It’s hard to talk ‘90s alt without bringing up the Gin Blossoms. Although 1992’s New Miserable Experience wasn’t the Arizona band’s first album, it was the one that shot them to commercial success with hit singles like “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Their follow up album, 1996’s Congratulations… I’m Sorry, proved success was no fluke as the band continued to bring bright, guitar-driven, sunshiny melodies interlaced with melancholy that resonated with fans. Unfortunately, the band called it quits shortly thereafter and disappeared from the mainstream scene. The Blossoms reunited in the ‘00s, releasing three new studio albums and they continue to tour today. They’re currently on the road with Collective Soul– but the Gin Blossoms are scheduled to drop into Perry on October 8 to play the 30th Annual Georgia National Fair! Guitarist Scotty Johnson and I discussed what was, what is, and what is coming up!
MA: The Gin Blossoms have such a storied past. Let’s take a look back before we talk about the here and now. What sticks out as far as good decisions that the band made– or the moments that defined the Gin Blossoms?
SJ: There were no good decisions (laughs)! I just remember, we spent so much time in the van. We had a van and it ended up… The original cover of New Miserable Experience was different. The first 50,000 units had this weird kind of cactus with blotchy color. And then the label decided to relaunch the record. I don’t know if a lot of people realize this. So we did a different cover and we put our van on it because we had spent so much time in it. This was before the hits, you know? We toured for, gosh, a year and a half in that van before “Hey Jealousy” finally hit on the West Coast and then it kind of spread East. I remember we played at a place in Salt Lake City. I guess I’m thinking about that because we just played Salt Lake last night. We played at a club called Deviate and I remember going around the corner and there were all these people and somebody said, “What are all these people doing?” And the girl that was driving the van laughed and she said, “What are you serious? They’re here to see you guys!” That moment, in my mind, was when everything changed. All of a sudden. We’d been playing clubs all over America– and you get 20 or 30 people a night. Most of them were Arizona State people, students that had seen us when they were in Tempe. But yeah, that was the moment when I really got the sense like, “Oh wow, okay, everything’s going to change now.” How do you cope with that? I mean, how can you prepare for that at all? But it was different back then because this was before cell phones and stuff. I remember calling my buddies back home, and they were saying, “Oh my God, dude, you’re on MTV!” And I’m like, “We are?” I didn’t even know. The communication was so much slower back then, you know? So the first time you hear one of your songs on the radio, it’s so exciting. It’s like all the scenes in the movies with people that are running down the hallway screaming and so excited. It was like that. It’s fun.
I’m glad you mentioned communication and the way things have changed. As things have become more digital, everything has moved online. How has music changed for you? Not talking so much about the industry, but just personally for the Gin Blossoms, how has it changed?
It hasn’t changed much for us, I don’t think, because we’re basically doing the same thing. But I can see it in other bands. I went to a concert the other day and there was no guitar player, and that to me is like, “Oh my gosh, how could that possibly… What?” (Laughs)
Well, the Blossoms are driven by guitar. I don’t have to tell you.
Yeah. So I can see it in the new bands. I also see that a band nowadays is maybe two guys and then everybody else is hired guns. They won’t have a drummer really– they’ll just use a drummer when they play live. I see that difference, where that idea of a group of guys that played together forever seems to be changing. I get it. It’s just a different world.
Have you noticed changes in audiences and how they consume music? People used to buy an album and listen to it cover to cover then repeat, but now people may just download one or two songs.
Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s driven by singles. The days of sitting down and spending 45 minutes to listen to an album do definitely seem to be over. But as far as the audience, if you go into some deep track, obviously people aren’t going to know it. I guess it’s up to each artist to figure out. I don’t want to bore the audience, but at the same time, if you’ve got a new song…You’ve got to balance it out.
Talking about the past, let’s move it forward a little. You guys had your brief break-up, but you’ve been back at it 18 years now. Is that right? What led to doing the reunion show and why did you decide to stick it out for two more decades?
Jesse [Valenzuela], the other guitarist, we had a meeting and he was like, “You know, guys, this is kind of silly.” We did a reunion tour, and then we realized that if there’s a demand…It’s our sound. It’s our music. It’s just kinda silly that we’re not playing. We all just figured it out. Like, “Oh yeah, we’re on the top of the charts. Let’s break up our band!” It was just the stupidest. Luckily, we were smart enough to come back together,
Not only come back together but make new music.
Yeah. And we just filmed a show. DVDs don’t really exist anymore, but I guess you try to get it on Netflix or something, right? That’s the thing now. So that’s coming up. I don’t have any info on when.
Oh yeah? Can you give us an idea of what it’s about or what it covers?
We had the 25th anniversary of the first record, so we wanted to capture that. We did the first record from front to back. We did it in Chicago at the House of Blues, which we love Chicago. And so it should be cool. I’m excited about it. Yeah, I’ve heard the mix already. We mixed it. So now they get to do coloring or something. Editing. But it’s looking like it may be on Netflix or a digital release.
I can’t speak for Chicago but I know we’re looking forward to having you at the Georgia National Fair in October. We know you’ll probably work in the hits like “Hey Jealousy” and “Follow You Down” but can we expect to hear some newer material? Songs from [2018’s] Mixed Reality?
Yeah, we’ll definitely throw in some new stuff. We try not to do too many of them because we don’t want to bore people.
I really doubt Gin Blossoms would bore anyone.
Yeah, well, I get it. But we’ll definitely do some new stuff.
You guys worked with John Hampton for so many years, but for Mixed Reality, you teamed up with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who are probably most known for their work with REM. What did they add or bring for Gin Blossoms?
We worked a lot with John, and he’s passed away now. He was just so good. It was just amazing. He would always do what a lot of smart producers do. He could hear where we were trying to take it and would just kind of say, “Okay, we’re going this way on the guitars.” And then he would add tiny little things like, “Oh, don’t play that note, play that note.” Even when I hear it back on the stuff today, (John) was just such a great producer. I can’t say enough about him and him putting his thumbprint on our music. It was such an amazing experience at Ardent with John. We’ve only made one record with Don, so that’s still kind of new and fresh. If you Wikipedia those guys, they’re called the inventors of jangle pop. They all love it. It’s Mitch. So we thought, “Well, that’s perfect for us!” So that was fun. I do have to admit, I was channeling Peter Buck from REM. It was fun working with those guys and jangling it up.
So many of the band members contribute to writing those songs. Do you each write separately and bring it back together, or do you collaborate from start to finish? What’s the work process?
It’s all over the map. A lot of times, Jesse or Robin [Wilson] will come in with a finished song. But on the last record, Bill [Leen] and I wrote two songs together and Robin and I… I think wrote two. For the last record, Bill used to come over to my house every Wednesday afternoon and we’d drink coffee and try to write songs. We ended up writing maybe four or five. And then I had some stuff that wasn’t quite finished and Robin jumped in with some lyrics. So yeah, it’s all over the place and I kinda like that. It’s not one thing over and over. It’s definitely random.
For you, specifically, you’re a guitar player in a guitar-driven rock band, but your background is in jazz– and you dabble in country. Who influences you, and when you’re writing, how do you determine when a song is more appropriate for one genre or another?
When I was a kid, it was all about Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin was the thing. And then I studied jazz in high school and in college, but a jazz buddy of mine said, “Dude, what are you doing? You need to be in a rock band!” And I really love country, and I like reggae. Some artists and some songwriters, it just speaks to me and it doesn’t really matter the style. It’s all about the songs for me. I love Peter Tosh’s playing. He was an amazing guitarist, so cool and laid back. I love that stuff. I love Joe Pass, the jazz guitar player. I’m all over the map. I can’t help it. You can basically point [to a song]. This is going to be a rock song, or this one, I’m going to write a country song this way. To me, the song is first and then the production’s later. We can go take that song this way or that way. You can hang up a country song and put all the fancy guitar parts on it. And then on a rock song.
Gin Blossoms’ music reminds me of driving in the sunshine with the windows down, but when you dig into the lyrics, it’s really melancholy. How do you marry the laid back, chill sound with the deeper angst?
Yeah, we were described that way. Bittersweet. It sounds really poppy maybe, but when you think about the lyrics it gets a little dark. But you know, I’m not a big lyricist person. I’m mainly like the chord and riff guy contributor to the music. But yeah, I wonder if it’s kind of a ‘90s thing– you know what I mean? I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any happy song in any ‘90s. It was kind of part of the era.
It still seems to resonate. Even if you’re not somebody who grew up in the ‘90s, it still touches people. What do you think has kept you guys relevant with fans for so many years?
I think we all appreciate what happened and just having a day gig. To be completely honest, we’re all amazed that we’re still going! And I think we’re really lucky that it’s been the four of us since I was the last one to join in ’92. A lot of bands are getting down to one, two guys. I think maybe somehow what has kept us going all these years is that it’s been the four of us and we’ve been partners a long time.
All right, let’s have a little bit of fun. You guys are out right now with Collective Soul. You’ve done several tours over the last few years with Tonic and with Vertical Horizon. Looking back over the years, going back as far as you want, who’s been your favorite? The group you just enjoy going out on the road with?
I have to give kudos to the Collective Soul guys. They are really great dudes. A lot of people don’t know this, but they’re a brother band, Ed and Dean Roland, and they’re just so cool and there’s never any problems. Their crew is so helpful. Some of the more interesting ones, we went with Del Amitri for a while, right when they had that big hit “Roll with Me”. That was interesting. I’d never hung out with anybody from Scotland before and they have really thick accents. It was hard to understand what they were saying, but that was really an interesting thing. We did UB40 [tour]. Yeah, that was fun. I really liked their music. They weren’t the super nicest guys, (laughs). We were punk kids, you know, and they had a number one when we were out with them. They had that Elvis song, “Wise men say only fools…” So it was funny because we saw them in the elevator at the hotel and somebody said, “So how’s it going with your record?” And we’re like, “Oh my gosh, we just hit the top 100!” We were like 92 and the (UB40) singer looked over and he goes, “We’re number one.” Oh Wow. Yeah. Good for you, buddy. Right. But that was fun because I always love that song “Rats in the Kitchen”. That big tall guy sang that. The singer didn’t sing that one. It was the other dude. They only played it live once. I remember I heard him do it in soundcheck and then they only played it that one time. So that was cool. Yeah. Those are some fun memories.
If you could go out on tour with anyone – bands of the past or present, people who are living or no longer with us – who would it be?
I’m a huge John Lennon fan. Tragic story there, but man, to play with John? Incredible. Then I always really loved Ella Fitzgerald. I could just imagine being in her band, playing with her in the ‘50s. That would’ve been so cool. And Bob Marley, that would have been fun. Open up for Bob… I call him Bobby. We’re on a personal basis.
(Laughs) Similar question to go with that and it may be the same answer, but if you could do a whole festival lineup, who’s on the stage with you?
Oh my gosh. Besides who I already mentioned? Let’s see. You know what, I do have a guilty pleasure. I love the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers! Ever since I was a kid, they used to play Phoenix all the time because they were from Hollywood. So they’d come over and do a Friday night and they were in the van. And so now that they’re, like, the hugest band in the world, it’s just amazing. They’re great. I would love to do something with that. And then we always wanted to play with Tom Petty, but you know, that never happened. A bunch of our friends did, and we kept thinking, “Tom’s going to ask us to go out on tour with him.” We used to beg, “Please, Tom!” We’d do interviews and say, “Please tell Tom Petty to take us on tour!” Because he took out Soul Asylum and The Replacements. And we’re like, “Why can’t we get out there with Tom?” That would’ve been cool.
You spoke about the live show that you filmed. Any other future projects? What else are you guys working on?
That’s about it for right now. We’ve been out all summer. It’s been busy. Every now and then, we’ll talk about doing another record but nobody’s focused on it or spent that much energy thinking about it. But maybe this fall when we get home, we’ll talk about some future plans.
Anything for you personally? Anything for Honey Girl, your country group?
Oh yeah, Honey Girl. We got a bunch of gigs coming up back home, so I’m excited. It’s fun to get back home and then have a band that I can play with. We write songs and we’re working on some new material and it’s going good.
Is there anything you’d want to add? Anything you want to tell Central Georgia before you guys get here in October?
We had a sound man… I’m pretty sure he lives in Macon. Monty. Shout out to Monty! He’ll love that if he [reads] this. He worked at this back in the ‘90s and he’s still doing sound. I’m pretty sure he lives there.