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This month I had the privilege of chatting with one of Arizona's most successful musicians. After spending quite some time chasing down Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms (which only further proved their expanding popularity), he was finally gracious enough to sit down for a Review interview. At the time, I was concerned that he might be shy due to his newcomer status to all of the media attention. Fortunately for you, I was wrong. I could barely get a word in edgewise. Looking over this interview, I learned more than I ever expected to from this icon of our time. Read on, for I'm sure that you will find him (and the band) as interesting as I do. One thing seems to be apparent: Robin Wilson is just one of us who seems to have received a good break in life.
Robin Wilson: I just want to relate to you just a little bit; when you start selling as many records as we are, it's just a non-stop barrage of shit raining down upon me.
Lael: You just recently returned to Arizona, right?
RW: Yeah I've been in and out for the last three weeks. We went to Minneapolis, New York, Rhode Island then back to New York and then out to Los Angeles to make a video. Now we're going down to Tucson and then I'm going up to Flagstaff to do some skiing. Next weekend I'm going out to San Diego to hang out on the beach with the crowd from MTV Spring Break, which should be a lot of fun. We're going to rent jet skis and do all that shit. Then I'm going to Austin and that'll be fun. I'm going to see my buddy Dan (who is in the Grievous Angel) play at South-By-Southwest. Dan also plays the drums in the cover band I'm in.
Lael: Tell me about the cover band.
RW: We're called "The Best David Swaffords in the World." We play every Tuesday night at Edsel's Attic [in Tempe] and we are doing the re-opening of what used to be Chuy's next Thursday. We're playing our asses off. We do all covers, about 40 songs total.
Lael: What bands do you cover?
RW: A lot of New Wave. We do the Cars and Elvis Costello and The Pretenders and stuff like that.
(At this point we take a short break to solidify some plans with his grandmother.)
RW: I'm having lunch with my grandparents before I leave town. I'm trying to coordinate everything.
Lael: OK. Let's jump into this interview so you can get your show on the road. Could you give me a brief history of the Gin Blossoms, focusing on major turning points?
RW: We got started in 1987 and I joined the band in early '88. The first time we ever demo'd "Found Out About You" we knew it was a hit song. I remember that being a significant event in my mind, when we were in the studio doing that song. I was sitting out on my car and what I imagined to be a hit song was a bunch of kids dancing to it at the Devil House. We were listening to it and Bill [Leen, the bassist] looked over at me and said, "Hey, wow, this song is going to get you a lot of women, isn't it?" I was just like "Yeah, whatever."
We went to South-By-Southwest in '89 and that was a major turning point. The New Times had given us "Best New Rock Band" in Phoenix for '88. They sent us to Austin in '89 and we made some connections there with this guy named Dave Margulies (you always see his name on our records), and he sent us to New York to perform in the New Music Awards Ceremony in '89 and the College Music Journal's Music Marathon. We went out there and were the only unsigned band in this huge show with Lou Reed, the Chili Peppers and all of these other bands, and that was where we met the people from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Editors) who started getting us shows in Los Angeles. We used to go to L.A. [about] twice a month. Then, we went to Austin again in '90. A day later in the van, we found out that we had our first offer from a major record label and a big cheer went up. Four or five months later, we finally signed with A&M in May of '90 on Phillip's birthday (Phillip Rhodes, the drummer).
We floundered around and tried to work with a producer in Tempe who just didn't work for us. We blew some money and thought we were total failures and we were going to lose our recording contract. We came home and I think all of the guys in the band were really sick of Tempe and we were not all that happy. We recorded "Up And Crumbling," (our EP), and I remember we weren't all that happy with it. Then we went out on tour in '91 to support the EP and we got little or no support from the label. It was a dismal thing, but a hardening experience.
I think it was what our A&R guy wanted to accomplish by making us record an EP and go out on the road. He let us twist in the wind to toughen us up and let us know exactly how hard it is. We did that and then went back into the studio with John Hampton and made "New Miserable Experience." That was when we lost Doug Hopkins (ex-lead guitarist, who split from the band due to alcoholism). That was a pretty significant event. We didn't know if we were going to be able to go on and we weren't sure if the album would ever come out. We thought for the better part of the day-- most of which we spent at Graceland--that we would just break up and the album would never be released.
Anyway, we came home and hired Scott Johnson [the current lead guitarist] and we rehearsed every day for two months trying to get ready, trying to teach Scott all of the songs, concentrating on the songs that Doug didn't write. It was important to us to try and go out on the road to support "New Miserable Experience" without having to play "Found Out About You" and "Lost Horizons" and [other] stuff.
Then we got the Toad the Wet Sprocket tour which was very important to us. We spent four months on the road with Toad (no rhyme intended). Their audience was perfect for us. We played our asses off every night and got really, really good. We were so tight, tighter than we had ever been. We developed a really solid stage routine, and we just kept working it and working it. The label wouldn't let us go home and we just stayed on tour and did 250 shows last year. Most of it was in a van. It wasn't until we went on tour with UB40 and we had a "Buzz Clip" that we got to have a bus. None of that stuff happened until the album had been out for nine or ten months.
Then last summer, all of a sudden, we had a top-40 single out and we were on tour in Europe with the Spin Doctors. When we came home our album was gold and we did a big show at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum. We had Ladmo introduce us. We played a sold out show at Veteran's where I had seen my first concert which was Cheap Trick and KISS. It was great.
Then we took a few months off. I joined the cover band. Philip (Rhodes) joined another band. Jesse (Valenzuela) has been writing a bunch of new songs. Scott (Johnson) and Bill (Leen) both have families that they have been spending time with. For the last four months all of this stuff has been happening on TV. The album just exploded while we were sitting in Tempe. We went out a few weeks ago to do this American Music Awards thing then we were in Minneapolis to do the MTV "All-Star Jam" and there were kids waiting in the snow to get our autographs. I was thinking, "What the hell has happened here?" There is so much activity, photo shoots and videos and flying around the country to do stuff. That it kind of leaves your head spinning.
A lot of stars get so freaked out. There is just so much going on. I'm psyched that I'm in a band that has managed to stay so level-headed.
That's where we are. We have a lot of shit going on. We have a hit record and we're gonna go out and tour in support of it. We're going to do a big tour this summer with the Spin Doctors and Cracker, and after that we plan to make another album and we'll see what happens with that.
You know, we were in Los Angeles and, I thought this was really funny, we had always wanted to headline The Whiskey and we had never had the opportunity. Now if we go to L.A. we can fill places a lot bigger than that (like The Palladium). So I said. "You know, we never got a chance to play The Whiskey," and Bill (Leen) said, "Ah, don't worry Rob, we'll play it on the way down."
Lael: (Laughs) You were in L.A. shooting a video for what song?
RW: "Until I Fall Away." It's gonna be the big follow-up to Found Out About You." Then we will release a video for "Allison Road." By that point the record will probably be dead. That's about the time our summer tour is going to start. At that point, our record will have been as old as the Spin Doctors' was. Christ, we left for Memphis two years ago today to make "New Miserable Experience."
Lael: Looking at "New Miserable Experience" it's hard not to notice that Doug Hopkins wrote six of the 12 songs, including both of the singles.
RW: He was very important to the song writing of the band. He was instrumental in our securing a recording contract. He was always at the heart of the band. He always used to say that "Allison Road" was the best song we ever did and I always thought it was "Found Out About You." The last time I saw Doug, when he was still alive, we had a long talk and one of the things we talked about was releasing "Found Out About You" as a single. He really wanted that to be a hit song. It was one of the few moments in the studio when he really concentrated on what was going on. He was so out of it, it was difficult for him to keep track of what was happening. With "Found Out About You", he was very specific about a few things I did with the vocals. He was almost anal about it. I did exactly what he wanted me to do, and I just let him express himself through me and it came out fucking perfect. I knew that song had to be the best vocal of my entire life. I knew that song had to be perfect, at least from my angle. Everybody else did it perfectly, and I had to rise up to the challenge as well. I did it over and over until I got it right. We didn't go through all that bullshit for nothing. He wanted it to be a hit record and I'm glad it is; it's a great song. What is it, #3 on the singles chart?
Lael: Yes it is.
RW: I'm really happy about that. You know it's funny, we decided that we were going to learn that song now because people really want to hear it. Now that Doug is gone and we managed to succeed without playing it, we feel comfortable playing the tune. Philip (Rhodes) has become so much better [as] a drummer and so much better as a musician after all of this time and he can actually play third part harmonies. We added a harmony that had never been there before. The first time we ever did it, I looked at Philip and said, "You know, I think Doug would really be proud that you're singin' like that." I'm certain that he would be.
Lael: Without Doug on the second album, should we expect different Gin Blossoms? How is the style going to change?
RW: It's definitely going to be different, but there are plenty of songs on that album by me and Jesse (Valenzuela). Throughout the history of this group, Jesse and I have written a lot of tunes. Right now, I'm not concentrating on the Gin Blossoms, I'm just trying to write. I'm just gonna write as much as I can and the Blossoms can pick and choose, and believe me they pick and choose the ones they think are appropriate.
Right now anything that [Jesse and I] write, we're gonna try [to] learn and work hard on. We've really improved our skills and our range. We've just become so much better as a band over all this time. You just get tight. If you spend enough time in the studio and enough time playing, you just get better at it. It's just like anything.
Lael: What dreams have you fulfilled since becoming a "rock star?"
RW: Well I got introduced by Ladmo at this big homecoming show. You know, I grew up hoping to do this. You think you want to be famous and when you walk into a bar everyone will recognize you as this talented person. Actually, it has turned out to be kind of an unnerving experience to go through a lot of that stuff. I have to be in the right mood for it before I can go out. I don't go out unless I'm psychologically ready to talk about David Letterman all night.
Just making the album fulfilled a lot of dreams for me. When I thought our album was never gonna come out, I remember saying to myself, "What we have here is these incredible songs we've written, a great producer and this world class studio, and we've recorded our material exactly how we want it to sound, and regardless if anyone ever hears it, it was really important to me that I had gone through that and we had made such a great album." Again, this is when I thought that no one was ever gonna hear it. I remember saying, "Even if I have to go back to collage and the band breaks up, I know what it was like."
Lael: Did you [ever] go to ASU?
RW: No, I went to Mesa Community College. That was the one goal that I achieved. On top of the band falling apart while it was going down, we still managed to have a good time and really do it right. That was one of the best things that we ever did. Actually I think the best thing we've ever done is just stay together. There are so many great bands that could have done what we've done if they had just stayed together. It's really difficult. It's like living with five of your best friends from high school. Trying to keep it fresh is really difficult and the fact that we've been able to do it is one of our greatest strengths.
Lael: If the band were to fall apart, what would you do?
RW: I don't know what could have happened. We're not in danger of falling apart any longer. There was always this element when Doug was in the group. There was always this black cloud over the band. It seemed like we were never gonna be able to accomplish anything, no matter how great a band we were. There was so much internal strife because of Doug. We don't have that element anymore. We really like being in this band. We really like working together. We're gonna be fine.
Lael: Where in Tucson do you like to hang out?
RW: I remember one time I went down with Doug and we went to the San Xavier Mission and we had a really great time there. I got really scared. It was like a fuckin' haunted house. We [also] went down to Mexico. I'm not really that familiar with Tucson. I don't really know what's there. we never really did very well playing Tucson, so we didn't go down there very often. Nobody really wanted us. When we did go down there it was always so fuckin' lukewarm. We would get so excited to go Flagstaff and play. Flagstaff crowds are the best in the state. Then we'd go down to Tucson, and it would be so lukewarm for us. We could never figure it out. All of the Tucson bands were playing up here at all our clubs and we just loved it to death.
Lael: Who do you think will be the next Arizona band to make the big time?
RW: I have no idea. The only band I know well enough to make predictions for is Dead Hot Workshop. I've been gone too long and I haven't been able to see a lot of bands. I don't want to go out all that often. Now that I'm in another band [the cover band], I get out twice a week as a result of that and it is just really hectic. When the show is over it's just a big autograph session. I just haven't been able to see too many bands. Oh, you know the one thing we do? We [the cover band] cover a song by the Sidewinders. At our debut performance we had Dave Slutes come up and sing this old Sidewinders tune called "What Am I Supposed To Do?"
Lael: What bands have influenced you most?
RW: Well, I'm influenced in different ways. I guess I really like to sing Marshall Crenshaw, Robin Zander and Graham Parker. I try to write in the same spirit as Tom Petty, Rick Nielson and Graham Parker. I just like good pop-rock stuff. Cheap Trick defines my taste now. I've gone through many different phases of that type of guitar rock. There was a period of time when I was mostly listening to stuff like Redd Kross and the Lyme Syders, but I always end up with Cheap Trick. I even got myself a pair of red wrestling shoes.
Although it may be some time before you can check out the Gin Blossoms here in Arizona, be sure to pick up the current album "New Miserable Experience." It is definitely worth the cash. Thanks to Robin Wilson for taking the time to talk to us.
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