When the Gin Blossoms first formed in Tempe, Ariz., some 25 years ago, the Phoenix suburb was producing bands that had a certain style. Some critics called it the "Mill Avenue sound" in honor of the city's main drag where a slew of clubs catered to college kids by presenting up-and-coming bands.
"We call it the jangle crunch," says guitarist Scotty Johnson. "While one guy is picking and playing open chords, the other guy is crunching and playing power chords. That's kind of our sound. Back in the day, there were a lot of clubs that we could play. I remember seeing the Meat Puppets back in the day. There were all these crazy stories about how they were on acid when they played. There was always this thing about how crazy those guys were. I think a lot of it was true."
When the Meat Puppets got big, the Gin Blossoms were still teenagers. But that band helped pave the way for groups like the Gin Blossoms and the Refreshments. The Blossoms debut, 1992's
New Miserable Experience, featured radio hits such as "Hey Jealousy" and "Found Out About You," songs that built on the moody mid-tempo alt-rock that R.E.M. made famous (the late Doug Hopkins, the original guitarist that Johnson replaced, wrote both of the tunes.) The band's followup, 1996's Congratulations I'm Sorry, also fared well on the charts. But just as the band was hitting its stride, the guys decided to call it quits.
"I think it turned into work," Johnson says of the band's breakup. "You do the club scene and then you graduate from that and you get signed and you're with a label and you have hit singles. We supported New Miserable Experience for three years. With the second record, we were doing state fairs and not like that's a drag. I don't know how to describe it. It wasn't crazy fun. You weren't doing crazy small clubs with lines out the door. All of a sudden, it turns into a job. I think that's what happened. It just fell apart there. Our manager quit in the middle of a tour. That was kind of a blow. Everybody got tired of sitting on a bus and staring at each other. Looking back, it's just so silly."
Johnson admits immaturity had something to do with the breakup.
"We had a song on the charts and our record was in the top 100 and we decided to break up at the wrong time," he says. "We were young. Now, when I hear about a band breaking up, I think, 'I've been through that.' I made that stupid decision to break up. Years roll by and you realize, 'We created this music. This is ours. We should be celebrating. This is what people dream of.'"
At the end of 1999, the band got together for an end of the millennium concert. "You know how every city had some kind of show," Johnson says. "Some promoter here wanted to have all the big bands in the area play. They contacted us about reforming and that was fun." The band did some more shows and then put together a reunion tour. "We just decided to be a real band again. It was slow but it was successful and ten years later, we're still playing."
The band's music hasn't changed drastically. Its last album, 2010's No Chocolate Cake, features the same quotient of ballads and radio friendly rock tunes.
"We keep it the same," Johnson says. "We know what we're good at and we're not going to reinvent the wheel. We just try to do some different grooves but we didn't branch out too far from where we started."
This week's concert in Cleveland isn't part of a tour. Rather, the band is coming to town to play a special benefit for the Get Well Gabby Foundation, a non-profit founded last year in honor of Gabriella Vogel, a 5-year-old who died of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) in 2011. Singer Matthew Knabe, the frontman of the hard rock outfit Ligion, will host the event, and a slew of local bands are slated to play. Proceeds from the concert will go toward efforts to find a cure for childhood cancer.
For the Gin Blossoms, who haven't put out a new studio album in three years, playing special benefit concerts makes more sense than embarking on lengthy, expensive tours.
"We don't sell a lot of records and we don't have a lot of downloads," Johnson says. "We don't even sell a lot of T-shirts. I hear bands telling me, 'We made $3,000 selling T-shirts last night.' As your fans get older, they stop buying records and stop buying T-shirts. It kind of levels the playing field. The songwriters make all the money and the players don't so you beg someone like [the Who's] Pete Townshend to go on tour with you because the rest of the guys in the band need the money. Now that it's slowed down, everyone is happy to work and play shows and make some money and have fun."