Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gin Blossoms interview

(Originally appeared in North County Times)

By George A. Paul

When Gin Blossoms – best known for the ‘90s pop/rock hits “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Follow You Down” - perform at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach this weekend, the gig will serve as a homecoming for Jesse Valenzuela.

“North San Diego is actually one of my favorite places in the world,” said the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, in a phone interview from his home recording studio in Los Angeles. “As a kid, I was there a lot. My sisters live in San Diego; my mother is down there too. They’ll probably be at the show.”

The musician and his band mates are quite familiar with the Solana Beach venue, having played there numerous times over the past 20 years.

“Sunday is such a great night at that club,” Valenzuela enthused. “It will be a really joyous event because we really love playing down there…I certainly like to walk over to Roberto’s [Very Mexican Food] in the afternoon. Their tacos are fantastic.”

Valenzuela, 45, used to frequent area clubs on a regular basis to see blues act the James Harman Band, cow punk group the Beat Farmers and others.

Gin Blossoms are currently touring in support of 2006’s solid “Major Lodge Victory” (Hybrid Recordings). “New music keeps our live shows vital,” affirmed the guitarist. “But we’re proud of our catalog. If somebody can yell loud enough [at a show] and we can hear it, we’ll usually try to play it.”

The current Owen Wilson comedy “Drill Bit Taylor” features one of the Blossoms’ new tunes. “It created some buzz and keeps the band fresh in the minds of people. A lot of our music fits really well in movies. We’ve been fortune enough to garner some great spots.”

Despite a decade-long span between “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” and the latest effort, fans should find it was well worth the wait. With longtime producer John Hampton and Valenzuela at the helm, the quintet crafted another inviting slice of jangly pop/rock that easily stands up to earlier material.

One noticeable change is a heightened emphasis on harmonies (“End of the World,” “Someday Soon,” sublime Beach Boys homage “California Sun”). Valenzuela co-produced the latter with Danny Wilde of The Rembrandts (“I’ll Be There for You,” “Just the Way It is Baby”). Wilde also provided background vocals and helped pen various tunes.

“We may have been fostering that sort of harmony and trying to cultivate melodies a little more than we used to,” said Valenzuela. “Melody has always been strong with the Gin Blossoms though.”

Among the other standouts are slow-churning rockers “Long Time Gone” and “Heart Shaped Locket” (where vocal effects and programmed drums are briefly utilized). Psychedelic guitar touches are heard throughout.

“When you’ve been making records for so long (you realize) every solo doesn’t have to knock you over the head and give you a black eye…there’s a lot more nuance and flourish on the record. We’ve given into it.”

Formed in Tempe, Ariz. during the late ‘80s, Gin Blossoms put out the indie release “Dusted” in 1989. The group made their major label bow with 1992’s “New Miserable Experience,” but received little attention amid grunge rock’s domination.

After a year of steady touring later, MTV and radio finally took notice.

“A&M Records were very gracious,” recalled Valenzuela. “They gave us money to stay on the road even when nothing was happening. We were really lucky and fortunate. We were probably one of the last bands where a label would stand behind you for that long because they believed something was going to happen. I think the kids coming up these days have a real uphill climb.”

The album spawned five hits on various formats and was certified quadruple platinum. “Til I Hear It From You,” heard in the 1995 film “Empire Records,” became the band’s biggest smash to date. Follow up album “Congratulations, I’m Sorry” went platinum on the back of more chart singles. Then Gin Blossoms suddenly called it quits in 1987.

These days, Valenzuela writes songs for television shows (“Ghost Whisperer,” “Judging Amy”) and movies (“The Heartbreak Kid”) between Gin Blossoms commitments. He has released a solo CD (“Tunes Young People Will Enjoy”) and another with Vancouver singer/guitarist Craig Northey of The Odds.

That partnership resulted in the theme to successful Canadian TV sitcom “Corner Gas” (it airs on Superstation WGN in America and is syndicated in 26 countries worldwide).

Valenzuela said he is “really thankful” for the continued support of Gin Blossoms fans. “I didn’t know that many people would stay with us. Now we can have a wonderful time, entertain people and make music. It’s a real blessed life.”
Gin Blossoms perform April 20 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
Bonus Q&A
Q: Does Robin still go into the audience and hand a fan a tambourine or sing into their cell phone?
A: Yeah, of course. That big gag from the ‘90s is still around.
Q: Was the making of 'Major Lodge Victory' easier than 'Congratulations' a decade before?
A: It was a long process recording. Everybody has recording equipment at their home so a lot of it was done on the Internet, sending it back and forth. It was different than in the past. It used to be like Ice Station Zebra. We’d be locked away in Memphis for 4-6 weeks. Nobody really has the time to commit that way anymore...Robin’s in Long Island and Phoenix; the rest of the guys are in Phoenix. One of our guys is in New Mexico, so we’re all spread out.
Q: Is being in the band better now than in the mid-‘90s when everything going at a frenzied pace?
A: I think it’s very enjoyable now…I wrote a song yesterday for a movie and I’m writing one today. I just enjoy the work. With maturity, you realize all the great benefits you get from a job you actually enjoy.
Q: Last year, you had a brief cameo in the Farrelly Brothers’ “Heartbreak Kid” starring Ben Stiller during the nudist colony sequence.
A: It was just some shenanigans; kind of hokey [sounding embarrassed it was brought up]. I’ll never be an actor. It’s only in the realm of my imagination. Having the song in the movie was fantastic. I love that movie. We have another one [‘Spark,’ from Jesse’s solo CD] coming out in a National Lampoon movie called “Bag Boy.” The Farrelly Brothers have used a lot of our songs over the years.
Q: How did you get involved in co-writing the theme song to the hit Canadian show, “Corner Gas”?
A: I released a record a couple years ago with my good friend Craig Northey...a song we wrote over the phone six years ago has taken on this huge life. That’s a real joy for me. Something that was so wonderful to do – a conversation with a friend in the afternoon – he called and said, ‘they’re looking for a song, let’s write something.’ We literally did it over the telephone over the course of a couple hours. We quickly cut it and got it to them. And they chose it for the show, which was a thrill…it’s funny, some of the guys in the Gin Blossoms didn’t know about that song. Our drummer called me a couple weeks ago and said, ‘why didn’t you tell anybody?’ I just forgot. Through the years, there have been a lot of TV shows – a sitcom on NBC that lasted two episodes. Another sitcom that lasted four episodes.
Q: Nowadays TV theme songs are short if there is even one at all.
A: [Networks] have cut back because the payment to AFTRA and ASCAP started cutting in. During the writer’s strike, it got difficult, so we had to cut corners for awhile. I hope there isn’t an actors’ strike. That would be a drag for everyone too. There’s probably not going to be a pilot season this year. Generally this time of year is it and they start looking for songs. The clarion call goes out to the 3600 songwriters here in Los Angeles and everybody starts cutting tracks. It’s very exciting; I like it. It would drive a lot of people crazy. I did a song for a Fox TV show last year. All those shows in the early 2000s like “Dawson’s Creek” – there were a lot of placements in those. There’s a lot of work if you enjoy the hustle.
Q: Back in the early days of the band, you cited influences like The Byrds, Replacements and Tom Petty. Do you still find yourselves going back to those classic reference points when making new music?
A: I was talking to our bass player the other day about favorite bands of all time and I still think for me, it’s The Byrds. I can go back and listen to a specific record, like the Gene Clark solo records, which really touched me. I always listen to those over and over again.
Q: Were you surprised in the ‘90s when “Hey Jealousy” and some of the other singles became multi-radio format hits?
A: They put us on some alternative stations. We were never really an alternative band and had very little in common with the bands from Seattle. We just eked in.
Q: With hindsight, what do you think made the debut album click with so many people?
A: I don’t know. I’m just thankful that people love it. I think it was fresh and didn’t sound like anything else that was going on at the time. What we were able to create through whatever alchemy happened spawned a lot of music afterwards. We were probably at the forefront of it. But we robbed from everybody.
To purchase Jesse's solo CD "Tunes Young People Will Enjoy," go to or

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