Koch Since 1986 the Smithereens have showcased their robust and raucous brand…
- Posted on Feb 18th 2011 5:30PM by Ronnie Koenig
And thanks to their 1960s power-pop-influenced tunes, the New Jersey rockers -- founded by singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Mike Mesaros -- haven't lost their appeal.
This April, the Smithereens -- now joined by Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion on bass (Mesaros left the band in 2006 and in a Hollywood-ending turn of events, was replaced by Jornacion, a devoted fan of the band who would turn up at gigs) -- will release a new studio album, which should add fire to their already busy tour schedule.
DiNizio, arguably the heart and soul of the Smithereens, has also struck out on his own in recent years, playing a series of Living Room Concerts where he turns up on the doorsteps of fans to play one-off shows in their homes and backyards.
Spinner sat down with the Smithereens to discuss former lovers on Facebook, the non-existent barrier between the band and their fans, and why vinyl is, well, just better.
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.
How do you keep the material fresh? Do you change it up?
Babjak: Sure. Last night we did a jam on 'A Girl Like You' in the beginning of the song. I really don't know why.
Diken: Spontaneity. I always try and keep it fresh, try and do a little better every time. All the songs are really fun to play and I can't say I get sick of playing any of them. I try and approach it a little differently every night, even if it's not in the way you play it, but maybe in your attitude about it.
Babjak: And I hear it. I hear when you do that extra stuff.
Diken: Thank you, Jimmy. So that keeps it interesting. And you've got to keep in mind, you're playing for a group of different people every night. So you play to who's there and make it a good experience for the listener.
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.
Where did the idea for the Living Room Concerts come from?
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.
A lot of your lyrics seem very heartfelt. Would you consider yourself a romantic?
DiNizio: Yeah, very much so. I sit and I watch Turner Classic Movies. I was always a bit of a Luddite, I never liked change, I'm not a fan of technology. I'll sum it up for you: I have a cell phone but no one has the number. And they're not going to call me in my car, I won't allow it because it's when I do my best reflective and creative thinking and songwriting and problem-solving -- and there has to be some sanctuary where you're unreachable.
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.
How do you plan to promote the new album?
Babjak: It's going to be on CD because we sell CDs at shows, but I want to remember to tell somebody that we need to think about printing vinyl for this, because we've been selling a lot of vinyl lately. Our Beatles tribute records -- they put the two albums on a double album and they're flying out. They only made 1,100 of them.
Diken: Yeah, our fans, the age group they are, they remember vinyl very well.
DiNizio: And now kids are into it, too.
Diken: Kids are too, so you've got it from all ages. And we like it. And I think people like it as a memento or keepsake of a live show. When we sell it at live shows and they have it signed it's a more tangible thing than even a small CD. The graphics are that more tangible and striking.
I still play 45s at home. I have thousands of 45s and I love having a 45 with two songs on it, and it's meant to be that, and you can hold it. Young people these days are born into a world where they don't know what that is. They just know downloading. So I think when they discover what it's like to browse through a record store and that sense of discovery, from that end, they like it.
Jimmy and I used to have a record store back in the '80s and it was a kick to have people come in and hang out, and turn them on to music and learn from each other about music, instead of being alone in your room with headphones on just looking at that screen. I get turned on to music online, too, but there's no replacement for going to a record store.
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.