As Long As It Matters:
Gin Blossoms Make the Most of Their Experience
Guitarist Scott Johnson almost missed out on a career path that saw him taking over for the lead guitarist in a band right as it broke through. Had he not taken some advice from an older musician, Johnson might not have even been playing rock ‘n’ roll. And he wouldn’t have joined Gin Blossoms as they toured in support of New Miserable Experience, an album eventually going multi-platinum and now recognized as one of the biggest-selling albums of its era.
“I was a jazz major in college,” Johnson recalls. “I was a jazz guy. My brother is a singer, and so I’d do gigs with him. One time we hired a drummer from college; he was older, like 35. I was probably all of 20 at the time. After a gig, we sat down and had a beer. And the drummer asked me, ‘Why are you studying jazz? I just played four and a half hours of rock ‘n’ roll with you. You’re a rocker.’”
The drummer pointed out to Johnson that their hometown of Tempe, Arizona was full of rock bands that played their own music. “So I went to see one of them, a band called the Jetsons,” Johnson says. “There were about a thousand kids lined up to see them. And they knew all their songs. That’s when it hit me: ‘Okay, I need to change here.’”
Johnson changed his focus to songwriting. “You have to make a commitment to writing songs and playing originals,” he says. “It’s a mindset. Otherwise you’re just going to be in a cover band the rest of your life.”
He was very familiar with another Tempe band, Gin Blossoms. “They were local celebrities, you could say; everybody knew Gin Blossoms,” says Johnson. “They were the biggest band around the Valley.” The Gins were one of those groups that wrote its own material; in fact most of the band members wrote songs.
But Gin Blossoms had a problem. The band’s lead guitarist Doug Hopkins was a serious alcoholic. The band had already released its first indie album, attracted the notice of major label A&M, and signed a deal. In fact they had already recorded and released their second album, New Miserable Experience. That record featured a dozen original songs, five of which were composed or co-written by Hopkins.
Things got so bad with Hopkins that A&M told the band they needed to fire him. They did so, and auditioned new lead guitarists. The band Johnson played in sublet rehearsal space from the Gins, and he was friends with guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. “I would tell people that he let me join the band because my gear was already there,” Johnson says with a laugh.
He successfully auditioned for Gin Blossoms, but upon joining was told in no uncertain terms, “Look, if Doug sobers up, you’re out.” While New Miserable Experience was a slow starter on the charts, it eventually took off in a big way, spawning no less than five Top 40 hits: “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” “Mrs. Rita,” “Until I Fall Away” and “Allison Road.”
But the sidelined Hopkins never got sober. “If anything, I think he got worse,” Johnson says. Hopkins had joined another local band, the Chimera, but his constant no-shows for gigs got him kicked out of that group as well. “He was really suffering at that time,” Johnson says. “It was really sad. ‘Hey Jealousy’ and ‘Found Out About You’ had both been singles on the radio, so at the time he was already a hit singer/songwriter. He had all the successes that come with that. But even after his dreams came through, it still wasn’t enough.” On December 5, 1993, Hopkins took his life using a .38 caliber pistol.
Meanwhile, Johnson had some big shoes to fill; despite his problems, Hopkins had been an excellent, distinctive guitarist. So while new fans across the nation – ones who had bought New Miserable Experience – didn’t much know or care about the personnel change, when it came to local Tempe fans, it was a different story. “We were rehearsing, and I was trying to learn all Doug’s parts,” Johnson recalls. “And the local crowd would be like, ‘Hey, that’s not the solo to “Hey Jealousy!”’”
Plenty of bands fall apart – or at least stumble – in the wake of losing a member. And even more suffer from the dreaded “sophomore slump” when it comes to making a second major-label album, especially one that follows a major success. But unlike the stories you’ll hear from countless other bands about lack of support from the label, Johnson says that A&M was behind Gin Blossoms all the way.
In the wake of Hopkins’ suicide, the band members didn’t want to stay on the road. “But [A&M] kept pushing us, saying ‘This is working,’ and ‘We’re seeing the [sales] numbers rise.’ I think we had our own personal doubt,” Johnson says, “but the label was always there.”
Johnson says that Gin Blossoms “toured forever” in support of New Miserable Experience. The string of tour dates stretched across three years. So it wasn’t until early 1996 that the band released a follow-up album. Much about the sessions would be the same as the last time around: the songs were cut at Ardent Studios in Memphis, with John Hampton producing. “We were in Memphis for two months,” Johnson chuckles. “That was back when you had record company money and could do that kind of thing. Now, we make records in about two weeks.”
With a title that wryly referenced the two-part reaction the band was getting from fans, Congratulations…I’m Sorry would reach #10 on Billboard‘s album charts, and featured three hit singles. But a little over a year after the album’s release, the band broke up. The official reason given was that lead vocalist Robin Wilson wanted to do his own project.
“But what was really going on was that everybody got burnt out from being on the road,” Johnson says. “I think it was just fatigue; nobody wanted to work that hard again. You make a little bit of money and you’re a big rock star. You’re on the cover of magazines, and then you make another record, and then it becomes work.”
The band members went their own ways. Wilson and drummer Philip Rhodes formed Gas Giants; that band released an album in 1999. Valenzuela eventually released a solo album and got into producing. Bassist Bill Leen worked in music before opening a bookstore. And Johnson joined Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, an early alt-country band.
As the end of the century approached, Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods contacted the former band members. “He told us that every city was doing a big millennial thing, and [Phoenix] wanted us to play in theirs.” Gin Blossoms got back together for a one-off performance. “There were no fights, no hard feelings,” Johnson says. “It was just kind of fun to see everybody and do a show.”
About a year later, Johnson got a call from Wilson. “He said, ‘Bill and I have been getting together writing songs. We get together on Tuesday nights; can you come over next Tuesday?’” Johnson said yes, and then he stopped to think. “I thought, ‘What are they writing songs for?’”
In any event, he showed up for practice. “And then,” Johnson recalls, “before we even played a note, Robin said, ‘We’re thinking of getting the band back together. Are you willing to leave the Peacemakers?’” He was. “We called Jesse the next day, and it all fell into place pretty quickly.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Johnson thinks it was foolish to have disbanded in the first place. “We made the big mistake of breaking up while we were on the charts. I guess it’s the silliest thing, but a lot of bands go through that.”
Gin Blossoms’ 2002 tour was billed as a reunion. “It went pretty well,” Johnson says. “So that’s when we really decided, ‘Let’s just keep it going; let’s be a real band. Let’s make records and do all the things that bands do.” With the exception of Rhodes, who’d leave in 2005, the New Miserable Experience-era lineup of Gin Blossoms has remained intact ever since.
The band released Major Lodge Victory in 2006, followed four years later by No Chocolate Cake. Neither disc stormed the charts like the band’s ’90s work, but both reached the lower rungs of the album charts. But with the 25-year anniversary of New Miserable Experience, the band decided to celebrate with a tour commemorating its breakthrough release.
November 2017 saw Gin Blossoms traveling up and down the West coast for nearly a dozen California dates; the group’s December itinerary includes as many shows, mostly in the eastern U.S. More dates are to be announced. All the shows include start-to-finish performances of New Miserable Experience.
With the band’s focus back upon its landmark release, Johnson has given some thought to the record’s timeless and enduring popularity. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to [producer] John Hampton,” he says. “I can’t express enough how great of a producer he was.”
He notes that the album is “all over the map” style-wise. “I remember thinking how diverse New Mis was,” Johnson says. “There was a country song, there were these really slow ballads, and then of course a bunch of rock songs. I remember thinking, ‘This is pretty risky.’ It’s just one of those things with the performance, the engineers and the producer. If it all comes together, something special happens. And New Mis was one of those records.”
Earlier this year the band recorded a new studio album. But since Hampton had passed away in 2014, Gin Blossoms needed a new producer. They chose Mitch Easter. “We spent two weeks in Mitch’s Kernersville, N.C. studio, with him and Don Dixon. We like southerners for some reason,” Johnson laughs. “Mitch seemed like a perfect fit. He’s a mad scientist! He’s so quiet; he hardly says a word. But he’s so good at tones and mics.”
There’s no release date set for the as-yet-untitled album, but Johnson expects it to come out in 2018. The current concert dates will preview some of the new material cut with Easter. “But right now the focus is on New Mis,” Johnson says. Thinking back once again to the time when Gin Blossoms made their breakthrough album, Johnson recalls what he thought of the band right before he joined. “It was a party band … a party band that just happened to have a lot of great songwriters.”
Photo by Sakiphotography.