Some two million people have plunked down their hard-earned $15 for a copy of New Miserable Experience, the Gin Blossoms' major-label debut. Probably ninety percent of them had never heard of the band before the video for "Hey Jealousy" became MTV buzz bin material in the summer of 1993. But these Blossoms are no one-hit wonders. They're slow bloomers, and their story actually starts more than a decade before the release of New Miserable Experience, in their hometown of Tempe, Arizona.
Founding members and longtime friends Bill Leen and Doug Hopkins first started playing in bands together a few years after graduating from Tempe's McClintock High School. Doug taught Bill to play the bass, and they formed their first band, Moral Majority, in 1981. The name came after a friend joined The Moral Majority (Jerry Falwell's conservative organization) under Doug's name as a joke. The band's t-shirts were the Moral Majority logo behind the international void symbol (you know, like the no smoking signs).
Next came the Psalms in 1982, a band which also included Jim Swafford (who would later co-write the Blossoms' song, "Mrs. Rita") and Alan Long (replaced in 1993 by Richard Flower, Jeff Swartz and Steve Brown). The Psalms released a 45-rpm single ("A Story I Was Told" b/w "Christmas Island") and a local cassette called "No Great Cathedral" (which contained "100 Summers," Monique Leshea," "Procession" and "Where The Grass Once Grew"). The band's other claim to fame was a gig opening for Billy Idol at the Devil House in Tempe in 1983. They filled the vacancy left when a new band called REM wasn't able to play.
Despite a healthy local following and some good press, The Psalms soon broke up because of personality conflicts. Then came Algebra Ranch, who were the first band to perform Doug's song "Angels Tonight." (The Blossoms later recorded it for the Up and Crumbling EP.) But Algebra Ranch also went the way of The Psalms, and dissolved because of internal conflicts.
Doug and Bill spent most of 1986 in Portland, playing in a band called Ten O'Clock Scholars (with Jim Swafford, David McKay and Randy Sanders). After returning to Tempe, Doug and Bill decided to start yet another band. They concocted the name "Gin Blossoms" after seeing a cable special on Kenneth Anger's book "Hollywood Babylon II," which contained that famous picture of comedian W.C. Fields (who had quite a bad case of gin blossoms from years of heavy drinking). The original Blossoms featured Doug on lead guitar, Bill on bass, Tempe-based guitarist Jesse Valenzuela as lead singer, Richard Taylor on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Chris McCann on drums. The Blossoms played their first gig on Christmas Day 1987 at the Mason Jar in Phoenix.
The original lineup didn't last long though--Chris later defected to Tahiti with his girlfriend, and Richard was fired. The 1988 vintage Blossoms then included Robin Wilson on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Dan Henzerling on drums. Robin was a clerk at Zia Records in Tempe, a favorite hangout of local musicians. He had also performed with local bands Guy Smiley and Bed-Spurs. Dan had previously worked with Robin, but he didn't stay long--Phillip Rhodes, fresh from the Navy, replaced him on drums later that year. The Blossoms' lineup finally solidified when Robin became lead singer and Jesse switched to rhythm guitar and vocals.
The band garnered a devoted following in Tempe, playing at local landmarks like the Sun Club, Chuy's, and Long Wong's, where they were a Tuesday night staple--but not as the Gin Blossoms. They appeared instead as the Del Montes--five fictitious brothers with the same mother (Irma) but different fathers (one of whom was a traveling flamenco dancer). The tradition started when Richard Taylor and Chris McCann were still in the group. Richard was on probation, and the band was afraid his probation officer would see the Gin Blossoms were playing, and know Richard was breaking the rules of his probation. So Chris came up with the "Del Montes" alias, a play on all the popular "Del" bands of the times (like the Del Fuegos).
The Blossoms played at Wong's under the assumed name one night, and it stuck. The band members all had Del Monte pseudonyms--Robin was "Biff," Jesse was "Pablo," Doug was "Otis," Bill was "Soup-bone" and Phil was "Guido." (If this whole story sounds familiar, it's because the Traveling Wilburys did much the same thing.) The Del Montes played mostly cover songs, and also featured an occasional guest appearance from Elvis. Not Elvis Presley... Elvis Del Monte, of course.
The local following continued to grow as the Blossoms earned a great reputation as a live act. Readers of the Phoenix New Times chose them as the city's best rock band, qualifying them to play at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in March of 1989. Later that year, College Music Journal dubbed them the best unsigned band in the country, and invited them to play MTV's New Music Awards in New York City, where they got to rub elbows with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smithereens, The Ramones, George Clinton, The Neville Brothers, Michael Hutchence and Lou Reed.
In between these big breaks, the Blossoms found time in May of 1989 to record their first album, Dusted, at Whipping Post Studios in Tucson. Thirteen tracks were recorded in just a few days, all at varying tempos and warp speed. Twelve songs made it onto the album, including "Hey Jealousy," "Lost Horizons," "Found Out About You," "Cajun Song," "Keli Richards," "Angels Tonight" and "Idiot Summer," all of which were later re-recorded for other Blossoms records. Dusted was self-released on Tucson's San Jacinto Records in November 1989, and gave the band something concrete to offer to the major labels who came calling after South By Southwest. Geffen, Frontier, Arista, Scotti Bros., MCA, Polygram and Columbia all expressed interest. The Blossoms got their first offer from Polygram, but held out for something better. They eventually signed with A&M Records on May 26, 1990, Phillip's twenty-first birthday.
Unfortunately, their first trip into an L.A. studio as a major label band was a disaster--the whole project was scrapped. The band returned to Tempe sure that they'd be dropped from A&M. Instead, the label had them cut an EP on their own, 1991's Up and Crumbling. It was a local hit, selling about 20,000 copies, so A&M agreed to send the band out on the road--the "Please God Don't Let Us See Our Ex-Girlfriends On The Road" tour. In February of 1992 the Blossoms braved the studio once again, this time in Memphis with producer John Hampton. That venture was much more successful--the result was New Miserable Experience, which went on to sell over two million copies.
The recording of New Miserable Experience also started a new era for the Blossoms--without Doug Hopkins. Doug had battled problems with alcohol and depression long before the Gin Blossoms, but things got even worse during the New Miserable Experience recording sessions, and Doug was fired from the band after the album was finished. He was replaced by Tempe guitarist Scott Johnson, who had been in The Feedbags and The Squares (and also played at several hundred weddings). New Miserable Experience was released in August of 1992 with Doug listed in the liner notes as playing on the record, but no longer as a member of the band.
The Blossoms went back out on the road to support New Miserable Experience, opening for Toad the Wet Sprocket, Del Amitri and the Neville Brothers in 1992 and 1993. They also did their own 4-month "Let You Down Live" Tour early in 1993, partially sponsored by Insider magazine, playing daytime shows at colleges and clubs at night. By the time they returned home to Tempe, they'd logged over 40,000 miles in the white Dodge van (dubbed "Jack Ruby") that appears on the cover of New Miserable Experience. In the meantime, A&M was trying everything to break New Miserable Experience into radio. "Hey Jealousy" was released in July of 1992 and promptly died, so the label moved on to promote "Mrs. Rita." They even changed the New Miserable Experience artwork after the first 120,000 copies had already been shipped.
While no one was looking, "Hey Jealousy" was slowly catching on, months after its original release. A&M took notice and started to promote the single to radio again full-tilt, while the band shot three different videos for the song before finally coming up with one that satisfied the label. The strategy must have worked--in the summer of 1993, the single just exploded and became almost inescapable on MTV and radio. The Blossoms had their first hit, and it all happened while they were sitting at home in Tempe. The band returned to the road opening for UB40, and then on their own "Your Party Sucks" tour early in 1994, playing mostly colleges and clubs. Their first stadium tour came later that year when they shared the bill with Vinx, Cracker and the Spin Doctors. "Found Out About You," "Until I Fall Away" and "Allison Road" were also released as singles before New Miserable Experience was finally put to bed. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Unfortunately, Doug's tale doesn't have the same storybook ending. The split with the GBs was very public and very painful, and drew a lot of attention back in Arizona. Doug, Lawrence Zubia and Mark Zubia started another band, The Chimeras, but Doug was still fighting his alcoholism and depression. In December of 1993, he committed suicide. His death was mourned deeply in the Tempe music community, where he was well-known and well-respected.
There was a lot of speculation about whether or not the Blossoms would be as successful without Doug, who wrote about half the songs on New Miserable Experience , including "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You." The band quelled those doubts, at least somewhat, with the release of their sophomore effort, "Congratulations I'm Sorry". All five band members shared songwriting duties on the album.
But there's no doubt that Doug's songwriting was something special. "With Doug's songwriting there was a certain style, a certain coolness, a certain sadness about his material that would be rather impossible for any of us to recapture," Robin has said. "But there is a lot about Doug's songwriting spirit that I hope I've captured in a couple of my songs. I don't want to try to live up to Doug--Doug was my friend and he's gone and I miss him but he's not me and I don't want to be him. And I'm excited about what we've done without him. And I honestly believe that he would be really proud of what we've been able to do."
The release of CIS in 1996 affirmed the Blossoms' status as a big-time rock and roll band. The album reached #10 on Billboard's Top 200 chart and went platinum, while "Follow You Down" became a top ten single and the band appeared on Saturday Night Live for the first time. They spent part of the summer of '96 playing stadiums all over Europe as openers for Bryan Adams and Melissa Etheridge, and headlined their own fall stadium tour in the US.
Unfortunately, the breakup rumors that started swirling around the band after some problems on tour were confirmed as the Blossoms have apparently called it quits. No official announcement has been made that we're aware of, but numerous sources close to the band have indicated that they're through, at least for the time being. Blossoms guitarists Jesse and Scott have started a new band (The Low Watts), as have Robin and Phillip (The Swaffords). Both bands have been playing around Tempe, rehearsing and demoing new songs.