A perfect synthesis of the mid 60’s jangle-rock of the Byrds, R.E.M with a dash of Big Star, The Gin Blossoms exploded on the charts in 1992 with their album, New Miserable Experience, capturing the musical, zeitgeist with a raft of tightly crafted, radio ready hits, among them “Hey Jealousy,” “Allison Road,” “Found Out About You” and “Until I Fall Away.”
The follow-up, issued four years later, Congratulations…I’m Sorry, continued the band’s creative and commercial reign. To look back on the newly released vinyl reissues of the 25th anniversary of the multi-platinum New Miserable Experience and its platinum follow-up, Congratulations…I”m Sorry, RCM spoke with Gin Blossoms lead singer Robin Wilson about those classic records.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Once New Miserable Experience was done, did you feel it captured the band and did you have a sense it could make a big dent on the charts?
Robin Wilson: I think we knew we had done something special. We had not only captured the essence of the band but we had also made a really good record. But things were so uncertain at the time. We had no idea whether anyone would ever hear it because we were on the verge of being dropped. We had just lost our guitar player and founding member, Doug Hopkins, and so we had this awesome record in the can but we had no idea if it was ever gonna come out. I went to visit this girl I was seeing up in Portland and I brought the rough mixes of New Miserable Experience with me to the bar she worked at.
I put “Found Out About You” on the stereo at this bar and even the bartender looked over at me and raised his eyebrows and went, “Wow, this is really good!” I remember thinking, “yeah, you might be the only motherfucker to ever hear it.” There was no way to tell. So many of our favorite bands and our heroes didn’t have a lot of commercial success. We were really into groups like The Replacements and they didn’t sell a lot of records so it wasn’t within our train of thought to imagine we could outsell The Replacements. I remember our A&T guy telling us, “Yeah, you guys will have a single on the charts one day” and I was like, “Wow, really?!” He said, “you’ll have at least a song that will get out there” and I was like, “Wow!”
What was the thinking behind recording New Miserable Experience at Ardent Studio in Memphis, was it the allure of acts that recorded there in the past like Big Star and R.E.M.?
Robin Wilson: Well, it was mostly John Hampton, our producer, which got us to Ardent. We had been tossing around a lot of names for producers and when I realized that John Hampton was the same guy who engineered The Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me album and he also produced one of my favorite albums by a guy named Tommy Keene called Based On Happy Times, that worked for me. He co-produced that album and played the drums.
Once I realized John Hampton was behind those two records, that’s when I said, “Lets go with John.” I think we were pretty much already heading in that direction but at that point I started to lobby really hard to work with John. It wasn’t until that decision was made and we actually got to Memphis that we realized the depth of the connection to Big Star and that we were basically in the studio that was more of less built for them.
We were using the same amplifiers. Jody Stephens, the drummer for Big Star, managed the studio. We were suddenly a part of that world and it made it that much more meaningful. I always turn back to this; we loved The Replacements and they sang about Alex Chilton and we became fans of Big Star and then just a few years later there we were in the same room with the same amplifiers and the same people and went and made a classic record with all of that stuff going on. It was really special.
What were the greatest joys and greatest challenges you faced with success of New Miserable Experience?
Robin Wilson: It was very gratifying to be successful. I was never really interested in fame as much as I was success. That was always a motivating factor for me so to succeed was extremely gratifying. To look down into the audience at a town you’ve never been to before and there are people singing along with a song you wrote in your bedroom is a really cool experience to have.
Then the toughest thing about it was the work itself, the schedule, the relentless touring and just being away from home and loving out of van and eating crappy food for months and months on end. It was exhausting and it could really drain your spirit. There were so many moments before the record took off where it was just like, “what the hell are we doin’?”
I remember we had a show somewhere in Florida at a club and there was barely anybody there. Everybody in the band was sick and we were all pissed off and I didn’t have anything to say to the crowd in between songs; I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was just so angry and pissed off. In between songs I looked over at Bill and said, “What the fuck am I supposed to say to these people, that I don’t believe in this anymore?” And Bill looked over at me and said, “Fuck you Robin!” and right then we leaped into “Hey Jealousy” right at that moment. (laughs) It was relentless; there was not time to be pissed off to express your frustration. You gotta play the hit. (laughs).
You followed New Miserable Experience four years later with Congratulations… I’m Sorry, which yielded one hit, “Follow You Down,” but failed to match the success of the prior album. Did the band wait too long to release a follow-up?
Robin Wilson: I think mainly the issue it’s just not as good a record as New Miserable Experience. There are some great songs on it but it’s just not quite as good. It was a success and a platinum record with a Grammy nomination. We did Saturday Night Live with a top 10 single on the charts. So by any metric that it is a success but it’s so easy to get caught up in what people consider the sophomore slump when you can’t quite match the momentum you had. But I think it’s mostly the album is not as good as New Miserable Experience.
We had Doug Hopkins in the band when we wrote and made New Miserable Experience. At that time, Doug was a better songwriter than anyone else in the group. So on Congratulations…I’m Sorry Jesse and I picked up the slack and we wrote some great songs but it wasn’t quite the same. Honestly, we just finished making a record and I feel we have finally lived up to New Miserable Experience. I believe our new album is every bit as good as that one. And even the quality of the songwriting is every bit as good as anything we put out on New Miserable Experience.
From your perspective in regards to major success, is luck and timing even more important than talent?
Robin Wilson: It’s not so much talent as it is having the right songs. I think it always comes down to memorable songs, not the overall level of talent quotient in the band. It’s about the songs. I’ve always used that as the baseline as to whether a group is good; not so much can they play but do they have songs? Luck and timing does play a huge factor; the crappier the song is, the more luck and timing comes into play. But we were definitely in the right place at the right time with the right material. We had the right work ethic too.
Luck and timing is important, but ultimately it comes down to the quality of the songs.
New Miserable Experience is the album that broke the group and the one that did the best commercially. But often the most commercial album does not always equate with a band’s most accomplished work. Are you okay with that album defining the band?
Robin Wilson: I’m okay with that. Up until now, New Miserable Experience is definitely the best album we have made. It was a big part of the soundtrack of those times. I get all that. This is why I do it. There were records that affected me. I spent my whole life chasing after my heroes and wanting to be like them and wanting to make people feel the way my favorite bands made me feel. I’m really grateful and still sometimes taken aback by the level of impact that record has had. I’m grateful for it and I don’t have any problem with it being our signature.
But whether anybody else ever hears it, I know that we have made another records just as good. It’s really fulfilling to be able to say that. Our new record was produced by Don Dixon and recorded by Mitch Easter. What a thrill. There’s no way there would be a Gin Blossoms if it hadn’t have been those R.E.M. records those guys produced. They were very influential on us and our entire music scene in Tempe was just crazy for R.E.M.
So if I could go back in time and tell the 20-year-old Robin working at the record store that one day far in the future you’re gonna make the best record of your career with these guys, I wouldn’t have believed it. (laughs) But it happened and recording with Mitch and Don and making this awesome record was incredibly hard work but really satisfying.
With years of experience in the music business and the good, the bad and the ugly, what would you pass on to those considering a career in music?
Robin Wilson: I would say it’s not about the deal. So many young artists get caught up with the idea that they’re only validated by signing some kind of recording contract. It’s really not about that; it’s about the long game and figuring out a way to keep doing this. Keeping the band together and continuing to work and still be viable. For us, it’s been 29 years and I think that’s the real brass, to somehow manage to keep going and keep the band together.
That’s the first thing I’d say to somebody young and the next thing I’d say is write good songs.