It’s eighties, it’s nineties, it’s 2000s and beyond – it’s rock shows to go to and bands to love including Robin Wilson.
Longtime Gin Blossoms frontman Robin Wilson has a fun side project as the part-time lead singer of the Carteret-originated New Jersey Hall of Fame act The Smithereens, a role he shares with his good friend and “Til I Hear It From You” collaborator Marshall Crenshaw. Given Robin’s connection to the town via The Smithereens, it’s fitting that Gin Blossoms will also play such other great hits as “Hey Jealousy,” “Follow You Down,” and “Found Out About You,” at the borough’s Ethnic Day on September 17 in Carteret Park. The 46th annual celebration of diversity in Central Jersey’s most cultural diverse town is just one day among the five of the Carteret Music Festival & Annual Charity Carnival, which also will feature Radio Nashville on September 15 and a Freestyle Night on September 16.
I chatted with Robin about Gin Blossoms, The Smithereens, and Marshall Crenshaw – as well as the connections between the three – for the following interview here in The Aquarian.
You’ve played Carteret before with The Smithereens. What do you think of our town and are you looking forward to playing here September 17 with Gin Blossoms?
I’m proud to be associated with Smithereens, Carteret’s finest sons. I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time there, but I did enjoy being there when I performed [at URSB Carteret Performing Arts Center]. It’s not too far from home on Long Island, so like I that. I’m looking forward to the show and enjoy my job. It’s cool to do rock shows.
From a recording and record release standpoint, what is it like being in a band now compared to the 1990s and is that for better, worse, or in some ways both? How?
There are different phases. First, we were a local band. We self-produced our records and released them ourselves. Then we were on a major label. That’s a big operation – even that has phases. We started as a baby band. They try to groom you. Then you’re making a record when you’ve already had a huge hit. You can afford to bring jet skis to the studio and spend two months to make a record. Nowadays, we’re on our own with independent records when we want. It’s been a few years, but we’re gearing up to make another record in the next year or so on our own. So it’s a lot of different phases.
So it’s kind of like going full circle from an independent band to an independent band.
Only this time, we can go to any city in America and sell thousands of tickets. We’re a veteran group with cache as it were.
Since Gin Blossoms reunited in 2001, you’ve released three albums. Will you play songs from the next album on September 17 and can you share any details about them?
We’ll be playing songs from the most recent record and playing stuff that spans our entire career and catalog, but we haven’t really worked any new material since we made our last album, but there’s plenty of stuff – more than enough material. We find a way to alternate what we’re playing so we don’t get bored, so we don’t forget certain things.
That being said, when we make a record, it’s trial and error. We don’t know if the songs are going to work in a live setting so we experiment with new material. Some things rise to the top and become a big part of the show for a few years, and other things we only play a few times because they didn’t work live. They’re fine on the record, but they don’t do what they need to do live. It’s kind of hit or miss. I wrote songs for the latest album. The recordings were great, but they never came together in a live setting.
When and how will Gin Blossoms release their next album?
An independent label. Our last label promised to invest resources that they never did. I forgot who they are, but I’m not interest in working with them again. We’ll probably just do it ourselves. Maybe find another independent label that wants to put it out… I’m not really sure. The Smithereens’ manager has a label. He’s already asked if he could release our next album. We might consider giving him a shot. We’re not worried too much about it because you don’t really need one. Selling records is not a thing anymore so we’re not worried about it. It’s all streaming, and our last album was full of radio-friendly tunes, but we couldn’t get anything played on the radio. It’s hit or miss. We make records to satisfy ourselves and our hardcore fans so things are fresh for us. We’re songwriters, so we’ll continue to do that regardless of the commercial prospects of those recordings.
Why did Gin Blossoms break up in 1997, what brought you back together in 2001, and what keeps you together now?
We broke up in ’97 because we weren’t havening any fun, and we were disillusioned with the trappings of success. We reunited because we all went off and tried other bands that didn’t really work. At the same time, we were getting good offers to perform as Gin Blossoms so it just made a certain amount of sense after some time apart to make a living for our families. Being away from the band for a few years gave us a new perspective of the value of being established and what that can mean for booking shows.
And what keeps us together now is finally reaching a point over the last decade or so where we came to respect everybody’s independence within group and the commitment to each other as a partnership and brotherhood. We’ve reached the point now where we get along better than we ever have and we sell more tickets and T-shirts than we ever have. We’re grateful to have survived the whole thing. We look back on our peers, and so many bands that we’ve been friends and worked with over the years have broken up, but somehow, despite all the odds, we manage stick together. In a lot of ways, we’re more successful than we ever were.
How and why were The Smithereens an influence on Gin Blossoms?
They’re awesome! When they were releasing their first album, we were in the formative stages of our personal musical development. When you’re 20 years old, and you work in a record store and hear a lot of music, you formulate ideas what kind of band you want be in. Bands like The Smithereens and R.E.M. had a huge impact before and after Gin Blossoms formed.
The Smithereens in particular had a big impact on the Tempe music scene. They were really popular in town. All the musicians that we hung out with were fans and influenced by them. The Smithereens’ music was always a big part my catalog.
What do you enjoy most about gigging with The Smithereens?
The music. The songs are so great. I’m familiar with the whole catalog of their songs. It’s fun for me to be able perform with some of my heroes. If could go back in time and tell my 20-year-old self that I would be fronting The Smithereens, there’d be no way to convince that 20-year-old kid that even would be possible, so it’s a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I love the guys in the band. They’re fabulous dudes and great musicians, so it’s really fun. It’s fun to step away from all of the baggage of being in Gin Blossom and just do a rock show that has less pressure on me. With Gin Blossoms, when the band is writing original music, there’s pressure to satisfy everyone in the band. With The Smithereens, I’m just a singer in another band. It’s a simple job. All I have to do is front the band and kick ass. I don’t have to worry about anything. With Gin Blossoms, l think about everything: how the stage looks, how the T-shirts are designed, what songs to do tonight so everybody in the band is represented. There are so many layers to my responsibilities in Gin Blossoms, but the Smithereens, simply all I’ve got to do is get up there and sing really well.
Will you play with The Smithereens again at URSB Carteret Performing Arts Center on December 3 like you did last year?
Gin Blossoms are getting in the way of my side project. It’s good work if you can get it, but they’re going to have to reschedule that show in order for me to play it.
Marshall Crenshaw, who co-wrote the Gin Blossoms’ hit “Til I Hear It From You” with you and Jesse, also often fronts with The Smithereens. Sometimes you both do at the same time, such as in Carteret last year and for the late Smithereens front man Pat DiNizio’s memorial concert. Have you ever performed “Til I Hear It from You” with Marshall either with The Smithereens or Gin Blossoms? And if so, what is it like performing it with him?
I wrote most of the lyrics. Jesse and Marshall came up with music and came up with the idea. We’ve been performing that with Marshall for years now. Marshall gets up on stage to play that song with us. The few times that Marshall and I have shared the stage with The Smithereens, we’ve done an acoustic version of ‘Til I Hear It From You’ in in the encore. We don’t want to make The Smithereens learn a Gin Blossoms song for the same reason we don’t Gin Blossoms to learn a Smithereens song. We did perform it as a duo last time we shared the stage with The Smithereens. That was fun. It’s cool to know Marshall, to be a fan of his, and then to have co-written a hit song.
“Til I Hear It From You” was a No. 1 hit in several countries. Canada and the Philippines are the first to come to mind. That year, we received a publishing award for the most performed song from a movie soundtrack [Empire Records].
Was the name Gin Blossoms inspired by Doug Hopkins’ drinking problem?
No, it was inspired by W.C. Fields in the book Hollywood Babylon about the glorious days of old Hollywood. There was a photograph of W.C. Fields with a caption that read, ‘W.C. Fields with gin blossoms.’ Bill Lee, our bass player, saw that and suggested to Doug that it would be a great name for a band.
Given that your first two big hits, ‘Hey Jealousy’ and ‘Found Out about You,’ were written by Doug Hopkins, what psychological impact did his death have on the band?
There’s no way to some up those scars in a quick soundbite really. They run very deep. I’m very proud that I get to sing these awesome songs and that Doug’s memory is represented by them. I’m equally proud that as frightening as it was to lose Doug as a musical entity that we were able to continue on and still make great music. You can imagine there was a great deal of pressure on us after we lost Doug to prove that he wasn’t the only reason we were successful. So having written other hits, like “Till I Hear It From You” and “Follow You Down” and all the other music we produced without Doug has been very rewarding that we were able to accomplish that. That being said, Doug was the best songwriter in the band, and it was terrible losing him in the group and as a friend.
Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?
There’s some cool stuff I’ll be doing. Gin Blossoms will be playing Hootiefest next January in Mexico with Hootie & the Blowfish, Collective Soul, Everclear, and others. The Smithereens are on an eighties cruise next March, and I’m beyond excited about that bill. It’ll have DEVO, Brett Michaels of Poison, Howard Jones, Living Colour, and The Church, who are one my favorite bands and a big inspiration for Gin Blossoms. So it’s going to be very fun to do that show and be fronting The Smithereens on an eighties cruise. Things are good. I’m very lucky to have had such cool paths of a career, and I’m enjoying the fruits of my labor.