LATE BLOOMERS

THE GIN BLOSSOMS' ROBIN WILSON ON BOOZE, DEATH AND HIT RECORDS.

For the last couple of years, the Gin Blossoms have seen more of the road than Bob Hope in his prime. Since the 1992 release of the album New Miserable Experience, the Tempe, Arizona-based quintet--vocalist Robin Wilson, guitarist/vocalist Jesse Valenzuela, lead guitarist Scott Johnson, drummer Phillip Rhodes and bassist Bill Leen--has gigged almost constantly, helping to push the disc to near-double-platinum status.

Wilson isn't complaining about the hard work. "We're holding up great," he says. "Actually, we've never been healthier, physically. I mean, we've got tans and we're okay." He adds that the group's new prominence has resulted in white-glove treatment from the high-caliber production, stage and catering staffs attached to its latest tour.

Still, the band's sales breakthrough bears a bittersweet edge. That's because Doug Hopkins, a Gin Blossoms founder who wrote "Hey Jealousy," the band's biggest hit to date, and received at least partial credit on five other selections on New Miserable Experience, is not around to share in the spoils of success. He took his own life late last year.

Although Hopkins was a mainstay during the band's club-hopping phase, he is not listed among the Blossoms on the New Miserable Experience liner notes. His hard-drinking lifestyle had once defined the group: The term "gin blossoms" refers to the blotches that appear on the noses of chronic alcoholics. But his taste for the juice that fueled many of his compositions reportedly led to his ouster. An offer to contribute songs to future Gin Blossoms albums died with him.

At this point, Wilson is just plain tired of talking about the Hopkins situation. Rather than listening to questions that he says he's beginning to find offensive, he takes the conversational initiative. In so doing, he reveals more than he might have under direct interrogation.

Of his fallen comrade, Wilson says, "The band never would have gone anywhere if it hadn't been for him. A lot of the strength of the record--not exclusively, but a good deal of the strength of the record--is because of his beautiful songwriting. I think about him every day, and I'm really proud to get up there and sing his songs."

While Wilson freely admits that Hopkins was a better songwriter than he'll ever be, he confesses that the late guitarist's absence from the Gin Blossoms has actually been "a very liberating experience" and notes that "Doug was a repressive influence in the group." When pressed for details, Wilson claims that Hopkins "didn't like playing other people's songs." And although the Blossoms appeared to function democratically, Wilson suggests that Hopkins was not entirely objective when it came to evaluating the contributions of other members. "He had this superiority complex," Wilson states.

That said, Wilson continues to believe that New Miserable Experience is "a really great album." He admits, though, that he's been surprised by the recording's popularity--acceptance he never envisioned for himself or the group during the days when he worked as a record-store clerk in his hometown. "We're making money all of a sudden," he offers. "Which is an unusual development."

Equally unexpected has been the Blossoms' rapidly advancing star status, which Wilson says finally began to sink in when he heard last year from his older brother, a Peace Corps member who teaches high school in Poland. According to the vocalist, "He told me that at the Polish senior prom last year, when the DJ played `Hey Jealousy,' all the kids ran out on the dance floor and started screaming and dancing and stuff."

The students' reaction is understandable: "Hey Jealousy" is a heart-rending tale of romantic failure and boozy self-flagellation set to a relentlessly catchy guitar riff that blends equal parts Marshall-stack crunch and crystalline six-string jangle. Wilson knows the song won't change the world, but he says that when he hears reports like his brother's, "it really does make me feel like I'm not wasting my time."

This realization seems to have led to a new seriousness among the bandmembers. "We're not the same old drunken, lovable, shtick-ridden, frat-party-playing, yuck-it-up young guys that we used to be," Wilson says. "We're all around thirty years old." And thanks to nearly three years of live shows performed since the release of the group's first EP, entitled Up and Crumbling, Wilson believes that "we're really professional. We know how to write a set list now, and how a show should develop over the course of fifty minutes. We're just a better band than we ever were before."

Perhaps as a result, Wilson admits to feeling somewhat differently about his home turf. He enjoys coming home to his cats, great Mexican restaurants and his new-wave cover band, Best David Swaffords in the World (named for a former member of Seattle's Best Kissers in the World, now part of Mother May I, recently signed by Columbia Records). But Wilson confirms that he occasionally is shocked and depressed to see the same crowds that he used to play for hanging around in the same "crappy little bars" where the band got its start. Other locals seem to feel that the group's success happened overnight--as if it was "hatched on MTV," Wilson says.

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