Gin Blossoms singer Robin Wilson is enjoying a rare day off from a busy tour schedule with a lunch of soft pretzels and Arnold Palmers at Tempe's Four Peaks Brewery. The restaurant is conveniently located in the same historic building as Uranus Recordings, the studio Wilson opened in 1994.
In fact, Wilson has his own private connecting door that allows him to pop back and forth.
Wilson knows the history of the venue, pointing out the old Borden dairy was the first building in downtown Tempe to receive telephone service.
The Gin Blossoms, founded in 1987, have a long and storied history of their own. It reads like a twisting tabloid tale of alcoholism, suicide, TV appearances, multiplatinum success, world tours, a break-up, a reunion, and — 10 years after “Congratulations, I'm Sorry,” was released — a new album, “Motel Lodge Victory,” which hits stores Tuesday.
Those who follow Valley music know there were good bands playing original music before the Gin Blossoms made their official debut on Christmas night at Phoenix's Mason Jar in 1987, but the Blossoms were the first band to crystallize a scene on Tempe's Mill Avenue, regularly playing Edcel's Attic, Chuy's and the club that they would make famous, Long Wong's.
“We and our peers built it out of nothing,” Wilson says of the music scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when ASU kids would pack Mill clubs to see the Gin Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop, Live Nudes and, later, The Refreshments. “Building a music scene was real important to us — it was always something that I wanted to do, to be a part of.’’
The Gin Blossoms’ original lineup featured singer Jesse Valenzuela, guitarists Doug Hopkins and Richard Taylor, bassist Bill Leen and drummer Chris McCann. But the roster solidified when Valenzuela moved to guitar, Phillip Rhodes took over on drums and Wilson was brought in on vocals.
The Gin Blossoms released the 12-song “Dusted” on Tucson's San Jacinto Records in 1989. After being named “The Best Unsigned Band in America” at the prestigious CMJ festival, the group signed with A&M Records in 1990.
But behind the scenes, the Gin Blossoms already were falling apart. Chief songwriter Hopkins was struggling with alcoholism and depression; in spring of 1992, soon after the band recorded its A&M debut, “New Miserable Experience,” Hopkins was ousted from the Gin Blossoms.
The band chose Scotty Johnson of the Feedbags as Hopkins’ replacement, but as the group headed up the charts with the Hopkins-penned “Hey Jealousy,” Hopkins’ condition grew worse. On Dec. 5, 1993, the songwriter killed himself.
“That was terrible, watching my friends go through that, their grief,” says Johnson. “We had a counselor on tour with us, and a lot of times after the show one of Doug's friends or fans would come up to us with tears in their eyes and we'd just let them in to talk to the counselor.”
“New Miserable Experience” went on to double-platinum status, and in 1996 the Gin Blossoms followed with “Congratulations, I'm Sorry,” which debuted in the Top 10. But “Follow You Down,” which reached No. 9 on the charts, was the only hit single off the record, and after touring to promote the disc, the most successful band to ever come out of Tempe called it quits in 1997.
“At the time it seemed like the only way to move on was to completely break up the band,” Wilson says. “I couldn't have foreseen that it was possible at the time to just go and do other stuff, too.”
Valenzuela briefly led The Low Watts before moving to California. Johnson joined former Refreshments singer/songwriter Roger Clyne in the Peacemakers. Wilson and Rhodes formed Gas Giants, who released a record before, according to Wilson, “breaking up for all of the same stupid reasons that the Gin Blossoms did.”
“We were angry with each other — that's why we broke up,” Wilson says of the Gin Blossoms’ split. “But we were still all friends — I'd run into Scott Johnson, although I didn't really see Jesse at all because he'd moved to California — but we managed to get back together again, so we couldn't have been too angry.”
The Gin Blossoms were persuaded to play a New Years Eve gig for the new millennium in downtown Phoenix, but it wasn't until late 2001 that a full-fledged Gin Blossoms reunion started to take shape.
Leen, who had opened a rare-books store, had begun writing songs with Wilson. Johnson soon joined them.
‘‘We got together every Tuesday for six weeks,’’ Johnson says, ‘‘and it went so well that we decided it was time to call Jesse.”
With Valenzuela back on board, the band went out on tour again with drummer Scott Kusmirek in place of Rhodes, who has battled his own addiction issues over the years.
The group found their audience, after six years, was largely still intact, so they began working on new songs and signed with Hybrid Recordings, an indie label run by much of the brain trust that launched the band on A&M.
“It feels like everything just fell into place,” Johnson says. “We feel like we're back with the people who worked hard for us back when we started.”
Earlier this year, the band went into Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn., where their first two records were made, to work on “Major Lodge Victory.” After taking months to record their previous album, the band had a budget from Hybrid that allowed for less than two weeks of recording.
“It ended up being great,” Johnson says. “Long days, but we did it.”
The album's first single, “Learning the Hard Way,” already is a hit on radio.
On tour, the band has been dropping into radio stations to play and talk about the record, just like the old days. But it is clear the group, older and wiser and having learned a few lessons, is reveling in their second chance.
“This is the opportunity that we as a group have been waiting for,” Wilson says. “This is what I like to do, make records and promote them and go on tour and do rock stuff.”
The Gin Blossoms are closing in on their 20th anniversary, a feat that throughout their turbulent history never seemed possible.
“It's really special being in the Gin Blossoms,” Wilson says. “None of us take it for granted — we've seen what it was like to be without it for a few years.”
And any special plans for the band's 20th anniversary?
“Well, I would think at least a commemorative T-shirt,” Wilson laughs.