PopMatters talks with Gin Blossoms guitarist and songwriter Jesse Valenzuela about everything from drinking references in lyrics to Arizona's new immigration law.
Gin Blossoms have always seemed to possess a dual musical identity. Though unabashed about their pop sensibilities, their lyrics are unusually literate and often layered with dry humor. While played heavily on the radio in the 90s, the distinctive irony of their hits flew under the radar of casual fans. Gin Blossoms' songs were most notable for lyrical moments like, “If you don't expect too much from me / You might not be let down” or “She had nothing left to say / So she said she loved me.” At their best, the band's aesthetic represents the self-contradictions of the thinking person’s pop music.
Gin Blossoms charted when "grunge rock" still had its chokehold on American youth culture, but their association with that mostly earnest of all genres made sense only in terms of another 90s terminology. “Alternative” was a blanket term used then to generally describe any band that used distorted guitars, though Gin Blossoms obviously never aspired to the dissonant chord progressions or loud-soft-loud dynamics of most alternative recording artists. They were one of a few acts of the time offering an alternative to Alternative, at home in the perennial pop-rock peerage of bands like Teenage Fanclub and the Lemonheads.
When asked about how they should be categorized now, guitarist and primary songwriter Jesse Valenzuela seemed unsure at first. When offered the label of “power pop,” however, he was immediately dismissive: “When I hear music like, say, the Raspberries—and don’t get me wrong, they had some great songs—but I just could never make that kind of music. We’re probably softer than that. I’d say… probably pop.” Given Gin Blossoms' penchant for wordplay, the phrasing seems apt.
The pointed glibness that characterized much of Gin Blossoms’ early music has roots in the bar culture of Tempe, Arizona where they started. The band's early, alcohol-soaked lyrics captured the attitudes of a local youth culture striving to escape the social conservatism and cultural isolation of the region. “A lot of those early songs,” says Valenzuela, “we’d have a running gag to see how many drinking references we could get in. It was a conscious thing, which isn’t to say it was all a gag. I mean, we were really heavy drinkers back then.”
While never an overtly political songwriter, the anti-immigration legislation that has recently thrust Gin Blossoms’ home state into national headlines was forefront in Valenzuela’s mind when the band was discussing tour dates in support of their latest album, No Chocolate Cake. Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which has taken an “attrition through enforcement” stance on undocumented immigrants, leading critics to deem it legalized racial profiling, is an “an absolute horror” in Valenzuela’s mind. When asked about the “Boycott Arizona” movement, in which many touring musicians have taken Arizona cities off their touring schedules, Valenzuela mentions that the band had “seriously considered it.” He continues, saying, “We talked about it, but we’re from there, you know? Ultimately, we felt that we needed to take a much more active stance.” When asked about whether the band would mention their feeling about the new legislation on-stage, he says, “Definitely. People need to be reminded of this thing.”
The biggest criticism levied against Gin Blossoms has been a pronounced sonic homogeneity from album to album. The blame for this fault may originate in the tragic suicide of the band’s original guitarist and primary songwriter just previous to their first major label release, an inevitable topic when discussing the band's success. The absence of Doug Hopkins, who penned the breakout hits “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You,” seems to have culminated in his bandmates' memory through an anxiousness to reproduce his talents.
Valenzuela commented on this criticism, opining about how bands that consciously reinvent themselves are not necessarily doing so for their art but for good PR. “A lot of these older guys, always reinventing themselves, we’re not really concerned with that. Someone was saying we should make a video. I mean, is that even done any more? They wanted to film us playing with this hot chick somewhere on screen, and I was just like, ‘We’re these 45 year old guys, why would we ever do that?’” True to form, the new album, No Chocolate Cake, is imminently evocative of the high points in their back catalogue, yet with the difference of experience and more level emotions.
In the days of New Miserable Experience and Congratulations I’m Sorry, earnest sentiment was most often expressed in terms of loss and regret. Their most lyrically straightforward Billboard charter, the Valenzuela-penned “’Til I Hear it From You,” is an extended apology in song form. But songs from the new album like “I Don’t Wanna Lose You Now,” “Something Real,” and “I’m Ready” reflect a willingness to embrace the miserable experiences the band had glibly referenced in the early years.
A sense of maturity imbues the new album’s lyrics, though its funniest moment is also its best. “Dead or Alive (On the 405),” reflects on the fleetingness of Gin Blossoms’ former fame. The song name-checks rock relics like Styx, Eddie Money, and Nickelback, most effectively with the lyric, “Going in cold on a pick-up gig / And in between the classic Styx / You play your hit from ’89 / I’ll sing mine from ’95.” However, Valenzuela cited the later albums of Nick Lowe as his most profound inspiration for the new album, a comparison that sticks. The disparity between Nickelback and Nick Lowe, and Valenzuela’s readiness to compare his band to either, speaks loud and clear to Gin Blossoms' pop contradictions.