Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson: “So much joy… So much horror… it’s no wonder we called it New Miserable Experience”

On the 30th anniversary of their landmark album, the Gin Blossoms' frontman takes us through his memories of its creation

Thirty years is a lot of distance. Time doesn’t erase anything, but that amount of time offers clarity and context in a way the present moment can’t. For Robin Wilson and Gin Blossoms, it’s helped separate the polar extremes of their landmark album New Miserable Experience, something that must have seemed impossible back in 1992.

Four singles in constant rotation on US radio. A top 40 hit single (‘Hey Jealousy’) on both sides of the Atlantic. Rave reviews. But that’s not the real story of New Miserable Experience. The real story is a band on the brink of both huge success and utter catastrophe. A band torn apart by addiction and depression. A band out to prove that they could survive just about anything.

Gin Blossoms (L-R: Bill Leen, Scott Hessel, Robin Wilson, Jesse Valenzuela, Scott “Scotty” Johnson)

Gin Blossoms formed in Arizona in the late 80s, brought together by songwriters and guitarists Doug Hopkins and Jesse Valenzuela. Singer Robin Wilson joined shortly after, and the band recorded and released the independent album Dusted in 1989. That record proved catnip to the major labels. Gin Blossoms signed with A&M and decamped to Memphis to record their major label debut at the storied Ardent Studios, previously home to two of the band’s biggest influences: Big Star and The Replacements.

Behind the scenes though, things were crumbling fast. Doug Hopkins was struggling with clinical depression and alcoholism and only getting worse. Valenzuela and Wilson were faced with an impossible choice: sack their friend or watch the band implode. They chose the former. In 1993, as the record he’d helped create climbed the charts, Doug Hopkins took his own life.

As the album turns 30, we caught up with Robin Wilson to look back on the best and worst days of that era. Lightly bearded, heavily tattooed and wearing an Iron Maiden shirt, Wilson looks little like the long-haired slacker from the band’s videos, but the memories and emotions of 1992 are still powerfully vivid.

I love your Maiden shirt.

Thanks man. I think Powerslave is one of my all-time favourite records. I recently discovered a full-length concert that’s on YouTube. It’s Iron Maiden live in, I think it’s 85, right after Powerslave came out. It’s just such an amazing show. They just play at such a high level, you know? It’s almost athletic, the synchronization and musicianship is just so incredible, and the energy that they play with… I was watching, and I thought: none of these guys are drinking or doing any drugs, because there’s no way you can do this if you’re f*cked up in any way.

I was a teenage metalhead, and Maiden are the band that endured. I guess probably because they never seemed to take themselves too seriously.

You can’t sing about wizards and stuff if you take yourself too seriously. It reminds me of one of my other favourite groups, The Darkness. Anything goes with The Darkness when it comes to lyrics, they’ll sing about pirates, or Vikings, or UFOs. But then they have these great, universal tunes, like, ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ or ‘Growing On Me’. They’re universal love songs, but they do it with such humour.

Have you listened to Justin’s podcast?

He’s so good. He’s one of my heroes as a rock singer. I usually think I’m the best singer in the room, you know? I might actually be one of the, let’s say, 250 best living rock singers right now. Somewhere in the top 250. But Justin Hawkins is number one. He is the greatest living rock singer. I just have so much respect for him.

You’ve spoken in the past about being influenced by frontmen like Ian McCulloch, Bono and Michael Hutchence, who aren’t your standard college rock singers. Is it that range of influences that makes your voice so unique or is that just what comes out when you sing?

What I do comes to me really naturally. I never really overthought it. And, you know, I have certain records that I’ve listened to so much that they’ve affected the way I deliver my performance. And sometimes it takes me a while to even understand where I get certain things from. A good example would be Marshall Crenshaw. A few years back, I dug up some of his records, and I was listening to them. I thought, this is what I do. This is how I sing. I hadn’t realised how much those records really affected the way I perform.

Gin Blossoms - Hey Jealousy (Official Music Video)

I wanted to talk to you about New Miserable Experience and your memories of making the record. What was it like for a young band going into the studio, making your major label debut? Was it excitement, nerves, a bit of both?

It’s a little bit of all of that. We were new to the studio experience. We had made demos, we had made a homemade record. But a place like Ardent was a professional operation on a level that we hadn’t really been exposed to. Our producer John Hampton became such a good friend to us. He understood that we were in a very precarious situation, with what was happening to us personally.

And there were competing factors in the band that were very difficult to handle, the competition among songwriters and Doug Hopkins melting down. That was a really depressing situation to be in, having to manage his disability while so much was on the line. We knew we had great songs and we had the potential to live up to our own promise, but it was terrifying with Doug being so messed up. There was so much joy and so much horror, it’s no wonder we ended up calling the record New Miserable Experience, because it really was. I don’t think there’s any way we could have known at the time that the album title would be so appropriate.

I was upset for a while because we hadn’t learned any of my new songs. I had a batch of tunes that I had written and I had been trying to corral the band into rehearsing so I could teach them my new songs. I was kind of pouting. Actually, I wasn’t kind of pouting. I was pouting a lot.

The phone rings over at the band house, and it was John Hampton. And he’s like, “Rob, bring your cassette over of your demos, we’re going to learn one of your new songs.” I was just so relieved. When we heard ‘Until I Fall Away’, Doug was the first one to say, “If we’re gonna do one of these songs, we should do that one.” Flash forward, the album’s in the can, the release date set, and I’m on the phone with our A&R guy and he’s talking about the record and the potential singles. And he said, “‘Until I Fall Away’, that’s the single”. And I remember thinking, “Doug is going to be so jealous.”

Gin Blossoms - Until I Fall Away (Official Music Video)

Was there a kind of little brother mentality with Doug and Jesse being the established songwriters in the band and you fighting for attention?

When I joined the band, they had already been performing for a few months and they were quickly becoming the most popular band in town. I had never been in a band before. Mostly, I was just a bedroom songwriter, doing open mic nights and stuff. So when I joined Gin Blossoms, it was my first band and I’m in a band with these really talented songwriters, Doug and Jesse.

They raised my game immediately. Nothing I had when I joined the band was good enough. It wasn’t until I had been in the band for several months before I started to write songs that were on the same level as what Jessie and Doug could do. I guess it’s like if you’re on a football team, and you’re the third-string wide receiver, and the starter is an all-star who’s on cereal boxes. Just competing with that guy is going to raise your game. That’s what happened to me as a songwriter.

Gin Blossoms - Found Out About You (Official Music Video)

Is that how you saw Doug, as an all-star?

Yeah, definitely. My brother had cassettes that Doug had made. I remember hearing those from a really young age and being very impressed and wanting to be a part of the local music scene. And suddenly, I’m in a band with a couple of the top guys.

Listening back to Doug’s songs on the record now, there’s a definite sense that he wasn’t in a great place. Did you guys have any idea at the time how bad he was?

Certainly, we knew things were really bad. Doug had been getting worse and worse since about the time we got signed in 1990. But most of the songs that Doug wrote on that record were written during the formation of the Gin Blossoms, or even before the band formed, like ‘Found Out About You’ and ‘Lost Horizons’. The only two tunes of Doug’s that are on the record that that weren’t, like, three years old, were ‘Hey Jealousy’ and ‘Pieces Of The Night’.

‘Pieces Of The Night’ is really special to me, because Doug and I spent so much time together in the early days, and we would always travel together to the shows. ‘Pieces Of The Night’ is basically a conversation that Doug and I would have had in the car on our way to Tucson. I know exactly what he was thinking when he wrote it.

He was a very competitive songwriter, and he didn’t like to give out credit, but he did tell me to write something for the bridge. So I wrote the lyrics on the bridge, but he was never going to like share co-writing credit for four lines or whatever. It was Doug and I together at our very best.

Same goes for ‘Hold Me Down’, the only song that Doug and I officially co-wrote together. I’m very attached emotionally to that song. It was a battle because Doug, when he was being such an asshole, actually said to me that he was going to rewrite all of my lyrics on that song, because he didn’t want to give me co-writing credit. He was just so bitter. But then he was just too f*cked up and lazy to actually change the words. And then months later, we’re planning to release the record and Doug called me and he said that he wanted full credit for ‘Hold Me Down’. And I said, “No, we did that together. You can have all of the publishing money, I don’t care about that, but I am taking co-writing credit on that song.” And he got so f*cking angry. He cursed me out and hung up on me, but I’m just so glad I stood my ground. Ultimately, it’s the only one that we ever wrote together that got on our record.

That’s just one of the many bittersweet aspects of this and how it fits into my life. My relationship with Doug and the time we spent together, it all came to a head there in Memphis, making this album. It’s kind of painful to think about certain aspects. But here I am in the future, 30 years later, and I’m still doing this. I think that Doug would be really proud of me. I take comfort in that.

Over the years since, do you feel like you’ve made peace with it all or will there always be a lot of sadness and bitterness associated with this album?

I mean, it’s always there. It’s a many layered onion. There are so many aspects of this album that are a source of joy and grief. I wanted to be a rock singer since I was eight years old. And that’s what I do. That’s who I am. And I’m just so fortunate that I’ve been able to live this life. Doug’s part is the most painful chapter and there’s just so much weight in my thoughts about him. But that’s part of life.

Do you have happy memories of the record or is it all tainted?

A lot of it is tainted but being a band in a van, just yucking it up and playing seven nights a week and driving all night, it was great. So much of it was great. It’s an incredible amount of work. It’s one thing to start a band and write songs, but commercial success requires a complete dedication and a willingness to put all personal desires aside. When I think about the success of New Miserable Experience, I think we earned it.

What’s your happiest memory?

Recording the vocals with John Hampton. We forged a really special friendship making that record. Outside of the success of the record and the career we built on it, that’s my favourite part of it.

You’ve been doing anniversary shows around the US all year. Is there any one song from the album that you most look forward to playing each night?

‘Hold Me Down’. I have my deepest connection to Doug when we play that song. I always introduce the song by saying something to that effect and the audience and I will have a toast to Doug. That’s a special moment for me in the show. Every once in a while, someone will show up who’s a real Doug Hopkins fan and they’ve got it in for us, like we f*cked him over. The other night, this guy was yelling at me, “WHAT ABOUT DOUG? SAY SOMETHING ABOUT DOUG. HONOUR DOUG!” I just started laughing, like I was about to do it if you’d wait two songs. I’ve been living with Doug all this time. You didn’t even know him. There will always be people out there who don’t get it and don’t know what happened.

But that’s the narrative, right? Doug was the victim, Gin Blossoms kicked him out and he killed himself. That must be difficult to be faced with, knowing it was so much more complicated than that.

It was much more painful in the years after Doug’s suicide. Those first five years, it was an awful weight to carry. In those years, you didn’t talk about it. We didn’t tell people how bad it got. Doug forced our hand. Nobody wants to fire anybody, but we had no choice. It was either that or the band was done.

Jesse and I went out and had a beer and he said, “It’s up to you and me to keep this going.” We made a pact that night to try. I give him a lot of the credit for having the foresight to instigate that conversation and put it into clear terms. These people, they don’t know what we were feeling. It’s kind of nobody’s business and it would have been really f*cked up of us to be talking sh*t about his disability in public. It wasn’t until around 2010 that I felt I could speak honestly about Doug.

Gin Blossoms - Follow You Down (Official Music Video)

To go through everything you did and then somehow survive to make another record in Congratulations I’m Sorry is a level of endurance that most people don’t have.

Agreed. Yay for us. And then ‘Follow You Down’. We were under so much pressure to deliver another hit single. The label were clear. HIT. SINGLE. That was the most pressure we were ever under. Everybody is waiting for you to prove that you have it in you. I give the middle finger to the universe. F*ck you. We did it.

Gin Blossoms are currently touring New Miserable Experience in North America. Tickets are available here.