Features

Jesse Valenzuela: The Interview

by Jason Warburg

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(Image courtesy of www.ginblossoms.net)

If you think you've never heard a Jesse Valenzuela song, you're probably wrong.

Between his role as guitarist/harmony vocalist/songwriter and now co-producer for 90s power-pop icons the Gin Blossoms, his songwriting work for the likes of Stevie Nicks and the Rembrandts, steady TV and production work, occasional gigs with old friends the Zubia Brothers, and a raft of other projects including his 2002 solo disc Tunes Young People Will Enjoy, Jesse Valenzuela has got to be one of the busiest guys in the music business. Based in Los Angeles, Valenzuela regularly travels to the Blossoms' Tempe, Arizona home base and all over the country with the band's steady touring schedule. Valenzuela's most recent disc is a collaboration with fellow roots-rocking singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer Craig Northey, a veteran of Canadian critics' darlings The Odds. Jesse and I -- a Sacramento native and admitted Gin Blossoms fan who bemoaned the GBs' habit of skipping Sac-town on tour -- got together by phone recently to discuss Northey Valenzuela, the perils of writing sad songs, and the finer details of the Blossoms' long-awaited new album, due this summer.

 

Daily Vault: So, how did the Northey Valenzuela album come about?

Jesse Valenzuela: Craig and I have known each other a long time. And having written so many songs together, we eventually thought we should record them all in the same session, so they had the same sound, and put them out there. It's really that simple.

 

How did you guys first meet and start writing together?

It was the "big 80s" when I met Craig in Hollywood. We were both kind of semi-living there, in and out of town, and we just played a lot of gigs together, up and down the coast. I think we played Sacramento together, as a matter of fact. A place called The Boardwalk, kind of a tough-guy, metal-bar place. I don't know how we got the gig. It was just a product of the usual hustle, just a couple of young guys trying to make some bucks.

 

There are some great performances on the album. It feels really loose, and I read where you guys cut most of the tracks in just a couple of takes. My reaction to the album, still, was that it's kind of a songwriting showcase. Is that how you see it?

I think that's an accurate impression, sure. We didn't write it to showcase any set kind of songs -- we just kind of ended up with these. I don't know if people still make records like that, but -- we did!

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I think one of the things that really comes through on the album is that you guys are having a lot of fun.

Oh, it was a hoot. We had a week of laughs and it was just a good time. I wish we could do it every week!

 

Another thing I picked up on is that you guys write about some serious topics, but usually with a twist and some humor involved. For example, "Halfway To Happy" is about a pretty twisted relationship, but it has some funny lines. It seems like the best songwriters can find the humor in even the most difficult situation.

Well, that all goes back somewhere to guys like Randy Newman. And don't get me wrong -- I love a good ol' dirge, too. I love a good sad song. "Halfway To Happy," you know, I think it caused a little concern in our household. My wife, after she started hearing some of those songs, said "Is everything okay? What's wrong with you these days?" Apparently Craig's wife said much the same. But that's just what came out when we were writing together.

 

I also read about you guys getting the song "Not A Lot Goin' On" placed as the theme song for a TV show (Corner Gas, on CTV). How did that come about?

We both do a lot of TV writing, and that song happened through a phone call from some people we know in the business. They called Craig and Craig called me, and we actually wrote the song over the phone. It's about sort of a hapless, loser guy, and I said, well, let's make it in the key of "E" and we just kind of went from there.

 

Were there particular groups or songwriters that you and Craig admired and maybe were trying to emulate with this record?

The classic songwriters like Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, [David] Porter, [Isaac] Hayes -- any of the guys who wrote the Memphis songs, the Stax stuff. We were working that vein -- that was our inspiration.

 

You guys played a few shows together in February, but it looks like you have a pretty full touring schedule with the Gin Blossoms for the rest of the summer. Are there plans for more Northey Valenzuela shows?

We're talking about the fall, and I'm also hoping that Craig may come and do some shows with me and the Gin Blossoms. Craig and I are courting the Gin Blossoms about an opening slot. I hope it works out -- it'd make my year. Playing with Craig is just a blast, and it sounds great. We bring it down to two acoustics, maybe a bass player, and it just kills. They're still putting together this summer's tour, so we'll have to see.

 

Did Craig guest at all on the new Gin Blossoms album?

Sadly, no. Craig lives up in Canada, so we don't get together that often. It's mostly by phone. It's too bad -- if he lived here, we'd probably get a lot more work done! But we only need a couple of days to get a lot done because we're each pretty keyed in to how the other one writes. We work pretty fast.

 

Both the Odds [Northey's former group] and the Gin Blossoms have experienced more than their fair share of the perils of the music business. I was wondering, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, if you had any advice for bands trying to break into the business today?

Well, let's see. Where do I start?! I hate to see any young band sign production deals too early. There's a phenomenon in the music business, that's been there forever, which is for someone who's a little bit older and a little bit wiser to come along and find a very talented young group and sign them to a production deal. And then they pay what seems to a young band like the insurmountable amount of money they need to put together a demo. Paying that couple of thousand dollars, the producer gets a good piece of the company going forward. I hate to see bands do that, and it doesn't have to happen anymore, because of the new ProTools recording equipment that's available.

Just don't sell off your stuff too early -- and don't do anything your mother wouldn't want you to do. [laughter] It's a crapshoot, but I do highly recommend it -- I think it's a great career, and if you have a good time and you love music, why not give it a try? There are a lot worse things you could do for a living.

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No kidding. Now, about that new Gin Blossoms album -- not to nag you or anything, but -- when is it coming out??

[laughter] Well, let me tell you about that. The single date is June 5. The record will be out as soon after that as we can make it happen. I've been mixing the record here in Los Angeles, and 10 of the songs are done, and there are two more to be mixed. I hope I'm done with that by the end of next week. Once I have that turned in, the rest is really up to the record company. If they've got a single set for June 5, I have to believe the record comes out about a month after that. That's traditionally how it's done.

[Editor's note: The day after this interview took place (which was May 2), an announcement was posted on the Gin Blossoms' MySpace page indicating a street date for the new album of August 8.]

Obviously we wish it would've been earlier, but we had to re-record. We originally recorded in Memphis, and it went okay, but the label wasn't completely satisfied, so they asked us to bring some stuff back to Los Angeles and work on it a little bit here. That's what I've been doing for the last four weeks, and it's been tough, because I have a lot of tour dates, as well as my regular recording/producing gig. I've been doing as much as I can with my schedule.

 

The band must be excited to get some new music out there after all this time.

Yeah! The guys seem genuinely excited about it, and I can't wait to see what happens.

 

On the new album, did you guys do any co-writing or are the songs mostly individually written?

I think it's pretty traditional Blossoms format. The Gin Blossoms have never really written together that much. Robin [GBs lead vocalist Robin Wilson] and I have written together a few times over the years, and on this record we did write two songs together. But generally everybody writes by themselves, and then we bring it in and it becomes a Gin Blossoms song.

 

How about the album title? You guys have had a couple of memorable ones in the past [New Miserable Experience and Congratulations, I'm Sorry], but I've heard this one is going to be self-titled.

Yeah, you know, we have this crazy Gin Blossoms site (www.ginblossoms.net) and on the message boards people were very upset that we weren't going to give it one of the wacky titles we're so well known for, and I thought gosh, we can't get away from that! We were just going to call it The Gin Blossoms, but now the record company says it would be better if we had a title. So everybody has their irony bone in overdrive and we're trying to figure out a good title for it.

 

It's hard to hear that and not go straight to the title of the single -- "Learning The Hard Way." That sounds like the Gin Blossoms' autobiography!

That's funny, because the record company wanted to call it Learning The Hard Way! And it is the first single and all, but Robin didn't like that idea, so we're back to the drawing board.

 

Alright, well -- that was my shot. [laughter]

I know! But you're in good company, because all the record company guys thought that was perfect. It does make sense. It reminds me of an article written years ago about the Gin Blossoms in which [bassist] Bill Leen said "This band's been through hell." And the writer said, "If this band has been through hell, they've made their own travel plans." Very true! We just don't know any better, do we?

 

[Editor's note: Many thanks to Jesse Valenzuela for visiting with us, and to Anne Leighton of Leighton Media for making the arrangements. Visit Jesse and his partners in crime at any of the following fine Web sites: www.jessevalenzuela.com, www.craignorthey.com, www.ginblossoms.net, www.myspace.com/ginblossoms, www.myspace.com/jessevalenzuela]




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