So you want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star

Robin Wilson thought the Gas Giants would be a great new beginning. He had no idea what he was getting into.

Over drinks, and above the click of pool balls and tinkling glasses, Henzerling is reminiscing about the Gin Blossoms.

Although he played drums with the group briefly, he recalls the band with a kind of detached perspective. "They were an amazing rock 'n' roll band. Great songs and personalities, the whole thing."

Most people who caught the Blossoms at their commercial peak in the mid-'90s are left with a false impression -- one of glossy MTV videos and swooning teenage fans.

Wilson and engineer Chris Widmer (left) at the Gas Giants' Mayberry studios.
Paolo Vescia
Wilson and engineer Chris Widmer (left) at the Gas Giants' Mayberry studios.
Wilson: "I've had the whole spectrum of experiences that you can have while being in a rock 'n' roll band."
Paolo Vescia
Wilson: "I've had the whole spectrum of experiences that you can have while being in a rock 'n' roll band."

But those who saw the group during the hot, sweaty summers of '88 and '89 glimpsed a raw, untempered rock 'n' roll outfit fueled by a potent mix of booze, personal chemistry and the songs of a gifted musical auteur.

"People who never saw them then don't realize just how great a rock band they were and how dynamic they were onstage," says Henzerling.

Former Psalms guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins formed the Gin Blossoms in 1987. The group's original lineup included Hopkins and Richard Taylor on guitars, Bill Leen on bass, Chris McGann on drums and local singer-songwriter Jesse Valenzuela playing guitar and fronting the group. Musical and personal differences forced Taylor to leave the group within a few months.

As Wilson remembers it, his entrée into the band came under fairly informal circumstances. "Doug ended up at my apartment one night. We were partying and somehow a guitar came out. So Doug was playing guitar and I started singing," says Wilson. "He was really impressed that I could sing. I just remember being so excited sitting that I was singing with Doug Hopkins of the Gin Blossoms. In my eyes, he was already a huge star."

After a successful audition, Wilson was asked to join the Blossoms. Then he remembered that he'd promised Henzerling, who was on his way back to Phoenix, that they'd start their long-discussed group.

Both Henzerling and Scott were upset when they found out that Wilson had already joined the Blossoms. But Wilson managed to placate them with another promise. "I told them, 'Look, I swear to you, we're going to start this band,'" says Wilson. "'The Gin Blossoms are going to break up in six months anyway.'"

Wilson played his first gig with the Blossoms in March 1988 ("after one rehearsal, we did a three-night stand at Long Wong's"). By April, drummer Chris McGann had announced he was leaving the group to move to Tahiti. Henzerling, who had jammed with Hopkins and Leen before, was enlisted to join the band.

"It was so great when [Henzerling] was in the Blossoms. It was such a coup for me to suddenly be in this band with my best friend. It was everything we had talked about," says Wilson.

But Henzerling was a reluctant drummer. "I loved playing with them, but at that point I didn't want to be stuck behind the drum kit," says Henzerling. "I wanted to play guitar. Plus, that was Doug's band and I really wanted to start a band that I would have some creative input in." Henzerling left the group after six months and headed to Seattle to start a project with Dave Swafford.

His successor was 19-year-old Phillip Rhodes. Just out of the Navy, he was also a McClintock alum and had drumming in his blood. His grandfather and namesake, Phil Phillips, was a trapsman and big-band leader in the '30s and '40s.

With Rhodes on board and Wilson moved from rhythm guitar to lead singer ("They finally realized I couldn't play," says Wilson), the Blossoms' classic lineup was secured.

The group established a growing reputation as a fun-and-booze-filled live act within the growing Tempe scene. The band made a gradual rise up the ranks, and by 1990 the major labels came calling. In 1990, the band was signed to A&M Records -- the small, artist-friendly company started in the '60s by Tijuana Brass leader Herb Alpert and producer Jerry Moss. The band released an EP, Up & Crumbling, in 1991 and went on an unsuccessful and, by all accounts, miserable regional tour.

The Blossoms' music seemed sharply out of place in the musical landscape of the early '90s. Dark and brooding Seattle grunge was the dominant style then, and the Byrdsian pop of the Blossoms seemed like an anachronism amid the cacophonous sound of bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains.

Undeterred, the group went into Memphis' Ardent Studios with producer John Hampton in the spring of 1992 to record what would become its full-length debut, New Miserable Experience.

By then, Hopkins, the band's undisputed leader and chief songwriter, had grown increasingly unsettled. With a seeming desire to sabotage his own impending success, Hopkins let his drinking and behavior get out of control. By the time the group reached Memphis, the situation had become untenable. Pressured by the record company to resolve the problem, the band did the unthinkable and kicked Hopkins out of his own group. Local guitarist Scott Johnson was enlisted to take his place.

Against all odds, the band managed to gain a foothold on radio and MTV. The success of the singles "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You" -- both penned by Hopkins -- spurred the album's sales. Supported by a rigorous touring schedule (the band played 302 shows over 27 months and appeared in front of 1.1 million people), the record went gold, platinum and, eventually, double platinum, crossing the two million mark in sales.

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