addresses: Record company —A&M Records, 1416 North La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Internet Websites —A&M Records Gin Blossoms site: amrecords.com/current/ginblossoms/. Unofficial Gin Blossoms Home Page: www.prarienet.org/~eharty/gin_blossoms.html.
number of local bands, including the Psalms. They added guitarist and erstwhile lead singer Jesse Valenzuela and in 1987 made their debut as the Gin Blossoms. The name was inspired by a picture of film comedian W.C. Fields, the colloquial term “gin blossoms” referring to the burst blood vessels visible in his alcohol-ravaged red nose.
Valenzuela described the group’s earliest incarnation as “a bar band” in an interview with Musician. Wilson joined the following year as rhythm guitarist and background singer, but soon he and Valenzuela switched vocal duties. Drummer Philip Rhodes signed on shortly thereafter. After gathering a sizable following—comprised largely of college students—the band went into the studio to record an album. Released independently, Dusted, with the help of Tom DeSavia, a representative of the music-publishing association ASCAP, received major-label attention. In 1989 the band performed at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, as well as New York’s New Music Awards Ceremony and College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon.
Polygram Records was one of the early industry suitors of the band. Wilson recalled a spree at the company’s product closet—where promotional copies of its recordings are kept—in Phoenix Monthly. “We reamed ‘em,” he recalled. “We’re totally poor broke and I left with, oh lord, probably thirty CDs and a bunch of tapes. And the stuff that we didn’t like we took to a store and sold.” Despite such goodies and seafood dinners in upscale restaurants that the company paid for, the band didn’t sign with Polygram, electing instead to go with A&M Records. Yet the Blossoms’ first attempt at recording an album with A&M was disastrous; ditching what they’d done, the band instead released an EP and hit the road. The regionally successful disc paved the way for a more productive foray in the studio, and the band completed New Miserable Experience, its full-length debut, in the summer of 1992.
Hopkins had by this time become a liability. Although he’d written half the material on the album, his drinking was so excessive—according to his ex-bandmates—that he represented an obstacle. Before the album was even finished, the band let him go, replacing him with guitarist Scott Johnson. The circumstances surrounding Hopkins’ departure are murky; after he left, the guitarist and songwriter formed another band, the Chimeras, and continued to earn royalties from the songs he’d written with the Blossoms. Yet he claimed to have been given a raw deal in the aftermath of his expulsion from the group. “I understand why they fired me,” he declared in an interview quoted by Rolling Stone, “but did they have to get so f—ing cold and ruthless about it?” Hopkins received a copy of the Gold Record that New Miserable Experienceeventually earned, but destroyed it during a binge. In late 1993, he left the hospital where he’d been receiving treatment for his alcoholism, purchased a gun, and used it to end his life.
The success that followed Experience after its initial poor sales was bittersweet for Hopkins’ ex-bandmates. “I can’t explain any personal feelings,” Valenzuela told the Albuquerque Times. “It’s a pretty devastating thing.” Yet the band soldiered on, touring relentlessly and scoring several hits, including Hopkins’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” The album also scored with critics, who admired the band’s musicality and emotional directness.
After the departure of Hopkins, some doubted the Gin Blossoms would be able to write songs of the same caliber. “It’s not our responsibility,” Wilson insisted tersely in the Los Angeles Times, “to live up to Doug’s songwriting.” The band delivered commercially again with “Til I Hear It from You,” co-written by Wilson, Valenzuela, and pop-rock whiz Marshall Crenshaw, a band favorite. The single first appeared on the successful soundtrack to the unsuccessful film Empire Records. With this hit and more touring, the band returned to the studio to record a follow-up album.
In the wake of the success of their debut and of Hopkins’ death, members of the band were greeted with both plaudits and sympathy, and the second album’s title, Congratulations I’m Sorry, reflected this double-edged response. Released in 1996, the recording didn’t earn the effusive notices of Experience. “It’s clear that Hopkins brought a level of specificity and skill otherwise lacking” in the band’s songs, lamented Spin. Citing a lyric about being “like a broken record,” reviewer Jeff Salamon opined, “The Gin Blossoms are like a broken record, repeating everything they wanna say—and have already said, elsewhere, better.” Rolling Stone was only slightly more charitable. “Like mashed potatoes and meatloaf, there’s not much variety to Gin Blossoms’ guileless guitar pop,” ventured the magazine’s Kara Manning, “but then again, sometime’s there’s nothing quite so comforting as a guilty pleasure.”
Nonetheless, the second album scored a hit out of the boxwith “Follow You Down,” a typically driving, emotive tune. “You want to know the secret?” Valenzuela asked to the Albuquerque Tribune, referring to the band’s signature sound. “You get a really crunchy guitar and then a clean acoustic next to it…compress it and stick it over to the side.” Wilson asserted in the band’s A&M biography that “people like that sort of bittersweet quality that our songwriting has. It’s like our name; it sounds pretty but it represents something a bit darker.”
The Gin Blossoms went on tour with the Goo Goo Dolls and rock icon Neil Young, and Wilson also devoted his free time to his cover band, The Best Dave Swaffords in the World. At the end of the band’s tour, they received their second gold record. Of the rigors of fame and life on the road, Valenzuela waxed philosophical. “You know, it’s a bit of a war, really—a war inside you,” he told the Music Paper. “On the one hand you want to make as much money and grab all the security you can ‘cause you never known when this gravy train will pass by again, right? But you didn’t really get into this for the money. You got into it for the music and love of playing. And that love actually carries you through the rough times. But you begin to wonder when you can get back to the creativity of doing what you love most. So it’s a bit of a problem, really.”
Dusted, San Jacinto, 1989.
Up and Crumbling (EP), A&M, 1990.
New Miserable Experience (includes “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You”) A&M, 1992.
“Til I Hear It from You,” Empire Records soundtrack, A&M, 1995.
Congratulations I’m Sorry (includes “Follow You Down”), A&M, 1996.
Albuquerque Tribune, February 22, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1996.
Music Paper, April 1994.
Musician, April 1996.
Phoenix Monthly, May 1993.
Review Monthly, April 1994.
Rolling Stone, February 10, 1994; March 21, 1996.Spin, April 1996.
Additional information was provided by A&M Records publicity materials, 1996.
Formed: 1987, Tempe, Arizona
Members: Scott Johnson, guitar (born 12 May 1952); Bill Leen, bass (born 1 March 1962); Jesse Valenzuela, guitar (born 22 May 1962); Robin Wilson, vocals (born Detroit, Michigan, 12 July 1965). Former members: Doug Hopkins, guitar (born 11 April 1971; died Tempe, Arizona, 5 December 1993); Phillip Rhodes, drums (born 26 May 1968).
Best-selling album since 1990: New Miserable Experience (1992)
Hit songs since 1990: "Hey Jealousy," "Found Out about You," "Til I Hear It from You"
The Gin Blossoms enjoyed a minor run of success in the early 1990s, commercializing the guitar-oriented, power-pop sound of 1980s college radio.
Bass player Bill Leen and guitarist Doug Hopkins, longtime friends, formed the Gin Blossoms in 1987; the band endured a number of personnel shifts before settling on a permanent lineup that included Robin Wilson (vocals), Jesse Valenzuela (guitar), and Phillip Rhodes (drums). The Gin Blossoms recorded a self-released album in 1989, and the following year A&M Records picked up the promising band.
"Hey Jealousy," the lead single from the band's A&M debut, New Miserable Experience (1992), quickly bounded from the college radio charts and onto mainstream radio. "Hey Jealousy" opens with a simple, honest lyrical request ("Tell me do you think it'd be all right / If I could just crash here tonight? / You can see I'm in no shape for driving / And anyway I've got no place to go") and proceeds to chronicle the narrator's quest for meaning: "The past is gone but something might be found to take its place / Hey, jealousy." Wilson's soft, melodic vocal neatly contrasts the band's garage-style musical romp fueled by mildly distorted guitars.
The band's second single, "Found Out about You," achieved similar crossover success, with its alternative-lite sound. A moody, midtempo track punctuated by the jangling guitars of Valenzuela and Hopkins, "Found Out about You" springs from the same roots as contemporary college radio favorites R.E.M. and the Replacements, but offers a more pop-oriented production and a memorable, anthem-like chorus: "Whispers at the bus stop / I heard about nights out in the schoolyard / I found out about you."
The Gin Blossoms's crossover formula earned the band extensive airplay on both college and mainstream radio, and New Miserable Experience proceeded to sell 3 million copies. In 1993, tragedy befell the Gin Blossoms, as guitarist and founding member Hopkins committed suicide. The Gin Blossoms were in the unique position of having lost their primary songwriter at the height of the band's success.
The band called upon pop craftsman Marshall Crenshaw to co-write its first post-Hopkins tune, "Til I Hear It from You," which appeared in the movie Empire Records (1995). With its fluid guitars, sugary melody, and wistful vocal, "Til I Hear It from You" strays little from the band's established style. Though never officially released as a single, "Til I Hear It from You" was a radio smash, hooking listeners with its easy-to-remember chorus: "Well, baby, I don't want to take advice from fools / I'll just figure everything is cool / Until I hear it from you."
With Scott Johnson taking over for Hopkins on guitar, the Gin Blossoms released their second album, Congratulations . . . I'm Sorry, in 1996. The album initially charted well and featured the hit "Follow You Down," but the album disappeared from the charts within six months. Following the tour in support of the album, the Gin Blossoms chose to disband.
The Gin Blossoms sans Rhodes reunited for a New Year's Eve show in 2001, and the band subsequently entered the studio to record its first new music since Congratulations . . . I'm Sorry. In part because of unexpected tragedy, the Gin Blossoms failed to convert their initial chart successes into a long-lasting career, but the band's legacy includes a few of the familiar pop-rock hits of the early 1990s.
New Miserable Experience (A&M, 1992); Congratulations . . . I'm Sorry (A&M, 1996). Soundtrack: Empire Records (A&M, 1995).