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Distilled Gin

Uncorked: Since the band's breakup in 1996, the former bandmates have poured themselves into their own projects.

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 Live stage 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.

Nobody in Hollywood quite caught on to his high concept of a cartoon band fronting an album's worth of adventurous pop songs. And then the Gorillaz CD came out, buoyed by MTV videos showing . . . well, a cartoon band fronting an album's worth of adventurous pop songs.

"You could say I came up with the idea before them," Wilson shrugs. "I mean, I've been working on this idea since 1995. But it's not like I'm the first guy to come up with the idea of a cartoon rock band," he admits, noting he himself was influenced by every mid-'60s cartoon show from Josie & the Pussycats to the short-lived Osmonds' animated series. The project is still on the back burner, Wilson insists.

"I'll probably still, every once in a while, make a Poppin' Wheelies record," he predicts. "It really is a perfect combination of everything I love: rock 'n' roll, science fiction, comic books, animation -- it's all right there in one package. But nobody at Cartoon Network is giving me a million dollars to make a TV series out of it yet, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see."


In the meantime, Wilson is proud to be getting back with his former bandmates to reclaim the catalogue of jangly pop gems he now regards with renewed respect. "When we started rehearsing again [initial sessions began over the summer], I realized it was pretty cool," he says. "There's a lot of great material to play. And there's a lot of songs that people know the words to. It's gonna be pretty easy for a lot of people to sing along to the entire set."

Wilson also feels the need, after all these years, to set the record straight on a number of misconceptions that have built up around the Gin Blossoms' mythic story. Chief among these is the notion that once the band fired founder Doug Hopkins -- the mercurial but unquestionably gifted songwriter whose hits like "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You" helped rocket the band's first full-length CD, New Miserable Experience, to double-platinum status -- the Gin Blossoms lost their one true genius and were never able to match the songwriting standards their brooding poet had set. Hopkins committed suicide soon after leaving the band.

"I think a lot of people don't know the whole story now and kind of assume that was the case," Wilson says. "That we fired Doug, discovered we couldn't write songs, and busted up as a result of it. They forget that Congratulations I'm Sorry [the band's follow-up CD, recorded with Hopkins' replacement Scott Johnson] was a platinum record with a Top 10 single and a Grammy nomination."

As to the hopes still held by many early fans that the reunited Blossoms might record some of the many unreleased gems Hopkins apparently left behind, Wilson sounds less than enthusiastic about the idea. "I suppose we could, but we don't have any plans to do that," he says. "I would think, though, that if we had the opportunity to make another record, we would probably want to do it ourselves."

Nearly the only thing Wilson sounds truly certain about is that he'll never move far from the unique little music scene he helped create. "I live in Mesa now, but my studio is in Tempe and I'm a Tempe guy," he insists. "I grew up in Tempe, and I still think it's an exciting place. I'm proud of what's happened to Mill Avenue. I'm not so thrilled about the Gap and Borders Books, or all the squiggly neon. But I still think the street is beautiful, and I know those buildings will be there 100 years from now -- although there probably won't be a Gap occupying one of 'em."

For his part, Wilson is determined to remain a vital part of what keeps Mill Avenue kicking. He continues to perform acoustic happy hour sets every Friday night at Long Wong's, the charmingly divey bar where it all began for the Gin Blossoms -- and indeed, the Tempe music scene -- back in the late '80s. And his recording house, Mayberry Studios, remains an affordable music factory for any aspiring rock star who wanders in off Mill's brick-laden streets.  

"I'm really proud of how the whole scene's evolved," he says, "and my studio itself has become a part of the Tempe music scene. Even if I'm not in a band, I've got an opportunity through my studio to still be a part of the scene and record other groups."

Not that Wilson intends to retire from the rock star game just yet. "No, I'm definitely into the idea of succeeding," he says flatly. "And it's my goal to write songs that people hear. That's still all I really want to do."


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