Back in 1992 the music world could not have been more myopic. Over the preceding few years, grunge had all but taken over the airwaves and youth culture in general. Grunge was a sound, a look and attitude, as well as a marketing tool that everyone wanted to exploit. Bands without torn jeans and a fuzzed out, feedback-riddled guitar sound to match could barely get a record made, let alone played on MTV — a virtual death sentence at the time.
Into this milieu and seemingly out of nowhere came a Tempe, Arizona indie rock band with clean vocals and actual songwriting chops. The contrast between Gin Blossoms, which plays a free show in downtown Louisville tonight, and the prevailing sound of the day was dramatic, and the eventual reception of their record, New Miserable Experience, heralded a sea change to acceptance of disparate sounds among music fans.
“We definitely did not fit in with the status quo at the time,” says Scott Johnson, the band’s lead guitarist and a Denver native. “The guy that signed us to A&M also signed Soundgarden.”
Key to the band’s eventual success was its hard-to-define sound. They clearly weren’t anything close to grunge but their mixture of rock, blues and even country had a lot of people scratching their heads. “Today it’s common for a rock band to do a country song or for a country band to do a rock song, but back in the ‘90s that was a big deal,” says Johnson. “I remember people saying, 'You know, that one song sure sounds like a country song,' and it’s like, 'Well, that’s because it IS a country song.'”
The concern was and still is baffling to Johnson, a true fan of just about any type of music. “Why do we have to compartmentalize everything?” he asks. “I loved jazz growing up. I was a jazz performance major in college believe it or not. But I also grew up in a city where country was all over the radio. In our teen years we discovered the Beatles and Stones and then Led Zeppelin and all that.
For whatever reason that blending of genres resonated with the public who had been subjected to half a decade of noisy, agitated guitar-driven bands. But Gin Blossoms’ rise to fame – they eventually had six top-40 singles – was anything but meteoric. The band formed in 1989 and spent years playing around the Tempe bar scene, looking for a break.
“'Hey Jealousy’ was our first single, and it didn’t work,” says Johnson. “So we went back and just kept touring. We spent a year in a van, touring everywhere. Our label guys kept saying “you’re gonna make it, this is going to be your time. We didn’t believe it.”
All the work paid off. On the second go-round ‘Hey Jealousy’ became an instant hit, reaching 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1993. No one was more surprised than the members of the band themselves.
“In Tempe all the bands got record deals at the same time,” says Johnson. “Some broke up, some got dropped. We were the only ones that kept going.”
And even as “Hey Jealousy” continued to rise up the charts Gin Blossoms still had to fight against the more-abrasive prevailing sound of the day. Everywhere they went, grunge still ruled supreme.
“One of the funny things I remember: We finally got a big European tour and we were like, ‘Good, it won’t be all about grunge over there,’” says Johnson with a chuckle. “And sure enough, as soon as we landed there was Soundgarden. It was everywhere.”
The band pressed on and eventually saw New Miserable Experience hit multi-platinum. The 1996 follow up, Congratulations I’m Sorry, reached number 10 on Billboard’s chart, producing two more hit singles, “Follow You Down” and “Until I Hear It From You.”
Then, as quickly as they came onto the national scene, Gin Blossoms seemed to disappear.
The truth is the band never really went away. Certainly their status as full-blown rock stars evaporated like a puddle in the Arizona sun, but Johnson says he was happy to fly below the radar and keep going. The band has released three albums since “the big one,” as Thompson puts it, and has kept busy with side projects. Both Thompson and vocalist John Valenzuela released solo albums. But their true passion is still Gin Blossoms.
“We’re overdue for a new one,” says Johnson. “Everybody writes tunes. The three of us have talked about getting in the studio but we’re so busy. We thought we’d go into the studio in the Fall but it looks like we are going to be pretty busy.”
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Even without writing hit after hit as they once did, Gin Blossoms continues to make a living with their music, touring regularly on the success of their big hits while introducing old fans and kids alike to new tunes. They’ve been on the road for five weeks solid, playing all over the U.S. and Canada to disparate audiences.
“It’s been a good mix,” says Johnson. “The kids can just go to YouTube if they want to hear one of our songs. It’s fun to try to expose a new generation to our music.”
Gin Blossoms play a free show as part of the Louisville Street Faire summer concert series, Friday evening at Steinbaugh Pavilion, 824 Front Street.