Treading in the Ether

Robin Wilson and the Gas Giants have a phantom hit

Bless his heart, but Robin Wilson is a strange guy. It's not just the Gas Giants front man's manner of speaking -- a tone that has the slickness of a used-car salesman and the perpetual chipperness of a TV weatherman -- or his conversation -- an unrelenting jackhammer of self-promotion. It's that in talking to Wilson, you sometimes forget the man lists his occupation as "musician." Instead you feel you're being harangued by some marketing demagogue more interested in crunching numbers than strumming chords. With the exception of the Gin Blossoms' New Year's Eve reunion, Wilson has kept a pretty low local profile since the Gas Giants released its debut, From Beyond the Backburner, on upstart indie/online label Atomic Pop last fall. In that time, Wilson and company have been busy making the rounds of radio stations and clubs and completing work on a pseudonymous album called Poppin' Wheelies -- a Josie and the Pussycats meets The Jetsonsconcept record for kids.

Calling from Indianapolis, where the band is opening dates for radio hit-makers Train, Wilson spends most of the time talking about how the "math" indicates that the Gas Giants' first single, "Quitter," is actually a minor national hit, even though distribution troubles have kept sales figures at a paltry 5,000.

It's only the latest in a series of difficulties that have plagued Wilson's post-Blossom band throughout its turbulent three-year history. But his focus, at least momentarily, isn't on his own troubles, but on the local music community and the impending release of Uranus Presents: New & Used Volume 1, a compilation featuring seven Valley acts; Wilson is financing and releasing the disc on his own Uranus Laboratories label.

Ironically, the compilation bows on the two-year anniversary of the death of Zia Record Exchange founder Brad Singer. Singer's Zia compilations in the '90s were a crucial vehicle for many local musicians and something that up-and-coming Valley mainstreamers have been missing in recent years. Wilson says the goal of the project is to help revive the tradition.

"With Brad gone, there's been a hole left behind and it just seemed like the thing to do," Wilson says. "I wanted to offer something that was a snapshot of our musical community."

Featuring tracks from a stylistically diverse cross section of combos (though geographically it pretty much sticks to the East Valley), Uranus features alt-rockers the Royal Normans, mix master DJ Radar, pop-punks Pollen and the trash blasts of the Sonic Thrills, among others, including Wilson's friend and collaborator Steve French, the only non-Arizonan to appear on the disc.

"I think all the bands on it are terrific. Just to have the opportunity to do something with so many deserving local acts is a great feeling. And it's good for me personally because I'm getting involved with the local music scene in a way I haven't been for years."

The chirpy Wilson seems to deflate only when discussing the litany of distribution difficulties the Gas Giants record has encountered since its release. First, a national coalition of independent record retailers, angered by Atomic Pop's unprecedented digital release of Public Enemy's There's a Poison Goin' On, initially resisted the disc in protest. Then an expensive wholesale price tag made it prohibitive for shops like Tempe's Eastside Records to stock the disc. Most recently, according to Wilson, Atomic Pop's distributor, Alliance, is "dropping the ball."

"The project is in a crisis state right now," sighs Wilson. "We should've sold 30,000 records based on the airplay we're getting. We're getting over 650 spins a week. About a month ago, we had the No. 1 song on a station in Chicago. Right now we've got the No. 3 song on a station in Tampa, and there are several other markets -- Reno; Sacramento; Birmingham, Alabama -- where we're getting a lot of airplay. But the record sales don't reflect the amount of airplay we're getting because the stores aren't stocked."

Wilson's complaints, though valid, are pretty common; almost every other struggling band has a distribution horror story. Even groups on well-heeled major labels sometimes can't find their albums in stores on the road.

The situation became so dire recently that Wilson went so far as to call the president of the distributor in an effort to "embarrass them into trying to make some changes in the way the thing is being handled."

Wilson adds that his frustration with the distributor notwithstanding, he's satisfied with the efforts and expense that Atomic Pop has poured into the project over the past months.

It hasn't been all bad news for the band, as their association with powerhouse radio-promotion firm McCluskey and Associates and Bill Graham management have helped them get out of the alt-rock chitlin circuit. In recent weeks, the Gas Giants have hooked up with a number of bigger-name acts (Lit, Tonic) for a series of large club and theater dates. But the best reaction came from their recent pairing with Train.

"It's a perfect audience for us," notes Wilson, "because there's so many Gin Blossoms fans out there. With this tour we have a shot at stealing Train's audience, or at least borrowing them for a while."

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