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NEW YORK--When the Gin Blossoms finally came off the road after almost 2 years of constant touring behind 1992's multiplatinum "New Miserable Experience," the band was faced with several options: "One was to rush a record out to capitalize on our popularity of the moment," says songwriter/guitarist/singer Jesse Valenzuela. "But we didn't feel we'd make our best record, so we thought, `What the hell. Let's take our time and make the record we want to make,' and if we lose some kids along the way who are listening to other bands, we'll just tour again."
The result is "Congratulations, I'm Sorry," which comes out on A&M Records Feb. 13. The first single, the harmonica-laced, cascading "Follow You Down," goes to AC, top 40, triple-A, alternative, and album rock radio on (24).
A refreshing "take nothing for granted" attitude surrounds the band and its label and management. Despite the success of "New Miserable Experience" and the belief that the new album can do even better, no one thinks that the band can add new audience layers without first securing its fan base. So the label's strategy is to take a few steps back, work radio and retail with the zeal normally reserved for a new band, and not get cocky.
"With a band that's had so much success at pop radio, we have to make sure we develop a real image for them," says Mike Regan, senior director of product development at A&M. "You have a lot of bands that achieve pop success but don't have a vision for a long-term career or how to leave a lasting impression."
One of the label's goals for the album is to make the band's singles must-adds at several radio formats. "It's a little too soon to say they're a core artist for us," says Dan Bowen, PD at top 40 WNCI Columbus, Ohio. "But they certainly have the potential to be one. Don't know what it is about their records, but they don't burn out quickly. We're absolutely looking forward to having something new from them even though `Til I Hear it From You' [from the `Empire Records' soundtrack] is still testing like crazy."
A&M is eschewing flashy album premieres and midnight in-stores in favor of a back-to-basics campaign. For indie retailers, A&M plans a prerelease postcard bag-stuffer campaign. After the album's release, the label will begin a six-month bag-stuffer plan with "kitchen magnets, lighters, stickers with the band's name on it . . . things that have a really long shelf life," says Regan.
For major retailer chains, the plan is to offer "great co-op dollars and positioning," Regan says.
"I think the new album will be one of our top sellers," says Eric Keil, buyer for the New Jersey-based, nine-store chain Compact Disc World. "I don't think people realize it's been more than three years since the last record; they've had so much radio play."
The Gin Blossoms, which are booked by William Morris, will start a college tour as soon as the album comes out. "We're turning back a few chapters," says band manager Morty Wiggins. "The first four legs will be colleges and college markets. You might say, `Why are you playing Missoula, Mont., or Southern Oregon State University or Utah State?' And the answer is, we're going to play for kids and hope that when they go home on spring break, they tell their friends about the album."
Slow Start, Great Finish
The story of the Gin Blossoms so far is one of delayed gratification and constant retrenching. If one idea didn't seem to work, the band and label took another tack. A&M created a new album cover for "New Miserable Experience" after shipping more than 120,000 copies with the original art. Three videos were shot for "Hey Jealousy" before MTV began playing it in regular rotation. When first released, "Hey Jealousy" was ignored by most radio programmers. It went on to become a staple at modern rock for two solid years (Billboard, 30, 1994).
Through it all, the band played markets over and over again, "shaking hands and saying howdy" to radio and retail at every stop, says Valenzuela.
Once the band stopped touring, Valenzuela wanted to begin working on the new album immediately, but A&M's senior VP of A&R David Anderle had other ideas. "I came off the road, and called David Anderle and said, `I'm going to take today off, and we're going to go get 'em tomorrow and start demoing,' and he said, `Why don't you take six weeks off?' I said we couldn't do that. I tried demoing, and nothing would happen. I called David [a week later] and said, `I don't know what to do,' and he said, `Why don't you try taking six weeks off?'" Valenzuela says with a laugh.
Heeding the advice the second time, the band members began writing and demoing songs after a break. Not only was the specter of sophomore slump looming over their heads, there was the question of how to carry on without one of their key songwriters.
Band member Doug Hopkins, who wrote "Hey Jealousy" as well as several other songs on "New Miserable Experience," left the band in 1992 and committed suicide in 1994.
"I think the label and the band were all justifiably concerned about what his death meant," says Anderle. "Not that it was the end of the band, because they are more than just that element; [but] I think that once 'Til I Hear It From You' -- which they did without Doug -- was successful artistically and creatively, we thought, 'It's going to be just fine.'"
For the recording of "Congratulations, I'm Sorry," the Gin Blossoms returned to Ardent Studios in Memphis to work with producer John Hampton. "John's pretty important to the band," says Valenzuela. "I've seen some producers who overwhelm the band; that's not John's [modus operandi]. He's a very generous, patient cat."
Relying on the same winning combination of jangly pop melodies and tight harmonies surrounding lead singer Robin Wilson's casually unpretentious vocals, "Congratulations, I'm Sorry" proves that success hasn't gone to the band members' collective heads. The lyrics have the same wistfully dissatisfied feel as those on "New Miserable Experience."
"I think we're all a little malcontent," says Valenzuela. "We're not purposefully so. We don't mean to be less than gracious, [but] the music business is very tenuous. You may be doing pretty good for a couple of years, but you always have that pit in your stomach that you could be back playing the VFW hall."
The one area that everyone agrees the band neglected with "New Miserable Experience" was the international market.
"By the time the first record broke, the band was so fucking burnt, the concept of going overseas was morbid to them," says Wiggins. "Except for the U.K., where think we sold 40,000 records, we didn't get to first base."
This time, an 18-month plan for "Congratulations" evenly splits the band's time between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The Gin Blossoms did a promotional tour in Europe the third week of and will return for a tour in late spring, before starting on the summer shed circuit in the U.S.
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