Interview by Bill Holmes

Robin Wilson is an honest man. There aren't many musicians - especially ones who have been on top of the world - who freely admit that they want to be a successful rock star and sell lots of records. Most will tell you that it's all about art and getting the message out to the people. While that's important to Wilson, it's obvious that he still gets a charge out of strapping on a guitar and walking up to the microphone to face a crowd of fans. Why The Gas Giants aren't picking up the ball where The Gin Blossoms left it is a mystery to me. Yes, the new band rocks a little harder, but the hook-filled songs, power-pop sound and especially that made-for-radio voice are staples of the new band, too. As you'll read in this interview, Wilson has some questions of his own.

I had a chance to spend some time with Wilson before a May concert at a Rochester university campus where the band opened for Train. As the backwards-cap shufflers and hackey-sack players sauntered into the gymnasium, the band took the stage and kicked into gear with minimal recognition. "Here's a cover song I wrote", Wilson quipped before launching into "Alison Road", the sole concession to his former band the crowd would hear that night. Indeed, their cover of "Under Pressure" seemed to elicit a bigger response, but that's what happens when (1) seventy-five percent of the crowd weren't in college the last time the Gin Blossoms had a hit and (2) a pathetic local radio market plays mostly Eminem, oldies and Korn. But the set was strong, the band was tight, and little by little the applause meter rose to bonafide adulation. After the show, the band stood outside the lobby; smiling, signing dozens of autographs and having their pictures taken with fans new and old. Robin Wilson is still a rock star.

Cosmik: I know you've probably answered some of these questions a billion times but -

Wilson: That's okay, that's what I'm here for. Touring is a redundant business.

Cosmik: How has the tour been going so far? You've been out with these guys [Train] for a little bit now.

Wilson: Whenever we tour with Train we have really great shows. There are a lot of people in the audiences, and they're very excited to see Train for the first time. And any time you've got a band that's like... just reaching that point of critical mass - they've got a big hit but people are still learning about them - it's an exciting thing to get to be a part of. So we enjoy ourselves very much when we're playing with them. And also, there's a lot of Gin Blossoms fans in their audience, so when we start going out on stage, people go "that's the guy!" (laughs)

Cosmik: Too bad they can't see Philip (drummer Philip Rhodes) better. I saw you guys play last time you came through.I think it was with The Odds, and maybe Three Day Wheelie opened the show.

Wilson: (surprised) Oh yeah! Yeah!

Cosmik: It was the first time I had seen the Gin Blossoms. And you see a lot of bands, hear a lot of bands, but I remember taking away two things from that show. One, I thought "man, I forgot just how many hits these guys have!" And number two was that Philip was the glue that held that band together.

Wilson: On stage! (laughs)

Cosmik: He's just a great, great drummer.

Wilson: He is, he's an amazing drummer. One of the best in modern rock, I think. I keep telling my manager "get Philip on the cover of Drum World magazine or whatever it is". He needs to be a star in that world. But until the band makes its mark, we don't really have that sort of stuff available to us.

Cosmik: It's never easy, is it? I had an early copy of New Miserable Experience, and it seemed like A&M stayed on that record for almost two years before it really broke. Here you are now trying a completely different scenario, where you have an Internet record company. Even though there are records in the stores, that's their thrust, over the Internet. So you're not taking an easy road anyway.

Wilson: No, there's nothing easy about it, because it's a new company, well, I'll give you an example. When you're with a major label, there's a lot of people there with different roles to play in the marketing of your record. And if one of those key players is all of a sudden somebody new, your manager will say "listen, I want to delay the release of this record until that product manager has a little more experience; we don't want our record to be the first one the product manager works!" And with Atomic Pop, the entire label is new. It's not just a matter of one person and we had no choice of delaying it, but one of the reasons we went with Atomic Pop is that they were ready to release the record. We weren't going to have get behind a bunch of stuff and wait for No Doubt or The Wallflowers to release their records. So it's a new company that's just working out a lot of the kinks, but we're like the cosmic experiment of the music industry right now.

Cosmik: And?

Wilson: Well, if we called off the whole thing today, I'd have to say that the experiment has failed. The distributor that works for Atomic Pop is really screwing up, and our records aren't in most stores. In towns where the group is getting airplay, our sales don't reflect the amount of airplay that we've got or the fan base that we have in those markets because there are no records in the stores. So it's been a very frustrating situation. I would do everything the same way; we were kind of forced into the position because our record was getting kind of old and we wanted to get it out, and we were willing to take the risk of going with something that was new just for the sake of getting off our butts and getting out of Tempe.

Cosmik: The band has been together almost three years, so the record must be about two years old, right?

Wilson: Just about, yeah.

Cosmik: I know you were delighted because of the buyout (from A&M), where you got to get your music back, which a lot of bands don't get. You got the studio, which will enable you to make future records at less cost and do whatever you want to without someone hanging over your shoulder. But you did bring up a key point for a DIY band or someone working their own record using the Internet as a tool. I mean established labels don't know how to use the Internet to market a new band, it's new to everybody. How much do you yourself get involved with the marketing of The Gas Giants, or even can you?

Wilson: I'm pretty involved on almost every level of the project. I'm on the phone constantly with the people who are setting up press and interviews, marketing the band. And I've presented most of the marketing concepts to the group; I feel like I'm kind of co-managing the band. So in that sense I'm pretty much involved on every level, it's nice to kind of know what I'm doing. Or at least (laughs)... the impression that I know what I'm doing!

Cosmik: Or at least the opportunity.

Wilson: Yeah. In the Blossoms, I learned a lot, but it was never like it was my band, it was always like this thing that was greater than the sum of its parts. There was always a lot of compromise; I couldn't just put out an idea and get it past everyone. And there was definitely a contingent in that group that wanted to make damned sure that it didn't become "Robin's band". And, um, I felt restricted in a lot of ways. I wanted to be in a band where I didn't have that sort of battle to wage over every stupid issue. In that sense, this has been a very rewarding project, despite the hardships and whatnot. We, as a group, are kind of doing it our way, and considering how much compromise is involved in this business, having the amount of control that we have is rewarding, y'know? I'm not sure if it's worth it though. I mean I may consider trying it a different way. I might consider going back to a major label. If it's not possible to sell records with this system, I might have to consider doing that, because I'm interested in selling records, not just controlling my destiny and being in a band that has control. I'm interested in commercial success as well.

Cosmik: Is it really the system though? Or is it the way that music has changed? That the few consolidated labels that are left are targeting a demographic audience that's a lot different from the one that the Gin Blossoms succeeded with?

Wilson: That's certainly a part of it, but I have a hard time believing that with more than two million Gin Blossoms fans out there that it's not possible for The Gas Giants to sell a couple of hundred thousand records. That (number of records) is very reasonable to assume. We were up for a Grammy and had a top five single just three years ago. So it really hasn't been that long, and a lot of those songs are still getting played on modern rock stations. So it seems reasonable to me that we should be able to capture a lot of the Gin Blossoms audience.

Cosmik: I'm sorry - are you trying to use logic in relation to the music industry? (laughs)

Wilson: Well, I try to look at it... it's a two-fold thing. There's rock and roll, making music, playing music, that's rock and roll. The rest of it is a business. This is one of the problems that the Gin Blossoms had; that they couldn't reconcile the two halves of what we do. And I have no illusions about that. And I'm more than willing to run it like a business. I've already got my ya-ya's out in the studio; we made the record, I got the cover that I wanted, I get to get up on stage every night and jump around with my favorite guitar... the rest of it is trying to succeed on some other level. And I'm not so interested in the dream as I am in success. And in this business, success is record sales.

Cosmik: Do you find that the history of The Gin Blossoms is helpful for you, opening some doors? Or does it hurt you, maybe setting a bar that you're constantly being compared to in some way?

Wilson: Well, we are constantly being compared, and it does get frustrating, and there are times where I feel that it's important for us to distance ourselves from the Gin Blossoms legacy. I want people to know who we are, because I would think that should excite those people who would be interested, they would want to know what the Gas Giants sound like if they were big fans of the Gin Blossoms. And there were millions of them! I want to make contact with them, but I don't want to come off like some half-assed version of the Gin Blossoms, or some sort of desperate has-been. So I have to walk a very fine line. And right now we're at a point where making it real clear that a couple of us were in The Gin Blossoms doesn't seem to be making a whole hell of a lot of difference. So I would like to make an attempt to market the band as a new band that has nothing to do with The Gin Blossoms, so people might discover us on their own. I think that might have more impact. I think that if I could get someone to hear our next single, and get [them] interested in it, and then they find out we were in the Gin Blossoms, they will see with crystal clarity that there has been an evolution and that we are not the same band.

Cosmik: Well, I think your voice is very recognizable on the radio. When I reviewed the album (From Beyond The Back Burner) I found that some of the songs, well, if there was a Gin Blossoms 3, some songs could easily have fit on there, others not. And its definitely a harder sound. And even a couple of songs that maybe fit into the Gin Blossoms formula are a different type of song, like "Marilyn Manson". Still pop, but-

Wilson: I never would have gotten away with those lyrics if I were in The Gin Blossoms. In fact, most of the lyrics I wrote for this record would not fly with the Gin Blossoms. In fact, one of the songs that's on this album, and only one of them, "Tonight Won't Let Me Wander", is a song that I first presented to the Gin Blossoms. And I was met with... uh... a very nonplussed band.

Cosmik: That surprises me! That's one of the couple that I picked out that I thought could have been on a Gin Blossoms 3.

Wilson: I thought it should have been on Congratulations I'm Sorry, but I just couldn't get the group excited about it. Like I say, there was a lot of compromise in that band, and you sort of have to meet in the middle ground. I guess that they decided it was too much of a "Robin" song and not enough of a "Gin Blossoms" song.

Cosmik: That's too bad. But with your style, I know part of it was trying to get out from under the specter of the Gin Blossoms; you have (Doug) Hopkins of course, and a lot of people thought "well those were his songs". But you have a knack for writing some very dark and comical lyrics and setting them to upbeat music. Like "Quitter", for example, which is a great juxtaposition, but doesn't seem to be a song that's really out of The Gin Blossoms' boundaries musically. And I've heard the acoustic version of that, too, which is phenomenal. Great song.

Wilson: Thank you.

Cosmik: What is going to be the next single? I was hoping "Between Two Worlds", myself.

Wilson: That's one that's being tossed around, but I left The Gin Blossoms because I wanted to try something different and I wanted to reinvent myself, to try and be in a band that's perceived in a different light. And when I wrote "Now The Change" I realized that that's what I was really after. And I wanted this group to be marketed as an alternative, hard rock, modern rock band. And if we release "Between Two Worlds" as a single, it's only going to go to the lighter rock stations; it's not going to go to hard rock, and it's not going to go to alternative. And at this point, that's what I want to do. That's what I left The Gin Blossoms for. I left the band to grow and to change, and if we release any song but "Now The Change", I'm basically being asked to stay where I was. And I'm not interested in that. After all the time that this record has been around, and all we have been through as a group, I'm only interested in pursuing the band's vision at this point.

Cosmik: Well, here's a question for you. Because you are on an Internet label, and your product is basically "print on demand", where you don't have to stockpile lots of product, why don't you work on releasing music that you've been working on over the past couple of years and maybe change the record?

Wilson: Well, the record should stand as it is. It's a snapshot of who we were when it was made. I wouldn't be into the idea of changing the record itself. I'd be much more into just going home and starting to make another record. And the fact about the Internet being a big plus? Well, nobody really buys records there; we haven't really sold any records online. Maybe a few hundred, but that's like it, y'know? It really doesn't work at this point. It's going to become something very big for bands, and I'm glad that our record company is thinking ahead, but the fact is that in this day and age we can't get where I want this band to be just through the Internet. We need records in stores, and like I said, the problem - the biggest problem - has been getting records into stores. Our record isn't in the stores, because our distributor just isn't toeing the line.

Cosmik: You took a pretty big calculated risk, as did Philip. That's a lot to walk away from, when you pretty much had to figure that the next thing you put out was going to get listened to by a lot of people regardless of whether it's good or not -

Wilson: Well that's not true! I'm having trouble getting people to listen to this.

Cosmik: No, I meant by using the Gin Blossoms name, you'd have that security blanket. By avoiding that name and using something else, you took a big risk. But then again, it must be ideal to get to play with someone who's been a friend of yours all your life, and fulfill that dream. And I guess there's another player out live on the road? Mick?

Wilson: Mickey Ferrell. Mickey and Dan had a band called the Grievous Angels, sort of a country rock thing, and they established themselves pretty well in Arizona. And it seemed logical that when we needed a bass player that Mickey be brought into the situation. And it's working out great; he's a great guy, I love playing with him and being around him.

Cosmik: Are you having an opportunity to do any recording when you're out on the road?

Wilson: No. There's very, very little to do on the road except watch TV and read. It takes a lot of effort to get anything more done than that. You see we pulled in here at one-thirty this afternoon; I was lucky enough to get a runner to drive me out to a comic book store. Otherwise I'd be sitting on the bus watching A&E Biography with the rest of the band. So I try and find ways to fill up my free time out on the road, but for the most part there isn't much to do. But I'm not the kind of songwriter who can just sit in the back of the bus, bashing it out. I have a lot of great ideas, and I do write them down, and if there's some time that I'm inclined, I'll pick up a guitar and work on stuff. But I prefer, as a songwriter, to be at home with my book of ideas, with six hours with nothing to do but sit there with a guitar for those six hours. And then I can accomplish something. That's what works best for me. And I have a lot of great ideas; I feel like I have the whole next record already written in my head right now, and it's just a matter of making it into reality. I'm looking forward to getting home. And I have been, over the course of the last year, piecing together a side project, and I'm pretty excited about that.

Cosmik: Is that [name deleted]? The Cartoon?

Wilson: Yeah!

Cosmik: I read a bit about that, tell me more about it.

Wilson: Well, I'm trying to create an animated series about a rock and roll band in outer space. I'd rather you didn't print the name [name deleted] because we're finalizing all the details and the website right now. (Note: Bill is a man of his word!). I try to keep that quiet.

Cosmik: I'll ask you a sidebar question about that then. I remember that you guys had cut some tracks with Tommy Keene at one point and you mentioned that you were doing a couple of his songs. He's a great songwriter.

Wilson: Yes, I'm doing three of his songs for the [name deleted] record. I'm really pleased with the project because it allows me to set aside what I want to accomplish with The Gas Giants as a songwriter and I can just completely disconnect from it and myself and become a teenage rock and roller in outer space. And it has allowed me…the songs that I have written are much poppier than anything I have released with The Gas Giants. Or even a Gin Blossoms record. It's so candy coated, but within the framework of the project it's absolutely perfect. So I'm really pleased with it. I mean, when I had to write a song, I thought "what would a teenage rock and roller in outer space sing about?" And I came up with the best song on the record, and I was just thrilled with it. Whenever I choose to focus myself like that, I can pull it off.

Cosmik: So you're back in outer space again, just like The Gas Giants.

Wilson: And I just started my record company, called Uranus Laboratories.

Cosmik: Does all this stem from when you wanted to be an astronaut as a kid?

Wilson: It was a spaceman! I wanted to be a spaceman! (laughs) Yeah, when I was in college I studied physics and wanted to major in planetary science if I made it to graduate school with a degree in physics. But I dropped out of college to pursue rock and roll. And it's still something that interests me. The [name deleted] is like everything I've ever loved in life in one little package. It's rock and roll, comic books, animation, science fiction, outer's all there. I'm surprised I didn't think of it sooner.

Cosmik: Everything in its time. When can we expect to see something?

Wilson: The record's pretty well done. There's one other guy producing one track for the record, so he might end up delaying the whole release. The album cover is being worked on right now; I've hired some really famous and talented comic book artists and I'm really excited about that process. Just like the gorgeous Gas Giants cover was one of the most rewarding things I've ever been a part of. I always wanted to be a graphic artist and a comic book artist, and I hired some of the best people in the world to do that cover, and I wasn't in a band where I had to battle with everybody. I told the band months before we made the record, "I have a great idea for the cover, I know what I'd like to do and I'd like you guys to just trust me. Step back, and just trust me to do it." And they said "yeah, sure, go for it" and you can see the result is absolutely amazing. Probably one of the most interesting album covers of the last decade.

Cosmik: I'm probably too old to be able to read the tiny lyrics though!

Wilson: Yeah, I did that on purpose! I wanted it to seem like a computer printout that was just written by some alien machine that wasn't interested in contact. And that's what I got. I did that on purpose, but I don't think the lyrics are all that important on there anyway, people can go online and get them. We made them available that way.

Cosmik: Or they could pay attention.

Wilson: Yeah, they could do that. But for the purpose of creating the content and the graphics, I did not want to clutter it up with ten pages of lyrics. I felt like I wanted to make the booklet something that was a piece of pop art unto itself. Printing all of the lyrics would have hampered that. And I' m not going to put any of the lyrics on the record, because I want that to come off like a comic book. I've heard other people complain about the size of the lyrics, and I say get out a magnifying glass! That's one of the reasons I wanted to work with this Jeff Darrow, because I knew that he could put so much detail into a four by four inch panel. Some people would be compelled to pull out a magnifying glass to try and find all the stuff he put in there, and that was exactly the point. I'm really proud when people come up to me and say that they had to get out a magnifying glass to see everything on the cover; I'm like "yeah - victory is mine!"

Cosmik: So it's great to be a rock and roll guitar player again.

Wilson: Yeah, it's great. The weirdest part about playing guitar again, is that after twelve years of wireless microphones and running all over the stage, I could go to anyone in the band at any time and make eye contact with them, whatever. Then all of a sudden, the first show with The Gas Giants, I get up onstage and my microphone is planted in one position, and I have no choice but to face in that direction and sing. And I'm trying to strain out of the corners of my eyes just to see where the other guys are! It was so unnerving, because we had spent months rehearsing in a circle, where I had access to everyone. Then, on the first show, it felt like I was all by myself out there. Now I plan my guitar solos... "I'll go look at Phil now".

Cosmik: And you're having a lot of fun playing with these guys, aren't you?

Wilson: Yeah. I love being in a rock and roll band!

Cosmik: For all the frustrations you went through, you seem to have things where you want them. There's still a few things to get straightened out but you're happy with the band, happy with the music, confident in your writing, able to channel your energies into a side project... so what could be better than this?

Wilson: Commercial success... would make it all worthwhile. I mean it wouldn't be the only thing that helps make it worthwhile, but I'm not doing this just because I have some great story to tell. I'm interested in success. If I felt that I was never going to have another shot at the big time, I'd probably try to find some other way to make a living. Because living in a bus with six other smelly guys is... it's no way to live! And it should only be a means to an end. And if it isn't, I'll think of something else to do with myself. I've been fortunate enough to live out all of my rock and roll fantasies, and all of my commercial goals as a songwriter I achieved years ago with The Gin Blossoms. I've had a Grammy nomination and a number four single. I can't imagine ever doing anything on a commercial level that can really eclipse that. And I'm not the kind of songwriter who's some deep poet who's in pain and this is the only way I can communicate with people. Heck no! I just want to jump around on stage and be a rock and roller. This is just an extension of that.

Special thanks to Dr. Bristol for his transcription, to Michael and Liz and everyone at Atomic Pop for their assistance, and to Robin Wilson and the Gas Giants band and crew for a great evening!

(C) 2000 - Bill Holmes