Relaxing in his backyard in a tranquil Long Island, New York neighborhood, The Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson is amused as he contemplates playing his latest livestreamed concert on his porch in a few minutes.
“I never asked them for permission,” he says of his neighbors. “I just said, ‘I’m going to be doing a show in my front yard.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a musician? Well, that’s great – you just stick with it, and one day you’re really gonna make it!’”
He shakes his head and laughs. Those neighbors would probably be amazed to learn that he, along with his band, first earned multi-platinum sales status almost 30 years ago.
Wilson isn’t surprised that nobody around here knows who he is, even though he’s lived in this house for many years, because his hectic pre-pandemic touring schedule meant that his neighbors hardly ever saw him. But COVID-19 restrictions and show cancellations mean that “This is the first time in my entire adult life that I haven’t really been traveling.” He says he’s using this enforced domestic time to write songs, and to finally learn to cook and garden.
It’s also strange for Wilson to find himself living in New York instead of Arizona, where he grew up and spent much of his adult life. He stays here to be near his son, who lives with Wilson’s ex across town. “This is the longest I’ve ever been away from Arizona,” Wilson says. “I miss it terribly.” To honor his former home, he has hung a large Arizona state flag on his front porch.
Moments later, Wilson stands under that flag and kicks off the livestream show with two Gin Blossoms songs, “Break” and “Hey Jealousy.” A dozen friends and fans, at an appropriate social distance, sit in lawn chairs in his yard. As he plays, his neighbors start appearing in nearby yards. Wilson greets them, quipping: “Hello from your neighbor and professional rock singer!”
After the Gin Blossoms songs, Wilson is joined by Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken, and bassist Graham Maby (of Joe Jackson’s band). Wilson introduces them to his neighbors: “These are really renowned guys. You don’t know who I am, so I don’t expect you to know who they are, either,” he says amiably, before they launch into an hour-long set of Smithereens material.
Earlier, in the backyard, Wilson was less irreverent about his career accomplishments, or that of his peers. His relationship with The Smithereens members goes back to his pre-Gin Blossoms days, when he was working at the Phoenix branch of Tower Records. He recalls when The Smithereens came to do an in-store appearance, and how in awe he was of them. He says The Smithereens, along with The Replacements, were key influences on him.
By the time he was working at Tower Records, Wilson had begun playing the local open mic nights, which seemed like the natural first step for someone who had grown up as a music-obsessed kid in nearby Tempe. “When I was eight years old, I was watching The Midnight Special, and Queen’s video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” [came on], and every neuron in my brain lit up,” he says. “I’m like, ‘That’s what I want to do! I want to be like that!’”
Actually making the leap from fan to frontman was initially difficult for Wilson, though, and he very nearly blew his opportunity when it came along. He had known lead guitarist Doug Hopkins and bassist Bill Leen from going to the same high school (they were seniors when he was a freshman), and he’d watched them play in various bands ever since. But when Leen (who also worked at Tower Records) invited Wilson to audition for the newly-formed Gin Blossoms, Wilson was so intimidated that he turned down the offer.
“I had never been in a band, and so the idea of suddenly playing with these guys who were already pretty established was terrifying,” Wilson says. Fortunately, a friend of his was so aghast about the rejected audition that he set Wilson straight. “My friend said, ‘You’re a fucking idiot. They’re a working band! You’re going to step right into an established, popular group – why wouldn’t you want to do that?’ So I was like, ‘You’re right. I need to challenge myself.’”
When Wilson finally did that audition, he and the rest of The Gin Blossoms members hit it off immediately. “From the moment that Jesse [Valenzuela, rhythm guitarist/backup vocalist] and I started singing together, we knew we were onto something pretty special. As soon as I joined, it was fun, and I began to influence the course of the group.”
There was one problem, though: Doug Hopkins, who at that point was the band’s main songwriter, was opposed to giving Wilson much room to contribute material. “Doug didn’t want to do my songs,” Wilson says. “If I did manage to convince them to learn one of my songs, Doug would do this thing where he would just stop playing in the middle of it and go sip his beer back by the amplifier and then come back in later. It was just so disrespectful – making a statement to the audience that he thought it was inferior. That always hurt.
“I always felt like, why wouldn’t he want to encourage [my songwriting]?” Wilson continues. “Why couldn’t he just say, ‘We might not do your songs, but I’ll help you finish them – let’s see what we can make out of it.’ From time to time we would write things together, but for the most part, Doug was very selfish about that sort of thing.”
Despite that internal conflict, The Gin Blossoms gained massive success with their album New Miserable Experience, which came out in 1992 to much critical acclaim. The singles “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” (both written by Hopkins) became ubiquitous hits. Even though he felt he wasn’t given his due as a songwriter, Wilson says he was still glad to experience being in the band for this initial burst of success.
“We were just so busy and so active, and it was still fun being in the band,” Wilson says. Also, he’d made a little progress with convincing his bandmates to play his songs, and they included one of them, “Allison Road” (still a fan favorite at shows) on New Miserable Experience. Wilson says this seemed like something of a breakthrough: “When I came in with “Allison Road,” it was hard for everybody, even Doug, to deny that I had a significant contribution to make to the songs.”
But as The Gin Blossoms continued to earn increasing success (with New Miserable Experience eventually earning quadruple platinum sales), the band almost imploded as Hopkins’ struggles with mental health issues and alcoholism finally forced the band to fire him. In 1993, Hopkins died by suicide.
“It was a really tough time. It was really sad,” Wilson says, adding that these days, “My feelings on Doug are mostly built around regret and anger. I really, really regret that he and I didn’t write more songs together. What could have happened? We had this great chemistry, and it seemed like we could have done so much more. So I have very deep regret about that.
“But also, I’m angry,” Wilson continues. “I’m angry that he was so selfish and that he was just so wrong about so many things. I’m angry that he’s not here with us. I’m angry that he never met any of our kids. It’s heart-wrenching. We had a lot of great times, really funny memories and moments. And then there was some terrible, terrible stuff that happened.”
With hindsight, Wilson is also able to remember Hopkins with a lot of empathy and gratitude, as well. “He isn’t entirely responsible – he had mental health issues that we didn’t understand,” Wilson says. “I guess we realize now that he was bipolar, but at the time, nobody was talking about bipolar [disorder]. We couldn’t define what was wrong with him. He was the most talented, gifted songwriter I’ve ever known. He had a huge, huge influence on me. And despite the lack of encouragement from him, I don’t think that I would have become as accomplished a songwriter without his influence. I owe him a lot.”
Wilson says that, awful as it was, the situation with Hopkins never made the remaining members consider ending The Gin Blossoms at that point, because “We knew Doug wasn’t the only great thing about our band. We were confident that Jesse and I still were writing great songs. Around Phoenix, Doug was perceived as the most important thing about the group, and it was important to us to prove that it wasn’t just about him.”
The Gin Blossoms did go on to continued commercial success. Their next album, Congratulations I’m Sorry (1996) contained the massive hit “Follow You Down.” In all, the band have scored eight Top 40 singles.
In 1997, though, The Gin Blossoms “just sort of fell apart,” Wilson says. After surviving through so much, they finally split because “We were under a lot of pressure. We weren’t really getting along.” He cites the changing musical landscape, which at that time favored bands like Limp Bizkit and Creed, for this disillusionment.
Wilson went on to form the band Gas Giants, who released one album, From Beyond the Back Burner, in 1999. “I had always wanted to start this other band with my friends. It was the same guys I was trying to play with before Gin Blossoms, and I wanted to give that a shot,” he says. “I wanted to have a band rely on my vision, and I wanted to do something that was a little bit more metallic and high-concept than what Gin Blossoms were doing.”
In the end, though, Wilson and his former Gin Blossoms bandmates realized that they needed to reunite, which they did in 2001. This time around, Wilson says, “It became easier to see all of the great things about Gin Blossoms. And to find a way to accept compromise.” The band has released three more albums since reforming.
Wilson no longer has trouble convincing his bandmates (or anyone else) to give his songwriting efforts a listen. His typical process, he says, is to “come up with the lyrical idea. I’ll see something in a movie or read something and think, ‘That sounds like a good title for a song.’ I’ll keep notes of lyric ideas, and from time to time, I come up with a melody. And if the melody isn’t accompanied by a lyric, I can go through my notebook and try and find something.”
While he’s always writing new material, Wilson says he’s also able to look back at the band’s previous accomplishments with pride. “We were able to write great songs that connected with people and got on the radio, and that’s why I think we can still do this,” he says.
Next up, Wilson says he’s going to make another record with The Gin Blossoms (and tour next summer with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Barenaked Ladies). He also is writing songs with Jim Babjak for a new Smithereens album (Wilson and Marshall Crenshaw have been alternating on lead vocal duties for that band since the original lead singer, Pat DiNizio, passed away in 2017).
As if all that isn’t enough, Wilson also has another significant project in the works: “I’m developing an animated television series about a rock and roll band, called The Poppin’ Wheelies, in outer space. It’s something that I’m really passionate about and committed to because I grew up on that kind of thing when I was a kid.” Wilson’s aim, he says, is to create “Scooby-Doo in outer space, where it’s genuinely funny, the music is genuinely awesome, and so is the animation.” He’s already recorded the soundtrack album, which is available on YouTube.
As Wilson gets up to play the livestream show on his front porch, he offers a few parting thoughts about his career: “I’m very grateful to still be doing this,” he says. “I just turned 55 [years old]. Never could have imagined that I’d be this age and still be a professional rock and roller with some measure of credibility and legacy. It’s really awesome to know that it wasn’t all for nothing and that we’re a part of the big rock and roll story. We’re never going to be in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame, but we made our mark. We earned it. And we lived up to the promise.”
Video credit: Devin Klos and Dre Barbosa of Beards Up Productions.
Photo credit: Katherine Yeske Taylor