Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson on why 'Mixed Reality' is their best since 'Miserable' was new

Ed Masley
The Republic |
Gin Blossoms (from left): Scott Johnson, Jesse Valenzuela, Robin Wilson, Bill Leen and Scott Hessel.

Last year, the Gin Blossoms honored the 25th anniversary of "New Miserable Experience," their quadruple-platinum breakthrough, by playing the full album every night on a jangle-rocking trip down memory lane.

This year, the Tempe rockers found an even better way to honor the occasion — by releasing "Mixed Reality," the most consistently inspired batch of songs they've managed since that breakthrough. The band comes back to Phoenix for a show at the Van Buren to promote the disc. 

Recorded at Mitch Easter's studio with producer Don Dixon (the team behind R.E.M.'s "Murmur" and "Reckoning"), the album effortlessly taps into the essence of "New Miserable Experience." That's why singer Robin Wilson feels it's sort of a companion piece.

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

He also hears it as the Gin Blossoms' best album since the one that made them famous.

"It's not rocket science," he says, with a laugh. It starts with strong material and spirited performances, which he feels everyone delivered this time.

Recording with R.E.M. dream team

 And working with Dixon and Easter in North Carolina upped the ante, creating a situation where they felt they "had to step up to impress these dudes," Wilson says.

"It's not as though I woke up every morning and thought, 'I’m gonna show those (expletives) what I can do.' But it was being motivated to do a great job and to make a great record."

Recording with Dixon also brought out the best in their bassist, Bill Leen. 

Gin Blossoms (from left): Bill Leen, Scott Hessel, Robin Wilson, Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson.

"Bill was really looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with Don because he’s a bass player," Wilson explains. "So every day in the studio, it would be Don and Bill working together for a couple of hours by themselves. And I think Bill recorded some of the best bass guitar that’s ever been put down on a pop-rock record."

There's an old-school rock-and-roll vibe to the sound of these recordings.

"I didn’t go into the songwriting thinking, 'Let’s write a bunch of stuff that we would have wanted to record in 1989,' but it sort of worked out that way," Wilson says. "I hear people complain that nobody’s doing it the way they used to. Well, we did. It’s almost like we went back in time and made this record."

Tempe's Gin Blossoms perform after being inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix.

Wilson had albums like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones in mind as they  worked on the record.

"I wanted it to have sort of a consistent audio picture, almost like you’re listening to a live record, in a way, or seeing a live show," he says.

It also helped the process, Wilson says, to get out of their comfort zone and work in a different environment. Had they gone back to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where three Gin Blossoms album were made, he doesn't think it would have had the same effect.

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

The road to Easter's studio began in Ohio, when Dixon came out to a Gin Blossoms show. 

"I was chatting with him on the bus," Wilson says. "I was really excited to meet him and tell him how many of his records I had on my iPod and how important those records were to the formation of my musical identity."

When Dixon suggested recording the album at Easter’s place, Wilson recalls with a laugh, "My head just about exploded."

The singer was working at Tower Records in Tempe when those R.E.M. records with Dixon and Easter came out and became "an essential part" of Wilson's life.

Gin Blossoms lead singer Robin Wilson performs with his band during the Innings Festival at Tempe Beach Park on March 24, 2018 in Tempe, Ariz.

"When you’re working at a record store," Wilson says, "you’ve got a really diverse group of employees. But R.E.M. and Smithereens were records that everyone at Tower Records was into. And by the time I was working at Zia in ’87 and ’88 and Smithereens released 'Green Thoughts,' it was instantly one of my favorite records of that era."

Wilson says he had those R.E.M. and Smithereens recordings in his head as he was working on material.

"I didn’t consciously try to emulate that stuff," he says. "It’s just part of my DNA. And they were very much in my thoughts."

'A younger version of myself'

Also very much in Wilson's thoughts was Doug Hopkins, the former Gin Blossom who killed himself in 1993, shortly after receiving a gold disc for the writing of "Hey Jealousy."

"I was thinking a lot about Doug," Wilson says. "And I was glad to be able to turn in songs that I think Doug would’ve liked. Doug was very difficult to impress as a songwriter. And I think he would’ve liked this record. I think he’d be proud of us."

Another factor in the way he went about the writing of his contributions to the album, Wilson says, is having recently explained his writing process to his teenaged son, who's been playing guitar.

"He asked me 'How do you write songs?" Wilson says. "And it was about a month after having explained it to him that I picked up my guitar and sort of reconnected with the elemental foundations of my songwriting. That combined with thinking about R.E.M. and the Smithereens and all the things I was listening to when I was 19 and really striving to become a songwriter, it just all sort of fell together and I tapped into a younger version of myself."

Wilson joins the Smithereens

As luck would have it, Wilson had been singing with the Smithereens, whose guitar-playing vocalist, Pat DiNizio, died in late 2017.

"I told those guys they have no idea how they shook the Tempe music scene back in the '80s," Wilson says. "They had a really big impact on what we were doing in Arizona. They had such great songs and Pat DiNizio’s singing, the cadence of his delivery is something that affected me as a singer. So it’s pretty easy for me to sing that way. I’ve been singing like Pat DiNizio all these years."

He's done three shows with them and eight more are planned in January.

"My brothers are big Smithereens fans and now they look at me differently," Wilson says. "They’re like, 'Wow! You’ve got way more credibility now.' My one brother, he said, 'It was really no big deal to me that you were in the Gin Blossoms but now you’re in the Smithereens?! Holy crap! Now I have to actually admire you as a singer.'”


'Mixed Reality' vs. 'Jackalope'

This album marks the first time Wilson's bandmates let him name an album.

"I have been consistently outvoted every single time," he says. "I wanted to call 'New Miserable Experience' 'Jackalope.' I actually had one of those Jackalope postcards sitting on the mixing console the whole time we were making the record. I was like 'That’s the cover.'"

Meat Puppets and Gin Blossoms perform after being inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix.

When his bandmates decided to let him name this one, Wilson says, "I was really excited and I had a few really good ideas, but 'Mixed Reality' I got from Wired magazine. It’s a combination of virtual reality and actual physical environments that you’re standing in. So you put goggles on and there can be zebras and giraffes walking around in your yard."

One assumes there could also be jackalopes walking around your yard if someone really wanted them.

Revisiting the album that launched his career was "a very nostalgic time" for Wilson.

“Listening to it again, in order, for the first time in 20 years or so, I relived the whole thing blow by blow," he says. "It was very much connected to my memories of those times and my memories of Doug. And I was really proud, you know? I listened and there was a moment where I was like, 'Holy crap, this is really good.' I mean, I always kind of knew it was but listening with fresh ears for the first time in a long time was pretty intense."

Gin Blossoms

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8.

Where: The Van Buren, 401 W. Van Buren St., Phoenix.

Admission: $30-$71.

Details: 866-468-3399,