So you want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star
As front man for the Gin Blossoms, Arizona's most famous rock band, Robin Wilson fulfilled all his adolescent fantasies.
For years, he played to sold-out clubs and arenas, earning a wall full of gold and platinum records. He wrote or co-wrote four hit singles and was nominated for a Grammy. He became wealthy and well-known -- a bona fide rock star.
He also suffered through the suicide of friend and former bandmate Doug Hopkins. He endured years of grueling touring that eventually took a devastating toll on his closest friendships.
But he hit rock bottom on March 5, 1999.
That night, Wilson and his new band, the Gas Giants, went onstage as openers for Bad Medicine, a Bon Jovi cover band. Wilson couldn't help but laugh at the irony; the Gin Blossoms had opened for the real Bon Jovi in Belgium to 30,000 people.
Broke, the band had been forced to take the gig. They played an uninspired set at a third-rate Tempe sports bar, a converted Sizzler restaurant.
As Wilson climbed off the stage that night, he saw his best friend and guitarist Dan Henzerling eyeing him with disdain. "Are you into this? I need to know right now," demanded Henzerling.
The normally quiet, bespectacled Henzerling was twisted with frustration. "Every time I get up onstage, I only know how to do it one way, and that's to give it everything I got. I can't stand to look over and see you like this. Are you going to be able to snap out of this?"
Wilson didn't answer.
Instead, he watched his bassist, G. Brian Scott, packing gear. Wilson knew that in a matter of weeks he would have to fire the increasingly unreliable Scott, another close friend whom he'd known since his days as a teenage record-store clerk.
Wilson left the bar that night and thought about the billion-dollar deal that had destroyed the band's record label. About the corporation holding the group's album hostage. About the incessant legal wrangles that had forced the band to change its name twice. But mostly, he thought seriously, and for the first time, that his career was over.
"There was a point," recalls Wilson, "where I seriously wondered if it was. I knew that it was a real possibility. I knew that records better than ours had been lost, better bands than us forgotten."
To the amazement of almost everyone, Wilson had killed the golden goose -- walked away from the Gin Blossoms, a platinum-selling band -- because he wanted to make music with his friends. That's what the Gas Giants were supposed to be about. Corporate merger-mania mucked things up.
But Wilson wasn't ready to shed his rock-star mantle. He believed the Gas Giants, and his career, were worth the colossal hassles. He'll soon find out if he was correct.
The Gas Giants secured the rights to their record. The band has found a home on a much-talked-about upstart record label and released its debut, From Beyond the Backburner, to strong initial reviews.
The group has also sorted out its once-crippling personnel issues and is about to launch a national tour playing with the Goo Goo Dolls. Regardless of the Gas Giants' commercial fate, Wilson has undergone a profound attitude adjustment since that bleak March night with Bad Medicine.
Robin Wilson is hungry as he anxiously settles into a booth at a neighborhood deli. The restaurant is abuzz with the din and clatter of the lunch-hour rush.
A lithe and flinty-eyed man, the 34-year-old Wilson speaks in the professional tone of someone who's used to being quoted a lot. Between bites of a bagel and cell phone calls from his manager and record label, he waxes nostalgic about his youth growing up in Tempe.
The middle of three sons, Wilson was born in Detroit. His family moved to the Valley in the early '70s. Wilson's father, a math and statistics teacher, took a job at Mesa Community College and settled his family in a modest home in the shadow of Arizona State University.
Wilson spent much of his childhood immersing himself in comics, cartoons and the Saturday morning fare of the era. His love for rock 'n' roll was ignited in 1976 after watching a clip of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on The Midnight Special. Seeing the campy British quartet perform its mini-rock operetta was a seminal moment for the young Wilson. "It just blew my mind. That [1975's A Night at the Opera] was the first album I went out and bought."
Though he wouldn't take up guitar until he was a senior at McClintock High School, Wilson became a voracious music fan, listening to everything from country to New Wave.
He graduated in 1983 and began studying physics at Mesa Community College. After a series of dead-end jobs, he got on as a clerk at the Tower Records store on Mill Avenue in Tempe. The University Tower during the 1980s was a breeding ground for aspiring artists, musicians and characters in general.
The environment had a tremendous impact both personally and musically on the young, impressionable Wilson.
"Tower changed everything for me. After a year of working there, I had been influenced by so many different forms of music and by the older people I was working with -- they were all 24 and 25, which is just the pinnacle of cool when you're 18 and 19 -- and suddenly I started to finally get into bands like the Replacements and the Pretenders. I drifted more out of the Top 40, New Wave stuff and towards that kind of music."
It was at Tower that Wilson met Dan Henzerling, a fellow clerk and musician.
One day, remembers Wilson, "he was walking down one of the aisles in the store and I was walking the other way and we both had on identical white blazers -- the kind Don Johnson used to wear in Miami Vice -- and Dan and I stopped and stared at each other for about three seconds, and then just started laughing. From that point on, we were friends."
The two quickly realized that they shared much more than just a taste for pastels and sockless loafers. They also shared a deep desire to make rock 'n' roll a part of their lives. Henzerling was already a competent drummer, just learning to play guitar. They spent hours after work exploring their mutual interest. "Dan and I used to take our guitars to the park and we'd bring a 12-pack of beer and sit there all night long singing Beatles songs."
They would also work on Wilson's original material, most of which was inevitably sweet-sounding love songs or doe-eyed pop. "I was much more prolific then. I didn't realize how bad each song was, so I just kept writing," recalls Wilson with a laugh.
Although Wilson had been writing and playing for several years, his musical experience was pretty much limited to his all-night beer and busking sessions with Henzerling, or the occasional open-mike night.
It was at Tower that Wilson also met Brian Scott, another clerk who would become a close friend. Like Wilson and Henzerling, Scott, a bassist, had his own musical aspirations. It wasn't long before the three of them began discussing the possibility of forming a band -- a band, it turns out, that would be another decade in the making.
By 1986, Phoenix's music scene was going through a dramatic upheaval. The once-burgeoning punk scene of the late '70s and early '80s had all but disappeared, along with hospitable venues like Madison Square Gardens. The local roots movement was alive and well, thanks to psychobilly acts like Hellfire and the Varmits who had managed to carve out their own quiet corner. But even the most popular local rock band, the Meat Puppets, was appreciated much more outside of its Phoenix home base than in it.
Blues and country music still dominated, even in Tempe, where it seemed logic -- and a massive population of students -- would dictate that a rock 'n' roll culture emerge. It would still be a few years before the right combination of bands and clubs would make that possible and make Mill Avenue a hub for live rock 'n' roll.
In the meantime, Wilson's fire for performing was being stoked by the success of some of his former high school peers. One of the most influential Tempe groups was the Psalms, an outfit formed by guitarist Doug Hopkins and a trio of other McClintock alums including Bill Leen. The Psalms single "A Story I Was Told" (b/w "Christmas Island"), and its full-length release No Great Cathedral proved to Wilson that his dream of making records was not out of reach.
But by 1987, Wilson hadn't been able to get his musical career started. The group that he, Henzerling and Scott had been discussing seemed little more than a pipe dream. In the spring, Henzerling left Tempe for the East Coast where he had a job waiting for him at a Tower store in Boston. Wilson joined Scott at Zia Record Exchange.
Wilson had become increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of ever starting a band. Frustrated with what seemed to be the unbearably difficult process of becoming like the rock heroes of his youth, Wilson decided to give up any attempt at playing music. One night, he announced the decision to his roommates, among them Dave Swafford (who would later go on to play bass with Tempe's Feedbags and achieve success with Seattle power-poppers the Best Kissers in the World).
"I said, 'I'm giving up. I'm not even going to try and be in a band. I'm just going to go to college. I really love science and what I'm learning about, and I'm going to forget about music. To heck with it. I'm not even going to bother.'"
Then, Swafford made a comment that Wilson says stopped him from abandoning music forever. "He said, 'So, you're going to be one of those college guys who's got a guitar in his bedroom who's never been in a band.' And I remember how I just shrank when he said that. I was humiliated. I'm like, 'Well, I'll show him.' And that's when the Gin Blossoms came along."
If you didn't know Dan Henzerling was a musician, you might mistake him for a slightly bohemian college professor or a coffee-house misanthrope. An immediately affable character, Henzerling's friendly face is hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses and a goatee. His shoulder-length coif is peppered with wisps of gray.
An accomplished and versatile musician, Henzerling has spent the past six years playing guitar with the Grievous Angels, a local twang outfit that's achieved a modicum of success on the alternative country circuit. In his heart, though, Henzerling is a rocker. Weaned on the pop and rock of the '70s and '80s, he has waited a lifetime for a chance at rock 'n' roll glory.
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.
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.
But the band's success came at a cost. After the Memphis debacle, Hopkins returned to Tempe. Though he started a number of bands and projects, he fell into a downward spiral of alcohol and depression that was exacerbated by the Blossoms' success without him. Hopkins' long fall ended with his suicide in December 1993.
Despite the tragedy, the Blossoms began work on a follow-up to New Miserable Experience. Returning to Ardent Studios in 1995, the group recorded its sophomore album, Congratulations, I'm Sorry. The sessions for the record were, as Wilson puts it, a "strangely detached" affair. The finished product was a forced-sounding record that tried too hard and without success to replicate the magic of the band's debut.
After finishing the album, the band flew to England for some prerelease European press. That's when Wilson says he began to reflect on what was becoming an increasingly unpleasant scenario within the group.
Knowing that the inherent pressures -- creative, commercial and personal -- would only get worse, Wilson began to consider his options for the future. He had enjoyed playing with Henzerling and Scott in their jokey cover bands over the years. And he remembered the promise he'd made to them before he joined the Blossoms. By the time the plane landed at London's Heathrow Airport, Wilson had decided to leave the group after the touring and promotional work for the album was done.
The day the album came out and with a year on the road ahead, Wilson told Rhodes about his decision. He wanted Rhodes to join him in his new project, and the drummer urged Wilson to keep his plans a secret -- knowing if he told the rest of the band, they would break up immediately.
Keeping that secret proved to be too difficult. By the end of the year, the strain of touring and the clash in personalities had become arduous, the relationship between Wilson and Leen increasingly bitter. In the fall, things came to a head on the band's tour bus after a show in the Midwest. As Rhodes had predicted, once Wilson revealed his desire to leave the group, the Blossoms were finished.
Arguably, if Congratulations, I'm Sorry had been a million seller, Wilson may not have been so hasty to leave the band. Although the album sold well out of the box, within six months it had disappeared off the commercial radar.
"Of course," agrees Henzerling, "if the record had sold a billion copies, there would have been too much at stake for Rob to walk away."
Wilson is defensive when it comes to discussing the relative success or failure of the record and his motivations for leaving the Blossoms. "The record didn't just succeed up to a point. It was a gold record. It earned a Top 10 single and a Grammy nomination. By any set of standards, that is a smash success," says Wilson. "But because it sold less than half as many as the first album, people tend to think that it was a failure."
The singer concedes that the album lacked the spirit of New Miserable Experience. "No question, [New Miserable Experience] was a special record. There are some really good things on [Congratulations], but it's just not the same as the first one."
Wilson admits that few among his immediate circle of family and friends backed his decision to leave the group. "At that point, I was all alone in this. There was not a single person around me who said, 'You're doing the right thing, we believe in you.' I had a few people say that to me over the phone, but around me everybody was mad."
Wilson says he was briefly talked into and then out of doing a third record with the Blossoms. Another record would have meant a lot to the group financially: a catalogue, a greatest hits and a lot more money.
Wilson says he would have been willing to go through the process one more time, but the specter of Hopkins' death, the relative commercial disappointment of Congratulations and nearly a decade playing, living and traveling together had taken a final devastating toll on the group.
"There was a weight on all of us. It wasn't just the fact that we had to live up to Doug Hopkins, but that we had to live up to a hit record as well and just kind of keep it going," says Wilson.
"That was the thing about the band. There was always so much momentum that it was really difficult to slow it down. From the moment I joined the band, it was like stepping onto a moving sidewalk; the only way to get off was through sheer force of will. It was actually more like getting off of a moving train."
The ride came to an abrupt end on New Year's Eve 1996 when the Gin Blossoms played their final show, nine years and one week after the band had started.
It's a muggy August night in downtown Phoenix, and Robin Wilson is wandering around Alice Cooper'stown. He cuts a diminutive figure. In a crowd full of clean-cut men in golf shirts and blondes sporting mall fashions, his status as a "rock star" is given away by his earrings, stubble and the bawdy striped pants he wears. He mingles with fans and friends who have come to see the Gas Giants play.
The group is playing the club to support the release of its single "Quitter." Though greeted with frustrating indifference initially, the ubiquitous airplay of the song has finally begun to bring out the crowds.
Wilson, Rhodes, Henzerling and Scott started the Gas Giants in the spring of 1997. Originally dubbed the Pharoahs, the group changed its name to Pharoahs 2000 after wrangling over rights, and eventually settled on the Gas Giants. The group spent two months building its own studio in Tempe, before its first rehearsal in March.
Demos for the debut album were completed and presented to A&M Records by the end of the summer. A&M's senior VP of A&R, David Anderle, was impressed by what he heard. He took the tape to label president Al Cafaro, without telling him who or what the band was about. Cafaro was immediately taken with the driving rock intro of the song Anderle played. When he heard Wilson's voice, he knew the band had commercial potential. The group was signed immediately.
For Wilson, A&M's enthusiasm seemed like a harbinger of good things to come. But in less than a year, Anderle would be gone, Cafaro would be fired and the label would cease to exist.
Few people, even most musicians, realize just how corporate the music industry has become. The record business was pioneered by Barnumesque showmen, shadowy characters and innovative madmen. Most entered into the business because they had a genuine love for music. These days the industry is 100 percent Wall Street. Bean counters and boardroom businessmen have replaced the gamblers and impresarios.
In December 1998, when Canadian liquor giant Seagram's purchased PolyGram and its holdings -- which included A&M, Geffen and Mercury Records -- the $10.4 billion sale (the biggest merger in music history) not only created the world's largest record company, but also reduced the number of major record entities in the world from six to five.
That means a handful of multinational conglomerates controls almost all of the $13.8 billion-a-year record business. Even more distressing is that 10 companies control more than 62 percent of commercial radio, and that a single group, SFX Entertainment, dominates the concert touring industry.
What those numbers translate into is a corporate homogeneity throughout music. And a cutthroat, bottom-line mentality that considers musicians not by their artistic merit, but by the value to the company's quarterly earnings statement.
Robin Wilson admits he was painfully unaware of those realities until last year. Instead, he recalls almost ruefully how supportive A&M was of his new band at the outset. "From the beginning, the label was very excited. They gave us a really good deal, which showed how confident they were that the band was going to be successful."
After inking a deal in September 1997, Wilson told the label that the Gas Giants would have their debut album ready for release by the next summer. The band brought Blossoms producer John Hampton to its Mayberry studios and set to work to record From Beyond the Backburner. When the group emerged with 12 tracks (a 13th song called "The Letter" was written at the company's request), it was confident it had a hit.
In May 1998, the finished product was turned in to A&M. Anderle and the other label execs were enthused initially, but the Seagram's merger was looming, and it seemed company officials almost immediately began second-guessing how to market the band.
"It became kind of hard for them to know what to do; they were too busy worrying about being fired," adds Henzerling.
First, the band was told that the album's release would be pushed back from the fall of '98 until early 1999. Later, it was rescheduled for February, then March, then back to February. In all, A&M gave the Gas Giants five separate release dates; none happened.
In December, just before the band was to fly to Los Angeles to take photos for the album cover, the label canceled the session. The Seagram's merger had just become official the week before. Amid the chaos, it was left to an assistant in A&M's art department to break the news that the shoot had been scrapped.
"I didn't have any idea how serious it was," says Wilson. "I was under the mistaken impression that regardless of what was happening, we were a band that any record company would be really glad to have. I mean, our record was done. Because of the Gin Blossoms, Phillip and I had a name to a certain extent, and we were fairly marketable. But under the circumstances, it was really naive of me to think that."
In early January, Wilson predicted in an article in the Tempe Tribune that the Gas Giants record would go platinum by the end of the year.
"I was confident it was going to happen for us. But within a few weeks of saying that, it became clear to me how screwed up things were," says Wilson. "I realized that we were going to be lucky enough to walk away from the thing with a career at all."
Reality came crashing down on Wilson and the Gas Giants on what's become known in the industry as Black Thursday -- January 21, 1999. That day Seagram's Universal Music Group fired 170 of A&M's 200 staffers. The label, which had been home to acts as diverse as the Carpenters and the Police, was effectively destroyed; a black band draped over the company sign on Sunset Boulevard.
Universal rid A&M's roster of virtually all its bands save a handful of big-name acts. A similar purge happened at Mercury, Island and Geffen Records and other labels affected by Seagram's takeover. Some 2,500 employees lost their jobs (among them Mercury label president Danny Goldberg and A&M honcho Al Cafaro), while 300 bands -- including the Gas Giants -- were left without deals.
Four months after the corporate housecleaning began, the band was officially dropped. In the interim, Wilson had decided that he couldn't wait for new record company execs to determine his fate. It became clear that the band would have to find another way to put out the record, something that seemed the forces of fate were conspiring against.
Set against the desperate scenario with the record company, another drama was unfolding within the band. In May, Wilson fired his longtime friend and bassist G. Brian Scott. Wilson says Scott's lack of professionalism and commitment prompted the move.
It was a difficult decision for Wilson, who numbered Scott among his closest friends. "I did not want to fire him. Having gone through the same thing with Doug [Hopkins] -- it was the last thing that I wanted to do," says Wilson.
For his part, Henzerling says he did his best to try to avoid such a drastic resolution. "I told Robin for a long time, 'You can't fire Brian, he's a founding member of the band.' But in the end, it was becoming too much of a drain on the group," says Henzerling. "That's why the whole thing was so sad. I thought, 'Jesus, haven't we gone through this before?'"
Although his dismissal was initially characterized as an "indefinite leave of absence" and while it's possible he may rejoin the band at some point, it seems unlikely that Scott will be part of the Gas Giants in the near future. Regardless, Wilson says the band will not hire a permanent replacement (for the time being, Henzerling's former Grievous Angels bandmate Mickey Ferrell is handling bass chores).
Scott, who's now working as a disc jockey at a local strip club, doesn't dispute the reason he was fired. He adds that he's hopeful he will join the Gas Giants again.
Al Teller speaks with the kind of easy confidence and authority you would expect from someone who's been making and breaking careers since the 1960s. During his 30 years in the music business, he's served as chairman and CEO of MCA and president of Columbia Records.
As early as 1993, Teller, then at MCA, was quoted in the L.A. Times and Musician as saying, "We are at a start of a radically different way of life when it comes to the concept of home entertainment."
Teller also noted that the record labels "would have to continue to prove our place in the world."
Few industry types heeded his warning. With a pair of engineering degrees from Columbia University, Teller has an uncommon insight into the role technology has had in changing marketing and distribution in the entertainment industry.
For the most part, Teller says, the major labels were unwilling to deal with the impact that emerging computer and Internet technologies would have on their businesses.
That began to change in the last few years with the introduction of MP3s. The format enables consumers to download and listen to near-CD-quality recordings through their home computers.
MP3 is a significant development that threatens the entire superstructure of the music industry by allowing artists and labels to bypass traditional distribution outlets like record stores and radio stations and get music directly into the hands of the consumer. Although in its infancy, this so-called digital revolution has already altered the music business dramatically.
In February, Teller launched his own Internet record label, Atomic Pop. Billed as the "21st Century music company," Atomic Pop operates as both a record label and an online shopping site offering downloadable music and video games, CDs and music-related merchandise.
Atomic Pop made big news in July when it released Public Enemy's There's a Poison Going On online, making the rap group the first major act with an album available for digital download before it hit the stores.
Despite its high-tech pedigree, the label also has a traditional distribution channel (through MCA) and sends its products to record stores and radio. But it operates with an outsider's mentality -- the label's motto is "Few Rules, No Limits."
Although he realized the business of buying and selling records wouldn't be changing overnight, Robin Wilson saw the potential in this new kind of company and was convinced by Teller to sign on.
The next step was finding a way to free From Beyond the Backburner from Universal (the music subsidiary of Seagram's), which still owned the record.
Although former A&M execs say the new company had no intention of ever releasing the album, Universal decided to play hardball with the band. One of the first things it did was draw up a release agreement that stipulated the band would not be allowed to sell its record as a digital download.
"Essentially, the release they offered us would force the band to start over again. We said, 'We're signing to an Internet label, you can't do this to us,'" says Wilson.
Teller bristles when he's reminded of Universal's ploy. "It's a preposterous notion. They're not going to be able to stop the technology. They're not going to be able to stop digital downloading. It's going to become an increasingly more important part of the overall music business, and it was a silly attempt on their part. It's also the kind of thing that is so anti-artist that it just doesn't serve them well."
Earlier this year, the industry began trying to keep as many artists as possible from selling or giving away music online. The major labels needed time to play catch-up, and the Gas Giants got caught in the middle of it.
The group eventually reached a compromise with Universal that freed up the rights to the record. Although Wilson won't elaborate on the specific numbers, the agreement will entitle Universal to a percentage of each record sold.
A typical major-label royalty rate is usually between 12-14 points/percent. Had the band signed to Columbia or another major company and been given the standard deal, it would have been financially prohibitive for the group to offer Universal a piece of the record. But under the terms of the Atomic Pop deal -- one that offers them up to five times the standard rate -- the band was able to offer Universal a small share of the album in exchange for its rights.
The financial details aren't the only advantage that signing with Atomic Pop provides. In addition to the larger royalty rate, the group retains rights to its album masters -- a luxury generally reserved for much bigger artists.
That particular stipulation took on an even greater value for Wilson recently. A few months ago, he discovered that Universal Music Enterprises, the company's division responsible for back catalogue material, was cannibalizing the two Blossoms albums and its EP to create a greatest-hits collection -- something Wilson and the Blossoms' legal representatives didn't know about until the package had already gone into production (the record was released earlier this week).
The Gas Giants also had other leverage in signing the Atomic Pop deal since the band owns its own studio. The agreement with Teller's label doesn't require Atomic Pop to put up any money for recording. What would normally be a costly stumbling block for most bands is a distinct advantage for the Gas Giants.
Moreover, Atomic Pop gives the band a kind of unique creative and artistic autonomy. "We look at our artist relationships as partnerships," says Teller. "We wanted to show that indeed we had a different way of conducting business. That has always been a part of our core mission."
"Atomic Pop gives the band a lot of control over the project," says Wilson, "from picking the singles to art direction. It's actually really funny because once they did call me because they wanted to change the color on the single and they were so nervous. It was great to be in a position where the record company was nervous about calling me instead of the other way around."
The band has also found a way to circumvent the inherent disadvantages of the label, mainly the lack of a large promotional and press budget.
The group is in the process of finalizing a deal with one of the leading independent radio promotion firms in the country. A similar organization, McCluskey and Associates, has been responsible for the surprising success of the multiplatinum-selling modern rock act Creed, whose album recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, ahead of a slew of heavy hitters including Garth Brooks.
Like the Creed-McCluskey deal, the Gas Giants are working to structure an arrangement where the firm would work on a contingency, for a percentage of the album's profits, rather than an up-front fee that could run as high as $225,000. The firm will have a vested interest in the record's success because it will only collect if the album is a hit.
"That's one of the most positive signs I've had on the record. The fact that they're willing to do a deal like that means they think it's a hit," says Wilson.
The Universal/A&M rigmarole has caused Wilson to temper his prediction of a platinum album for the Gas Giants' first release. "Under the circumstances of this deal, for us, selling 100,000 records would be considered a smash."
Though the full-scale radio promotion for the album won't begin until January, Wilson is adamant that the band won't wait for success to come to it. "I have no intention of just sitting around Phoenix and waiting for it to happen. Even if it means us playing acoustic guitars on street corners somewhere, we are not coming home until we've done our part to make the record a success."
Fittingly, the group has secured a spot on a national tour headlined by the Goo Goo Dolls and sponsored by MP3.com. It's also an ironic role reversal for Wilson, as the Goo Goo Dolls were opening for the Gin Blossoms three years ago, the night the band broke up.
Despite the turmoil of the past year, Wilson realizes how fortunate he and the band are. "We just got lucky in that we got spat out by this $12 billion machine into this new era."
It's late September and the usually unrelenting summer heat has broken enough that the door to the Gas Giants' Mayberry studios has been left open.
Robin Wilson is sitting on a couch in the studio's control room looking over artwork for the band's new album. Though the disc's packaging is ornate and futuristic, the music contained inside is anything but. Most of it is pleasant, if unremarkable, '70s and '80s power pop -- offering flashes of Cheap Trick and Dwight Twilley. While Rhodes' drumming is solid and Henzerling offers some choice musical and lyrical ideas, it's Wilson's voice, an unmistakable, radio-ready croon, that will ultimately push the product off the shelves.
Wilson sits and watches as house engineer Chris Widmer and longtime Blossoms' producer John Hampton tinker with drum mixes. Hampton has flown in from Memphis to put the finishing touches on a new album the group has completed called The Poppin' Wheelies. The project is a soundtrack of sorts for a proposed animated cartoon series Wilson is developing about a rock 'n' roll band in outer space.
The process is tedious, and Hampton breaks the monotony with stories of the rock 'n' roll legends he's worked with. A gentlemanly Southern raconteur, he speaks in a languid drawl. In between puffs from a cigarillo, he ruminates on the commercial potential for the Gas Giants record.
"The rock market is wide open right now," says Hampton. "Even though you've got your harder-sounding bands -- Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, all that stuff -- out there, there's still room for melodic pop rock. It's no more unlikely for [the Gas Giants] record to become a hit than it was for the Blossoms in the middle of the whole grunge thing."
A lifelong music veteran, Hampton knows that it takes a well-developed sense of irony to survive in the business. Wilson has had to learn that lesson, too.
Last week, when the Gas Giants' From Beyond the Backburner finally came out, 18 months after its original release date, promotional copies of the record were sent out by MCA, the company that distributes Atomic Pop -- a company owned by Universal, the label that had dropped the Gas Giants.
The Gas Giants record was sent as part of a package that included Outside Looking In: The Best of the Gin Blossoms, the same disc that a powerless Wilson had lobbied against coming out. In a way, it's fitting as Wilson and the Blossoms will always be inextricably linked.
Tensions between Wilson's old Gin Blossoms bandmates have also eased. This New Year's Eve, the group will reunite to perform at Phoenix's millennial celebration, three years to the day after their last time onstage together. The Gas Giants will open the show.
Wilson's career, and especially the experiences of the last year, has made him a realist. He doesn't consider himself a great talent or even a consummate artist. He acknowledges that music has evolved into a profession for him rather than a passion, that designing tee shirts and album covers brings him as much satisfaction as writing the songs. And he's not embarrassed by the fact that he still wants to be a rock star.
"I don't think it's shallow of me -- maybe some people might think it is -- but I don't think I would want to do this if we couldn't be really successful."
"I've been at it long enough that I've had the whole spectrum of experiences that you can have while being in a rock 'n' roll band," he says.
"I love what I do, and I'm motivated to write good songs and to be a good rock 'n' roller. But in the end, I wouldn't want to do this if we didn't have a shot at the big time."
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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