To certain musically-inclined Gen Xers, one of the most formative and beloved albums of the early ‘90s was New Miserable Experience, the second studio effort that became the breakthrough album for the Gin Blossoms. The Tempe, Arizona-based alt-pop-rockers spawned four hit singles off it in “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” “Until I Fall Away,” and “Alison Road.”
It was such a benchmark that the band extended the tour celebrating the record’s silver anniversary by playing the entire work all the way through, along with a career-spanning other set list.
“I see it now for what a solid record it was, and I take a great deal of pride in that it’s become part of the soundtrack for a generation,” says vocalist Robin Wilson. “It was always the soundtrack for my life, and I lived through it, and it was a difficult process to make it. So for it to succeed and for us to build a life and career on it, it means a lot. And I’m proud that people still really care about it. I mean, how many bands can do a record and have enough interest to tour on it 25 years later?”
But as Wilson alludes to – and rock history has noted – the process of making and releasing the record was sometimes difficult and ultimately tinged with tragedy, especially for one key member whose songwriting gifts got the ball rolling in the first place.
The Gin Blossoms formed in 1987, taking their name from a cutline in a photo of actor W.C. Field’s booze-ravaged nose in a Hollywood history book. At the time the nucleus was Doug Hopkins (lead guitar), Bill Leen (bass), and Jesse Valenzuela (rhythm guitar). After adding Wilson (first as guitarist, then as lead vocalist) and Philip Rhodes on drums, they released debut Dusted in 1987, and then the first edition of New Miserable Experience in 1992.
But near the end of recording, main songwriter Hopkins – who suffered from severe depression – had become a full-blown alcoholic who couldn’t function musically and was fired from the group. Initially, New Miserable Experience was not successful. But a year later it was re-released with better record label support, and the Hopkins-penned “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” – both tales of romantic desperation and anger – became the first two singles and were smashes.
But Hopkins was not listed in the credits on the re-release, and it was his replacement, Scotty Johnson, whose photo record buyers saw. Mounting personal issues sent Hopkins into a tailspin, and he committed suicide near the end of 1993 – shortly after receiving a gold record for “Hey Jealousy.”
On the current tour, Wilson and the band pay tribute to Hopkins right before playing two of the record’s lesser-known tracks. “’Hold Me Down’ is a really special song for me, because that’s the only one that Doug and I officially wrote together, so it means a lot,” Wilson says.
“And ‘Pieces of the Night.’ I was there when Doug was writing that and I wrote the lyrics for the bridge. Onstage, I don’t say a whole lot during the show, but I do get the audience to raise a glass and toast Doug before those two songs and I tell a little bit about the background. Those songs are big moments. I also like to hear Jesse sing on ‘Cheatin’ because we don’t normally play that.”
And the impact of New Miserable Experience goes further. Wilson says he’s constantly told stories from fans about it. “I never get tired of hearing it. People are sort of sheepish when they start to talk to me and maybe they expect me to roll my eyes and run away,” he says. “But when they say ‘I want to tell you a story,’ I know it’s usually going to be something meaningful about our music that has connected to their lives.”
The Gin Blossoms have broken up, reunited, and released other records since New Miserable Experience, notching up other hits including “Follow You Down,” ‘’Til I Hear It From You,” and “As Long as it Matters.” The current lineup – which includes Wilson, Leen, Valenzuela, Johnson, and drummer Scott Hessel, released last year’s Mixed Reality, which shows that the group has a power and presence today and not just existing on ‘90s nostalgia.
“It stands out. I think it’s the most consistent batch of songs we’ve ever turned in and it represents all of the writers in the band,” Wilson says. “We also worked with a producer [Don Dixon] and engineer we’ve never worked with before in a studio we’ve never recorded in. I really think it’s one of the better records we’ve ever made.”
He’s particularly proud of the album’s lead-off, track, “Break.” It includes the deep lyrics “We don’t always want what is easy/Never is enough/Not what I’d set out to be/But more than I was.”
“That one came to me pretty easily. The whole concept was laid out to me in just a few moments. And lyrically, this is my mission statement to my son,” Wilson says. “As a father, this is what I have to say to him. It’s me telling him I’m doing the best that I can as a dad and as a person and as a man.”
And while aware that nothing will get their current live audience as excited as the classic hits, Wilson says that the new material is going over really well. And he says that Mixed Reality is hands-down their best album since New Miserable Experience.
He adds that when this tour is over, he’s got a few gigs filling in as the lead singer for one of his musical heroes, the Smithereens (their vocalist Pat DiNizio died in 2017), and is plotting a summer co-headlining tour with one of their ‘90s contemporaries whose identity he can’t yet reveal.
“It’s so cool and rewarding to suddenly be in one of my all-time favorite bands. It’s a reason we wanted to work with [Smithereens producer] Don Dixon on the new record,” Wilson offers. “I would warm up my vocals singing Smithereens songs so he would know how much the music meant to me. I think of my 20, 21 year old self listening to the Smithereens and R.E.M. records and wanting to be in a band. And here I am at 53 doing that. And now our music means something to people.”
A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com