Listen to uncut MP3 of this talk (45 mins., 25MB)
Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson is, no doubt, one of the nicest people to ever sell five million albums worldwide. He’s genuine, warm, and gregarious. When I first approached (accosted?) Robin about this interview outside a brewpub in Tempe, Arizona, I closed our brief meeting by apologizing for my intrusion. “No problem,” he said, handing me his business card. “Just shoot me an e-mail.”
Matt Okie: Now, if I’m not mistaken, you were 23 years old back in 1988 when you first joined the Gin Blossoms as a guitarist. You turn 43 this summer. You’ve been in the band almost 20 years. How do your goals both as a songwriter and as a band change as you get older?
Robin Wilson: As a songwriter, they haven’t really changed at all. My goals are the same: to write great songs that express what I feel, that have melody, and are based on my influences—people like Tom Petty and Cheap Trick. That’s the kind of music that I like to write, and I think is appropriate for the Gin Blossoms. So in that sense, my goals as a songwriter really haven’t changed. I’m just as ambitious as ever.
With the band—when you’re young—all you can think about is getting on MTV and getting a Buzz Clip. But actually, when we first started, our goals were even more humble than that. It was, like, if we could just headline The Mason Jar on Friday night, we’d be a pretty big deal. And then it’s, well, if we can get a record out and go to South By Southwest. And then it evolves to, we need a “deal” and a song on the radio. And then, all of a sudden, you’re trying to follow up a platinum record and your goal is to not drop the ball, to come up with something that can hold up to your original release. And—you know—anymore, the goal isn’t so much about the Buzz Clip and the platinum record. It’s about maintaining a career and maintaining a following and not having to go back and get a job at the record store again.
MO: Did you ever work at Zia Records [an Arizona/Nevada CD chain]?
RW: I worked at Zia. I worked at Tower. And I worked at Rockaway. I’ve been fired from every decent record store in Arizona.
MO: Was it the Zia Records near Arizona State University?
RW: Yeah, I worked there for a couple of years. Those were great days. Actually, I was working there when I joined the Gin Blossoms. Bill Leen, the bass player, was working over at Tower, and I had worked with him over at Tower Records. And he called me up when I was at work one day at Zia and asked me to audition for the band. Told me that they were firing one of the original members and that they needed another guitar player. And, you know, I tried to convince him that I wasn’t a very good guitar player. But they wanted me to try out anyway.
And so when Jessie and I first sang together, we sang a couple of BoDeans songs. And everyone in the room right away could feel it was working. It was very exciting. We all went down to Long Wong’s [infamous Tempe, AZ bar] and had a drink. And I walked into the bathroom, and they were all in there, like, in a huddle, you know, going, “Let’s get him. Let’s ask him to join.” I was all, “Are you talking about me?” Really exciting. Really great time.
MO: Now I’m a relative newcomer to Tempe: where is the Long Wong’s that birthed the Gin Blossoms?
RW: It used to be at Mill and Seventh in downtown Tempe, and now it’s a parking lot. But it had been there for a long time. And we became sort of the house band in ’88 and ’89. We played there every Tuesday for a couple of years, and we played a lot of weekends, too. It’s estimated in 1989 that we played at Long Wong’s something, like, one hundred forty, one hundred fifty times. We just basically lived there.
I also did acoustic happy hours there for years and years. You know, it was our Star-Club. It was our Hamburg, as it were.
MO: On YouTube, there’s a brief, student-produced film entitled Robin Wilson in which you say that “it feels good to sing.” Do you mean that singing is simply cathartic, or is it grander than that?
RW: What I think I was referring to was actually the physical and emotional sensation of singing. I mean, physically it feels great, like getting a back rub, or jerking off. It’s really pleasant. And aside from that, I really enjoy performing.
MO: I was struck by those comments. As many different interviews as I’ve read and as many different MTV News clips as I’ve seen over the years, I’ve never heard a singer say that. It seems like the most obvious thing. At some physiological level, it literally feels good to sing. I’ve never heard that before.
RW: I meant it, and I still do.
In fact, last night, I played here on Long Island. I live on Long Island now part-time. And I haven’t done my acoustic show in years and years, so I found a place here on Long Island. I’m doing a series of three Wednesday night gigs. I’m basically doing all the same material that I used to do at Long Wong’s. Now I’m singing those same tunes on Long Island. That’s the reason I do it—I enjoy singing. I enjoy entertaining.
It was important to me also to share all of these songs with my friends and family on Long Island. It was kind of shocking to a few people. Like my brother-in-law, for example, had no idea that I had any interest in some of the tunes I did—oldies from Dion and The Belmonts, Sam Cooke, people like that. My brother-in-law assumed that I didn’t have any knowledge of that type of music, so he was particularly impressed. And that’s kind of why I did it, so I could share my influences with my friends and family.
MO: Does your musical ability come more from your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side? Or is there no musical lineage in the Wilson family?
RW: I don’t really feel there is a musical lineage in the Wilson family, although my father was a drummer. But I never saw him play the drums. I never saw him play in a band. And it wasn’t something that he particularly encouraged me to do.
But certainly a lot of the songs I sang last night came from the stack of singles he used to pile on the turntable every weekend. He’d play the same ten singles, and then he’d flip ‘em over, and they would all drop down one at a time. Those songs have resonated for my entire life. And, you know, I sang a handful of ‘em last night.
So I suppose my dad did have some influence, but as I said, he wasn’t thinking I should be a musician or anything like that. He’s far too stodgy to think that’s a practical way to go.
MO: What happened between Dusted (1989), your original self-released album, and New Miserable Experience (1992), your major label debut? Dusted feels a little more raucous to me, a little more “from the hip,” while New Miserable Experience feels a lot more polished, a lot more streamlined. Does that have a lot to do with Memphis-based producer John Hampton [who has also worked with Jimmie Vaughan, The White Stripes, North Mississippi Allstars, etc.], or was that purely something you guys were looking to do—change directions?
RW: John Hampton had a huge influence on us. We’ve always thought of him as the sixth member of the band. He’s always been a mentor and close friend, and his advice has always guided us. But a lot of that is just a natural evolution of a band.
When we recorded Dusted, we were kind of all on our own, and we did it in, like, a day. We basically just played our set, and we didn’t think to slow it down a little bit or anything like that. We just charged into the studio and started drinking and played our songs. When the record came out, we were all like, “Why didn’t we slow it down a little?” I can’t listen to that record because it just sounds like we’re The Chipmunks. We’re just blasting through everything at a hundred sixty beats-a-minute. There’s just no discipline, and we were undisciplined—we were a bunch of young, drunken rock-n-rollers.
MO: Some of Dusted does have an almost Uncle Tupelo, alt-country feel.
RW: I can hear that too actually.
One group that I realized a number of years ago that had really influenced us—without any of us ever really acknowledging it or talking about it—was The Long Ryders. I dug up one of their records like six years ago, and I put it on, and I thought, “Holy crap, that’s us! This is where we came from.” And I realized then that all of us had been fans of The Long Ryders. I think that they had some measurable influence on us without us ever really realizing it. We were always more focused on the obvious influences like The Byrds and Petty and Cheap Trick.
The Church was another group that I always thought that we did a lot to emulate. I know that Doug [Hopkins] and Bill [Leen] were very big fans of The Church. I was a big fan of The Church. I thought that they influenced Doug Hopkins’ songwriting quite a bit.
MO: To me, one of the primary lyrical themes of Gin Blossoms, as indicated by titles such as New Miserable Experience and Congratulations I’m Sorry, is the idea that joy and grief go hand in hand—that they’re ultimately inseparable. How much of that philosophy, at the time, was just twenty-something angst, and how much of it can be attributed to the fact that at the Gin Blossoms’ commercial apex in 1993-94, the band was also dealing with the death of former guitarist Doug Hopkins?
RW: You nailed it. It was not only just angst and humor, but that’s also what we felt. And then when it came time to come up with a title for [the follow-up to New Miserable Experience], Bill, our bass player, came up with [Congratulations I’m Sorry]. And it’s because that is what people were saying to us in those days right after Doug Hopkins’ [suicide]. Literally, someone would say, “Congratulations on your success” and “I’m really sorry to hear about your friend.” It just became a poignant way to describe what we were feeling.
MO: During those initial shows in 1993 after Doug Hopkins’ death, how difficult was it to take the stage and play “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You,” “Pieces Of The Night,” etc.? Can you remember what it was like to have to play those songs?
RW: I’ll never forget what it was like—it was grueling. The whole experience of losing Doug Hopkins was a gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching experience. Nobody wanted to fire him; there was simply no way around it. It was either break up the band, or try and find another way to do it.
And I wish we could go back in time and try to find a way for Doug to become a Brian Wilson-type character, where he was still a part of the band and still writing songs and still recording with us, but maybe we had somebody else out on the road. I don’t know if that would’ve worked, but it was something that we didn’t know to even try and explore.
But there’s no doubt in my mind, though, that Doug would’ve never made it. He would’ve been one of those guys that the first time you go to MTV, he would’ve been, like, spilling beer and peeing in the hallway. As brilliant as he was, he just didn’t have the discipline to really be a professional.
The work that we had to do to break the record and become a national act was far, far beyond anything we had to do playing one hundred fifty shows at Long Wong’s in a year. You just cannot compare. You know, it’s like the difference between going to med school and actually doing your residency. That’s what it’s like: when you get signed to a major label, and you get out there in the van for the first time, and you’re away from home for months at a time—you just have no idea as a local band what that is really going to be like. And that is why so many groups end up breaking up after their first tours. Until you’ve spent two months in the van, fighting it out on the road, and living with each other in a smelly van, you just can’t know what it’s going to be like. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Doug Hopkins never would’ve been able to survive that. He would’ve either quit or…there’s no telling what would’ve happened.
MO: Do you still play “Pieces Of The Night” live? I think that’s really the most underrated Doug Hopkins song on New Miserable Experience.
RW: You’re right; it’s a beautiful, beautiful song. It’s been a few years, but we were playing that a few years back. We had a really nice version of it. And it’s my hope to bring it back into the set this summer. But, you know, as a group, we have a lot of songs in that tempo. We have to sort of pick and choose which mid-tempo ballads we’re going to play, and for the last couple of years, we’ve been focusing on those that are on our latest record.
MO: One final Doug Hopkins question. Is it true that Doug Hopkins’ original lyric for “Hey, Jealousy” was “you can trust me not to drink” instead of “you can trust me not to think”?
RW: That is true. It’s just that we had so many booze references in our lyrics in those days. I suggested to Doug why don’t you just let me sing “think” this time.
MO: There seems to be a veiled quality to many of your lyrics, as if the characters who inhabit your songs are afraid to reveal too much of themselves and their stories to the audience. For example, in the song “Allison Road,” it’s unclear if Allison Road is a place of ruin, redemption, or both. In “Not Only Numb,” it’s unclear why the narrator is so distraught over his apparent homecoming. Why this veiled quality—is it something you’re shooting for, or is it merely accidental?
RW: It does come naturally; it’s not something I have to think about too much when I write lyrics. I’ll admit I have attempted to cultivate a persona, or at least, express a certain type of lyrical vision. But I can’t admit that I try really, really hard to think of brilliant things. I just kind of do what comes naturally, and I’m fortunate that every once in a while even I think something I wrote is kind of clever.
MO: You don’t consider yourself a poet?
RW: Yeah, I don’t even really consider myself a musician. I’m more of a rock-n-roller.
MO: In your song “Allison Road,” is Allison Road a place that enlivens or ruins the narrator?
RW: Allison Road is more a place of joy, I suppose. I was in a good place when I wrote that. I was thinking very romantic thoughts when I wrote that song and those lyrics.
MO: Allison Road is not a literal road, is it? Allison is the love interest’s name in the song?
RW: There really is an Allison Road; the girl’s name was Channon. It just kind of worked out. There are specific references in that song to events…
MO: Is Allison Road in Phoenix somewhere?
RW: No, it’s actually on I-10 between Austin and the West Texas border, somewhere. A friend of mine was driving back from South By Southwest—and his sister’s name was Allison—and he passed this road sign that said “Allison Road,” and for whatever reason, he took a photograph of it. I don’t know how, but somehow, I ended up with this picture. It was just a picture of a road sign that said “Allison Road.” As soon as I looked at it one day, all of a sudden I heard that melody in my head [sings the lyric “On Allison Road”] and I was just like, “Holy crap, where’s my guitar?”
MO: According to Wikipedia—and I realize that Wikipedia is not exactly the best source of information—your two A&M albums sold five million copies.
RW: That’s more or less right. Worldwide: yeah. In the states, New Miserable was triple-platinum, or eventually eked up to triple-platinum. It was double-platinum back in our heyday, but it’s always continued to sell, and since then, it’s gone over three million. And then Congratulations I’m Sorry sold about a million-and-a-half. Combine that with our international sales, and I guess we’re somewhere around five-million records sold.
MO: After those two records—and I’m thinking now about your third album Major Lodge Victory [released August 2006 by New York-based indie label Hybrid Recordings]—is it frustrating to have produced such a great record…and to put it out there knowing that the same marketing muscle that helped make New Miserable Experience and Congratulations I’m Sorry so huge is no longer in play?
RW: Yeah, that is frustrating—yes (laughs).
MO: I’ve literally been blown away by Major Lodge Victory. I was a huge fan of New Miserable Experience back in my undergraduate days. And I liked Congratulations I’m Sorry—I’ve actually come to love that record more in the last few years than I did in my twenties. But when I picked up Major Lodge Victory, I was just blown away that ten years had passed since 1996’s Congratulations I’m Sorry, and you guys were as good, if not better, than you’d ever been before. The melodies on Major Lodge Victory are just stunning.
RW: Thank you very much. Well, that’s what we were shooting for: we wanted something that was going to hold up to our catalog. We’re very proud that we managed to pull that off and satisfy ourselves in that sense.
And, yes, you’re right—it’s very frustrating. You know, just last night, I was playing at that club on Long Island, and afterwards, I was signing some autographs for these three ladies, and one of ‘em said, “Well, I sure hope you’re still doing something with your voice.” And I’m like: the Gin Blossoms are together. We released a record last year; we’re playing at B.B. King’s in New York City this May. And these girls are, like, “Really, you guys are still together?” Most of the people in this country do not realize that we’re back together again. That’s the major frustration for me, because I believe—with genuine humility—that if people knew we were back together again, and we were in the public consciousness that we would be considered contemporaries of groups like Counting Crows and Live, those bands from our era and our ilk that never broke up.
It’s very frustrating to me that most people don’t know. We’re still very fortunate that we have a career and that we can make a good living playing our music. And we’ve got thirty-something-thousand MySpace friends, which is a great number. But, you know, I hang out with these young bands, like this group from Pittsburgh called Punchline—they’re friends of mine—and they’ve got seventy-five thousand MySpace friends. What it works out to, basically, is however many MySpace friends you have: that’s about how many records you can sell—at least…on your own.
And so, right now, with the way things are changing—record stores across the country are closing, CD sales are down, digital downloads are up. You don’t necessarily need a record company to sell. We don’t need a record company to sell our music to those thirty thousand people. We can do it directly. And thirty thousand people are more than enough to support our records and to keep our career going.
We’re very seriously considering how to release our next album, and whether or not we’re going to do it on our own, you know, Radiohead-style. We’re exploring all that right now. And we’re working on new material as we speak. We’ll definitely have something out this year; I don’t know if we’re going to get it out this summer. But, now again, if we decide to do it ourselves, we don’t need to rely on a record company to put it on their calendar and three months of preparation or any of that. We can pretty much just finish it, master it, and put it up online.
The only places it seems anymore that you really need to sell CDs are: at your shows and through your website. In the past, it always took so much effort and [money] to get a band into record stores across the country. That was one of the main things you needed a record company for—so that you could be in every Tower Records. But, obviously, Tower Records is gone. And most of the others are shutting down. It doesn’t make any sense now to spend any money…or effort trying to get CDs into stores across the country.
We’re in a really good place right now. We’re very fortunate to have our thirty thousand MySpace friends. We’re one of those bands…that are in a position to do it on their own. Major labels will always exist; there are always going to be huge pop stars who require that type of machinery, but…we don’t need that.
I would like to be on the radio around the country, and I would like to be back in the public consciousness. But again, if that never happens, as long as we can maintain our current level of career, then we’re more than satisfied and very fortunate.
MO: Is the album—at this point in history—mostly just a freebie giveaway that entices fans to attend a show, where bands make the lion’s share of their cash?
RW: No, no, I don’t think so. It’s certainly a great promotional tool. That’s how we make our money: by playing live. Licensing our music to TV and movies is an important avenue for us to fully exploit. I think selling records is still a viable way to make a living and [a way] for bands to get their music out there. There are always going to be promotional freebies, you know. We gave away sampler cassettes back in the early days. And I’m sure that we’ll come up with some sort of free bonus tracks or something along those lines when we release the next record.
MO: I’ve read that you’re a huge, huge Tom Petty fan. And I think I read too that when you’re on stage, you sort of pretend that you are Tom Petty.
RW: I don’t remember saying that exactly, but, yes, that’s certainly in my consciousness. This all started with me lip-synching in front of the mirror when I was eight years old. I do this because those people were my heroes, and I want to be like them. I want to make people feel the way that those people made me feel.
MO: Who else, besides Petty, has inspired you?
RW: Freddie Mercury of Queen is certainly one of my heroes. I would not be a musician if it wasn’t for Queen’s influence. In fact, when I saw the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Midnight Special…that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a singer in a rock band. I’ve just never turned away from that desire. I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m doing what I dreamed about doing when I was eight.
MO: Do you think that as adults, we are all, more or less, chasing dreams hatched during our youth? Is that a staple of modern American existence?
RW: If we’re lucky. Absolutely. I hope that everyone has the opportunity to…do what they want and contribute something positive to the world without having to [work] some depressing day-to-day job. I know that I’m very fortunate to be doing what I do, and I don’t take it for granted at all.
MO: Is the word “victory” in the title of Major Lodge Victory a metaphor for the creation of the album and the state of the band itself?
RW: No, that whole title is an inside joke that goes back years and years, back to when Doug was in the band. In fact, we had considered Major Lodge Victory as the title for both New Miserable Experience and Congratulations I’m Sorry.
It was, ah…I’ll tell you the story real quick.
We were getting on the Hollywood Freeway…after a long weekend. The moment we got on the freeway, the hood of our van, like, blew [open] and covered the windshield, so we couldn’t see. I was driving the van. And we couldn’t see, and everyone started screaming and screaming.
And before this, Doug had been saying the whole time, all morning long, he’s like: “Let’s not drive home. Let’s just check into a hotel, and go find a bar.” You know, Doug was always like that. And then he saw a sign that read, Lodge. So he kept going, “Lodge—Lodge—let’s go to the Lodge.”
Then we got on the freeway, the hood flew up, and everyone was screaming. It was like Dumb And Dumber or something. I mean, it was really comical. Everyone was shrieking and screaming, and I slowly pulled over to the side of the freeway, so we didn’t get killed.
I looked over at everyone and said, “Let’s go to a hotel.”
And Doug goes: “Major…Lodge…victory!”
We always just held on to that phrase as a really great moment for us.
MO: Is it urban legend, or is there really a secret entrance from your studio into Four Peaks [the all-world brewpub adjacent to Robin’s studio, Uranus Recording]?
RW: There was—up until about three weeks ago. I just had it bricked up.
Originally, when we moved into that studio, the brewery wasn’t there. We used to go through this door that is now inside the brewery. When they opened the brewery, they had to build me a new door…out in front. And we basically just sealed the [original] door up—I had it filled with blankets and crap, you know, to keep the sound from the brewery down.
And then, eventually, I rebuilt the door, so it would be easier to get in and out of the brewery (laughs). For about six months, I kind of got away with it, where it was really fun to just go down to the studio, open up the door to the brewery, and I could just walk in there and get food or whatever. It was a blast. It was so much fun, especially late at night. I remember I went to see some friends of mine in a band called Thriving Ivory, and I brought ‘em back to the studio at, like, midnight. We were partying in the studio and walking in and out of the brewery. It was just so much fun.
[Around the same time] I was also trying to get radio stations to bring artists into the studio for private concerts. One of things I wanted to offer as part of that “package” was seating at the brewery, and then you go right from the brewery into the studio. But there are all these laws about where you can take booze. The brewery has just got too much at stake. They’ve grown and grown so much that they just cannot risk having that door open at any time. Every time I would open it, they would frown at me. And I’d be standing in the studio, hearing all this noise coming in from that doorway, and I was like, “Well, if I can’t open the damn thing, I’m just gonna brick it up.” So just finished that a couple weeks ago. It was a really cool thing, but now it’s just the brick wall.
MO: Discuss the irony of a Gin Blossom owning a recording studio that’s next to a brewpub.
RW: Well, uh, you know, it is ironic. You’re right…but actually, it’s incredibly fortunate as a studio owner to have such a cool place right next to the studio. It really enhances the vibe; it really makes it easy for the bands to have a place to go and have lunch and get a good beer. There are all those pretty girls over there, plus the waitresses. I’ve worked at lots of studios around the country, and I’ve never seen one that has a brewery that close (laughs)…especially one as cool as Four Peaks.
But, you know, more than it being [next to] a brewery, what I’m really proud of is that we’re in one of the oldest buildings in Arizona, and that I’m now steward of one of the most historic buildings in my hometown. It was the first building to have telephone service—I mean, my room specifically—was the first room to have telephone service on that side of Tempe. And the remnants of all that old electrical and all the old wiring, it’s still there. You know, Arizona’s such a young state—to have my studio in such a historic…building is really a privilege, especially being in my hometown. I think the studio is my legacy to my hometown.
And when I designed it, I wanted it to feel timeless. I didn’t want it to feel like one of those high-tech, modern studios. I wanted it to feel like 1959. So it would feel like the studio has always been there. So I went way out of my way to evoke an atomic-age style through the lamps and the fabric, all the decorations, the acoustics themselves—everything has been hand-built the way they used to make studios back in the ’50s and ’60s.
MO: You’re not running analog at Uranus Recording, are you?
RW: I used to—I got rid of it. I’m all Pro Tools now; I’ve got a Pro Tools/HD rig because, you know, you’ve got to have a system that works for every single client. And when I had an analog machine, I didn’t have a very good mixing board—so it was fine to record at my studio, but you’d want to take it somewhere else to mix. And I needed to keep the clients there, so I went with the HD system.
But it really does feel like an old studio. I looked through old books of recording studios and went out of my way to emulate their look and their construction, so that it would be something timeless…
MO: I know you alluded to this earlier in the interview, but when can fans expect a new Gin Blossoms album? Is John Hampton producing?
RW: We’re not really sure. It’s likely we’re going to be doing it mostly on our own—self-producing it in my studio. Especially if we’re financing it ourselves, we won’t be able to afford to go out to Memphis and spend $1,000 dollars a day on studio time and get five hotel rooms for weeks and weeks and weeks. Why not just do it at my studio, and all the band will have to do is reimburse me for the power?
John Hampton has been out there. When I was in the Gas Giants, we brought John Hampton out to Tempe and recorded there. But I think as of now—although we really haven’t discussed it much—the tentative plan is to self-produce it.
Oh, and final answer to your question: by the end of this year—god help me—we’ll have a new record out.
MO: Are Gin Blossoms playing Tempe or Phoenix any time soon?
RW: We’re waiting for the Tempe Music Festival to call us back. They made us a really great offer, and we were going to play with Fergie. But for the last week, we haven’t been able to get ‘em on the phone or something like that. So hopefully, we’ll be at the Tempe Music Fest.
And then sometime before the end of the year—if I can help it—we’re going to have some kind of a twentieth anniversary celebration in Phoenix, where we’ll do a real club show. Mostly in Phoenix for the last few years, all we’ve done are festivals and charity gigs. And I would like to play a club where people like to go and see music. But, you know, there are economics involved. We’re involved with all of the promoters in Phoenix, so there’s a lot of politics involved in where we play and who we play with. It’s not as simple as it sounds. God help me, we’ll be doing a twentieth anniversary club date in Phoenix before the end of the year.
Visit the Gin Blossoms on MySpace.
Images courtesy of Wayne Herrschaft