Find Out About Robin Wilson & The Gin Blossoms’ Booming Post-’90s Legacy
The day Robin Wilson and I are scheduled to chat is a tumultuous one in the music world. As I call the Gin Blossoms lead singer, news has just broken that Rudy Giuliani was unmasked on The Masked Singer, reportedly leading Robin Thicke (one of the show’s judges) to walk out in protest. Apparently this led to Wilson’s girlfriend asking him if he’d ever go on The Masked Singer, to which Wilson sagely replies that he’s not famous enough to ever be asked, though he jokes that he’s enjoyed watching close buddy and former Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath appear as “Orca.”
“I would never be on a reality show or anything like that,” he says. “It’s just not my style… My level of celebrity is such that I won’t get recognized unless I’m eating at the restaurant that’s right next to the club we’re about to play. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll be recognized if I’m eating right next to the venue. But, other than that, I’m pretty anonymous, and I’m cool with that.”
That’s a highly self-aware assessment and smacks of a certain push-pull relationship the Gin Blossoms have always had when it came to fame. Formed in the late ’80s in Tempe, Arizona, the band was initially founded by its former lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Doug Hopkins and singer/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. Wilson joined up in 1988, and he and Hopkins quickly formed a close creative partnership as the band’s local presence grew. The next year, Gin Blossoms put out an LP called Dusted via a small indie label, and three years later they’d re-record six of that album’s songs for their major-label debut: New Miserable Experience.
By this point, Hopkins, who suffered from clinical depression, was drinking heavily. His behavior became so erratic that A&M Records, who signed Gin Blossoms in the early ’90s, pressured the band to cut ties with him. Hopkins would later die by suicide in 1993, a little over a year after Gin Blossoms released New Miserable Experience. On top of that, with the success of bittersweetly jangling singles like “Found Out About You,” “Hey Jealousy,” and “Allison Road,” Gin Blossoms were courting a level of fame they had never expected or experienced before. They had very different reactions.
“There was one incident many years ago, back in ’96, where we all went to a restaurant together,” Wilson says. “We’re all walking together into the restaurant, one at a time, through the doorway, and I was the last one. As soon as I walked in, the whole restaurant turned around and started whispering, ‘Oh, the Gin Blossoms are here.’ I overheard two of my bandmates. One of them said to the other one, and he said it with all this disgust, he said, ‘Oh, that’s right. There’s somebody famous in the band now.’ I never forgot that moment where there was this sort of resentment or whatever. But that was short-lived. We’re well beyond that.”
Gin Blossoms would part ways in 1997, shortly after releasing their follow-up album, Congratulations I’m Sorry. They reunited in the early ’00s and have recorded and toured on and off ever since. The last decade has birthed a resurgence of interest in the band, though, which arguably began when the Gin Blossoms joined Everclear, Sugar Ray, Lit, and Marcy Playground on the nostalgia-fueled Summerland Tour in 2012. Since then, they have played numerous anniversary shows around New Miserable Experience, and will launch the 30 Miserable Years tour this Friday.
Prior to going on the road, I spoke to Wilson from his Long Island home to reminisce about the Gin Blossoms’ ’90s heyday, what he learned from making their now-classic major-label debut, facing down fame, and why he thinks the band succeeded at all.
Keeping in mind that the Gin Blossoms have been touring and doing nostalgia shows for a few years now, when did you first start to notice the resurgence of interest in the band?
ROBIN WILSON: I don’t know. Maybe over the course of the last decade, there have been certain signals, like our pay has gone up. We sell more tickets. One year, we were the number one draw at Epcot Center. Things like every once in a while make me go, “Oh, I guess it wasn’t all for nothing.”
When you guys were first formulating your now-signature jangle-rock sound, did you actively draw on any influences? For me, I would, I would think of earlier ’80s alternative-rock acts like R.E.M. or even the Smiths or the Feelies.
WILSON: Well, those are great examples. I have records from all three. R.E.M. in particular was a touchstone for us. Doug Hopkins, he was a big fan of the Church. So was I. I thought they have a rather outsized influence on the early Gin Blossoms material that Doug brought in. Songs like “Lost Horizons” and “Found Out About You.” And then, when I got into the band like, my major influence as a songwriter at the time was probably Cheap Trick. We didn’t always consciously go to our references as we were writing songs. But I think those bands had a significant influence on us.
Also, an artist like Marshall Crenshaw, who has since become a friend and collaborator of the band, everyone in the band was a fan of Marshall Crenshaw. A few years back I listened to one of my favorite records from Marshall. It’s called Mary Jean & 9 Others. Just a fantastic record. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and when I did, I thought, “Oh, this is what I try to sing like. This is how I sing.” I realized when people ask me what my influences are as a singer, I usually say Robin Zander and Freddie Mercury and Michael Stipe. But I came to realize that Marshall Crenshaw actually had a pretty big influence on me as a singer.
One other group I’ll mention that was definitely a touchdown for the band was the Replacements. Especially with how we treated our live gigs and the spirit of our performances, I think the Replacements had a huge influence on us.
I was also going to ask about your singing style and to what extent you intentionally tried to channel one influence or another to get that urgent quality. Were you intentional in trying to achieve a mood when you sang?
WILSON: Actually, yes. I try to emote the lyrics as if it’s a play, like it’s a musical play. That’s something I learned directly from Freddie Mercury. He goes from the soft whisper to just the most triumphant growling, loud emoting. I make some conscious effort, not too much, when I’m actually recording my vocals. I don’t really overthink things. It comes to me somewhat naturally. But I do every once in a while, “No, let me get that line again. I didn’t quite do it the way I wanted to or whatever.” But, in general, I tend to go into autopilot when I’m recording and just do what comes naturally.
I also would also want to say that I have influences as a singer, but I have separate and equal influences as a songwriter and as a frontman in a rock band. For example, as a songwriter, I think Tom Petty and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Ric Ocasek of the Cars, those are major influences to me as a songwriter. But as a frontman, someone who’s actually leading a band through a live performance, I have other influences, like Michael Hutchence of INXS, one of the greatest frontmen of all time; Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen; Ian Astbury of the Cult; Rob Halford of Judas Priest. I jokingly say, but I kind of mean it, that as a performer, as a frontman, I try to be a cross between Angus Young and Bryan Ferry.
That’s about the best cross-section of influences I feel I’ve heard in a while.
WILSON: Isn’t that great? I mean, if I can capture the spirit of those two artists, I’m on my way. And, of course, I also have to give a lot of credit to Bono of U2, as both an influence on my vocals and my performance, and even my songwriting. Certainly, I have to remember every once in a while. I was obsessed with U2 for four years. [Bono] could be the greatest frontman of all time. He’s certainly in a very elite lead with the likes of Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey and people at that level.
It sounds like you had quite an appetite for consuming music, in addition to creating it.
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I grew up just obsessed with music. My interests were always music first, but also art and science. If I had never joined the Gin Blossoms and I had never started a band that went anywhere, I probably would’ve ended up a graphic artist or working in science somehow. But music was always my main thing. When I was my son’s age, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, that’s all I did. I worked at the record store. I was going to open mic nights and seeing acoustic singers around town. I was just constantly going to concerts. We’d work at the record store all day long, and then we’d go home, my friends and I, and we would just put on records and smoke pot. That’s all we did was go to shows and listen to records and work at the record store. It paid off. That’s the foundation for what I ended up doing with my life.
As you give interviews about New Miserable Experience, does it ever get difficult for you to have conversations about that time period in the band’s history?
WILSON: Well, these days, anymore, it’s pretty easy. I have a style as far as talking about it that I’m completely comfortable with. It was really difficult at first. In the first few years after Doug’s death, it was excruciating to talk about it. And I really didn’t want to. Eventually, I kind of came to terms. I wouldn’t really talk about Doug very much. I certainly never really divulged how difficult it was and what some of his problems were. I didn’t get comfortable enough with the subject matter until over maybe the course of the last decade, where it finally became something that I could talk about with some level of openness.
Anyway, I’m OK with it. I live with that shadow over me all the time. I’m always thinking about Doug, and I’m always thinking about what we went through. It’s not very difficult for me to really discuss it. It’s more difficult if I’m talking with my son or my girlfriend and I reveal something really poignant and personal and painful. It’s harder to do that than it is to just skim over the basics while when I’m doing interviews.
Why does it feel important, in more recent years, to pay homage to this album?
WILSON: Well, this is how we make a living. We go out and do shows. It wasn’t our idea to go out and do a 30th anniversary tour. That was brought to us by our manager and our agent, because we sell more tickets when we’re doing New Miserable Experience than we do otherwise. It was several months ago that our manager first mentioned this to us. He says, “Well, we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary. We should do some more New Miserable Experience shows.” I was like, “God, it feels like we were just doing that.” And we were. Actually, we did the 25th anniversary back in 2017, and that kind of kept going. We kept doing those shows through 2018. Even as recently as early 2019, I think we did a couple of New Miserable Experience shows.
Honestly, it’s because there’s pressure on us by the business to do it. Fortunately, we all enjoy it. It’s not a really hard sell to the band because we want to do shows. We want to play our music. It’s a pretty good show when we do New Miserable Experience. We do the entire record, but we’ve also got plenty of other stuff to play. It’s a pretty use solid gig. We don’t have any reservations about doing it. It does feel a little cheesy sometimes. When my manager brings it up and he’s like, “Well, we should really do …” God, it’s like New Miserable Experience On Ice. Is that what we’re going to do next? Is somebody going to come up with that?
Going back to the moment you learned Gin Blossoms were going to sign with A&M, what went through your mind at that time?
WILSON: It was exciting. It was very stressful, also, but mostly we were just thrilled that we were getting a recording contract. We didn’t think, “Oh, well, it’s only a matter of time before we’re on MTV.” We weren’t really thinking like that because so many of our heroes, bands like the Replacements, they weren’t huge commercial successes. So we never really thought that it would be realistic for us to have a hit that goes beyond the commercial recognition of some of our favorite bands. We just thought, “Well, now we’re validated. We’re the coolest band in Tempe.” We felt like we were on our way. We were a success in that sense. Again, the idea of it’s only a matter of time before we’re multi-platinum never occurred to us.
I remember once I was watching MTV, and I saw a video for a group called the Rembrandts who have since become friends of ours. One of Jesse’s, his writing partner is Danny Wilde of the Rembrandts. So we’ve been sort of cousins with them for a long time. But long before we knew them, they had a hit single called “That’s Just The Way It Is.” Soon after we got signed, I remember being on the phone with our A&R guy. We were talking about that song, and he said, “Well, you’ll have a song like that.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Oh, you’ll have a song that’s on the radio and on MTV or whatever.” I was like, “Really?” We were already signed to A&M, and the idea that he was that confident that it was only a matter of time before we had a song that got recognized and was on the charts, that had never occurred to me. I guess we pulled it off, huh?
Do you feel like different band members had different reactions to being on MTV, and other high-profile opportunities?
WILSON: Oh, definitely. I was always driven to succeed. But there’s members of the group that were more pure musicians. Maybe the best example I could think of would be our bass player, Bill. He never had any interest in being famous or hits or whatever. He just wanted to make music. The best example of that is a story I’ve told many times before. We got offered a buttload of money — or at least what, for us at the time, was a huge amount of money — to license one of our songs to a Japanese cigarette commercial. This really threw the band into disarray because it was such a good payday. But it was just such a blatant commercial cash grab that we were torn up about it.
I remember Bill trying to express himself. He was so frustrated, he couldn’t even describe how he was feeling. He literally just went, “I used to listen to The Clash, goddammit.” That’s the only way he could express how offended he was about this idea of licensing our song to a Japanese cigarette commercial. So we ended up turning it down. It was never like such a huge blow to the band, turning it down. Never really changed anything. It never created a rift or a sore spot for anyone because we tend to stand with each other when it comes to our emotions and how we feel about what the band brings each individual.
I’ve always said that Bill is really the heart and the conscience of the band. When we first reformed in the early 2000s, Bill had said something to the effect of everyone in the band is allowed to have their own Gin Blossoms experience. That was the foundation for us reforming and rebuilding the band. I’ve always taken that to heart. Whenever there’s an issue where I think there might be some sort of rock and roll ethical conflict, I turn immediately to Bill. I want to know what his opinion is, and if it’s something we should do or whatever.
Do you think the “selling out” — or whatever you want to call it — stigma has lessened or changed in the streaming age?
WILSON: Well, the age we live in, with social media, it’s just all so narcissistic. Most all social media interactions are about getting attention. So in that sense, it’s a little different. Certainly back in our early days we handled ourselves in a certain way because we thought of ourselves as a certain type of band. We didn’t really dress super fancy. I dress much nicer now than I used to. I got over that. Also, as a performer, back in the ’90s, I would never get the crowd riled up and get everybody clapping along or doing the wave, or whatever it is. I never did that stuff in the ’90s. I had this self-imposed restriction because I felt like, “Well, we’re an alternative band. I’m not going to do that cheesy show business stuff.”
When we reformed in the early 2000s, we went out on a tour with a group called Sponge, which is a fantastic, great, super authentic rock band from Detroit. Their lead singer Vinnie [Dombroski] became a big influence on me as a frontman. Vinnie went out there every single night and got the crowd riled up and clapping along and singing along. He was all over the place, standing on the crowd barriers, jumping into the crowd. He would do whatever it took. He performed with so much pride and energy. The first couple shows on that tour, I was watching him, and I’m like, “Damn. I really need to step up my fucking game.” I did, and I never looked back. Now I take it as a point of pride. It’s a part of my job to get the crowd into it and to make them feel like it’s their show, and to involve them as much as possible, or as much as is practical. I give Vinnie a lot of the credit for helping me to get over that self-imposed self-consciousness about it.
Are any songs that you feel particularly endeared to when you revisit them on stage?
WILSON: “Hold Me Down” from New Miserable Experience is very special to me because it’s the only song that I’m credited as a co-writer with Doug Hopkins. That one was a song that we conceived of together. We had just gotten signed. I was talking to Doug, and I’m like, “What I think is that for our first big single or whatever, it should be a really upbeat, hard rock in Cheap Trick-style song.” And I did specifically refer to Cheap Trick. Doug came up with “Hold Me Down.” He basically wrote pretty much most of the song, certainly, all the music and most of the verses and the chorus. Then he kind of turned it over to me, and I helped him finish the lyrics. I came up with the intro and the bridge. It just always meant a lot to me. That was a special moment in our partnership. That one always touches home.
”Lost Horizons” is another good example. I always thought that was one of the best, most original songs that Doug ever came up with. That’s always been a staple of our shows. Those two in particular, and then some of mine that I’m particularly attached to might include “Competition Smile,” “Allison Road.” Certainly, that was probably my high point as a songwriter where I wrote the entire thing by myself. It came to me so quickly and so organically, and it was maybe one of the first times where I realized my potential as a songwriter, not only in practice, but just in my head, where I came to realize, I might be really good at this.
Moving into the next album, Congratulations I’m Sorry, what was going through your mind as you started preparing to follow up New Miserable Experience?
WILSON: Pressure. There was just so much pressure on us to make a good record. Following up your multi-platinum debut with your sophomore record, there’s no bigger challenge for a major-label musician, to have to live up to that success, to have to start from scratch. New Miserable Experience included songs that were written over a period of years. Some were written before Gin Blossoms even formed as a band. But with Congratulations I’m Sorry, we had to do it without Doug for the first time. We had to prove to everyone that we could do it without Doug. That was the biggest amount of pressure. And then you have a major label that’s spending millions of dollars. That’s a shit-ton of pressure. And, of course, you’re just trying to live up to your own expectations of yourself and your own potential.
I think Congratulations I’m Sorry, in those terms, was a success. We wrote some really great songs. It’s not as good a record as New Miserable Experience, and not every song on it is a Gin Blossoms classic, but there are enough of those, and it was commercially successful enough to qualify as a major success for the band, especially “Follow You Down.” That was the one where we thought we were finished recording the record, and then the label came to us and said, “You need another hit single.” They were very specific. You have to write a hit single. And that was the moment where there was the most pressure on us in the history of our career to live up to that demand, write a hit single, and we wrote “Follow You Down.” So I say, fuck you, universe. We did it.
I know it’s not on either record, but, I mean, “’Til I Hear It From You” is probably one of my favorite ’90s songs.
WILSON: Oh, great. Thank you. It’s one of those songs that I still hear around. I met my neighbors during the pandemic, and they’d be like, “Oh, so what do you do?” I’m like, “Well, I’m a singer in a rock band.” They’re like, “Oh, really?” They’re like, “Well, have I ever heard of you?” I’m like, “Well, do you shop at Home Depot?” They’re like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Well, then you’ve probably heard us.”
In 2018 you guys released your first new album in eight years, Mixed Reality. Are you actively working on any new music these days?
WILSON: Well, it varies from member to member. I am not particularly prolific unless I have a deadline in front of me. If I know we’re making a record in seven, eight months or a year from now, that’s when I start focusing on it. Anytime I come up with an idea, I try to at least get it down, record it on my phone. I have a notebook that I keep lyrics in, but I’m not particularly prolific until there’s real pressure on me. That’s when I do my best work, I’ve learned. But I’ll give Jesse credit. He is very prolific. He’s always writing. When he’s writing a song, I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think he’s particularly concerned about whether it turns out to be a Gin Blossoms song or something he writes for another artist or a TV show theme or whatever. He’s a craftsman that loves to do it all the time. I generally wait until I have an idea that I love so much that I really want to share with people.
I have to imagine that the New Miserable Experience years and most of the mid-’90s in general had to have gone by in a flash, considering your visibility. Now that you’ve had ample time to digest it, what are your main takeaways?
WILSON: It’s a lot like what I imagine it must be like for an athlete that spends their life training to play a sport, and then they finally get drafted into the pros, and then, all of a sudden they’re in the playoffs or the Super Bowl or whatever. That’s kind of what making New Miserable Experience means. The first time that you realize that you’re in the big game, what you spent your life dreaming to do.
Mostly, though, I have to admit that when I think about recording New Miserable Experience, I think about losing Doug, and how everything with Doug just went so sideways. I just wish that we had the experience and the maturity at the time to save him. I have a lot of regret that we just weren’t experienced enough to deal with what was happening to us and to Doug, and what it would mean in the long term.
But also, as a fan of music, as someone who grew up riding my bike to the record store and then rushing home and reading the liner notes while the album was playing and just dreaming about being in a band, I’m filled with enormous pride that we did it and that we’re a part of the big rock story. There was a time in my life where my big dream was just to be in a local band in Tempe, to see our band’s picture in the New Times, “coming this Friday to the Mason Jar.” That was a driving factor for me. And now, to have a song that I wrote in my bedroom, that was a #1 hit in the Philippines, it’s just beyond what I could have imagined us being able to accomplish.
After 33 years, the fact that the band is still together, I take enormous pride in that. My son is an aspiring musician. I know what an extraordinary challenge it is to get where we are. He’ll say things like, “Well, when we’re on tour, we’ll have a bus, and we’ll do this.” I’m like, “It’s just not that fucking simple.” There’s nothing I want for him more than for him to achieve his dreams. But it’s like saying, “One day I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.” You just can’t know that.
I have enough knowledge that I can say to him, “Well, even if you’re never in a successful band, there are still other ways that you can make money, make a living as a musician.” Start a really high-quality, high-energy tribute band or wedding band, or write incidental music for video games. Become a recording engineer. These are all completely valid options for someone with his interests. What he wants to do is be in an original band that’s on tour and on the radio and all of that. The trick there is the difficulty is actually writing songs that can resonate with a massive audience. That’s the big trick. I think that’s why we succeeded and why we still have a career.