MUSIC

25 years ago, Gin Blossoms were reeling. How 'Congratulations I'm Sorry' defied the odds

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

It's never easy following a mainstream breakthrough album as pervasive as "New Miserable Experience."

For Tempe's Gin Blossoms, the pressure to avoid a major-label sophomore slump was further complicated by the devastating loss of guitarist Doug Hopkins, who died by suicide in 1993 shortly after receiving a gold record for "Hey Jealousy."

Hopkins had written that song, their first radio hit, and "Found Out About You," the other single most responsible for driving sales of that quadruple-platinum calling card, their first album on A&M Records.

He was fired by his bandmates near the end of the recording sessions, though, when his ongoing struggles with alcoholism left the label threatening to drop them if they didn't let him go.

After all of that, it was time to come in off the road and make another album.

Going back to the studio wasn't easy for Gin Blossoms

"I mean, it was just a stressful time," guitarist Jesse Valenzuela recalls of their return in 1995 to Ardent Studios in Memphis to work once again with producer John Hampton on the next album, "Congratulations... I'm Sorry."

"It was nerve-wracking to an extent. We had been on the road for so long and gone through all that turmoil. So it was, you know.... People had on their brave face. We were gonna try to do our best."

Guitarist Scotty Johnson, who initially joined as a stand-in for Hopkins on tour, recalls the pressure going into those recording sessions falling mainly on the shoulders of the two surviving songwriters — lead singer Robin Wilson and Valenzuela.

It was their job to deliver hits.

"There's no doubt that facing that sophomore slump, as they call it, was there," Johnson says. "It was right in our face. But what are you gonna do? I mean, I guess we could've quit. We could've just said, 'Eh, OK, forget it.' Luckily, we didn't."

Then, he laughs, and adds, "Well, we waited 'til later to quit. Until after the record came out. But yeah, oh man, there was a lot of pressure."

Valenzuela and Wilson, a singer whose radio-friendly voice was born to take the raw emotion of those early singles to the masses, had already proven they could write a hit.

It's true that Hopkins wrote the biggest singles on "New Miserable Experience," but of the other songs that charted on rock radio? Wilson wrote "Allison Road." Valenzuela co-wrote "Mrs. Rita" with Jim Swafford. And Wilson and Valenzuela wrote "Until I Fall Away" together.

By the time they got to Memphis, they'd released a new song that would soon become their highest-charting single yet, "Til I Hear it From You" from the "Empire Records" soundtrack.

'Til I Hear it From You' bridged the gap between albums

Leah Miller, a longtime fan who as a DJ at KUKQ-AM (1060), was spinning songs from their first album, "Dusted," long before the band was signed to A&M, sees the success of that song as a pivotal moment.

"People weren't sure they were gonna be able to follow up what they did, because they did not have Doug's songwriting, that they would need to use more of Doug's songs to be successful," she recalls.

"That was the initial sort of talk on the streets of Tempe. And then 'Til I Hear From You' came along. And I think that shut everybody up. So good on them for proving they could do it on their own."

A bittersweet power-pop treasure co-written by Wilson and Valenzuela with Marshall Crenshaw, "Til I Hear It From You" was still making its way up the charts as they set out to make their second major-label album.

Why 'Til I Hear It From You' was on the 'Empire Records' soundtrack

If it seems a bit odd that they didn't include "Til I Hear It From You" on the album, Johnson says the label wanted it to be exclusive to the soundtrack.

"A&M had done the soundtrack to 'Pretty in Pink,'" he says. "And it was huge. So they wanted that 'Empire Records' soundtrack to be the same thing."

Valenzuela, however, recalls it more as something that the band decided.

"My thought at the time, that was part of this record," he says, referring to the soundtrack. "It doesn't belong in two places."

Now, he says, he realizes the foolishness of that decision.

"Life has changed so much with songwriting, you really can't be very precious anymore."

Why they recorded in Memphis

Returning to Ardent to work with Hampton, who produced "New Miserable Experience" and their new hit single, was a given.

As Valenzuela says, "In that world, at that time especially, if you had success, you usually just stayed with it."

But they also loved working with Hampton.

"It was always nice to be around John Hampton," Valenzuela says. "He was such a lovely man. And he always made the records sound great."

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

In addition to his skills as a producer and recording engineer, Hampton had a gift for managing the at-times-complicated band dynamic.

Valenzuela says, "He understood the politics and the psychology of being a band. He'd been in bands. So he knew to let this one (person) blow off steam and let this one go off to have lunch by himself. He knew how to corral the temperament."

And there were definitely temperaments in need of some corralling. 

"It wasn't World War III," Valenzuela recalls, with a laugh.

"It was just five guys who had been in really close contact for years on the road. Throw in a little extra stress with all we'd been through and horrible things that had happened and I guess we have to make another record now. It was a lot of fun, but you know...."

Does he think it would've been a different record if they had allowed themselves a chance to breathe a bit and process what they'd been through before diving in to make another album?

"It was never a question as to whether we could wait," he says. "Now, 25 years later, I suspect it would have been a different record had more time gone by."

But that wasn't an option. 

As Valenzuela says, "In the mind of the record business, it's a product with an expiration date."

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

Johnson's role in the band

Johnson's first Gin Blossoms session was tracking a radio version of "Allison Road." And he's on "Til I Hear It From You." But Hopkins had cut his guitar parts on "New Miserable Experience" before being fired.

"So this was my first time coming in and making a real record," Johnson says. 

"It was exciting for me, going to a different city, working with a guy that did, like, the Replacements."

It was also somewhat daunting, stepping into Hopkins' role on lead guitar. 

"He had some big shoes to fill," Johnson says. 

Then, he laughs and says, "Literally. Doug was, like, 6'6''. And he'd wear cowboy boots, man. He was tall. But I don't know if the pressure was on me as a guitar player as much as it was on the songwriters."

How 'Follow You Down' came about

They were nearing the end of the recording process, Johnson says, when they received the phone call every major-label artist dreads. The gist? "Hey, we don't hear a single.'"

Valenzuela says they broke it to them gently, saying if you have more songs you think are worthy of a shot at airplay, you should bring them in now.

And as luck would have it, Valenzuela had already started working on a promising new song as they were heading back to Arizona for a break in the recording.

"I came home and did a demo in my little studio and drove around in my car, listening to it," he recalls. "I took it to the band. Then, I called A&M and said, 'I think I have something that might be worth listening to.' They said, 'Well, go record it.'"

Hampton came to Phoenix to track the song, "Follow You Down," at Vintage Recorders on Camelback Road.

"We cut it in an afternoon," Valenzuela recalls.

And this time, everybody heard a hit.

"Follow You Down" became the Tempe rockers' first and only Top 10 entry on the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 9 and spent 46 weeks on the chart, a piece of Blossoms history Valenzuela had forgotten.

"I'm not a good numbers person," he says. "But it has all the credentials. I still hear it at Fry's. If you can get that and Home Depot, I think you're set."

Why the album was called 'Congratulations... I'm Sorry'

It was bassist Bill Leen who suggested "Congratulations... I'm Sorry" as an album title.

"That's what people were saying to them,'" Miller says.

"'Hey, I haven't seen you in years. I saw you at Long Wong's. Oh my god. You guys are huge. Congratulations. I'm really sorry about Doug.' It's an incredible dichotomy, what happened. This incredible success. But it had such a tragic piece to it."

'THE BEAUTY AND THE TRAGEDY':Gin Blossoms' founder Doug Hopkins' story being told in film

Hopkins' death was definitely weighing on his former bandmates' minds as they were working on that album. And, in fact, as Valenzuela says, "It's still a thing."

Released on Feb. 13, 1996, "Congratulations" peaked at No. 10 and went platinum. In addition to "Follow You Down," it included the Grammy-nominated "As Long As It Matters," a hit on the Billboard Adult Pop and Mainstream Top 40 charts, and "Day Job," which charted at mainstream- and modern-rock radio.

As Miller says, "The story had a happy ending."

Was it a break or a breakup?

Within a year of the album's release, the band decided it was time to take a break.

"We had been landlocked together for a long time," Valenzuela says.

"I really think that was it. People needed to stretch their legs. That's why I always thought it was a break. As opposed to a breakup. I think in everyone's mind, they knew we were gonna play music together again."

Since coming back from that hiatus in 2001, Gin Blossoms have released three albums, "Major Lodge Victory" (2006), "No Chocolate Cake" (2010) and "Mixed Reality" (2018).

Looking back now on "Congratulations" 25 years later, Valenzuela says he's happy with the way the album ended up performing.

"It had a hit and a couple of things that did pretty well. Nothing quite like the first one. But to us, it was no disappointment. And quite honestly, to the record company it was no disappointment, either."

That it's held up as an album after all these years, from the seemingly effortless pop hooks of "Follow You Down" to the breathtaking Big Star-esque balladry of "As Long As It Matters," only makes what they accomplished in what anyone could see was an unenviable situation that much more remarkable.

"We're lucky people," Valenzuela says. "We have a lot to be thankful for."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.