It's a miracle that the Gin Blossoms' breakthrough album, New Miserable Experience, exists at all.
When the band left Tempe, Arizona, in 1992, headed for Memphis' famed Ardent Studios to record their first album for A&M Records, the mood was far from optimistic. A first attempt at cutting the record in 1991 in Los Angeles was a $100,000 disaster. The group teetered on the edge of being dropped, and, most alarmingly, their founder and chief songwriter, guitarist Doug Hopkins, was in the throes of mental illness and alcoholism.
"We were a fragile mess. We were all just treading water trying to make the record. We knew this was our last chance," says singer Robin Wilson of the album that was just re-released in a commemorative vinyl edition. "It was an intense experience on every level."
Produced by the late John Hampton, who engineered albums by Alex Chilton and the Replacements, New Miserable Experience took its cues from Chilton's Big Star and Paul Westerberg's alt-rock progenitors, who also recorded at Ardent.
Like those groups, the Gin Blossoms excelled at marrying world-weary lyrics with ebullient melodies. "We were always about that. The name of the band says it all," Wilson says. "It sounds really happy, but it represents something dark."
Superficially, the songs on New Miserable Experience were windows-down, carefree anthems, but underneath they exposed heartache, longing and despair. Particularly those written by the tortured Hopkins, who provided the band with its breakout hit, "Hey Jealousy," which – thanks to MTV – revived the album almost a year after it first stumbled out of the gate.
"One day we get a call from the label that they were going to try 'Jealousy' again and make another video for it," says Wilson, who recalls filming three different clips for the song. "The budget for the first was five grand; the second was 10 grand; and the third was 40 grand. That's when I was like, 'Holy shit, they're serious.' At that point we had been in the van for six months, just a blur of college cafeterias, interviews and opening for whoever we can."
Hopkins, however, wasn't on tour. Or, at that point, even in the band. As the guitarist disintegrated before their eyes during recording, Wilson, guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, drummer Phillip Rhodes and bassist Bill Leen made the decision to fire him or risk becoming a liability for the label. They finished the album without Hopkins, and Scott Johnson stepped in as his replacement.
"There was nothing easy about it," says Valenzuela. "You're concerned and you want to help, but we didn't have the knowledge we have today, so we were kind of guessing and trying to do our best. We didn't have the understanding of bipolar disease and we were ill-equipped to deal with that."
Wilson remembers an incident that illustrates just how checked-out Hopkins was.
"I came into the studio and Doug was in there with John, and I heard John say, 'Well, someone is going to have to do these solos.' Doug said, 'I guess I'd rather Jesse do my solos.' I was just floored. I could not believe that was something that Doug was considering. He was giving up. I left the room and almost threw up," says Wilson.
One solo Hopkins did manage to put to tape was for "Hey Jealousy," a slashing, frantic yet commanding performance that Wilson says was a scratch take fired off during initial tracking sessions. As the single climbed the charts, peaking inside the Top 25 on Billboard's Hot 100 in October 1993, and New Miserable Experience began moving units, Hopkins was at home in Tempe. On December 5th of that year, he committed suicide.
"Doug had so much talent. I liken him to a Noel Gallagher. He could have been this bandleader that would have really had a huge impact on the music of the day," Wilson tells Rolling Stone. "I think he knew that was right there for him, and instead of stepping up and taking a real leadership role, he fell in the other direction. … It still is heart-wrenching to think about what could have been."
While Hopkins' presence is all over New Miserable Experience – he wrote several cornerstone tracks, including autobiographical opener "Lost Horizons," the Byrds-like "Pieces of the Night" and the Modern Rock Number One "Found Out About You" – Wilson and Valenzuela provided their own songs that further cemented the album as a Nineties alt-rock favorite.
"I hear people talk about other groups from my generation and it's not always kind." –Robin Wilson
Together, they penned winsome radio staple "Until I Fall Away." And with "Mrs. Rita," Valenzuela gave his singer the vehicle to deliver the album's most moving vocal turn. Valenzuela also teamed up with Hopkins to write the country weeper "Cheatin'," which features former Waylon Jennings and current Chris Stapleton band member Robby Turner on pedal steel.
For his part, Wilson contributed "Allison Road," and co-wrote "Hold Me Down" with Hopkins, a more rock-based song about the perils of temptation, namely cocaine, that Wilson had envisioned as the album's flagship song.
"Doug and I were trying to write the first single. That's what I wanted us to be known for, that kind of rock & roll, and head into a Cheap Trick direction," he says. "Hey Jealousy" won out, but Wilson was happy to share a songwriting credit on "Hold Me Down" with Hopkins. Even if the guitarist was not.
"He said, 'If I even liked you, I would give you half of 'Hold Me Down.' The whole band was standing there when he shouted that at me," Wilson remembers. "It was symbolic of how misdirected his anger was."
Today, 25 years since the band first weathered its New Miserable Experience, many of the album's dozen songs are still in radio rotation. And the band continues to play them in concert, agreeably tapping into Nineties nostalgia on package tours with band like Sugar Ray, Lit and Fastball. "They're our cousins or brothers, all fighting the same good fight," says Wilson, who reinforces that the group is very much a working band. "In the summertime, we're chasing mercenary work: all the festivals and casinos we can get our hands on."
But the Gin Blossoms are not just a job, or a guilty pleasure of the post-grunge era. "Somehow we never really lost our credibility," Wilson says. "I hear people talk about other groups from my generation and it's not always kind. I feel like we managed to survive without anybody's scorn."
The band is also looking to the future, recently completing an album with R.E.M. producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter. Wilson praises it as the Gin Blossoms' best work since New Miserable Experience.
Meanwhile, "Hey Jealousy" continues to turn up in the most random of places.
"It got everywhere," says Valenzuela. "You can hear it at the Lowe's hardware."