Off The Backburner
Ex-Gin Blossom Robin Wilson returns to Memphis with Pharoahs in tow.
by Mark Jordan

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It was a relatively lazy day in the life of a rock star.

Robin Wilson, the former lead singer for the power-pop quintet the Gin Blossoms, was in town last week with members of his new band, Pharoahs, to mix their debut album at Ardent Studios with John Hampton, the famed local producer who guided the Blossoms through their two multi-platinum full-length efforts New Miserable Experience and Congratulations … I’m Sorry. But while Hampton was ensconced in Studio A fiddling with the knobs and computers, the band’s guitarist was playing Super Mario World in another room. Wilson took time out to talk to journalists. And even Hi, Wilson’s mixed-breed dog named after the Nicholas Cage character in Raising Arizona, seemed thoroughly bored by the whole thing.

“Mixing is mostly John’s work,” Wilson says. “He works while I go and play Playstation for a few hours, and then he calls me back in to play me something and I nod my head one way or the other.”

Wilson’s remark seems flippant, but in reality he is doing everything he can to make every aspect of this project just right – from worrying over the slightest background noises to consulting on the cover art, in this case commissioned from noted comic-book artist Geoff Darrow. The obsession with detail is understandable; after all, the album, tentatively and appropriately titled From Beyond The Backburner and scheduled for release later this summer, is the fruition of a 10-year dream for Wilson and bandmates G. Brian Scott and Dan Henzerling.

“Dan and Brian and I used to work at Tower Records in Tempe [Arizona], and we always talked about putting a band together,” says Wilson. “ We finally got to the point where we said we’ve got to do it now, while we’re in our prime.”

Unfortunately, the price of realizing that dream was the band that made it possible. Actually, anyone acquainted with the group’s history could have anticipated the Gin Blossoms’ disintegration almost from the start of their short ride on the charts. In 1993, guitarist/songwriter/co-founder Doug Hopkins, the author of such early Blossoms hits as “Hey Jealousy” and “Found About You” who had been fired from the band two years earlier – killed himself as his just as his former band was achieving chart success.

With new guitarist Scott Johnson on board, the Gin Blossoms chugged along, producing the hits “Till I Hear It From You” from the Empire Records soundtrack and “Follow You Down” from Congratulations … I’m Sorry. But by 1995, when Congratulations dropped from the charts after only a few months, personal tensions were driving the band apart, and Wilson was already planning to go his own way.

“I loved being in the Gin Blossoms; it just got to a point where it was a little stale,” Wilson says, emphasizing that the split was amicable. “We’re all like Siamese twins who’ve been separated. We still feel that connection. … You don’t spend 10 years with a bunch of guys and not have some strong bonds that are going to last. In some way nothing any of us ever do will ever equal the Gin Blossoms. We shared a lot of milestones together – the first time we heard a song of ours on the radio, the first time we saw ourselves on MTV.”

Guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson have gone on to form a new band, Lo-Watts. And bassist Bill Leen has retired from music and is living in Mason, Arizona.

Drummer Philip Rhodes, meanwhile, has joined Wilson in Pharaohs.

“Not the Pharoah’s. Just Pharoahs. And it’s misspelled on purpose,” Wilson says, explaining that the new band took its name from a mock gang he and a group of friends formed years ago in Tempe. “The first two guys to go to Hollywood and get drunk and get a tattoo misspelled it. Hence all other members who get a tattoo have to misspell it.”

Listening to the unmixed tracks for Pharoahs’ debut, one can detect a similarity to the Gin Blossoms in, obviously, Rhodes’ drumming and Wilson’s soaring tenor, probably one of the most distinctive (and good) voices on the radio today. But Pharoahs is a considerably heavier band, with the guitars cranked up – more Badfinger or the Smithereens than Tom Petty or the Eagles, two bands the Gin Blossoms were often compared to.

“It’s a little different,” Wilson says. “Some Gin Blossoms fans are going to think it’s radically different. Some people are going to think it sounds the same just because it’s my voice. … These songs are more aggressive than the Gin Blossoms. Maybe they’re more new-wave. I hope they’re more new-wave.”

That description works for songs like “Now The Change” and “In Between Two Worlds,” but at least one track on From Beyond The Backburner seems positively metal. “Stinkin’ Up The Charts” sounds like the Gin Blossoms backing Randy Rhodes of Ozzy Osbourne fame.

“Now, Dan’s going to be some kind of guitar god. … Actually, [that song] is an attempt to get as close to Cheap Trick as possible,” Wilson says, citing the band with the other famous rocking Robin.

The basic tracks for From Beyond The Backburner were recorded at Wilson and Rhodes’ Tempe studio, Mayberry, which the pair inherited when the Gin Blossoms went their separate ways. (“It’s the grooviest little clubhouse a guy can have,” Wilson says. “John helped us build it ourselves. … I’m so proud of it.”) But when it came time to mix the record, Wilson says he had to come back to Memphis.

“John is our mentor and good friend,” Wilson says. “And right down to Dan the custodian, everybody’s been great. … You know, when you record in Memphis there’s just such a great vibe with the people and the barbecue and everything. When you record in Memphis, you know you’re part of a rich tradition.”

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