Responsible for the memorable hits “Allison Road,” and “Found Out About You” and yes, "Hey, Jealousy"—all from their 1992 breakthrough New Miserable Experience—the Blossoms are hitting the highway again with Tonic (“If Only You Could See”), Vertical Horizon (“Everything You Want”), and (in select cities) Sister Hazel (“All for You”).
They were named “Best Unsigned Band in America” in 1989 by College Music Journal and dazzled at SXSW in Austin that same year behind their independently-issued debut, Dusted. But New Miserable Experience elevated the group to stratospheric highs with its hefty helping of catchy, radio-ready hits.
Still, things weren’t all coming up roses for the Tempe tune-smiths: Guitarist Doug Hopkins passed away in 1993, shortly after leaving the group he founded with bassist Bill Leen and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela.
Empire Records soundtrack single “Til I Hear it From You” kept the band active on the airwaves. “Follow You Down”—from 1996 offering Congratulations…I’m Sorry—added to the Blossoms’ string of sing-able hits before a “provisional” breakup sent members in opposite directions in 1997.
Leen and Valenzuela regrouped with vocalist Robin Wilson and guitarist Scott “Scotty” Johnson in 2006 for Major Lodge Victory and in 2010 for No Chocolate Cake, which yielded another hit in “Miss Disarray.”
Now the ardent Arizonians are back with their best album in years. Produced by Don Dixon and Mitch Easter (REM, Smithereens), Mixed Reality is a 15-track smorgasbord of shimmering pop and rambunctious rock that captures Gin Blossoms at their funniest, feistiest, plectrum-flickin’ best.
AXS: Hello, Scotty! According to the Gin Blossoms schedule, you guys are playing on a battleship tomorrow [May 26]? Is that right?
SCOTTY JOHNSON: Yeah! We’re playing on the USS Midway in San Diego Harbor. We’re in San Diego right now. It’s a fundraiser for several different local organizations and veterans organizations (Armed Services YMCA, STEP). It’s a cool Memorial Day thing. We’re looking forward to it. It’ll be my first time on an aircraft carrier [laughs]! It’ll be fun. It’s for a good cause! Though it might be a little windy [laughs]!
SJ: Yeah, it’s been quite a while since we’ve done one! Our producer passed away, John Hampton [White Stripes, Jimmy Vaughan], who we’d been working with for years. So that slowed things down drastically. Just by chance, we played a gig in Ohio, and Don Dixon was there. I’m trying to think of what town it was…Canton?
AXS: Right, Canton. Just outside Akron.
SJ: Yeah, Canton! So Don came to the show and we chatted with him. We said we were looking for somebody, a new guy. We hit it off. He did the first couple REM records, and he did Marshall Crenshaw. So it seemed like a good fit. We gave him a call the day after we saw him and asked if he wanted to make a record with us. He said yes, and that he wanted to do it with Mitch Easter, who engineered those REM records. We went to Kernersville, North Carolina to record at Mitch’s studio, which is basically a house in this little tiny town. You walk in, and there’s a recording studio [laughs]! It was one of those things where you’d have no idea looking at it from the outside. We demoed everything before we went, so we were pretty well-prepared when we walked in. We knew the keys, the tempos, the arrangements. It was just a matter of laying it all down. And we considered whatever the producer wanted to hear, because they always have ideas and want to put their stamp on it. There were a couple last-minute changes, but otherwise it went pretty smoothly, actually!
AXS: Don Dixon’s pretty well-known around Cleveland. Not just for being a big producer, but for being active in the local scene. He’s produced a couple local songwriters, like Chris Allen, and plays in a couple bands here.
SJ: Oh, cool! If you Wikipedia them, it says they’re the inventors of “jangle rock!” [Laughs] So that’s perfect for Gin Blossoms! That’s exactly up our alley, you know? That’s our thing!
AXS: What’s the writing process for Gin Blossoms? Do you all write together, jam things out in a room, or do you work separately on stuff first?
SJ: It’s kind of a mixed bag of all that. I had a song called “Heaven,” which is on the record. I had a buddy of mine write the lyrics. But the guys didn’t like it.
AXS: Oh, no!
SJ: Yep [laughs]! So you switch gears. Bill said “Let me try!” Then everybody loved it. It used the same melody. He just wrote different words. So yeah, that happened like that. Bill had a song idea that he needed help with, so I helped with that. Same with Robin. I came in with another song that Robin tweaked a little. He added some lyrics and touched up the arrangement and got a co-write on that. Jesse lives in L.A. so he’s an L.A. songwriter-guy. He came in with a bunch of songs he wrote with other people. He had one he wrote with Danny Wilde from The Rembrandts [“I’ll Be There for You” from Friends]. We love Danny; he’s a buddy of ours. But we don’t sit in a room together and try to write in a session. The guys generally come in with pretty solid ideas. You let your friends help you make it great.
AXS: I’ve got to ask about “The JFK Sh#t Show.” It’s a half-minute skiffle-type song that kicks off the second half of the album. It has the Gin Blossoms’ humor, bit it’s certainly…well, different.
SJ: Robin lives on Long Island, so he’s constantly in and out of JFK…
AXS: Oh, so it’s about the airport, not the former president.
SJ: Right. Robin’s always telling us, “Guess what happened today at JFK!” So that’s just something we came up with in the studio. He had some lyrics ready to go. I studied jazz in high school and college, so that’s what those chords are. He said he wanted it jazzy, so we came up with that progression. We’re just making fun of JFK [laughs]! We’ve all been through there, so we know what it’s like.
AXS: Mixed Reality certainly isn’t short on guitars. There’s a ton of crunchy chords and arpeggios, which have always kind of defined your sound.
SJ: Yeah, we do a lot of that. Especially since we were looking with Don and Mitch, we went over the top! But we thought, hey, we’re working with them, so we’ll put a little extra jangle in there [laughs]! But you’re right, that’s kind of our sound. So it’s a given we’ll go in that direction!
AXS: Will you be playing songs from Mixed Reality on the tour?
SJ: Yes. But people can get kind of bored! They want to hear the stuff they know. So maybe we’ll throw a few in there, like four, and hopefully people will dig them!
AXS: Tell us about the album sleeve, the artwork. It’s got that deliberately kitschy, retro science fiction vibe going for it.
SJ: It’s satisfying, yeah! That’s Robin’s baby. He’s a sci-fi guy. Even at the show last night—it was outside—he was telling the audience, “Look, there’s Venus over there!” And everyone was looking up and around. But he’s into all that stuff. So you get the green girl with the tail, and the space suit and the rocket. I’m glad you like it!
AXS: Does your country guitar work ever inform your Gin Blossoms material?
SJ: Oh, like a cowboy-jazz thing? [Laughs]! No, no! But I grew up in Arizona. We had KNIX and Buck Owens. That was the biggest station when I was a kid. So I’ve got a lot of background in country. When you grow up in AZ you just learn how to play country! The Gin Blossoms had a little hiatus where we were broken up [1998-2005], and I played with a band called The Peacemakers. Roger Clyne and The Peacemakers. The thing that really attracted me was that they wanted to do a country record. So that first record was Honky-Tonk Union. It was straight-up country. I love mixing it up like that. I love country and reggae and jazz! You don’t do just one thing when you’re a musician!
AXS: Who were your favorite guitarists growing up?
SJ: Because we were in Phoenix or Scottsdale, everyone loved Alice Cooper. He was the local boy! And Michael Bruce, he was one of the guitar players in the Cooper group. It was all Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page when I was a kid. But I liked jazz, too, so I liked [jazz guitarists] Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and Joe Pass. I listened to those guys when I was a teenager. I couldn’t play like them, but I loved to listen to them play. They were so talented; they blew my mind!
AXS: Have you toured with Tonic or Vertical Horizon before?
SJ: We did a Gin & Tonic Tour three years ago [laughs]! We thought the name was great! You know how you come up with something and send it out into the world [laughs]? And Vertical, we did a tour with them maybe four years ago. We know Matt [Scannell, Vertical Horizon singer] and Emerson [Hart, Tonic singer] and all those guys. So this should be a fun tour!