Liner Notes: Catching up with the Gin Blossoms
Stars and Stripes September 29, 2023
Jesse Valenzuela is a guitar player and singer for Gin Blossoms, who recently wrapped up a tour with Fastball, Sugar Ray and Tonic. At 61 years old, he’s lived a life of music - most prominently as a member of Gin Blossoms, a band he joined all the way back in 1987. Since then, he’s co-written songs like “Until I Fall Away,” “Follow You Down” and “Til I Hear It From You,” among others. We recently caught up with him to talk about the recent death of Smash Mouth’s Steve Harwell, what it’s like to tour these days, Nick Lowe’s greatness, finding balance, and much more.
Stars and Stripes: How’s the tour been so far? Have the shows been good?
Valenzuela: Yeah. It’s a short tour. We’ve only been out a week or so, but it’s been good. It’s felt like three months, but the shows have been really fun. It’s nice to see some terrific friends and some people I haven’t seen for years and years. They’ve been good shows.
I know this is a short run. Are you going to go out again later this year?
I don’t think so. We do lots of weekends. This is probably our only sort of bus tour of the year. We have a really nice situation these days. We’re doing this run with these really great bands and it’s been so good to see them play every night. Then, we usually go play one-offs or two-offs on the weekends. So, it’s a really nice situation.
Reading up on you a little, it seems like you’re just a big fan of music. And you’ve lived a life in music so far. Was there anything you wanted to do outside of music?
I would have loved to be a professional baseball player and make millions of dollars. But, actually, I think this was always probably going to be it.
Do you ever see yourself slowing down?
Yeah. You know, we have slowed down. We used to do a lot more shows a year, but we realized now that we don’t really have to, so we find other ways to stay musical. We probably play about half the shows now that we used to. I think the pandemic had a lot to do with that, too.
Did you use the pandemic to write a lot by yourself or even virtually?
I released a record and a series of individual songs during the pandemic. I was locked up in my house in California, so I was recording and sending tapes to a producer, who is a dear friend, and they sent back bits and pieces. My son helped engineer it and we sent tapes to friends and have them put their parts on it, too. We did a lot of that. It hasn’t really changed since then. Maybe that’s the way a lot of people work now anyway, even though it’s kind of been that way for a long time. It’s nice because you can create in your own home. What kids can do these days with a computer and a good idea is pretty amazing.
That’s true. Are there any plans for new Gin Blossoms material soon?
No, there hasn’t been. We stay pretty busy and we’re pretty busy through the next year, even though it doesn’t seem like it. I did just have lunch with (guitarist) Scotty Johnson and I asked him if he’d be into going into the studio in December to knock around some stuff and he said, “Of course!” So, that could be fun.
Knowing how much you like music, are there any acts you’re really into these days? What are you listening to while you’re out on the road?
Not that they’re a new act, but I really like the new Wilco record. I think it’s beautiful. I love the new Rodney Crowell record. That Chicago record he just made - I just think that’s absolutely beautiful. There’s a band that just came through town called Cigarettes After Sex. Wow, oh my gosh, that stuff is so beautiful. I didn’t go to the show, but I was told it was just amazing.
Yeah, they’re a great live band. Do you get out to shows a lot these days?
No, I don’t. It’s really not my bag. In the fall, I think I might make an effort to go see Nick Lowe play back east. He’s on a little tour.
Have you ever seen him live?
Oh, countless times. He’s one of my favorites of all time. And this time, he’s out with the wrestling mask band.
Yeah, I saw him and them open for Elvis Costello last summer and they were incredible.
Yeah, they did that tour again this summer. Both times, I was on the road with Gin Blossoms, which made seeing it impossible. Lowe is out with Los Straitjackets and I think it’s going to be in Atlanta and maybe New York, so I was thinking about going to see that. I was also thinking about going to see a friend of mine, Marshall Crenshaw - he’s doing a celebration of his music and going on the road. I’m thinking about trying to fly in and have a little vacation, have a nice dinner, a couple glasses of wine and see some great music.
That sounds great. I wanted to ask you - because I know you’ve done shows together before - about the recent passing of Steve from Smash Mouth. Did you know him well?
We toured with them a couple times and he was a lovely man. We were acquaintances and we certainly had a wonderful time when we saw each other. Scotty Johnson and I, for example, had a few really great late nights with Steve. I posted something on my social page the other day. He really was fearless and he really was kind-hearted. He was one of those guys ... when he entered a room, he wanted to make sure everyone was enjoying themselves and he wanted to make sure everyone felt included. He had a real genuine concern for everyone. It just emanated from him. He was just a very warm person. I think there may have been some deep sadness within him, too. He didn’t touch on it too often, but he was one of those guys who when you were around him, you knew you were around someone special. He had all that human energy that people gravitate to. Last night, Mark McGrath gave a really poignant speech about Steve during their show. I talked to Mark about it a couple days ago because they were really close and really dear friends. It’s a sad passing because like I said, he was a force of nature and he was bigger than life. What sticks with me was how kind-hearted he was. He was a really good person.
How well is Mark holding up?
I think it’s just sadness. It’s life, but it’s just terrible. It’s nice because everyone has such beautiful thoughts about him and we hope the best for his family and that’s what it is. I haven’t formulated too many words about it, but that’s what we all hope. He was a special person.
Did you have any favorite Smash Mouth songs you loved to hear when you guys went out with them?
Sure, I watched them all the time. I liked all their big singles like everyone else. “All Star” was fun and my son was of the age when “Shrek” was a big deal and they were all part of that. It’s just such a great, warm memory and they delivered the songs every night. All those guys in that band were fantastic, too. I know they’re still out there doing it. They have a new lead singer, who is terrific, too. They’re still out there playing knockout shows. You’re in the music business, so you understand: When you have a group of special songs like that, it makes people feel good, and it’s an honor to get to play that stuff every night.
Yeah, definitely. Speaking of that, is there a song you guys play every night that you look forward to playing because of the way the people respond?
No, we just play the show. I just play the show every night, but we understand which songs the people connect with. We’re certainly going to play those every night and we’re going to try to play everything to the best of our abilities and have a good time. People are there for a reason. I think it’s become more important in some ways since the pandemic because ... we don’t want to take anything for granted.
Are there bands out there you’d love to tour with, but haven’t yet?
Well, sure. Of course. There’s lots of music I’d love to see. I wish I had gone to see Cigarettes After Sex because they were just in Phoenix a couple weeks ago. There’s all kinds of new music that I like. My son is on the road with a couple bands - the Mexican Slum Rats and The Red Pears. They’re doing a big tour that starts on Saturday.
Does he play guitar like you?
He is a guitar player, but he’s a guitar tech for them right now.
How cool was it for him to get into music? It must have been pretty fun for you.
Well, it was by no doing on my part. It was just something he always wanted to do, so that’s where his education went. He could do anything he wanted to do. We do play together back home. I play acoustic music at wine bars and stuff and he plays guitar with me. That’s been really joyful. I didn’t know it was going to become ... well, I guess I did. I always knew music was important to him.
So music kind of runs in you two’s blood.
I don’t know. It’s just always sort of been a way to make a living. I definitely know more people who are much more musical than I am. But, I guess, having said that, I guess that’s all I’ve done my whole life. It’s hard to figure out your own self, is what I’m saying.
Do you think music has helped you find yourself at all in that way?
Hmm. I don’t know about that. It’s always been a profession, right? It’s something I love. But there have been times when I don’t listen to music very much. We get busy and other things take priority.
I wanted to touch a little on nostalgia. When it comes to doing these kinds of tours, how gratifying is it to know that 20, 30 years later, you still have songs that are passed through generations? How does it feel to know you’ve been a big part of people’s lives?
Did they pass through generations? Because I don’t know. We play to our crowd. I guess. I don’t know. It feels terrific to be able to play music every night for people who want to hear us. There’s a great feeling of pride knowing there’s a handful of songs people associate with you and it makes them happy.
I think a song like “Hey Jealousy” has transcended generations. That seems to pop up everywhere still.
Well, that’s good to hear.
I just have to think that it’s a really nice thing to be able to do that. It’s a life of music, right? You’ve been able to live a life of music.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s been a long, long time playing. I don’t know how many years it’s been since Gin Blossoms have been together, but it has been a life of music. I guess I never think of it in terms like that because I just get up every day and do it. I guess that’s what it is. My mother told me once, after she witnessed what it was to be a full-time musician and work at the pace we do, she said, “I realize how difficult of a career it is and how hard you have to work and how smart you have to be to stay ahead of everything and keep everything in focus.” The hardest part of having a career in music is you have to hold on to balance. That can be difficult with the traveling involved. There are so many different aspects to this career, so you need balance. You want to keep your health and you want to keep your sanity and do your best for your family and that can be difficult when you’re traveling a lot.
You’ve been able to balance it, it seems.
Well, I’m trying (laughs).