'90s Survivors the Gin Blossoms: "There Won't Be Too Many Left Turns"
L-R: Scott "Scotty" Johnson, Bill Leen, Robin Wilson and Jesse Valenzuela of the Gin Blossoms
Doug Merrick Media/Sigi Photography
When Rocks Off reached Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela recently, he was a man on a mission. But it had nothing to do with either creating or playing music.
"I'm taking a walk through my neighborhood and going to the store to get taco ingredients. I'm making them for my boy tonight," he says. "It will be taco madness at my house! You're welcome to stop by!"
Seeing as how the West Coast is a long way to drive for a dish that Houston does pretty well already, we politely declined.
Valenzeula, vocalist Robin Wilson and bassist Bill Leen co-founded the band in 1987, taking their name from the caption of a photo of comedian W.C. Fields with a red-streaked nose in the book Hollywood Babylon.
After releasing an indie record and EP, the Tempe, Arizona-based group had a hit with 1993 major-label debut New Miserable Experience, which featured the hits "Hey Jealousy," "Until I Fall Away," "Found Out About You" and "Allison Road." They also hit with "'Til I Hear It From You" on the Empire Records film soundtrack.
Follow-up Congratulations, I'm Sorry spawned "Follow You Down" and "As Long As It Matters," but the band took a break around the turn of the century for members to pursue other projects. Since regrouping, they've released Major Lodge Victory (2006) and No Chocolate Cake (2010).
And while the band is currently working on new material, Valenzuela is surprisingly nonchalant about next month's sessions in Phoenix resulting in a new record.
"We've got enough songs, but we're mainly looking to get them placed in TV and films," he offers. "I don't care about a record anymore, and I don't think anybody else does either.
"You've got to get four or five guys locked up in a room with the same idea, and that can be hard," Valenzuela adds. "But to his credit, Robin really respects the Gin Blossoms' idea and sound, and likes to keep any new music comparable. There won't be too many left turns."
However, he notes that some of the issues that drove a wedge in the band decades ago aren't even on the table these days.
"The nature of a young band is five egomaniacs screaming for attention," he explains. "And that permeates everything. The music, and the hang. The constant bid for attention creates [tensions]. But you get older and you change."
These days, Valenzuela says band members are "respectful" or each other -- and each other's baggage -- while trying to make music and run a business as well.
"You can tell when someone is trying bait you," he laughs. "And you can either grab onto it or just keep your nose in a book!"
Still, the guitarist says modern conveniences make touring today "much better" than 25 years ago.
"There wasn't an Internet or computers or 300 channels to watch on TV," he says. "You had only pay phones and a calling card for communication. Now, I can download three books on my Kindle to read on the plane!"
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The current Gin Blossoms lineup includes Wilson, Valenzuela, Leen, classic-lineup guitarist Scott "Scotty" Johnson and drummer Scott Hessell. Johnson replaced guitarist Doug Hopkins before the band finished recording New Miserable Experience, after Hopkins was thrown out of the band due to severe problems with alcohol and his own growing dislike for their poppier sound. However, the album included the Hopkins-written tracks "Hey Jealousy," "Found Out About You" and "Pieces of the Night," whose dark lyrics didn't prevent them from becoming the band's first major hits.
Shortly after receiving a gold record for "Hey Jealousy," Hopkins committed suicide in 1993, shooting himself while undergoing mental health treatment. His death inspired the title for Congratulations, I'm Sorry.
"That was at a time before people had conversations about mental health issues and depression and bipolar issues," Valenzeula reflects today. "And we as a band we were young and ill-equipped to handle that. He just couldn't keep going like he was."
"If I had the knowledge I do now, I would have done everything completely different with Doug," he adds. "But we don't have that privilege."
A similar problem with alcohol also led to the dismissal of classic-lineup drummer Phillip Rhodes, despite his getting a second chance Hopkins didn't.
"With Phillip, I don't know what more we could have done with him," Valenzuela says. "We tried to bring him back, but...you've got to be able to play.
"Maybe he was tired of it, I don't know," he continues. "He is a beautifully talented guy and I know he's still playing, but I haven't seen him in a long time. I don't think he's happy with us. Well...I know he's not. And there are a lot of haters on the Internet who keep that situation inflamed."
On happier memories, Valenzeula recalls staying in Houston at "an old rock and roll hotel" off Airline Drive in the '90s which, in some bizarre coincidence, found the Gin Blossoms, Soul Asylum and Evan Dando's Lemonheads all staying there at the same time while playing different gigs in Houston.
"Eveyone slept all afternoon and around six or seven, we all started getting out into vans in the parking lot to get to our respective gigs," he recalls. "And Dan Murphy, the guitarist for Soul Asylum, screamed as he was getting in 'time to make the donuts!' We thought that was hilarious, and we caught part of their show later on that night."
As Valenzeula continues his shopping quest for ingredients, he notes that his recipe includes two items not normally part of taco contents: potatoes and green beans. Just like his mom used to make them.
"It's how poor people eat, and even though I don't have to eat like that anymore, I still do," he says. "Once, I asked my mom why she made tacos like that, and she said 'There were so many of you to feed, I never had enough hamburger!' I don't know. Maybe my mother is a genius!"
The Gin Blossoms play two shows, 5:30 and 9 p.m., Saturday, March 22 at Dosey Doe Café, 25911 I-45 N. Tickets, $98-$138 ticket include a three course meal.
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