Bittersweet Gin Blossoms encounter UFOs and Alice Cooper in their ‘hood



By Steve Newton

If there were such a thing as a Webster’s Dictionary of Pop Music, you could probably look up the word bittersweet and find a picture of Arizona’s Gin Blossoms nearby. Like fellow southerner Matthew Sweet and local buddies the Odds—who will tour with the Gin Blossoms next month—the GBs excel at combining pretty melodies with lyrical messages that aren’t always sugar and spice. (You can hear their joyfully melancholic tunes when the band plays the Commodore on Friday, March 8.)

“I think we may be malcontents,” says songwriter and guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, on the line from a hotel in Boulder, Colorado. “It just seems to be the nature of our songwriting to put some shimmering guitars against this lyrical quality that maybe is a little down, sometimes. I’m not sure, though. I don’t think about it much.”

That’s another trait of groups that exude the bittersweet vibe: they don’t seem required to think about their craft that much; it’s as if the tunes flow easily from them. Indeed, in the Gin Blossoms’ A&M Records bio, Valenzuela’s fellow songwriter Robin Wilson speaks of how the group manages “to write really commercial songs without having to try too hard”. Valenzuela’s not so sure about that idea himself, though.

“Well, I know I have to try pretty hard,” says the 33-year-old rocker. “Maybe Robin’s got it figured out, but personally speaking, I have to work at it quite a bit, and I try to work every day—play guitar and think about melodies and stuff. But I do know some people who seem to do it pretty effortlessly. I mean, Craig Northey from the Odds, for example, seems to write like these beautiful melodies and songs constantly. So I asked him once, ‘Is it just easy for you?’ and he said, ‘No, no, I work at it too.’ ”

Although it might not have been a snap for all of the Gin Blossoms to conjure material for the new CD, Congratulations I’m Sorry, the recording of the songs went so smoothly that the disc came in under budget, thanks to the band’s strong belief in preproduction. And there was still time between takes for smoke breaks, which resulted in one rather unusual incident outside a Phoenix studio.

“We were recording the song that turned out to be our first single, ‘Follow You Down’,” says Valenzuela, “and one of the guys in the band stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. He looked up and saw a couple of flashing lights or something, so we all went out and took a look for about 20 minutes. And there you go—UFO sighting.”

Arizona isn’t all that far from Roswell, New Mexico, where that infamous “alien autopsy” incident took place, so who knows? Maybe the Gin Blossoms really did spy some Martians. Hanging around the band’s suburban-Phoenix stomping ground, Valenzuela has sighted one other being who might be viewed as coming from another planet—’70s shock-rock king Alice Cooper.

“He lives in a neighbourhood north of mine,” says Valenzuela, who owned all the Coop’s albums as a teen. “I’ve seen him drive down the road, and I actually met him about a week and a half ago, and he’s a very pleasant fellow. I’d love to try and go golfing with him, although I think he’d wipe up the course with me. Nonetheless, it would be a great afternoon.”

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