Jesse Valenzuela

Revisits the Gin Blossoms
Jesse Valenzuela
Photo by Lissa Wales

(Calling All) Angels Tonight: Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzuela and his reunited colleagues learned some intriguing lessons on tour in 2003. “Move it or lose it” is one of rock and roll’s most ruthless truisms; bands ignore it at their peril. But bassist Bill Leen, guitarist Scott Johnson and lead singer/guitarist Robin Wilson also realize something else: what goes around comes around. Five years ago, the Gin Blossoms broke up to do solo projects. Fans made do with New Year’s Eve reunions in 1999 and 2001, and another one-off gig on January 27, 2002, all in the band’s hometown of Tempe, Arizona.

But a funny thing happened: the Gin Blossoms reunited in April ’02, and haven’t let up since. From his home in Los Angeles, Valenzuela flew back for a couple of shows, and the band began working on a DVD and a couple greatest hits packages.

“At that moment, we were rehearsed, and some shows [were] offered to us,” Valenzuela says. “We started taking ’em, and the momentum took over.”
Huddled “…somewhere in Arkansas,” Valenzuela has had ample time to reflect on how much people still appreciate the band.

“It’s been pretty good,” he beams. “I’m satisfied, and in some ways, really surprised because with pop music moving as fast as it does, to think we still could go out there and entertain people is a great gift.”

The regrouped Gin Blossoms will try recording this winter, and see what happens.

A sense of unfinished business hangs over the band, whose second album, Congratulations, I’m Sorry (1995), was a disappointment, even though it yielded a hit single (“Follow You Down”).

The chorus of Valenzuela’s “29” – a wistful ballad about maturity – seems an apt snapshot of the band’s return (“Only time will, tell if wishing wells/Can bring us anything”).

“It’s funny. We hadn’t played that in eight to 10 years, and we’d been getting so many requests at live shows, and our website, so we put it back in the set,” he says. “It’s become kind of a big song in the show.”

Valenzuela had a less complicated goal when he began playing at age 15; unlocking the approach of longtime Tom Petty guitar ace, Mike Campbell. “I thought, ‘What an economical, beautiful way to play guitar,’” he says.

He also logged plenty of stereo time working out Mark Knopfler’s leads on “Sultans Of Swing,” from Dire Straits’ first album.

The Gin Blossoms are Bill Leen (bass), Scott Johnson (guitar), Robin Wilson (lead vocals/guitar), and Jesse Valenzuela (guitar).

“That was a huge one for me,” he said. “I learned that solo note-for-note when I was a kid, and loved it. ”

George Harrison caught Valenzuela’s eye, too, but for different reasons.

“I string my Gretsches like his – a little heavier string on the open G,” Valenzuela says. “He would go .011, then a little heavier G, and .056 on the bottom. It’s a traditional rockabilly string arrangement.”

Valenzuela learned that arrangement from his guitar tech, who got the lowdown from Petty’s tech, Bugs Weidel.

“Bugs looked at my Gretsch and said, ‘Man, you gotta string it like George.’ So I never met Bugs, but I benefited through my guitar tech being a friendly guy!” Valenzuela laughs.

Heavier picks complement heavier gauges, which keeps Valenzuela’s touch light. He cloaks his choice in a suitably agrarian metaphor.

“I like to really lay in the pocket and make it feel comfortable,” Valenzuela says. “When you get to solo, you can really use those big low strings to your advantage, ’cause I love the Duane Eddy bit.”

The late guitarist Doug Hopkins started the Gin Blossoms in 1987. A veteran of several bands that gained cult followings in Tempe, Hopkins had settled on a vision: marrying the Beatles, Byrds and R.E.M.’s guitar jangle with a modern rock band.

“Doug was really a gifted guitarist,” says Valenzuela. “He had a sound that he could make with his hands, no matter what guitar he was playing. It always had that shimmering quality.”

Valenzuela had been playing solo and with other local bands when he joined in ’88. The timing couldn’t have been better, since everyone knew each other.

“It took a couple years for it to really happen – there were fitful starts and stops,” Valenzuela recalls. “We’d play for six months, people would get busy with other projects, and it’d go by the wayside. But we always knew we had something, so we kept coming back to each other and playing.”

The Gin Blossoms spent a couple years building a fan base in the Southwest before signing in 1990 to A&M Records. Naturally, Valenzuela’s first guitar was a humbler choice than the vintage Strats and Teles that would later pass through his hands.

“When the Gin Blossoms started, I had a Telecaster – it was a cheap Japanese vintage Tele, and I had it replaced with some stacked pickups,” he recalls. “It was a terrific little guitar, and I gave it to Bill, the bass player.”

After New Miserable Experience (1992) broke, Valenzuela switched to Les Pauls, which had a crunchier tone to cut through the bigger venues he’d started playing.

“I picked up a goldtop somewhere in Wisconsin. I’ve had that guitar ever since; it’s a terrific workhorse,” he says.
Valenzuela then went through a period of ’60s Strats and Teles before settling on his main guitar: a Candy Apple Red ’62 Fender custom shop model. “It has that ’62 neck on it that I really like,” he says.

He also owned a ’65 blackface Vibrolux amp he still uses. “You can play any session, it’s not noisy, and it has that twangy thing I love,” Valenzuela says.

He reserved HiWatts and Marshalls for recording, while the Vibrolux was his choice for doubling.

Bigger venues required bigger amps; “It was tough to cover with just a Vibrolux,” Valenzuela laughs. “So I got a couple Bassmans. I loved them, but they weren’t big enough, either. ”

Valenzuela opted for a drastic setup when the coliseums came calling: a couple old 50-watt Marshall heads, a 50-watt HiWatt head, a 4×12″ HiWatt cabinet, and a 4×12″ Orange cabinet.

Jesse Valenzuela, live with a Gibson Les Paul goldtop. Goldtop photo by David Seelig/Star File.

“I keep the heads in my studio in L.A., and I use those constantly for overdubs. I really fell into that British sound for a long while.”

But think before consigning Valenzuela to the Anglophile buzz bin; he also enjoys double-picking Western styles as exemplified by another old favorite, the late Telemaster Danny Gatton.

“Danny is a good example, ’cause I had his [Strictly Rhythm Guitar] video,” Valenzuela says. “Obviously, the man was a brilliant soloist. It’s terrific; I would watch it just for entertainment. He really was a bandleader, and he was swingin’, whichever way he went.”

When Gatton shot himself in October, 1994, the Gin Blossoms were among those who sent flowers and tributes.

“We were in Europe when I got the news, and we wanted to send something to the family,” Valenzuela says. “I can’t imagine what their family was feeling at the time.”

Valenzuela’s effects choices are equally eclectic.

“I have this gorgeous pedalboard made by Showcase, in Nashville. In it, I have a Line 6 delay unit and the old purple Boss delay models – the old, analog ones.”

Boss’ screaming purple colors provided immediate gratification when Valenzuela and Marshall Crenshaw played in New York a couple of years ago.

“He showed up with that pedal, and said, ‘Can we run this?’ I said, ‘It’s my whole personality,’” Valenzuela laughs. “These machines, if you just set ’em on that light little attack, they give you that little honky ’50s rockabilly sound.”

His other choices include a tremolo pedal, a small Boss compressor, and a Line Driver, which “…gives you an extra 10 percent, so I can do a clean solo without turning out the dirt,” he explains.

The Gin Blossoms’ balance of power and subtlety provided a contrast to the grunge era’s relentless volume, which Valenzuela merely calls “…part of our contrarian nature.”

As any listen to the New Miserable reissue should establish, Hopkins, Valenzuela, and Wilson wrote some of ’90s alternative rock’s most enduring, affecting songs. Misery, as one critic so damnably and memorably said, has never sounded this good.

The troika’s songwriting talents are evident on the second disc, which includes the band’s indie calling card album, Dusted (1989); the Up And Crumbling EP (1991), which sold 20,000 copies for A&M; and the Shut Up And Smoke EP.

Hopkins seemed equally comfortable writing deft rockers (“Kelli Richards”) or country-rock weepers (“Angels Tonight”), and also wrote or co-wrote half of New Miserable Experience.

Hopkins’ bittersweet “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” are FM evergreens to this day – while he confronts his own alcoholism in “Lost Horizons” and “Hold Me Down,” one of rock’s most chilling odes to self-medication. The album has sold two million copies.

Not to be left out, Valenzuela and Wilson wrote or co-wrote New Miserable’s other big hits (“Allison Road” and “Until I Fall Away”), a fact overshadowed by Hopkins’ April ’92 dismissal, which came only a week into the sessions.

An aggrieved Hopkins denied the role of alcoholism had played in his downfall, yet never recovered emotionally from seeing his ex-bandmates hit strength to strength without him. Hopkins shot himself in his apartment on December 5, 1993, not long after “Hey Jealousy” had gone gold. He was 32.

The band proved it had life after Hopkins with “’TiI Hear It From You,” from the Empire Records film soundtrack, and “Follow You Down” – the major single off Congratulations I’m Sorry, which Valenzuela considers a triumph against the odds.

“It did surprisingly well; it sold over a million records, and there was a big hit off it,” he says.

New Miserable Experience Deluxe Edition is a reissue of the band’s breakthrough album, along with an extra disc of material. Hits on the album include “Hey Jealousy” and “Until I Fall Away.”

But he admits that restlessness had overtaken the band, which spent most of 1996 touring for Congratulations, only to break up by the following spring.

“Had the band stuck together, we would have made a third record,” Valenzuela says. “Thinking back, I wish we had just kept going, because that would have been the correct and right thing to do for an artistic band, to try and keep growing.”
But the solo projects didn’t grab nearly as much attention as the Gin Blossoms. Wilson and Rhodes formed the Gas Giants, whose album sat on the shelf after a corporate merger.

A similar indifference befell Valenzuela’s Low Watts, while Johnson fared little better with the Peacemakers. Leen, on the other hand, just kicked back and opened a bookstore.

The outcome reminded Valenzuela of an old proverb: “You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry.”

“To think you can create the magic someplace else, and enjoy that level of success anywhere, any time. We all know it rarely happens,” he says. “And when there’s a chemistry, there’s a chemistry. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Valenzuela rode out the downtime by branching out into songwriting, session and production work – desires that worked against him when he first started doing sessions, he says.

“I spent a lot of time studying Delaney & Bonnie, and R & B records, and trying to figure that out,” Valenzuela says. “Then, I would get to a session and people would say, ‘No, we want you to play like the Gin Blossoms. ’ ‘Okay, I’m gonna need a Twin and a Telecaster!”

Every session has its own story, such as Valenzuela’s experience with Judy Collins, who wound up recording “Home Tonight,” one of his songs that had been making the publisher’s rounds.

“We were playing on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Valenzuela says. “She came to the rehearsal, walked up to me, and starting singing the chorus, and I was really blown away.”

He hooked up with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks through a studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she remains a part-time resident. The manager called to say that Nicks needed a guitarist, and led to Valenzuela working on her Enchanted album.

Valenzuela looked to join Nicks on tour, but lost the chance because he was producing a couple major-label albums that ended up unreleased.

“In retrospect, I wish I had taken that tour,” he says.

Valenzuela made his solo debut last year with Tunes Young People Will Enjoy. He cites T-Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois as models for his present work.

“They don’t fill up every pocket,” Valenzuela says. “They leave you some space to think. And that’s what T-Bone does; he brings in this R&B inflection, pop or country, whatever it is; it has this ‘other time’ element to it, an almost otherworldliness.”

He also plans a fall album and tour with a friend, Canadian songwriter Craig Northey.

The Gin Blossoms’ 2002 DVD, Just South of Nowhere, includes a live concert shot in Chicago, commentary by Jesse Valenzuela, a video archive, and a discography.

“I’ll get a set to play my own stuff, and he’ll help me with that, I’ll help him with his set, and then we’ll play our record, too,” Valenzuela says. “Kind of a revue, if you will. One guy plays bass, one guy plays guitar. We’ll take his band; it’ll be a great time.”

Valenzuela considers on-the-job training the best path for young players, just as he started out.

“Take a tape recorder with you, and capture melody and music together,” he says. “See if you can work it into something special.”

Play out as often as possible, “Even if you get a little embarrassed,” Valenzuela says. “I think once you start grooving with other people, there’s a lot more to playing than just in the room by yourself, playing the record.”

And, never overlook a chance to learn from someone else. “Take a few lessons, what the hell? One guy can show you in half an hour what it’ll take you six months to figure out for yourself,” he says.

Valenzuela recalls something his first teacher, Mike Cabbarello, once said: “When you’re playing the guitar, sing the song as you play it, and hum to yourself. Sing out loud, because you’ll learn how to sing.”

Cabbarello further advised: “Sing harmonies. Sing with the other guys. It’s more fun for yourself, and you’ll become more musical much faster.”

For Valenzuela, the proof is in his busy session calendar.

“I’m glad I took the advice, and I’ve been able to always work,” he says. “I think half of it must be because I can sing harmony if needed. It has given me the ability to sing my own songs, too, if I wanted. And you know what? If you’re playing guitar, you’re musical enough to sing.”

Lost Horizons: Remembering Doug Hopkins

Ten years after his death, founding Gin Blossoms guitarist Doug Hopkins remains a local Arizona legend and larger-than-life figure for alternative rock disciples.

Anyone who saw or worked with Hopkins never forgot the tones he wrung from one of the most basic setups imaginable.

“Doug always loved a Les Paul; no contest,” said Blossoms’ co-guitarist Jesse Valenzuela. “He liked to run through a Twin, and [Jazz Chorus] JC 120s, and put a big stompbox right in front of it. He could make anything work.”

Rhythm guitarist Mark Zubia and his brother, Lawrence, spent nine giddy months with Hopkins in the Chimeras, his only band after the Gin Blossoms.

Mark Zubia never saw Hopkins without some type of Les Paul and the Jazz Chorus amp. When the Chorus blew up on the road, Hopkins got a ‘59 reissue Bassman, “Which I use now, actually,” Mark says. “After he died, his girlfriend gave it to me. I play it weekly.”

The Bassman gave Hopkins the Fender bite he wanted, “and he played it loud as piss!” Mark laughs. “It was really basic, but he made it work.”

Hopkins liked a loud tone, but never let it get too distorted. “It was definitely a clean distortion, because he played a lot of those double-string leads, a la country, mariachi – the double-stop country, two-string stuff,” Mark says.

Mark also recalls Hopkins’ influences as being solidly contemporary, including Keith Richards, Roger McGuinn, and REM‘s Peter Buck.
The Chimeras peaked in March 1993 with a well-received show at Austin’s South By Southwest music festival. “There were people interested, cards were exchanged – but it never got much further than that,” Mark says.

The band bottomed out in April after a poor showing at an alternative rock festival in Phoenix. A flustered Hopkins quit, then asked to rejoin the next day – but the Zubias wouldn’t take the gamble.

Lawrence remained among a handful of friends who tried to care for Hopkins until the end. But without a way to keep busy, “It wasn’t cool to be Doug Hopkins and be the staggering desperado troubadour guy anymore,” Lawrence says. “It almost became a sad sight.”

The Chimeras transformed into the Pistoleros, who have released a live album. Lawrence and Mark are preparing for a new studio album, with Valenzuela producing. A fall release is planned.

Mark is unsure how time will treat Hopkins’ work.

“It’s like any other band: you just assume those people in the band wrote the songs,” he says. “In a sense, he did have some sort of legacy, ‘cause we’re talking about him now, almost 10 years after his death.”

Lawrence likes to remember Hopkins as the person who transformed the local scene through the force of his devil-may-care approach.

“I don’t think he was a brilliant innovator, in any way. I think he took some really rudimentary skills, just freakin’ chiseled his own little niche out of it, and made a cool thing,” Lawrence says.

Time has eased the weight of Hopkins’ shadow on the Gin Blossoms, but a decade hasn’t lessened the hurt of losing him.

“I think of Doug every day when we’re playing those beautiful songs of his,” Valenzuela says. “He was really the architect for a lot of that sound, and he lives with us all the time.” – Ralph Heibutzki

This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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