Gin Blossoms celebrate a 'Miserable' anniversary with new music, hall of fame induction

Ed Masley
The Republic |
The Gin Blossoms can still whip a rock crowd into a frenzy.

Jesse Valenzuela of the Gin Blossoms is feeling pretty fortunate these days, which only stands to reason.

After all, the band he formed in 1987 as a 20-something Tempe rocker just cut a record with the R.E.M. production team of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, a development that surely would have blown their minds when they were best known as that band you saw last Saturday at Long Wong's. 

Then there's the matter of being inducted to the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame on Thursday, Aug. 17. And there's a tour this fall on which they plan to honor the 25th anniversary of their quadruple-platinum breakthrough "New Miserable Experience" by playing the entire album, an anniversary that prompted a recent feature in Rolling Stone magazine. 

Valenzuela is in a good mood, laughing often, when he checks in from a hotel in upstate New York, where they’re about to play the Clayton Opera House.

“We’re gonna do a little Verdi for the folks,” he jokes.

He's also refreshingly candid and just self-effacing enough. 

Here's what he had to say.

The Gin Blossoms have stood the test of time as a band.

Question: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame induction. How does that feel?

Answer: It feels great to be honored. I’ve always been a supporter of the Hall. The first induction I went to was 15, 16 years ago when it was downtown. So to be asked to join is a real compliment.

Q: You just finished recording an album with the fabled R.E.M. production team, Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. What can you tell me about it?

A: I’ve known Don for quite some time. He’s a wonderful man, really funny and just great at making records. We talked about going to Nashville. Then he called and said, “Well, how about we go to Mitch’s place?” And we were thrilled because we didn’t realize that was a possibility. He and Mitch are old friends and great partners.

So it worked out. We went to his famous studio and hung out, did the record pretty quickly and it was a real pleasure. They’re both really funny people and really talented.

Q: I assume you guys were fans of what they’d done together in the R.E.M. days.

A: Oh, of course. And then, over the years, Don and I have worked together on different projects. So it was fun to be there and we didn’t have to do any production ourselves. I had one conversation with him where I said, “Well, I probably wouldn’t do that, but you’re the producer. Let’s do it.”

Years ago, Don cut one of my songs for a record he was producing. He wrote me and said, “Hey listen, I changed the first verse to the second verse because I think it works better. I hope you don’t mind. And don’t you hate what producers do that?” (Laughs) He’s a character.

Q: What do you feel the two of them brought to the process?

A: Well, you know, there’s a career arc. When you’re young, you really listen to whatever you’re told when you get a real producer around because you’re so unsure of your own skills. And that’s when you learn a great deal. And by the time you make two or three records, you start realizing there are a lot of these things you could do by yourselves and you end up doing that.

The Gin Blossoms have produced their own records for the past few years. We’d just go in and cut the stuff. But it was easy to relinquish the power to Don because we’re all fans of his work. And it was easy to relinquish it to Mitch for the same reason.

Q: How does the overall vibe of this record compare to your last album, “No Chocolate Cake"?

A: We have such a tone about us that we’d have to make a real left turn to sound that much different. And it would have to be a real considered effort. We don’t usually dabble in dirges or deconstruction. We’re sort of real traditionalists. So it sounds like the Gin Blossoms.

We did have some conversations about keeping some of the sounds kind of primitive and trying to get maybe an ‘80s thing. But Don said, “This is what I want to do. I want to capture you guys like you were when you were young and went to Memphis to work with John Hampton.”

Don had been on the short list of producers to work with back in the day. And for whatever reason, we didn’t work with him at that point, so it was nice to get the chance to work with him now.

Gin Blossoms' most recent effort, "No Chocolate Cake."

Q: I can see where he would have been on the short list. I mean, you guys and R.E.M. both get the j-word thrown around a lot by people trying to describe your music, right?

A: Yeah, that’s a heavy word to carry around on your back for a whole career.

Q: Does it bother you?

A: You know what? (laughs) It’s kind of an invasive word. I don’t mind. I mean, I really don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. But I guess it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve heard the word jangle used in criticisms of us and other acts and it wasn’t always in a favorable light. Is that what you were getting to?

Q: I would imagine that fans of a certain type of music would use that word more as a compliment.

A: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely.

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Q: Having gone to college in the '80s, I wouldn’t say jangle-rock in a negative way.

A: Yeah, I think it’s maybe a newer criticism. It certainly doesn’t bother any of us. In fact, whenever there’s a division of labor on any new song, invariably the conversation between me and Scotty is, “All right, who’s gonna do the jangle?” (Laughs). “Are we gonna flip a quarter?” “You got the last one.”

It’s funny because then I listen to the old records, I think, “Oh my God! There’s, like, two guys just jangling their hearts out.” (laughs). I asked John Hampton once, when we got older, I was making a record with him in Memphis and I said, “Did you ever think there’s maybe a little too much effusive jangle?”

And he said, “Oh yeah. Absolutely. But I couldn’t stop you guys. It would have been foolish to try and change the way you play. You guys at that point were really married to your ways and you don’t want to tell a young band something that would throw a wrench at them in the middle of a production.”

He was a smart man. He said, “I just wanted to keep the tape rolling and let you guys play and play and play.” Much to his credit. He was a very, very bright man and I miss him.

Gin Blossoms circa 1989. First lineup of the Phoenix-based band. From left: Jesse Valenzuela, Doug Hopkins, Robin Wilson (standing), Bill Leen and Philip Rhoades.

Q: He was great. It’s only been a few years since he died.

A: Yeah. He had been ill for a long time. I remember he would call me late at night sometimes. It would be 3 in the morning and I’d be like, “John, why are you calling?” He was an eccentric character. A very bright, bright man. And he would have some crazy question for me. Or he’d tell me, “I think you ought to be writing like this.”

Sometimes it was in a very loud, gregarious fashion that he would give me that message and sometimes he was very low key, almost like he was revealing a secret to me. I always enjoyed those calls. If the phone rang after 3 in the morning, I knew it was going to be John Hampton.

Q: Were any of those ideas things you went on pursue?

A: Well, sure. I always listened to John. I mean, sometimes they were just crazy ideas. And when I would see him next, I would say, “John, what did you mean?” (laughs). And he would go, “Oh, did I tell you to think more like Leonard Cohen?” (laughs). And I’d say, “No, but that’s good advice to anyone.” I had these messages for years and I lost them through new phones.

One time he told me, “Hey when you’re writing a song, Jess, never use a guitar pick. Just use your fingers. Until you finish the song.” I don’t know what that meant, but it was important to him at the moment (laughs).

But he was a brilliant light and we owe him a lot. I think he and Don are really cut from the same cloth. They’re both Southerners and they both have a very genteel quality about them. At the same time, they really don’t suffer fools but they don’t suffer fools in a very gentlemanly fashion.

Q: You said you were real traditionalists. I was hoping you could talk about what that tradition is.

A: I think we’re from the tradition that is sort of dying out right now. And I’ve heard other songwriters talk about this, but the tradition is rock and roll, but more specifically ‘60s rock, Beatles, with a real verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-out construction.

When we were kids, we learned that you would put a hook at the front, then introduce the lyric and then there’s a chorus, then you write another verse. And if you can write a very good bridge, then you should put a bridge in it. But if it’s not a really good bridge, you shouldn’t bother putting it in at all because it’s just too much information.

Doug Hopkins was such a beautiful songwriter and the architect of this sound. He listened to everything, but I think that’s the form he really liked, a real traditional ‘60s form.

Did you interview Nick Lowe a few years ago in your paper? I remember him saying the same thing, that song structure has changed and the way that he pursues songs is a dying art form. He talked about Tin Pan Alley and said, “Just like big band was huge once or opera, these forms have a life cycle.” He thought that what he does probably wouldn’t be lasting for that much longer. 

Q: That’s an argument I have with people all the time, that it’s not dying out as an art form, it’s dying out as a mainstream force that dominates the culture.

A: Very well said. Probably the ‘80s was the last free-for-all for four or five guys with guitars. And I don’t want to be one of the guys with his nose pressed against the window, demanding attention. It’s just not very gracious.

So I understood what Nick was saying and I think he’s right. But you know what? If you’re lucky, you had your moment there. And if you’re really lucky, like we’ve been, when you get to this part of your career and you get some accolades and you get some attention from your hometown, it’s a good feeling.

Gin Blossoms, circa 1992.  From left: Phillip Rhodes, Bill Leen, Scott Johnson, Robin Wilson and Jesse Valenzuela.

Q: Why do you think your hits have continued to resonate? Not everyone can say that.

A: That’s the million-dollar question. We had an A&R guy back in the day, he used to say, “If we could figure out how to do it every time, we would. But there’s an alchemy to it and your music either resonates or it doesn’t. And sometimes it resonates just for a short period and sometimes it resonates for a lifetime. And you guys got lucky.”

(Valenzuela stops to take a phone call from his kid) I’ve got a 17-year-old at home who’s having to do some running around today. He’s entering his senior year and he’s a sweetheart of a kid. He’s a bass player and heavily involved in punk-rock culture in Los Angeles.

Q: That’s awesome.

A: Yeah, it is good.

Q: Last week was the 25th anniversary of “New Miserable Experience.” How does that feel?

A: You know, it’s nice. It was gonna happen with or without me. And it’s brought a bunch of interest back, so much so that we’re doing a tour in the fall where we're playing that record. 

I guess bands are doing this now, where if they have a record of note, they go on the road and play the record from beginning to end and then come back and play their other hits. Isn’t that something?

The Gin Blossoms' breakout, "New Miserable Experience" from 1992.

Q: I saw Rolling Stone did a 25th anniversary piece on the album.

A: Yeah, that was nice of them, wasn’t it? It’s funny to think that people are still calling to talk to us.

Q: Is it?

A: Yeah, I think so. It wasn’t expected. I just had a conversation with my friend. You remember a band from Canada called the Odds? Craig Northey and I are good pals and we’ve written together over the years. Yesterday, we got a hold of each other and we were talking about our kids and some of his are getting into the arts.

Gin Blossoms.

And he said for him, it wasn’t as if he ever thought he was going to make a big difference playing music, but at that point in life, he just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. So it became the only thing he was concerned with.

It is impossible for a grown adult to think, “Well, that’ll be an easy way to make a living.” (laughs). But I remember the age where my child is and not thinking there could be any other direction. Then you learn all these skills as a kid, like moving gear or setting up PAs or selling T-shirts, booking shows. All of that becomes your bread and butter for a lifetime of making music.

Craig said, “The funny bit is you think your life is going to be sitting in studios writing songs and playing piano but when you look back on a career, you think, ‘Wow, I probably only spent about eight percent of my life doing that.’ ” (laughs) The rest of the time is booking shows, booking flights and fretting over whether it’s all going to work out. It’s fun, though. I really am a very fortunate person.

Q: Well, yeah, you’ve been able to do music your whole life, right? That’s the dream of any 17-year-old who’s playing music.

A: It sure is. I remember reading as a kid that Paul McCartney at the height of Beatlemania said, “All I ever wanted to do was be able to play guitar for a living and I hoped that I would have enough that I could afford a cheap little car and an apartment.” And I think that was a lofty goal for all of us. (laughs)

Q: But you achieved it.

A: Yeah. Yeah, I have (laughs). Thank you for reminding me.

Q: Well, it’s good.

A: You know, it is good. And it’s beautiful. I’m thankful every day. I mean, there’s moments where I’m awake on the bus at 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep and I’m thinking, "Oh my God, what have I done with my life?!" (laughs).

A life on the road presents its difficulties. It’s hard on families and you have to marry it 100 percent. That’s what I try to tell young musicians. You really can’t dabble at this. You have to go at it 100 percent. It’s a tricky little pursuit.

Q: It is a tricky little pursuit. What’s the best part for you of still doing that tricky pursuit 25 years down the road from the record that made it all possible?

A: (Laughs) Well, you know, I wrote a really terrific song this week with a friend of mine over the phone and I’m really proud of it. I still get a charge out of creating and I still get a real kick out of when a song comes together. And I think that’s it. That’s the payoff. And being able to provide for my family.

Q: Gotta keep that kid in bass strings.

A: (Laughs) Yeah, I know.

Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame Induction

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17.

Where: Celebrity Theatre, 440 N. 32nd St., Phoenix.

Admission: $15-$45.

Details: 602-267-1600, ext. 1;

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