No decade feels special when you’re in it. That’s especially true of the 90s, a decade that felt dated, uncool and unfashionable even when we were knee-deep in undercuts, flannel and Matchbox 20.
For those of us who were there first time around, it’s inconceivable that when the fashion and cultural carousel came back around to 1990, it didn’t just carry on to the 00s. But the 90s are back with a bang, bringing with them fashion that you’d tried to forget and a whole host of bands you once thought you couldn’t live without.
Some of the bigger acts – your Green Days, Pearl Jams, Counting Crows – never went away. But bands whose success was a little more fleeting have been resurfacing to discover that they weren’t totally forgotten. Robin Wilson of jangly 90s alt rockers Gin Blossoms stresses that his band don’t really fit into that ‘reunion tour’ category; they never really went away.
After hitting heady heights in the mid-90s with two hit records New Miserable Experience and Congratulations, I’m Sorry, Gin Blossoms briefly called it quits in 1997.
But you can’t keep a good band down and they reformed just a few years later, and have stuck at it ever since, right up to the release of their latest record, Mixed Reality, in 2018, proof that they’re not content to just dine out on their old hits like ‘Hey Jealousy’, ‘Found Out About You’ and ‘Til I Hear It From You’.
Wilson has not only been taking the new record and his rejuvenated band on the road, he’s also been filling in for the late Pat DiNizio in The Smithereens, a band he grew up adoring.
He took time out to chat on the phone about adjusting to a new musical era, joining one of his favourite bands and why he believes the new record is Gin Blossoms’ best in over two decades.
I just saw on Twitter today that it's 25 years since ‘Found Out About You’ was number one.
Oh wow. I didn't realize that. Was it a number one? Where was it a number one? I don't think it ever reached number one here in the States.
It said it was number one in the Billboard alternative rock charts.
Huh. I don't recall ever having a number one hit here in the United States. Wow. Okay. Well, interesting. That very well could be the best song we ever recorded.
Is it your personal favorite?
Well, it's certainly up there. It's a song that from the inception of the band, we always knew was one of our strongest tunes. If we were ever going to have a hit, we kind of figured that one was a sure thing. In terms of overall quality of the songwriting, and the guitar parts, it's definitive of our sound and our style. It represents the band really well.
Where did that song come about in the history of the band? Is that one that you'd had from the start or did that come out of the sessions for New Miserable Experience?
Actually, Doug Hopkins [the band’s founding member who died of an overdose in 1993] had written that song just before the band formed. It was one of the first things that the band learned.
From the moment I joined, which was about three months after the band had started playing live, it was already in the set, and was always a key part of the show, and certainly one of the highlight tracks that we would play.
Do you still enjoy playing it as much now?
I certainly do enjoy it as much as ever. I love playing it because it's one of those songs that people really enjoy. These days now, you start that song and immediately a hundred people pull out their phones and start filming it.
Is that strange? You guys started out in the 90s when phones with cameras didn’t exist. Has the live experience changed now?
Yeah, in fact, they used to ban photography at shows in those days, and there's almost no way to do that now. I guess some artists collect phones when people get there, but we don't go to that trouble.
I've never really cared if people were taking pictures or recording it, videotaping it or whatever. I've never really felt like that hurts. That doesn't bother me at all.
I'm really happy to be in a band that people care about, and to have an outlet for my songwriting. My bandmates and I, we've become a family in the last 30 years. It's not always perfectly harmonious, but it's something that I'm very grateful for.
So, to have a career that has lasted through 30 years, and to be in a position where we sell a lot of concert tickets – in fact, we're selling more concert tickets than we ever did – I have a lot to be grateful for.
Does the experience of being in a band in your 50s differ greatly to how Gin Blossoms were back in the old days?
Well, certainly in some ways, yeah. You have the perspective of a whole lifetime of experience. We all have kids now. It was always exciting. It was always fun to be in a band, and that's never changed.
With the perspective of time, you see how sort of innocent you were in the early days, and how in a lot of ways maybe you took it all for granted. I certainly took a great deal of it for granted. When you're in the thick of all that, when you've got hit records, and you're flying all over the world, it's easy to do.
These days, that's something we don’t do. We're well aware and always very conscious of the fact that we're lucky to be here, to still be together, and to still be a viable band that people are willing to pay real money to come and see.
I can't say it often enough. We're very grateful.
You split up briefly in the late 90s. Has it been on and off since then?
Not really. We were apart for five years. Then we've been back together again without any real breaks since 2002.
We're not on the road 365 days a year, and some of us have gotten involved in other projects here and there, but the band has been working steady since 2002.
Just that five year break which, with the perspective of a 30 year career, really wasn't that long.
What do you attribute the longevity to? Is there some kind of driving force that has kept Gin Blossoms going, where other bands have fallen away?
It comes down to the willingness to compromise. That's really what it takes to keep a band together. You have to adapt to the travel, which is one of the things that breaks up more bands than anything else.
Being away from home and being able to sustain your relationships and pay your bills, and keep your life at home from completely disintegrating and still be able to function as a band, it always comes down to compromise.
You'll notice on our latest album cover that it says right on the cover, “Heartache! Compromise! Hi-Fi Rock & Roll!” That speaks to my experience of making the record.
There are things that I think are really important when you're recording a record and my bandmates have their own priorities when it comes to those things. You end up somewhere in the middle.
A band like ours is very much a democracy. No one has any more authority than anybody else. That's one of the things that makes our band special, but it is different from most of the other groups that I'm aware of.
Bands that we play with typically have one leader that sets the agenda. We are not like that. We always have to find the middle ground on virtually every issue.
There are certain things that I have a lot of control over, like the presentation of the band – t-shirts, album covers, logos – but that doesn't mean I have any more authority than anybody else.
It's just something that the band has decided that I'm pretty good at, so it's one less thing for them to worry about.
From speaking to a lot of different bands, there’s a school of thought that a band needs to be a fair dictatorship. But then you've got R.E.M. who wouldn't do anything unless all four of them agreed on it. It seems like it's just about finding your way and there's no hard and fast rule to it.
That's true. It's rock & roll, there are no set rules. We were out last summer with friends of ours in Vertical Horizon and Tonic. Both of those bands have one leader who sets the agenda.
There are a lot of times that I wish had more authority over my bandmates, but I've come to accept that it's one of the things that makes us special.
We wouldn't sound the way we sound if it wasn't for that. I just have to roll with the punches, and accept that I'm grateful to be in a band, but what it costs me emotionally is having to bend to other people's will.
Even then, it's not all that bad. It's mostly just when it comes down to making a record. That's went the compromise becomes painful and sometimes difficult to swallow.In the end, I'm a pretty forceful person, and I've managed to get most of what I really want.
My bandmates would tell you that I get everything I want… but that's far from true.
We should talk a bit about the new record. I guess there's a temptation for bands that have had the success that you did in the 90s to coast on that, to show up and play ‘Hey Jealousy’ three times a night. Was there any kind of trepidation about making a new record and how it would fit into Gin Blossoms’ legacy?
Well, a natural part of being in a band is writing material. We have gone eight years between records and we all felt that we were past due to come up with a new album.
As you say, it's not necessary. For the most part, we do kind of coast on the nostalgia factor. I have to accept that it's hard to sell records now. When you're working with an independent label, as we are, that doesn't have the reach to get you on the radio and get you on The Tonight Show, and stuff like that, it's disappointing.
At the same time, having new music that I am confident holds up to our catalog, makes it possible to stomach the idea of being, for the most part, a nostalgia act.
I can deal with that because I know we're still viable songwriters and I know that we're still writing great material that holds up to our best work in the past.
In the case of the new record, I feel like it's as good as anything we've ever recorded. It's certainly the best album since New Miserable Experience. I'm really proud of it. I think it's a great record.
It was made in the old-fashioned way, the same way records were made back in the 80s and 90s. We got to work with this fantastic production team of Don Dixon and Mitch Easter.
On our previous record that we put out in 2009, we sort of pieced it together over a period of eight months.
I really don't like doing that. I was glad for Mixed Reality, that we actually were going somewhere and hunkering down in a new environment with a real producer, and doing it that way.
I think that is the way to make a record. I think it needs to be like a self-contained experience that reflects where the band’s at for that period of time.
I don't have the same emotional connection to the previous record that I do to this one.
For me personally, it was a very immersive experience. From the songwriting to the rehearsals to the demos to the recording sessions, I really put myself into it 1000 per cent.
When we finished the recording, I flew home with the rough mixes, and I was home for less than six hours before I booked a flight back to the studio. I just could not separate myself from it.
On every level, I'm deeply connected to this record and really, really proud of it.
So, you’ve just recorded with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, who both worked on those great early R.E.M. records; you’re singing in The Smithereens, one of your favorite bands from your teenage years; do you ever feel the need to pinch yourself?
If I could go back and tell myself at 20 that one day I’d make a record with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter and on top of that I’d be singing in The Smithereens, that 20-year-old kid would have lost his f***ing mind. R.E.M. and The Smithereens were huge influences and touchstones for the foundation of our group and the formation of our sound.
They had a huge impact on the Tempe, Arizona music scene. To have been following this path all these years, I feel validated that I was on the right course. I met this 12-year-old kid at a Smithereens concert the other day.
He was a guitar player and was all dressed up like a rock ‘n’ roller and he was telling me about all the bands he liked and I said, “Dude, you are on the right path. Trust your instincts and know that you are right.”