By Nicki Escudero
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By Brian Palmer
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The 110 famed lunchboxes sit neatly organized in a special collector's shrine in Robin Wilson's Mesa home -- just like the gold and platinum record awards the singer accumulated during his glory days with the Gin Blossoms, inarguably the most successful band Arizona produced in the '90s and the quintet that single-handedly created the jangly guitar-propelled, alt-country-tinged power pop amalgam that came to be known as the "Tempe Sound."
During the Gin Blossoms' heyday in the early '90s, the charismatic singer's quirky collection of kids' lunchboxes grew almost daily. As is the unwritten rule in pop stardom -- from Elvis' teddy bears to 'N Sync's boxes of Cap'n Crunch -- whenever a rock star's peculiar obsession becomes trivia-trading treasure in the pages of Seventeen or Tiger Beat, that rock star inevitably becomes deluged with a surreal surplus of curious contributions to his absorbing collection.
And Robin Wilson, with his boyish affection for comic books, cartoon action heroes and pop-culture lunchboxes, was a sure-fire fawning fan target. While riding the waves of MTV idolization, Wilson's mailbox at the band's label, A&M Records, was constantly overflowing with gaudy metal containers festooned with everything from embossed cartoon images of the Banana Splits and the Partridge Family to racy, pasted-on self-portraits from aspiring groupies bent on nabbing a rock 'n' roll singer by perverting his most innocent preoccupation.
But today, hanging around the house as a self-described "Mr. Mom" while his wife commutes weekly between the Valley and New York City as a Saturday Night Livestage director, the new father plays happily with his 2-month old baby and simply wonders if young Grey Augustus will ever grow to appreciate the $4,000 worth of glorified bologna sandwich containers his once-famous dad ("It's dwindling," Wilson admits of his recognizability quotient) has waiting for him.
"He probably won't be into any of this stuff," Wilson laughs, surveying his unparalleled collection of school lunchboxes and comic books. "And I've certainly accepted that possibility, that he'll prefer to invent himself. But," he adds with a sly grin, "he's gonna have no choice but to accompany me to Atomic Comics quite a bit."
Certainly Wilson is not the first spotlight-soaking rock star to be humbled by the daunting prospect of parenthood. An early hero of his by the name of John Lennon, after all, put a much bigger musical legacy up on the shelf to devote some quality time to his baby through the boy's first (and Lennon's last) five years of life.
But in the case of Robin Wilson, having a young son to carry on the family name seems to have invigorated his pride in both his own musical legacy and his important place in the community little Grey will be growing up in.
This coming Monday night (December 31), Wilson will reunite with the other surviving Gin Blossoms -- guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson, bassist Bill Leen and drummer Phillip Rhodes -- for a special New Year's Eve concert at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. And while the event will mark the second time the Blossoms have reunited for a New Year's Eve show since the band's official breakup in 1996 (they played at the millennium extravaganza in downtown Phoenix two years ago), Wilson says this time it feels like the regrouping could last beyond a one-night stand.
"All I can say for sure is it's more possible for us to work together full time this coming year than it has been for the last five years," Wilson allows. "The band's attitude, our feelings about the whole thing, are more on track now."
Not that the creative differences and personality conflicts that led to the band's demise have been totally resolved. Over the years since the Gin Blossoms' breakup, the former bandmates have clearly enjoyed pouring themselves into their own projects (Wilson and Rhodes in the harder-edged Gas Giants; Valenzuela and Johnson in the Low Watts), freed from the democratic constraints of working together with a bunch that didn't always see eye-to-eye. You can hear Wilson's frustrations resurface even when he talks about the challenge of getting the other guys to go along with his vision of a cool Gin Blossoms lunchbox.
"We tried to do some Gin Blossoms lunchboxes," he says, "but they were really lame. I couldn't talk the band into doing it right. So we ended up with these really cheesy ones with just some generic sticker on a plain plastic box."
If anything, having a little rugrat in the house -- and a lot of home time to veg out to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network -- has only deepened Wilson's absorption in the kiddie culture the other Blossoms never quite "got," as he puts it. In little Grey, it seems, Robin finally has the cartoon couch buddy he needed. "It is pretty cool," Wilson says. "He's only 2 months old, but we'll be watching 'The Justice League' together and I'll go, 'That's the Flash, he's really fast,' you know? It's great!"
One of Wilson's most ambitious post-Blossoms projects, in fact, was a cartoon series of his own. It was dubbed "The Poppin' Wheelies," and Wilson enlisted the help of Spider-Man/Marrow comic book artist Alejandro Garza to flesh out the characters he envisioned for an animated series about a rock 'n' roll band from outer space. With the Gas Giants backing him up on an 11-track disc of soundtrack songs Wilson describes as much poppier and "candy-coated" than anything he did with the Gin Blossoms, Wilson put together a full package of music, conceptual drawings and proposed story lines to pitch to the top animation studios.