Earlier this year, the Gin Blossoms went out on a tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album that made the band famous: New Miserable Experience.
The album is full of hook-laden, unapologetically catchy pop songs, but the making of it epitomized the title.
Lead singer and chief songwriter, Doug Hopkins, was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness at the time. The situation got so bad that the band had no choice but to fire him before the album had even been released.
Hopkins later committed suicide.
‘Misfits and oddballs’
Looking back on those days, guitarist Jesse Valenzuela remembers a bunch of young guys who didn’t know much about anything, living in a society that didn’t know much about depression.
“I have said this before and I think it bears repeating,” he said in a phone interview. “At the time we were together, it would have been way before doctors were so quick to prescribe psychiatric medication. Doug had a real depression issue, obviously. We were really a band full of misfits and oddballs having too good a time too much of the time.”
The recreational misadventures that the band freely indulged in certainly didn’t help anyone whose state of mind was already precarious.
“If you’re overdrinking or taking too many drugs, it affects your psyche,” Valenzuela said. “It leaves you vulnerable and it leaves you feeling weak.”
At that time, the band had no answer to what Hopkins was going through.
“It was way beyond our realm at that point,” he said.
Many answers have come since, Valenzuela said, thanks to advances in pharmacology and people’s increasing willingness to speak openly about their mental health issues. These answers came too late for Hopkins, of course.
The band members have talked about their salad days more this year than in any year since their salad days. It seems both like another lifetime and like it was “two or three weeks ago,” Valenzuela said.
The band broke up a few years after Hopkins’ death. But it later reformed, then resumed writing and recording new music. The personality issues and misbehavior that caused so much strife early on have diminished with age.
“It was madness early on,” Valenzuela said. “Scads of trouble. And trouble still exists. It stands on the sidelines waiting to join in. But I think everyone seems a little bit calmer. Those dynamics that exist in your twenties in the politics of a band still exist. But hopefully you temper it with some patience. You come to realize that there are more important things than bringing everyone around to your view of things at any given moment. Things like family and trying to enjoy a good life, whatever that is.”
Many of the people who come to shows are feeling nostalgic about a time in their lives for which the Gin Blossoms’ first two major-label albums provided a soundtrack.
Valenzuela doesn’t have any problem with that.
“I think the nostalgia aspect is fine,” he said. “I like playing those songs. It’s nice to have a song recognized. It’s nice to hear a song on the radio.”
He said that some of the established musicians who try to discourage nostalgia in their listeners indulge in nostalgia themselves when they hear songs by other artists. Nostalgia is perfectly natural, in other words.
When the band experienced its first wave of popularity, grunge was giving way to post-grunge and there was pressure placed on the band by A&M Records to harden its sound.
The band members were open to this, Valenzuela said, because they were chafing under the perception that all it could produce in listeners was a “peaceful easy feeling.”
“When you are young, you really want to be in the thick of it, whatever that is,” he said. “But I don’t think that necessarily worked.”
The grunge bands that still exist have aged really well, Valenzuela said, and so have the Gin Blossoms.
“I’ll play acoustic shows,” he said. “I’ll restructure some of our hits, reimagine them a little bit… If I play those (hits) acoustic and in a little quieter fashion, I think they sound terrific. They really work in any platform I put them in.”
In fact, Valenzuela has found that the quieter he goes, the more deeply the audience is affected.
“I think that says something about — maybe we really did hit it pretty good,” he said.
Valenzuela said he enjoys songwriting more now than he did in the days when he wondered if what he was creating would be a hit.
“Just writing a new song gives a person such a lift,” he said. “I think that’s what they tried to educate us as children about: the joy of work. As a craftsman, if I put in the time and I actually do my very best, I can sit back afterward and think, ‘You know? That’s not a bad piece of work.’”
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