Before Doug Hopkins tragically committed suicide in 1993, he would often tell his friends that the Gin Blossoms were ripping him off. He was fired from the band at their label’s request after recording for what would be the band’s 1992 breakthrough album, New Miserable Experience, completed in Memphis. He didn’t want the band to find success off his songs. When the singles “Found Out About You” and “Hey Jealousy” started climbing the charts, Hopkins’ nightmare unfolded before his eyes.
That said, Robin Wilson, the Gin Blossoms’ lead singer, told Rolling Stone in 2012 that the supposed feud with Hopkins was the biggest misconception about the Tempe band.
“There was so much bad information that got out there,” he said. “That we were releasing songs without his permission and shit. I mean, he and I were in cahoots about which singles to release. Nobody knows what the fuck happened.”
The spirit of Hopkins, who struggled with depression and alcoholism for several years, followed the Gin Blossoms as they began work on their follow-up, Congratulations I’m Sorry. (The title is meant to capture the bittersweet feeling of the Gin Blossoms’ success regrettably coinciding with Hopkins’ death.) The album, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, came along four long years after the release of their successful major-label debut, which included touring in support of New Miserable Experience for over a year.
While members of other bands touring the ’90s nostalgia circuit seem eager to reminisce, Jesse Valenzuela, guitarist and one of the Gin Blossoms’ founding members, seems audibly frustrated as he attempts to recall how the sessions for the album began. Asking him to think back on the events surrounding an album recorded two decades ago feels like pulling teeth. He says he doesn’t sit around listening to his records thinking about the past.
Valenzuela’s answers usually begin with some variation of the following phrases: “I guess,” “I don’t know,” and “That was a long time ago.” He makes songwriting and touring sound like nothing more than a job. No one wants to remember what they did at work, even when their occupation has brought joy to so many.
How did the band move on after Hopkins’ death?
Valenzuela’s response, tinged with annoyance, comes in the form of another question: “You can’t fathom what it would be like going on tour after that?”
The answer to his question seems obvious. He curtly confirms it’s not something anyone can comprehend.
The band was asked by A&M Records to record a single for the soundtrack to the 1995 film Empire Records. Valenzuela, Wilson, and power pop legend Marshall Crenshaw co-wrote the hit single “Til I Hear It From You.” The song, which was written and recorded rather quickly, proved to be more popular than the film. With that massive success, the label had high hopes for Congratulations I’m Sorry.
According to the album’s producer John Hampton, who recalled the sessions in an 2014 article for the Memphis Flyer, the Gin Blossoms were under tremendous pressure to write hit songs for the new record in a short amount of time.
“Now, we were expected to equal or beat the songs from the first album,” he wrote. “But if one takes an artist and puts him on the road for a 15-month tour, and shortly thereafter for another, larger 15-month tour, and you add the fact that all of the money coming in kind of relaxes the old anxiety of youth, you now have a major song problem.
“So, the band starts down the path of record two with some good songs, but not quite the songs of youth.”
Valenzuela’s vague recollections of recording Congratulations I’m Sorry don’t include any stress or micromanaging from the label. There are memories of sleeping in good hotels and bad apartments. He’s proud of his bandmates’ deft songwriting skills. They had a strong desire to write a collection of songs that stood well on their own.
“We fortunately just had a big hit with [‘Til I Hear It From You’], so [the label was] pretty happy,” he says.
Valenzuela recalls one point of contention between the band and the label: They couldn’t include “Til I Hear It From You” on the album. He remembers the band being told they shouldn’t include the single so that Congratulations I’m Sorry would be a pure album. According to Hampton, the label was concerned that including the song on the record would diminish sales for the Empire Records soundtrack.
“I remember thinking being of both minds,” Valenzuela recalls. “Maybe [the song] shouldn’t be on the record. It was kind of a silly decision. I don’t think that label was standing in the way of it. It was us. It was more management than anything. We had pretty rough management at the time.”
Despite this setback, Congratulations I’m Sorry combined words of pain and longing with jangly power-pop that could bring smiles through the sadness. There were hints of humor, like the sound of a stadium organ playing during track seven, appropriately titled “7th Inning Stretch.” There was hope amongst the clutter and the gloom. The Gin Blossoms loaded the record with songs just as touching and relatable to the listener as those on New Miserable Experience.
Some of the credit and blame for the sonic consistency between the two albums goes to producer Hampton. He was the band’s champion and collaborator during those sessions. He passed away in late 2014. Valenzuela fondly remembers being in the presence of such a talented man.
“If the phone woke me up around 3 or 4 in the morning, it would usually be John with a crazy idea,” Valenzuela remembers with a laugh, “He was a very sweet man. He was supportive of everyone in his life. That’s just how he was. It’s a very good quality.“
Many critics felt Congratulations I’m Sorry was conventional, or an attempt to recreate what made New Miserable Experience so successful. Fans didn’t seem to mind. “Follow You Down,” the album’s lead-off single, was a radio smash. The song’s B-side, “Seeing Stars,” was written by Wilson as a tribute to Hopkins.
While sales of Congratulations I’m Sorry didn’t match its predecessor, it moved enough copies to be considered a success. The band broke up the following year with the memory of their friend continuing to linger over them. Hampton recalls Wilson announcing that because Wilson originally was a mouthpiece for Hopkins’ songs, his work with the Gin Blossoms had served its purpose and it was time to move on.
Valenzuela doesn’t go so far as to say Congratulations I’m Sorry is underrated, but he is still very proud of it.
“I think the first record is the postcard of the band,” he says, “I think [Congratulations I’m Sorry] did pretty well, considering. We didn’t have Doug [Hopkins] anymore. We didn’t have everything that we had in the initial presentation. I think it’s done okay … It’s not something that would have kept me up at night.”
The band has reunited and released two albums in the past decade with another album slated to begin recording in the fall.