For many music fans, Gin Blossoms need little introduction. The journey began with their formation in 1987 in the Arizona city of Tempe; guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and bassist Bill Leen were founding members. After some lineup changes, the group coalesced around Valenzuela, Leen, Robin Wilson (vocals and guitar), drummer Phillip Rhoades and guitarist Doug Hopkins. Gin Blossoms’ exploded onto many people’s radar with their blockbuster 1992 album “New Miserable Experience,” which spawned four Top 40 hit singles, and established the Arizona quintet as one of the top rock groups of that decade.
While more than 25 years passed since the release of “New Miserable Experience,” Gin Blossoms haven’t missed a beat. In 2017, Gin Blossoms began their first new album in almost eight years. Longtime producer and friend of the band John Hampton passed away in 2014, so at first the group considered self-producing. But at one of their shows, they met Don Dixon, producer of the Smithereens’ first two albums and a legend in power pop circles. The group booked time in Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville, N.C., working with Dixon as well as Easter, veteran of R.E.M. sessions. Now Gin Blossoms had a producer and engineer who helped define ’80s jangling power pop, a style that exerted a major influence on the band’s own musical approach. The results were undeniable as the Gin Blossoms are back in 2018 with their best set of songs in years on “Mixed Reality.” Releasing June 15, 2018 via Cleopatra Records, the powerful new album demonstrates the timeless appeal of Gin Blossoms’ music endured.
“Mixed Reality” shares the same timeless feel as “New Miserable Experience.” It’s packed with 15 songs, with Wilson, Leen, Johnson and Valenzuela contributing material. And once again, the mix of songwriters results in something that has that unmistakable Gin Blossoms sound. Built around the proven strategy of using the band’s deep songwriting bench, and packed with memorable songs that connect with listeners while transcending a specific time period, “Mixed Reality” may turn out to be as timeless as Gin Blossoms’ major label debut.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with guitarist Jesse Valenzuela to discuss his life in music, Gin Blossoms’ new album, “Mixed Reality,” and what he has in store for music fans in the year to come.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did music first come into your life?
I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve gotten older now and my mother’s started handing over lots of photographs from my childhood. It seems that I always had a guitar in my hand as a kid. I do remember just wanting a guitar really badly and it was all I thought about at that age. I was playing in bars by the time I was 15. As square as it may sound, I learned that it all requires some responsibility! [laughs] By that I mean, you can’t get drunk at the shows, you have to pace yourself, stay focused and do your best job. I don’t know, I just always wanted to play music. I’ve been doing it for so long now, I’m 56 years old, so I have been playing for my livelihood forever! I never really had a job and I didn’t go to college, so it’s been my only career. With that said, I really respect it and I feel really prideful about it. At the same time, I do wonder, “What would have happened if I did go to college? What if I had choices!” [laughs] To be a guitar player/artist was all I could think of early on.
What are the keys to longevity to a career in music?
Luck is a key component. I’ve been a very lucky person for my entire life. I think my willingness and being around like-minded individuals.
The Gin Blossoms have a brand-new album, “Mixed Reality,” releasing on June 15th. What made now the time to get together for a new record?
Fortunately, and unfortunately, we are always together because we play a lot. [laughs] It is something that just sort of happened. These things take on a life of their own. A few songs are created and all of a sudden you get the feeling that you should make a record. The record is like two years now, for us, but it’s time to let it finally see the light of day! I’m used to making records at home and not having to travel. To have to travel to make a record seems kind of old fashioned to me and is something I haven’t done in a long time. Honestly, it felt like we were back in the ‘90s and we had to go to some studio! It was kind of exciting in that regard.
There are 15 tracks on “Mixed Reality.” Was there anything that didn’t make the record?
I think that everything made the cut. I think the idea of this record was that everyone got to record the songs that they wanted, so there wasn’t a cut process for the record.
Gin Blossoms are currently out on tour. How has your approach to touring changed through the years?
Ya know, we’re in a bus right now on tour, which has its own set of challenges! [laughs] I was in Long Island on Sunday and I flew home for the day and now I’m going to fly back to Ohio tonight for the show. Ya know, it’s nice to get away from it all every once in a while. We are grown men and we’ve been together for a long, long time, so it’s nice for us to get away from each other on occasion. It’s nice to get home for a day and get that sense of renewal. We spend a lot of time doing the same thing, so you have to find a balance. I think that has been a key to my life. If I can find a balance, then I can play a great show, get home and then pursue songwriting or just be around my family.
What can fans expect from the live show?
There are definitely a lot of hits that have to be respected and played, so that is going to happen. I think, sometimes, we play too many new songs but it seems to be working, so I’m not going to argue with it!
How have you evolved as a player and songwriter through the years?
Through the activity of writing everyday and playing guitar, you get better at certain things. You realize what’s important in your playing and songwriting, if you get lucky. Then, you hone in on that! Honestly, the biggest realization I’ve had his the importance of family. I’m just getting to the point in my life where I want to be around my family and find that balance of work and life, as I mentioned.
I know you do a lot of writing for film and television. How does that process differ from writing with a band?
A lot of times you are writing to screen, so you’re writing to pictures. Someone will send you something and they want you to interpret it. A lot of times, you go with your gut and whatever your initial feeling is and write something in that regard. There are other times when it pays to be able to arch and write against the picture and see if that fits. Those are generally things people try to do immediately. There are other techniques but those are principally the two big ones.
As you said, you lived your entire life in the music industry. What are the pros and cons of being a working artist in this day and age?
I don’t know any cons. I can only speak to my experience. For me, I just stay at it every day. As I said, I’m a pretty lucky guy and very fortunate to have a nice career. I still like to play music!
You still have many miles ahead in your career. Where are you headed?
I’m very excited about the new Gin Blossoms record, obviously. I don’t want to sound immodest or ungracious but I am also making a new record. I have a lot of it done and I’m working with some really exciting people. I’ve worked with Judy Collins. Ya know, the business has changed so much, I’ve been thinking about releasing a song a month, on CD maybe or whatever it might be, to give people a chance to check it out! We will see what happens. I recently worked with an artist named Rhett Miller from the Old 97’s. We wrote a really beautiful song and I recorded that. There are a series of songs I’m going to release and, I think, in 2019 I will be playing some acoustic shows, along with the shows with the Gin Blossoms.
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
Hmmmm. Well, maybe to be patient. [laughs] I don’t know if that applies solely to the music business as much as it does to life. I see that now because I’m older. I think I was a relatively patient person when I was younger. At the risk of sounding like a father, which I am and my son just graduated from high school, I really think that there are no shortcuts. I think you have to do your best everyday and the rest will come!
Thanks for your time today, Jesse! I’m happy to help spread the word on this great new album!
I’m glad to hear that! Thank you very much! I sure appreciate your time!