Smithereens 2011…a tonic for too much of the soft stuff
I’ve been catching up these past few weeks on a ton of new music and right off the bat I’ll tell you that lately I’ve been feeling a little blue, a little sad, a little old, a little weary and lot tired. I could blame it on any number of things but this morning when the Smithereens’ latest album 2011 hit the deck I realized my problem. Too much damn Americana lately…too much folk and too much twang. Too much of this, too much of that. And sometimes when your down and troubled and need a helping hand, you need to rock your way out of the funk and there’s nothing like the boys from Jersey to get your blood going. And what amazed me today was that after thirty-one years of playing together, after eleven years of no new original recorded material with only some kick ass tribute albums to the Beatles and the Who to their credit, and while they played here and there and did solo stuff and odd jobs…they managed to put out in April what just might be the best record they’ve ever made. Note for note, song for song. And it just may be the best rock release of the year, hence the name I suppose.
One night in 1990 inside a hotel ballroom in Dallas at a private party for about four hundred music industry weasels, the Smithereens played an incredible set of songs from the newly released 11, which was their best selling album but not what you might call a smash hit. When they started up “A Girl Like You”, a totally trashed and inebriated Easy Ed along with his partner Vyto the Crazy Lithuanian led a conga line of about twenty-five people onto the stage where we grabbed the mics, sang backup on the chorus, danced wildly and created a magical moment. Or so it seemed to us. Ten years later when Vyto and I ran into lead singer Pat DiNizio in Minneapolis promoting his great solo record that we sadly couldn’t sell much of, and when I reminded him of that night he said, “That was you? Man…you were all so fucked up and sounded like shit.”
Three dudes from Carteret off the Jersey turnpike and one from nearby Scotch Plains. Formed in the seventies, and starting in 1980 they put out five classic albums throughout the decade. They are in their fifties now, still playing the clubs with that super charged power pop sound that I’ve always thought began with the Kinks and Beatles, Brinsley Schwartz and those Brit pub bands, the Byrds and Heartbreakers, early Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Cheap Trick and maybe some Graham Parker, all sprinkled with that New Jersey pixie dust. Pat’s unique vocal quality, jingle jangle non-12 string guitar sounds and crushing chronic chords with the dyno-rhythm section to fuel it all are not only still there, but stronger than ever. Along with Pat, founding members Dennis Diken still pounds the skins and Jim Babjak provides those tasty licks. Bassist Mike Mesaros left in 2006 and was replaced by Severo ‘The Thrilla’ Jornacion.
Ronnie Koenig interviewed these guys back in February for spinner.com and if you don’t mind, I’ll share some of that here:
It took the Smithereens a good six years to get a break. Did you think during that time, “I know this is going to happen?“
DiNizio: I was already 31 years old and I sent a cassette with the name of the band, my name, songs — no photo, no nothing else — and a week later the guy from Enigma Records calls me up and goes, “I didn’t know you were still around. This stuff is great. I thought you broke up. You want a record deal?” I almost fell through the floor. And then literally within six months after that phone call I was listening to WNEW-FM here in New York and I heard ‘Blood and Roses’ on the radio and all those years of frustration and ambition and pent up everything… I just broke down and started to cry.
You guys have been doing this for 31 years, do you still get nervous or excited before a show?
Diken: When we hit the stage, there’s really nothing like it. You have a packed house and people who are there already know and enjoy your music. It’s a gift to be able to do this and get up there and communicate your own music to people you don’t necessarily know and get nice feedback. And we get word from a lot of folks that we’ve touched their lives in positive ways.
At your shows, you don’t seem to draw a line between rock stars and fans. I’ve seen you shooting the breeze before you go on and then people are handing you drinks during the set.
DiNizio: I don’t believe that we’re any different than the people who are coming to see us. They work very hard, they work 40-hour weeks, more probably. It’s tough times right now. I was a garbage man ’til I was 31 years old. I’m exactly the same as anyone else who comes to the shows. When I’d go see David Bowie… [people like that] are real stars, and with them there’s always going to be that distance — and a lot of the fans want that. But that’s not the case with us. We’re a real working class band and our audience has grown up with us … inside they still feel like they’re 15 years old. So I think we provide that sort of outlet for them.
Diken: At an event like this, it’s easy to spend time with our fans. We like our fans; we’re fans; we grew up being fans.
Babjak: We come out after every show and say hi to people. People bring their CDs to get autographed and stuff.
Do you see a lot of the same faces at these shows?
Diken: Per city, yeah. We always have a strong fanbase that will come out to support us. Interestingly, in the past couple of years so many people having been telling us that they’re seeing us for the first time.
Babjak: But they’ve been listening to us since they’ve been in college.
In addition to playing in the Smithereens, they all seem keep busy doing other stuff, and Pat does his annual Memorial Day picnics as well as the Living Room Tours.
DiNizio: Well, in addition to my duties as principal songwriter and lead singer of the Smithereens, I’ve done a lot of unusual things peripherally. I ran a grant program for the Jim Beam liquor corporation called B.E.A.M., Benefiting Emerging Artists in Music. There was a young lady from Spokane, Washington who needed several thousand dollars to refurbish her touring vehicle. And in the process of the grant interview, I asked her what sort of venues she was playing and she said, “I do house concerts.” And I said, “What in the world is a house concert?” This was 1999 and she said, “I drive all around the greater Pacific Northwest and I turn up at people’s houses and they all sit around the living room and I sit down on the couch and I play my songs.”
So I was really charmed by that idea. I thought it was a wonderful way to connect with people and also entrepreneur [wise] a new thing -– something challenging. So I said, “May I borrow the concept from you, I really love it?” And she said, “Well, it’s not mine to lend because bluegrass and folk artists have been doing this for decades.” And so I put the word out on the Internet and to my astonishment about a week later I was booked in the backyards and living rooms of ninety Smithereens supporters, coast-to-coast.
Are the shows all-request?
DiNizio: They can be if they want. Ultimately, it’s their show. They can get up and play if they want. There’s an element of rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp in it because they can get up and play or their kids can play as long as it doesn’t turn into a free-for-all and melee. But there’s a lot of storytelling.
What can you tell me about the new album?
DiNizio: The new album is a very upbeat pop album. The lyrics are positive. It’s a very lively record. It’s a labor of love. It’s very much a group collaboration; the guys were involved a lot more on this project in the arranging of the material and the writing of the songs.
Diken: Yeah, the recording is all done and now Don Dixon, our producer, will be mixing it and it’ll be out in April. Don Dixon produced our first two albums. And he produced our fifth, also.
Babjak: He’s the fifth Smithereen.
Diken: Yeah, in a way. He’s one of the main components of our extended family.
Where does the inspiration for the lyrics on the new album come from?
DiNizio: They just come from the inner recesses of your mind — sometimes you don’t even know what they’re about. I don’t believe that we ever completely recover from everything we’ve been through. We can deny that it happened to us, but certain things, traumatic relationships, are always lurking in your subconscious mind and they come to haunt you. And now with Facebook these people that you haven’t seen in 30 years — somebody that broke your heart when you were a kid — they’re emailing you and they want to be your Facebook friend.
It’s unusual for a group to stay together this long, how do you get along so well?
Diken: You know what it boils down to? We’ve been doing this a long time, we know each other very well. We know what to do and what not to do. We like playing together. I’ve known Jimmy since freshman year in high-school, known Pat since ’77, ’78 — there’s some real deep roots here. It’s family. And families generally stick together.
And we’re still making vital music.
Amen to that and I must admit I’m out of the funk today and I even plugged in my old Hagstrom solid body and played along with the new tunes. Here’s one for you….
If you’ve made it this far, you might recall me earlier mentioning those tribute records they released. There are two for the Beatles and one for the Who. Not interpretations so to speak, or soundalikes that they used to sell for cheap in supermarkets but real honest to god almost note for note tributes to the bands they loved and grew up with. Some of the tunes are better than the originals too, if you ask me. I’m feeling like I need to share….
If you ever had a band and a garage, this is it. Sorry to wander too far away from the new album but I’m going to leave you with another one from the past. Can you tell it’s been a good day here? I’m feeling better. Thanks guys.