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If you don't know Jesse Valenzuela by name, it's a safe bet you know his songwriting work. He was recently in Los Angeles to pick up an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for having two of the top 10 most-played songs of 1996.
Both songs were recorded by his band, Tempe's best known musical export, the Gin Blossoms. "Til I Hear It From You" was written with Marshall Crenshaw and singer Robin WIlson.. "Follow You Down" was a band composition.
Now Valenzuela is fronting his own band, The Low-Watts.
The group also features Gin Blossom guitarist Scott Johnson, bassist Darryl Icard and drummer Winston Watson.
Why a new band? "I don't think that the Gin Blossoms are going to do anything for a long, long while, if they do at all," Valenzuela says. Hmm, strange use of the pronoun "they" instead of "we." When asked if he longer feels a part of the Gin Blossoms, he says, "No, definitely not. I think that the band's done.
"Robin wants to pursue something different, so, giving him his own space and time to do whatever he wants, I'm not holding my breath to make another record. I mean, we're certainly not curing cancer here, so if somebody wants to go knock around by himself and play some music, he should have the blessing of all the other guys in the band."
Valenzuela calls a group splintering "the oldest story in rock and roll," but it's obvious that there's no bitterness. "It had been coming for a while. It's gotten a little sticky sometimes, there have been a few business concerns, but everything's fine. We've known each other for so long, it would just be silly to be nasty with one another," he says.
Valenzuela turns more contemplative,"You just never know what's goin to happen. The guys could want to get back together and make some music, but I just don't see it happening in the next six months, next year, or next two years."
Then a note of finality creeps in when it's mentioned that many people would like to hear another album. "We were sort of foolish to quit. The last record did very well," he says.
Valenzuela never intended to form a new group so quickly. With several hits to his credit, he was in demand as a song writer.
"In the last year or so I've gotten a lot of phone calls from people seeking collaborations or looking for songs. Once the Gin Blossoms came home from the tour and everybody needed a break, I started taking these opportunities as they arose."
And the life of a "journeyman," as he calls it, is not too shabby.
"It's great for me. They send you a plane ticket and you go someplace like Los Angeles or New York and they set you up in a hotel and give you some pocket money. It's a great job, I love it," he says.
He's moving in some elite circles. Aside from Marshall Crenshaw, he's also written with Judy Collins and has a collaboration planned with J.D. Souther of the Eagles.
Valenzuela was usuing some of the soon-to-be Low-Watts to help him record demos of his songs. (Icard has a lengthy local resume which includes work with Poet's Corner, The Feedbags and Major Lingo. Watson played locally with Gentlemen After Dark in the early '80s, before heading to Los Angeles where he performed with several bands including a brief stint in Was Not Was. He spent the past four years touring with Bob Dylan.)
The chemistry soon became apparent.
Drummer Watson says, "I was really reserved the first couple of times we got together. Then we jammed on something the third time and that broke the ice. I felt like we were really onto something."
Valenzuela felt the same and was realistic, "You can't really hang on to good musicians if you'r just, like, every two weeks, saying, 'Hey, why don't you come over and play on these demos.' "
Watson, for example, had an audition scheduled with Jewel. Thus, of necessity, The Low-Watts were born.
Valenzuela says, "If I hadn't pulled the trigger, they'd all be doing something else. You have to, to make a living. We've taken a little bit of bread from the label to put everybody on these impoverished salaries so we can rehearse full-time."
His original vision wasn't to perform live, but to record. "I wouldn't waste all these musicians' time if we weren't going to try and make a record," he says. The band quickly learned his first batch of 10 songs and had started on more when the performance bug hit.
"It turned into such a good time that the guys said 'Let's play some shows,'" Valenzuela says. "But I balked. I said, 'No, I don't want to do that.' Then Scotty said, in a phone conversation, 'You know, this is a really good band, maybe we should go out and play.' So, I hemmed and hawed and finally said 'sure, why not,' and it's been a great time."
Thus far, the Low-Watts have played only a handful of Valley shows after making their debut in Flagstaff. It went very well.
Watson says, "When we did that first show, people were going nuts after the second song. I thought, 'We really are on to something.' "
Icard felt it as well. "We did a song as an encore that we weren't even planning on doing and everybody was like 'wow!' " he says animatedly.
For Valenzuela, the biggest adjustment was singing lead vocals. "At first first, I couldn't stand it. You know, it's so much easier to just play guitar and sing backups. I didn't think I was going to dig it, but I actually love it now," he says.
His new songs are still pop-oriented with an Americana flavor, though he notes the tempos are generally not as fast as songs from his Gin Blossoms days. This gives them a little more breathing room and space for the band to work in.
The Low-Watts have been building their sound from the ground up. "Jesse and I knew we wanted to play together, we just weren't sure what we wanted to play," says Johnson. That aspect of creating something brand new is especially appealing. the whole group is excited about the new possibilities of musical expression offered by the band. Watson says, "We can open it up and do anything." Johnson continues "We don't have to limit ourselves." Icard concludes, "Everybody here comes from different musical backgrounds, so we can pull from just about anything we want."
In an obvious comparison to his previous group, the Low-Watts leader deadpans, "This band tends to play more varied music."
Grateful for his past successes, Valenzuela hopes to continue in his career as he ages. "As we enter the Nick Lowe years, music takes on a little more importance," he says. "I really see music now as what I do; and, hopefully, will do for the rest of my life. I'll work hard at it."
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