Truly miserable experience: Gin Blossoms' Robin Wilson on their heartbreaking breakthrough
It's been 30 years since Gin Blossoms released the album that continues to define their place in music history, "New Miserable Experience."
That has given Robin Wilson 30 years to wrap his head around the truly miserable experience surrounding the creation of the quadruple-platinum triumph that nearly destroyed them.
Midway through tracking in Memphis, the Tempe rockers parted ways with guitarist Doug Hopkins, the founding member who'd written the songs that would become the album's most successful calling cards, "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You."
His former bandmates were still touring on the album in December 1993 when Hopkins died by suicide at 32 shortly after receiving a gold record for the writing of their breakthrough hit, "Hey Jealousy."
"It's definitely easier to talk about it now," Wilson says, without actually seeming all that comfortable discussing it.
"There was so much of it that we kind of kept secret. We didn't really want to talk about just how (messed) up the whole thing was. How screwed up the band was. How precarious our situation was. But eventually, you kind of face down all those demons and get to a place where you can kind of speak about it candidly."
The making of 'Congratulations I'm Sorry.' How Gin Blossoms defied the odds
'You sort of get sucked back into that world'
Playing the album in full on a recent tour celebrating the 30th anniversary put those memories of just how screwed up the band was in the spotlight.
"We're always doing a lot of songs from that record," Wilson says.
But playing the album in sequence?
"It's a little bit more focused on the legacy of the record and the entire experience of having made it, which was not fun. It was very painful. And you sort of get sucked back into that world. Sometimes it's hard to just remember everything that happened."
'We actually tried and failed a couple times'
By the time they got to Ardent Studios in Memphis to work with producer John Hampton, Gin Blossoms had been a band for five years.
Formed in 1987, they released an independent album, "Dusted," in December 1989. By then, the lineup featured on "New Miserable Experience" had fallen into place with Wilson, Hopkins, Jesse Valenzuela on guitar and vocals, Bill Leen on bass and Phillip Rhodes on drums.
Signed to A&M in 1990, they went to work on their first major-label album that same year.
And it did not go well.
"We actually tried and failed a couple times," Wilson says.
"We worked with this one producer, a real big wheel in the industry. He was the first producer that A&M teamed us with and we blew it. We couldn't make it work. We spent like 150,000 bucks and had to throw the whole thing away."
At one point, the sessions were going so badly, they gave up on making an album altogether and instead released an EP aptly titled "Up and Crumbling."
"A&M was very patient," Wilson says.
"They were willing to allow us to fail and try again. They did that with a number of their artists. Sheryl Crow recorded her debut and then they decided to scrap it and start over. So it ended up taking her almost three years after she was signed before they eventually released 'Tuesday Night Music Club.' And it was the right move."
'There was a cloud over us the whole time'
In 1992, they decided to fire Hopkins, who'd written both the album's biggest hits, because his drinking had become unmanageable.
"There were moments when we were tracking at the beginning where we were playing well together," Wilson says.
"But there was a cloud over us the whole time. Doug was imploding mentally. And finally, eventually, it got to a point where we just had to send Doug home. Because he wasn't performing. He wasn't leading us. He was just getting in the way."
One night, Wilson got a call from Valenzuela saying they should meet for drinks to try and figure out a way to salvage the recording.
"Jesse realized it was down to us as songwriters and bandleaders to find a way to keep the band together," Wilson says.
"We went out just the two of us and had some beers and sort of made a pact to try to lead the band out of this darkness."
It's moments like that, he says, that often separate the bands that make it from the bands that don't.
"There's plenty of talent out there and you always wonder 'Why does this band make it and that band doesn't?'" Wilson says.
"It's because of moments like that, where you face down the darkness and decide if you have the will to keep it together. We're one of those rare bands that somehow found the will."
'The beauty and the tragedy': Doug Hopkins' story being told in film
The heartbreaking dismissal of Doug Hopkins
It wasn't easy sending Hopkins home.
But as Wilson says, "He was a mess. And we couldn't rely on him. We needed him to have, like, a leadership role. And he was dragging us all down with him. I think it was Paul Stanley who says, 'If your friend is drowning, you throw him a life preserver. But if he starts pulling you down with him, you gotta let go.'"
Still, he says, it was a heartbreaking decision.
"We did everything we could to help Doug and he was just dragging us down with him," Wilson says. "It was the most terrifying thing I've ever been through. And there was so much pressure on us with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
They were the first band on the Tempe scene to land a major-label deal.
"And there we were making the record in one of the greatest studios in the country," Wilson says.
"We had everything working for us, every reason to excel, and to lose such a key member in the middle of all that was heart-wrenching and terrifying. And there was no way to know whether or not we were gonna come out of it with a record, with a band, with a recording contract, with anything. We thought it was all over."
Beyond 'Hey Jealousy': Gin Blossoms' 30 best songs
'It's like a movie that I saw once'
Sometimes, when he thinks about those days, "it's like a movie that I saw once," Wilson says.
"It's kind of hard to sometimes truly understand, 'Well, this actually happened to me and to Jesse and Bill. We were the ones that did all this.' It can be kind of intense and emotional."
Wilson remembers a sense of relief when they finally finished the record to the label's satisfaction.
"With everything sort of falling apart in the studio with Doug, we had no way of knowing if the band was gonna be able to stay together, if we were gonna get dropped or if anybody was ever gonna hear it," Wilson says.
"There was a period of several months where we had no idea whether or not the album was even gonna come out. And then there was finally a point where we managed to sort of by the skin of our (expletive), keep the band together and save our recording contract."
He still didn't know what to make of it all when they got back to Tempe.
"Those next couple of months, after leaving Memphis, that was just such a dark time," Wilson says.
"It was rough. But I'm so proud to be able to be here now 30 years later, for that record to be a part of the legacy of that era, and for us to still be able to make a living and put our kids through college playing these songs. It's more than you could really imagine when you're 23 years old."
What was Alice Cooper like in high school? Friends and bandmates share their stories
The breakthrough of 'New Miserable Experience'
Released in August 1992, "New Miserable Experience" was not an overnight success. It took nearly a year for the bittersweet jangle-rock crunch of "Hey Jealousy" to go Top 40, hitting No. 25 and doing even better on the Mainstream Rock chart.
In the meantime, they toured, with guitarist Scott Johnson stepping in for Hopkins.
"It's a relentless grind when you're trying to launch a record like that," Wilson says.
"And it went on for us for nine months, 10 months before we finally had a song on the radio that really took off. There were several moments between the release and when we finally had the hit where we kind of thought it was over."
He remembers the label at one point saying maybe it was time to give up on that record and go make another one.
"I remember those moments like, 'We came so close. And now we're just gonna stop and make another album? Jesus!' Then all of a sudden, they'd come back two weeks later with, 'Oh no, we found something else for you guys to do.'"
Wilson laughs at the memory. It's funnier 30 years later.
They spent two years touring on that album, which included more than playing concerts.
"We were working our (expletives) off — doing press, doing radio visits, morning TV, all the kind of marketing and promotional work that the label was prepared to put up money for," he says.
It was a lot of work with a certain amount of what Wilson remembers as "(expletive) kissing" involved.
"Once we showed up at one of the biggest stations in New York, and I thought we were going live on the radio," Wilson says.
"And it turned out, we were there to play acoustically for the staff during their lunchtime. I remember kind of flipping out. Because we were so tired. We were working so hard all the (expletive) time. And then to find out you're not even going on the radio? You're just there to play for them at lunch?"
'We knew when we did it that it was a great record'
By the time a second Hopkins-written rocker, "Found Out About You," topped Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart, Hopkins was dead.
And still they toured.
A total of four songs from "New Miserable Experience" went Top 40 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts (the two hits, "Mrs. Rita" and "Allison Road").
By May 1996, the album had been certified quadruple-platinum for U.S. sales of 4 million.
"We knew when we did it that it was a great record, at least compared to what we'd done before," Wilson says.
"We didn't have any sense of perspective, in terms of it being a national record. Just as far as us being the band that had been playing those songs for years, we were pretty satisfied. We knew those were our best songs. But you have no way of knowing at the time where it's gonna fit into the grand scheme of the rock 'n' roll story."
He has a much firmer grasp on its place in the grand scheme of things 30 years later.
"To have it actually kind of hold up as one of the more memorable records from that period — and it was such an exciting period in rock 'n' roll — you know, it's mind boggling. It's not something we could've really predicted."
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.