Music News

Gin Mill

Robin Wilson and Scott Johnson walk into Restaurant Mexico in Tempe on a Wednesday afternoon. They look tired. Johnson has just come from his 13-year-old daughter's orthodontist's appointment and can't stay long; there's a laundry list of other chores to perform. Wilson is itching to resume work on a solo acoustic live album at his Mayberry Studios -- the ring finger of his left hand still shows the scars of a guitar smashing that followed what he considered a subpar performance at Long Wong's last month. He also needs to spend time with his wife. Today is the last this week he can spend with her.

When singer Wilson, guitarist Johnson and the other members of the Gin Blossoms re-formed their band late in 2001, they counted on celebrating their accomplishments of the early '90s, when their archetypal jangle-pop album New Miserable Experience spawned three hit singles and nationwide devotion. They wanted to see where they could take their music next after a five-year layoff. What they didn't foresee was the clash with middle age and the responsibilities that come with it.

The band, as it turns out, has to catch a 6 a.m. flight the next day for a four-show swing through northern California.

"No one does this . . . we're the only band in rock 'n' roll doing it," says the forthright, gracious Wilson, now 37. "We've been flying out every single weekend and playing every Friday and Saturday night, but we have to leave on Thursday and come home on Sunday. So it takes four days to go and do two gigs. So we get home and we have three days before we have to go and do it again. I'm stepping over my luggage. I don't even unpack anymore."

"I don't have a housekeeper at my house," adds a smiling Johnson, 40, a few moments later.

"And I'm up at 7 a.m. to feed the baby," says Wilson.

The craziness of the past year, they say, is beginning now to submerge them in disorder.

"I need to get rid of the jet ski trailer in my garage so I can put my van in there," Wilson says. "So I have to find a storage place for the trailer. I have to put it up for sale, and I have to go buy another new trailer, a smaller one. And if I'm going to do this, it's going to take a whole afternoon just to get the trailer out of the garage because there's years of clutter piled on top of the jet ski trailer. That right there is like a four-day project. In the meantime, it's preventing me and my wife from using our garage."

Yet ask them if the schedule is worth it, and neither man hesitates.

"We had one of the maybe 40 best shows our entire careers last Sunday night," Wilson says. "We played for 30,000 people in De Pere, Wisconsin. It was a gigantic rock show."

The band headlined a Memorial Day weekend festival in De Pere, which sits six miles outside Green Bay. They were the national draw on a bill stacked mostly with local bands. Tens of thousands of people, according to Wilson, sang along to "Found Out About You," a classic breakup anthem and perhaps the group's finest song. Wilson and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela each jumped into the crowd. Valenzuela, from the sounds of things, was especially pumped, inviting women to take their tops off.

"Jesse was totally rock-starring it," Johnson says.

The frequent-flier Gin Blossoms, it seems, are happy in their latest incarnation. This also is the season to shower the band with accolades. The reissue of 1992's New Miserable Experience last fall, complete with a second disc of rarities and outtakes, was a landmark event, cementing the album as their masterwork. The city of Tempe, meanwhile, has declared Saturday Gin Blossoms Day, and Mayor Neil Giuliano will present the band with a commemorative plaque at a ceremony in the band's honor.

The praise and the band's harmony seem a world apart from the band's breakup in 1997. From their dissolved relationship with guitarist and gifted songwriter Doug Hopkins, who killed himself just months after New Miserable Experience ignited the pop charts in 1993, right on through their 1996 follow-up Congratulations . . . I'm Sorry, their ride in the spotlight was a tumultuous one.

"We have a lot more control now than we did," Wilson says. "In those days, we had a big record out on a big record company, a larger management team, a publishing deal. All those things added to the pressure and the tension and the dysfunction. And right now it's just the five of us and a three-man crew. We don't have a recording contract. We're not promoting a new album. There's no pressure on us to do anything but go up there and have a good show."

"We would never lash out at each other," he says later. "We'd end up in our hotel rooms going, Ahhhhhhhh! I hate everyone.'" Wilson puts his palms to his temples and demonstrates his silliest expression of exasperation. "Then, you come back and say, you know what, guys, I need to fix this . . . I was kinda hoping that . . . and you dance around the subject, and even then, no one ever got pissed off."

Those days, at least for now, are in the past, though drummer Philip Rhodes no longer performs with the band, because of what Wilson describes only as "personal problems." He's been replaced by Scott Kouzmanek. Longtime bassist Bill Leen rounds out the current lineup.

Wilson says the one good thing for him about the hiatus -- he spent several even more tumultuous years as a member of the Gas Giants -- is that he's now an able producer and studio hand. He expanded Mayberry in 1997, and it has served as an experimental lab ever since.

"I realized the whole time I was in the Gin Blossoms, I never paid attention to what John [Hampton] was technically doing as he was recording," he says. "Now, I had all the same equipment that he had told me to go out and buy and I didn't even know what to do. I realized I had really missed an opportunity to get like a big internship with a brilliant producer."

Eventually, the Gin Blossoms hope to record a new album; Johnson and Wilson both say they have enough new material to fill more than half of one. But first, they have four months of touring to wind through. They'll resume their in-and-out, three-day-here, four-day-there itinerary for only a few more weeks. A tour bus awaits them in late June.

"That's the way to do it. That makes sense," Wilson says. "I love it. I love playing. I love touring. I love traveling. I like hotels and rollerblading around amphitheaters. I like playing video games in my bunk."

They'll no doubt be playing "Found Out About You," "Allison Road" and "Hey Jealousy" until their eyes bleed. Wilson and Johnson say they're okay with that. So, too, is the public.

"People will come up with one specific thing or moment on the record that seems to have really touched them -- a particular lyric, or a musical phrase or a guitar solo or some moment that really touched someone," Wilson says.

"I love Neil Young and I don't know why he didn't play Heart of Gold,'" adds Johnson. "He didn't play it for years. I would have loved to hear him play that."

They also have the diehard fans to appease.

"People always say, How come you don't play "29"?'" Johnson says.

"One of these nights, we're going to learn it again, because everybody keeps asking for it," offers Wilson.

"Since we've been playing for about a year now, I think we're going to dig a little deeper into the catalogue," says Johnson, closing the thought.

A few minutes pass, and Johnson needs to resume his day. Wilson reminds him of their early-morning departure, and they arrange to meet at Sky Harbor International Airport. Neither man seems overly thrilled.

"We know the security guards by name down there," Wilson jokes.

"It's a problem when you fly out so early," Johnson says. "I absolutely can't stay up 'til 4 a.m. drinking."

Johnson, though, as he stands to leave the restaurant, makes it clear he's not complaining.

"Six strings, a piece of wood. That's what I do. And I hope it stays in tune," he says with a grin.

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Christopher O'Connor