We can reflect on the past, but we don’t need to live in it. We’re all guilty of attaching memories to songs, and in the process, suspending the artist responsible in a type of pop culture cryogenics. In our minds, the best music that artist produced was the music that etched itself into our personal timelines, but that is rarely ever the case.
Take the Gin Blossoms for example. Although hit songs like “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You” are seared into our subconscious forever, the Arizona-born band is writing and recording some of their best music to date. Their latest album,“Mixed Reality,” took eight years to come into fruition, but the wait was well worth it… and proof that there’s always a good reason to live in the present.
We recently sat down with guitarist Scott Johnson to discuss nostalgia, the impact of marrying visuals to music, and why he’s happy to not be starting his career in 2018.
TrunkSpace: Being in a successful band obviously has its share of ups and downs. Is part of what keeps you going, for you personally, that the ups are always more memorable than the downs?
Johnson: You’d hope, right? (Laughter) Yeah. Well, you know, a lot of it is just, even on tour, you’re just hanging out for 22 hours to do that two hour show. So, that’s the down. Even in a small way, there’s that down time where it’s slow and not much is going on but then all of a sudden, I’m on the road again or, like I said, you’re hanging around the hotel all day and then finally get to go do something and get to do a show and it’s really exciting. Yeah, the highlights are always better and I suppose if they weren’t, then we’d probably be gone.
TrunkSpace: People always ask musicians what it’s like playing the same song every day, but it has to always be different because the audience is constantly giving you a different flavor… a different vibe… a different temperature.
Johnson: No, you’re absolutely right. People ask me that all the time and you’re right, every show is different. The weather is different. The crowd is different. There’s a saying, “The crowd plays the band.” And some crowds are really super into it and other people just stare at you or they stare at their phones.
TrunkSpace: Yeah, cellphones must be creating a different dynamic now. Instead of being present and creating memories, a lot of people nowadays are recording their memories for social media.
Johnson: Right and it’s tough because I’ve heard singers say, “Everybody put their phones down. Put your phone away dammit.” But it’s a tough one because somebody might be getting a text from their mom or their babysitter or their wife. Yeah, it’s a tough one but it’s definitely changed a little bit. Most people don’t, but every now and then you will get that crowd where they’re basically filming you, staring at their phones, when it’s like, “Man, I’m right here. Hello?”
TrunkSpace: So, having done this for as long as you have, do you still experience firsts?
Johnson: Well, it’s like Johnny Cash. I feel like I’ve been everywhere man but there’s still places I haven’t been. So, that’s interesting. Actually, one of the cool things is you’re in the heart of Chicago or New York and then the next night you’re in a small town in Pennsylvania and so, that’s actually an interesting thing. You’re at the Four Seasons on Michigan Ave. in Chicago and then the next day, off the interstate next to Denny’s in some weird hotel, but I really like that. Each one has its own vibe and its own pros and cons and I like that. Every day’s different and you’re right, every show is different and I don’t mind playing the same songs over. I know people want to hear the hits. I’ve seen Neil Young a bunch of times and I really like him. I’m a fan and we got to tour with him for eight shows back in the ’90s. I was so excited, but man, he will not play “Heart of Gold.” (Laughter) He just won’t do it and everybody’s been waiting for 30 years and I don’t know why he won’t do it. I think it’s such a great song. He just won’t, he refuses. So, some people just have different attitudes I suppose about that kind of thing.
TrunkSpace: What’s great about the hits are, everyone has their own memory connected to them. They make the experience more personal for the audience because in some way, those songs impacted their lives at a particular time.
Johnson: Yep. Just like “Heart of Gold” is to me. You’re right. It’s, whatever they say, “the fabric of your life.” You got laid the first time when you heard “Hey Jealousy” and you’ll never forget that, right? It’s always going to be with you and then you think it’s going to happen again. And I’ve heard so many stories, up and down – sick, in illnesses, in happy times and everything in between – and really, all you can do to experience that yourself is remember, “Oh, yeah, I remember when I heard The Jackson 5 for the first time when I was a little kid and how exciting that was and how cool it was.” It’s hard for me to think like that to be honest with you. For somebody, it’s such an important part of their lives.
TrunkSpace: And you guys hit at a time when MTV was still MTV, so there is a visual component to the memories people have with your songs. That is always a fascinating thing because as a listener, you could feel one way about a song, and then see the video and suddenly your point of view changes.
Johnson: Yeah, that’s true. That’s funny you say that because I’ve been working on… my girlfriend’s a singer/songwriter and she had a gig last night and I played with her and so, it’s like listening to the songs, and I had heard them before, but I’d never seen the videos and suddenly, there’s that connection. She does that song “Paris” and I mean, I knew it was about shaving you smooth and all this…. Grace Potter, she’s from up there in Vermont, and then I saw the video and I was like, “Oh, wow, okay, I didn’t know there was going to be Moulin Rouge.” And it totally makes sense. (Laughter) Now I have this image of girls in lingerie every time I hear that song and I suppose you’re right because when we did “Hey Jealousy,” we did the, oh god… I don’t know what they call it. Where you throw the toilet paper in people’s front yard?
TrunkSpace: Back when we were kids we called it TP’ing.
Johnson: TP’ing! That’s right. The TP thing. So, I’m sure people, when they hear that song, it might take them back to, “Oh, yeah, in high school, we did that to my neighbor or my best friend,” or something.
TrunkSpace: Having that mainstream success and being in people’s memories, does it force you into a position to be nostalgic about the past? Is it something you have to carry where otherwise you might not?
Johnson: Never really thought about that. I don’t know. I remember I did an interview once and the person called us nostalgic and I got a little bit edgy about it because I said, “Well, I mean, a hit song from two years ago, that’s in the past, isn’t that?” I was making the argument that everything is nostalgic to some point. It’s either fresh on the radio or it’s not – it’s in the past.
TrunkSpace: Or for a personal reason, a song can be nostalgic. If you have a memory tied to it, and even if it’s brand new, it can still be nostalgic.
Johnson: That’s true. I don’t know how to answer that one. I wonder if it does anchor you down in the ’90s. We will always be “that ’90s band.” It will never really change in people’s minds or even in my mind, so that’s a good point.
TrunkSpace: In terms of the original question, we were even thinking of it more from… here you guys are having to play those big hits, “Hey Jealousy” for example, and maybe those hits aren’t the songs that you have the biggest emotional and creative ties to. Because other people want to hear them, you’re forced to be nostalgic about them.
Johnson: I see what you’re saying. Yeah, that’s true and I suppose a hit song is a hit song but at the same time, that one song, you didn’t really think much about it, it just ended up on your record and then suddenly it’s a huge hit. Like I said, we are anchored to that one song for life or forever. Even after you’re gone. (Laughter) People will always be, “Found Out About You” from Gin Blossoms.
TrunkSpace: Your new album “Mixed Reality” is out now. It’s the band’s first record in eight years, and while there was a lot that was out of your control in terms of what slowed the process, was getting back in the studio a bit like riding a bike? Were you able to tap into that creative magic as you did with your previous albums?
Johnson: Yeah, I think so, and we have done it so many times and then I’ve made records outside of the band since then and with other people, and yeah, you do slip right back into it. It doesn’t take that much thought and I know how the guys write and what they want. Every now and then there might be something different, but yeah, it’s pretty easy for us to jump in there and do pre-production and rehearse. We’ve done it so many times and we dig through the songs pretty hard before we go in the studio. “Is the key right? Is the arrangement correct? Is the tempo correct? Is the groove correct?” We’ll mess with a song quite a bit before we will actually put it on a record. We’ll demo them and so, we definitely do our homework. Yeah, it was good to get in. One of the problems is some of these indie labels, I don’t know, man, they aren’t very good. And I’m not talking about those current ones but past ones, Once you get out of the major label scene, you work so hard and it’s just a guy on his computer selling records. So, that’s what slowed us down a bit. This one, we made it ourselves, we saved up the money, we hired the producer, we booked the studio time – it was totally our thing. When we were with the indies, it was their record, it was their studio time, they paid for it. This time we said, “No!” I think that may have been slowing us up a bit. This time we were like, “Okay, we’re just going to do it ourselves.” We’re tired of handing over masters to people. That’s just not working anymore.
TrunkSpace: Do you think it would be more daunting to start your career today in 2018 than it was when you started?
Johnson: Well, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer but it seems to me… my nephew’s a musician and he got his music degree and I’ve seen him play with a dozen bands and it’s hard for him. I think it is hard, but at the same time, other people, man, you get a buddy and a couple acoustic guitars and they throw a song on YouTube and it’ll take off, you know? You know that kid Kane Brown? That’s how he started. I met him right before he took off. I was in a studio in Nashville and he had recorded there and he came in and talked to the producer and I got a chance to meet him and, what a career out of a couple of videos in the backyard! I think I saw some beer cans and a bong in the background. (Laughter) And suddenly these guys are huge. So, I don’t know. It can go either way. But yeah, I’ve seen it with my younger friends… they’re struggling to get anything going.
TrunkSpace: As we mentioned, it’s been eight years between the last two Gin Blossoms records. Do you see another large gap between “Mixed Reality” and what’s to come or do you hope to keep creative momentum going?
Johnson: Well, actually, we have talked about doing another live record, which is interesting because I was like, “Well, shoot, man, this one’s only out a week.” (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: That’s because it’s already nostalgic. (Laughter)
Johnson: (Laughter) It’s already done. It’s already in the past.
But we’ll see. We’ve talked about maybe doing some songs acoustically, doing some things, something like that. So, we haven’t made up our mind yet but knock on wood, it will not be another eight years. That was a long time.