Friday, November 2, 2018

An interview with Gin Blossoms

photo: Shervin Lainez
Back when grunge ruled the rock radio airwaves, Gin Blossoms managed to cut through the noise.

The Tempe, Arizona band enjoyed success with its first major label effort, 1992’s jangle rock and power pop-leaning “New Miserable Experience,” a year being released. The quadruple platinum album spawned five hits singles at various formats, including “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Until I Fall Away."

Jesse Valenzuela thinks all those fans probably connected with the album because grunge “was so aggressive and demanded so much attention; we didn’t have that. Maybe it was an alternative (to alternative music) for people.”

Yet when the group created the music, he was “trying to play way beyond my depth because I was young, and I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” recalled the guitarist/singer (and writer on half of “Experience”), in a phone interview.

During the past year, the Tempe, Arizona band marked the 25th anniversary with a tour featuring an entire album set and a first-time issue on vinyl. Now Valenzuela believes “Experience” stands as a “a high-water mark” for us and is “aging pretty well.”

Gin Blossoms – which headlines SBD Fest air show in San Bernardino on Saturday – recently returned with “Mixed Reality,” the first studio album in more than seven years. Recording was done quickly in North Carolina with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, the team best known for overseeing classic early R.E.M. albums together. Another R.E.M. associate, Peter Holsapple (the dB’s), added keyboards.

Frequently boasting jangly guitars throughout, the melancholy opening track “Break,” a rustic “Mega Pawn King,” contemplative and dreamy “Wonder,” insanely catchy “Angels Fly,” harmony-rich “Here Again” and driving mid-tempo rocker “Fortunate Street” are among the standouts.

“There’s sort of a nursery rhyme melody, which I like,” Valenzuela said about the latter. “It’s taken me a long time to realize I have to simplify more.” He collaborated on four tracks with longtime songwriting partner Danny Wilde of The Rembrandts (Wilde also mixed them).

Having four band members contribute to the writing process in various combinations “was really freeing. It’s the first time we’ve ever done that. I liked it.”

An exceptional design for the CD and LP configurations of “Mixed Reality” (hopefully Grammy voters noticed) really makes a strong case for purchasing the physical version. Lead singer Robin Wilson worked hard in putting everything together.

He gave the album its title (the first time it wasn’t chosen by consensus), got noted pop art illustrator Mitch O’Connell to create the female space alien on the cover and graphic designer Joseph Allen Black to do the retro three-dimensional box inspired by old household products.

With Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees to be announced in the coming months, Valenzuela said Stevie Nicks, who he did session work for in the late ‘90s (and can be heard on the box set “Enchanted”), should definitely make the cut as a solo artist. Recalling that period, Valenzuela said he got a call about Nicks looking to work in the studio with a new guitarist. “We hit it off and wrote together.”

Lately, Gin Blossoms have been performing a cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” during concert encores. Valenzuela has cited the late rocker as a formative influence in his playing style.

“When I was in high school, I liked what he was saying. It struck me, it was really simple and very heartfelt. I think that started me at becoming a lifetime fan.”

A version of my interview originally appeared in Southern California News Group papers. 

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