Robin Wilson is on his way back home to Ventura, California, weaving through rush hour traffic after getting a tattoo from The Dear & Departed frontman Dan Smith of Captured Tattoo in Orange County.
“I met him on LA Ink eight years ago,” he says in between checking in on freeway navigation with his passenger. “He seems to be one of LA’s greatest living hipsters. We had the shop to ourselves, so we were sharing all this new music with each other.”
Fittingly, Wilson’s fresh ink consists of lyrics from The Meat Puppets’ song “Paradise,” specifically the lead track off the iconic Phoenix, Arizona, alt-rock band’s 1987 record “Huevos”.
“I wanted something Arizona-themed and I wound up on This is paradise,” he says.
Wilson had found his own musical Shangri-La just down the road in Tempe that same year. Formed by a group Arizona State University alums, Gin Blossoms toured the state heavily until being signed by A&M Records and releasing the groundbreaking album “New Miserable Experience” in 1992.
If you were a child of the early ’90s, “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” were grunge rock staples on alternative radio and MTV. Incessantly catchy, the earworms of their upbeat jangle pop betrayed much darker lyrics that dealt with addiction, heartbreak and regret.
The majority of the best songs on the album were written by original member Doug Hopkins, who was fired from the band during the recording sessions for alcohol abuse. He committed suicide the following year, shortly after receiving a gold record for “Hey Jealousy”.
Hopkins’ beef with the Gin Blossoms and its tragic aftermath have been well-documented and, in many ways, his contributions continue to define the band, even 25 years later.
“Doug was the best songwriter I’ve ever worked with,” Wilson says. “I’m very proud of what I can do, but I don’t think I’m ever coming close to Doug. He had a natural gift that was special. His songs are really still the best songs we have as a group.”
For his own part, Wilson was never a pushover, either. After all, he penned one of Gin Blossoms’ most beloved tunes, “Allison Road”.
“I went on hike with my girlfriend and ended up having sex in the creek in the rain, so it was about that sort of blissful moment of youth when you’re feeling real genuine passion and feeling alive,” he says.
The Gin Blossoms newest album, “Mixed Reality,” was released in June on Cleopatra Records, echoing some of their best work from the ’90s with the sort of memorable hooks and emotional delivery that first brought them fame.
“I do think Doug would’ve been really proud of this album,” Wilson says. “If he was still around and still pissed at us, he would probably would have to admit this is a good record.”
It’s been suggested over the years that Gin Blossom dig up some of Doug’s old tunes and record them, but Wilson has consistently rejected the idea.
“We’re already competitive enough with each other,” he says. “To bring Doug back into the mix? Hell … I’ve had a hard enough time getting my own songs on the record, I don’t need to compete with Doug’s ghost.”
Nevertheless, the lead single off the new album, “Face the Dark,” is a tribute of sort to Hopkins’ unparalleled character and compelling songwriting style. Lyrics like “you thought that heaven had just covered up the sun” deal directly with the irony of losing your sanity just as you finally get your big break.
“Especially on “Face the Dark,” I think I channeled a little bit of Doug,” Wilson says. “At first, I thought it was about the end of my marriage. As I listened to it more, I realized I had written a song for or through his voice. It’s something that speaks to his mentality and his personality. I wanted the arrangement to be something he could have played on that sounded like early Gin Blossoms.”
All these years later, Wilson still holds Hopkins as the bar he’s forever trying to reach.
“It’s nothing you could really define, he just had it. He had innate sense of melody and, as a lyricist, he was a true poet. He knew how to evoke emotions with words. He’s the greatest wordsmith that I’ve ever worked with. I’ve been working in his shadow all these years. Every time I think I’ve come up with something pretty damn clever, I just remember that Doug used to fart out lyrics that good all to time.”
“Mixed Reality” underscores a popular opinion that Gin Blossoms are one of the most underrated bands of the early ’90s. This comes with good timing as grunge bands from around the land are dusting off their fuzz pedals and booking tours to the glee of Generation Xers across the land who now have a little more extra money to spend on concert tickets and memorabilia.
“I think for the most part it was a really authentic time for music,” Wilson says. “Nobody was telling Nirvana or Bush what to do. We were following our own muse and our own influences. As opposed to the ’80s, where things were a little bit over done in terms of hair-dos and keyboard sounds, it was an era somewhat stripped of pretension. It was something of a punk rock ethos that we were all following. We were alternative so we weren’t about selling out. We wanted to succeed, but do it on our terms rather than follow some trend.”
The influences that forged the alternative revolution had been bubbling under that surface for years before it broke out into the mainstream, Wilson says.
“I was working record store and listening to The Sugarcubes and The Smithereens. We were like eight years behind bands like The Replacements, Cheap Trick, and R.E.M. We came up wanting to be those kind of groups that really excited us. Then as radio changed in the ’90s, we were right there at the right time, playing music that was the direct spawn of all the college rock bands we were listening to in the ’80s.”
Wilson credits this sea change to college radio programmers who found jobs at commercial stations post graduation.
“They’d been supporting bands like The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction and were just waiting for an opportunity to throw the switch. Then Nirvana gave everybody the excuse.”
With a sense of humor only time can afford, Wilson looks back on the slacker grunge style that was all the rage at the time.
“We were sort of rebelling against that in our mode of dress,” he says. “We were just scuzzy-looking kids in oversize T-shirts and Chuck Taylors. We didn’t know how to buy clothes that fit us right. I look at pictures of us now and wonder, ‘Why did buy that jacket two sizes too large?’”
“Mixed Reality” was tracked at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville, North Carolina. Along with Don Dixon, he is known as the man who created the sounds of R.E.M. after producing its breakthrough albums such as “Murmur” and “Reckoning” in the early ’80s.
“We met Don Dixon at one of our shows and it just hit me like a thunderbolt,” Wilson says. “That’s the production dream team for ’80s kids that grew up listening to R.E.M. and The Smithereens. Their catalog of music was very much in my thoughts writing these songs. I was feeling nostalgic for the ’80s and feeling connected to the early Gin Blossoms.”
As Wilson began to write for the project, he happened to have a conversation with his 14-year-old son about the basics of songwriting.
“He wanted to know how to write a song, so I explained to him that you think about the artist you want to sound like, the message you want to deliver, the story or mood you want to create. After talking to him, I managed to connect to something really elemental in my songwriting from when I first started it. So going into the session, I knew it had the potential to be our best record ever.”
This fall, Gin Blossoms are hitting the road to California, Colorado, Louisiana, South Dakota, as well as their birthplace in Arizona.
“It’s always great when you got a batch of new material that everybody in the band is excited about,” Wilson says. “We’re feeling very energizing. We’re functioning really well as a partnership now, probably better than we ever have. Over the past few years, we’ve been rebuilding our brand slowly, but steadily, and it’s getting better for us as a group all the time.”
Alongside longtime bandmates Bill Leen on bass, and Jesse Venezuela and Scott Johnson on guitars, Wilson will be performing with his signature tambourine in tow. He first picked up the instrument after seeing it played by Ian Astbury of The Cult.
“That’s why I play tambourine and I do say with no humility whatsoever that I’m one best tambourine players in rock history,” says a straight-faced Wilson.
“I worked really hard to get good at it and it’s not an instrument that everybody can play. Even a lot of drummers can’t do it with the right style. With any instrument it comes down to choices I make. It’s something I really dig. I hear a record I really love and go ‘There’s no tambourine. … what the fuck were they thinking!?”
— Sean McAlindin
- Gin Blossoms
Sept. 14 – Grand Sierra Resort, Reno
Sept. 15 – Westside Pavilion, Tuolumne, California
Sept. 17 – Troubadour, West Hollywood
Sept. 21 – Las Colonias Park Amphitheater, Grand Junction, Colorado
Sept. 22 – Pepsi Center, Denver
Sept. 28 – Neptune Festival, Virginia Beach, Virginia
Sept. 29 – Gretna Heritage Festival, Gretna, Louisiana
Oct. 21 – Deadwood Mountain Grand Hotel & Casino, Deadwood South Dakota
Dec. 14 – Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, Maricopa, Arizona