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Concert Preview & Interview: Gin Blossoms

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Gin Blossoms
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On the cusp of releasing "Mixed Reality," their first studio album in eight years, the Arizona alt-rockers join Tonic and Vertical Horizon tonight at Express LIVE!

If you thought for a fleeting moment you might have seen Gin Blossoms lead singer Robin Wilson out and about in Columbus over the past couple of days, your eyes may not have been deceiving you.

“It’s really awesome to be in Columbus,” he offers immediately as we begin our phone interview. “This town has always been one of my favorites. We got here yesterday, and it was such a gorgeous day, and I rode my bike up and down the river for several miles. If I could have two days off in the middle of the tour, I’m glad to be here for them. It’s beautiful — great architecture, lots of public sculptures. It’s really a fabulous city, and it’s a great representation of what’s best about American cities.”

I think this is our fourth time performing there. Columbus has always been one of my favorite towns to play in, you know, going back to the tour we did with Toad the Wet Sprocket right after New Miserable Experience came out. And I don’t know if you know, but on the interior package for [that album], there’s a photograph of the side of Newport Music Hall. There’s all these red brick and vines and stuff. I was quite the photographer in those days, and I spent a lot of time meticulously documenting our tours with my camera. When it came time to put that album cover together, I wanted it to reflect where we were and where we’d been to, you know?

And from our first appearance in Columbus, we’ve always thought the crowds there were great. I’ve said this for years — I think Ohio has some of the best rock-and-roll audiences anywhere in the world. They really seem to care. You always get people who show up ready for fun, and it’s a pleasure.”

Well, if that’s not one of the kindest unprompted Arch City love notes I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what one is.

Wilson’s effervescent gratitude is the common thread that runs throughout our half-hour conversation, especially as we dig deeper into the making of Mixed Reality, the first Gin Blossoms studio album in eight years that will finally arrive in the eager hands of their followers on June 15. Without giving too much away, it’s an effort that’s made the long wait for new Blossoms material worthwhile. Those who fell in love with the band’s indelible brand of jangly alt-rock at their mid-90s halcyon should be absolutely chuffed to know that Wilson’s voice, and the cohesive musicianship of guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson, bassist Bill Leen, and drummer Scott Hessel, are in pristine shape.

That’s not to say Mixed Reality doesn’t showcase an evolved Gin Blossoms from a creative standpoint. There’s plenty for purists who still adore New Miserable Experience to embrace, but there are also some compelling moments that demonstrate the band’s willingness to take some artistic risks. Even the personal and professional turbulence the band has occasionally experienced throughout their thirty-year journey seems to have helped them grow into a stronger version of themselves as a collective — a union that, according to Wilson, has really had a chance to shine on their latest creation.

“We really did something special here I think, whether or not anyone else agrees or whether or not it sells. As a personal accomplishment, I’m just so proud of us. I feel like it holds up to anything we’ve ever done in the past. As songwriters, we’ve turned in our best work, and as performers we pushed each other and performed incredibly well. Everyone really stepped up.”

Tonight, the Gin Blossoms will perform as one-third of a ticket with Tonic and Vertical Horizon at Express LIVE!, all of whom are kindred spirits in their unwavering commitment to their music and to their loyal audiences.

I was really sad to hear that your long-time friend and producer John Hampton had passed away a few years ago, because I love the work he did with you on your previous albums. But you’ve now made this excellent record with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter who have R.E.M. and The Smithereens on their resume. What did they both squeeze out of you creatively as you were writing and recording?

“I thought it was really important that if we couldn’t go work with John Hampton that we take ourselves out of our comfort zone and do something we hadn’t done before. So we definitely got that out of it. Nobody was in their comfort zone making this record. We were in a new place and, as I said, we were pushing each other to do it quickly. We were funding it ourselves, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time. But going into this, going into the writing of the songs knowing that we were going to be recording with Don and Mitch, that sort of informed my songwriting in a way.

And also as I was putting together ideas for those songs, my son, who was 14 at the time and had really gotten into playing guitar, asked me, ‘How do you write songs? Where do you get your ideas?’ And I tried to explain to him, as you would to a 14-year-old, ‘Well, you think about the bands you love. What sort of sound do you want to create? What kind of lyrical message do you want to send? What kind of moods do you want people to feel?’ So right after explaining all of that to him, I suddenly found myself really tapped into something really elemental as a songwriter, you know? Thinking about the kinds of records Don and Mitch had made, and after this conversation with my son, I was really personally able to sort of hack into a younger version of myself and write songs I really would’ve wanted to write in 1990.

This record is sort of a spiritual successor to New Miserable Experience, at least in my point of view. And we’ve made a lot of records since, but this is definitely the best one we’ve made in all that time. Really, I just couldn’t be more proud of the whole thing. I really immersed myself in every detail, to the annoyance of my band mates. I really got into this record, and I was there for all of the mixing with Don. I rode him and I really drove him crazy scrutinizing every reverb and every snare drum compressor, you know. I worked him like a dog. And then I worked on the album cover, hired the art team and created the concept for the cover and all of that…”

Oh, I was going to mention the album art because I think it’s fantastic. I’ve always loved quirky, mid-century graphic design, and the packaging is just amazing.

“Thank you! I’m super proud of that. Joseph Allen Black is the graphic artist who did most of the legwork. Mitch O’Connell is a talented and famous artist I’ve collaborated with in the past on designing a custom tattoo for me and a Gin Blossoms t-shirt. I needed a graphic artist for the album and didn’t know where to turn, and Mitch introduced me to Joseph. And before I was even finished with my conversation with Mitch, I said, ‘Well, maybe there’s a place here for you to be involved. Maybe designing a character on this album cover like the Trix rabbit, or a winking 50s mom, or some kind of space girl?’ And I’ll be damned if Mitch didn’t cough up the perfect combination of all those things. It really is a beautiful piece of art. Once you have a package of that quality, it becomes really easy to put together t-shirts and backstage passes and all the other branding. So I’ve been overseeing all of that, too. And now with the tour, I’ve been producing all of that, as well, from the backdrop, to the set lists, to the pre-show mix tapes.

There isn’t a single thing that I’m not making sure is awesome, or at least as awesome as we can make it within the confines of the budget of a mid-level band like us, you know? My son asked me…he’d just come back from a Green Day concert and was like, ‘You know, why don’t you guys have explosions?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, because we’re not millionaires, you know? We’re not millionaires!'”

And I kind of love that you are that pedantically involved, because I think it’s so obvious to us as fans when you’re engineering those little details and that you care so deeply about how the final product looks and sounds. It’s one of the reasons I still follow you and Tonic and Vertical Horizon — I’ve never been let down as a listener and I know that you want the best for your audience as much as you want it for yourselves.

“I truly appreciate that. It is important for me that we come off as being really genuine, because, you know, we are really genuine and honest about what we do. And going back to what you said as it relates to Mixed Reality, it’s an old-fashioned kind of album — the kind of record people would make in the 80s and 90s. And I’ve heard people say over the past several years, ‘Nobody makes good music anymore, nobody makes records like they used to,’ or ‘I don’t understand the music today,’ or whatever. And I know at least we did. We did something the old way and I, regardless of the commercial outcome or the reviews on the record, I know personally and on behalf of my band mates that we did something special. I’ve been making records for 30 years and I haven’t felt this way about a record in a long, long time.

And to have the opportunity at this stage in our career, in our third act, to have a record like this to pitch and to headline a tour with these other wonderful acts, it feels really great. We’ve tapped into something really primal and really represents the core values of the rock-and roll ethic.”

Going back to the cover just for a second, there are these three bylines on the front: Heartache! Compromise! Hi Fi Rock and Roll! I love them. I mean, that’s the essence of a life in music, isn’t it? 

“[laughs] That’s perfect! I’m glad! You know, let me tell you that’s me describing my experience making the record and putting the songs together with the band. That’s what it felt like, you know? It was heartache, compromise, and hi-fi rock-and-roll. And then on the side of the box, you see, it says: ‘Warning! Contents include loud drums, lots of guitars, and some singing with curse words.’ That speaks to Don Dixon, who mixed the record with me hovering over his shoulder. I kept telling him…there’s one song in particular where I said, ‘I want this song to be played in every strip club in America, and I need the kick drum kickin’! I need more kick!‘ And he would roll his eyes at me and…it was a really frustrating couple of days with me in there with him.

He thought he was going to mix the record alone. And I actually then flew home to New York and listened to a couple of rough mixes, and then flew back to North Carolina. I just can’t give him notes over the phone — I’ve gotta go there and be there. And he was like, ‘What are you doing back here again?’ I said, ‘I just have to see this thing through.’ But anyway, here we are.”

But the relentlessness paid off. You’ve made a stunning record.

“Well, thank you. I’m super proud. And I’m actually working on videos right now, and we haven’t made videos in a long time. We have really small budgets. Back in the 90s there was a time where we had $100,000 budgets for a video. But now I’ve got about a $3,000 budget for all of the videos. I’m financing a few of them, and I’m going to be directing a video later this month for the first single, which is ‘Break’ — one of the best songs I think I’ve ever written. That’s my son playing tambourine on that one, and my son also played cowbell on the dirtiest song I’ve ever written, so I’m super proud of that! There are a lot of layers of attachment to this record, you know?

Actually, I want to address that, too. I wrote a song on the record called ‘The Devil’s Daughter.’ And it’s pretty filthy in its lyrical content. And I’ve been getting a lot of shit for it. My band mates questioned whether or not it should be on the record. And then we were recently interviewing managers — we have a new manager — and one of the guys we talked to said, ‘You know, you should not put this on the record.’ And immediately, my band mates sort of jumped on me and said, ‘See? We told you!’ I listen to a lot of stuff like My Chemical Romance and Green Day, so I felt perfectly authorized to write a filthy rock-and-roll song. It’s really honest and it happened very organically. And Don Dixon loved the song, and so that was another reason I was confident that it was worth pursuing because Don was confident in it, too.

Anyway, I’m really proud of the song, and my son played cowbell on it and also did the hand claps with Don and Mitch, and that’s going to go down as one of the greatest moments of my life — watching my son doing hand claps with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter on a Gin Blossoms record. That’s a memory I’m always going to carry with me, and the fact that a moment like that can happen is really special.”

I also can’t get over how amazing you sound vocally on this album. It’s like your voice froze in 1994 and I just can’t fathom how you’ve managed to preserve it so well. And I think Emerson and Matt sound phenomenal, too, so maybe it’s just because singers are taking better care of their voices now.

“Well, thank you! I can’t speak for Matt and Emerson, but that’s my X-Men super power is being a good singer. And if you make it to the show tomorrow night, you’re going to be excited because we’re starting the encore with Matt, Emerson, and I are singing ‘Wild Horses’ together. I wanted those guys involved in the encore, so I reached out to them a few months ago when the tour came together and told them I wanted them in on this. You know, we’ve been on so many tours throughout the course of our careers, but this is the first time where we’ve constructed a collaboration like that for the encore. We’ve only done it once. We did it a few nights ago for the first time and pulled it off. So it should sound even better [to]night.”

Gin Blossoms take the stage tonight with Tonic and Vertical Horizon at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Ave. in the Arena District. General admission tickets (this venue is outdoors) are $25, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Gin Blossoms’ forthcoming album, “Mixed Reality,” is available for pre-order via their official website.

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