New Jersey. Love it or hate it there is something in the water there that makes great American rock bands. Case in point: The Smithereens – the seminal college rock band who brought us the landmark albums “Green Thoughts”, “Beauty & Sadness”and “Especially For You.” For three decades they’ve provided the melancholy (yet ripping) soundtrack to our lives. In recent times the band have released a flurry of solid cover albums taking on everyone from The Beatles to The Who, leading us to think their days of recording their own new material may be behind them. Thankfully, we were wrong! Their latest album “2011” is a perfect return to form and their first collection of original songs in a dozen years. We caught up with the band’s back beat (and historian) drummer Dennis Diken to discuss going back to their roots, keeping the band together for thirty one years and their brilliant new CD. Did we mention we love the new disc? We did? Good.
Rocker: Why has it been twelve years since the last CD of original Smithereens songs?
Dennis: I don’t know! (Laughs) There is no real good reason for it. When we did our “Meet The Smithereens” album which was a re-imagining of The Beatles I guess we got caught up in “cover fever”. That record was a real vanity project, and something we did for fun, but it turns out had legs. It became a lot more successful than any of us imagined that it would be. The natural thing to do was follow it up with another Beatles cover project. Which we did with ”B-sides: The Beatles.” That was a lot of fun. Our record company E1 liked the idea of us doing cover records so they kept giving us budgets to do them. We finally said to them we’d like to do an original album before the next millennium. It was just a matter of getting all the covers out of our system.
What was the recording process like this time around?
Jimmy Babjack (guitars), Pat Dinizio (lead vocals/guitars) and I went back to our roots in a way with this album. We did things the way we did when we recorded our “Green Thoughts” album. When we demo-ed the songs for that album we worked at a great rehearsal studio in New York’s East Village on Avenue B called Tucasa. We had fond memories of working there and it was a great period for us. When it came time to demo this album we checked to see if that rehearsal studio was still there and – lo and behold – it was. Still run by the same nice people that we remembered. We decided to go back there, visit our old haunts. Pat came in armed with a briefcase filled with his four track cassette machine, and a stack of cassettes. We went to town. Laid down some grooves. We wrote some separately and together. We knocked our heads together and I think we captured some of the old magic we felt being together in New York. Then we took those demos and went to a place we always wanted to go to to record the tracks — Mitch Easter‘s Fidelitorium in Kernersville, North Carolina. Our producer was Don Dixon, also a familiar name.
Who’s idea was it to bring back Don Dixon as the producer?
He had produced our previous albums “Green Thoughts”, “Especially for You” and “A Date With The Smithereens.” We had been bandied about working with him for the past couple of years. Several years before we recorded the most recent album we had been trying to nail down a time we could do an original record with Don. He has a very organic approach to producing. It was very comfortable, creative, productive and fun to work with Don again.
Was this the most fun you’ve had making a record?
It really was a fun process. We had no distractions in North Carolina. We went into this with the idea of having fun since we hadn’t recorded an original album in so long, and the climate of the music business was so different. We said, “Let’s not think about this too much. Let’s just play our hearts out and make some great music.” We wanted to make a record that would sound like something we would like to listen to.
What is the secret to keeping the band together?
A funny thing that Pat says onstage a lot is, “People ask us why are you still playing together thirty one years later? It’s because we don’t have any other job skills!” In part that is true. (Laughs) We grew up wanting to be musicians. We really wanted to play in bands, all our lives since we were little kids. It’s something we want to do. I think that is the secret to anything in life. You will succeed if you have the desire to do it. Really, the thing is, our fans still like us and our music. They come out to see us. They buy the records. They’re very enthusiastic. We find a lot of time after our shows these days when we meet our fans that there are people who are seeing us for the first time. They have our records, and have known about us all these years but never made it out to see us until now. Some people that have seen us before are saying we sound better than ever. There is a lot of encouragement and this is what we are made to do. We are on this earth to play together and be creative and make music.
Why did original bassist Mike (Mesaros) leave, and who is the new bassist billed only as “The Thrilla?”
Mike had two kids and he wanted to be home and raise his kids and see them grow up. So that is what he did. Thrilla’s real name is Severo Jornacion. He’s a Los Angeles native who had been a staunch fan of the band for years. We met him at an in-store appearance, I think for the “Eleven” album at Tower Records in L.A. He came to all our L.A. area shows. He would even travel down to San Diego. He was a fan who didn’t wear out his welcome. He started hanging with us and would occasionally jam with us. When we needed a sub for Mike he would do that. He also had a band that opened for us one time. When it came time for him to step in, it was a very easy transition. He’s a great bass player, great showman and good friend. He’s a good guy which is most important. His musical sensibilities and sense of humor fit in with ours too. That’s a big factor. That hearkens back to your other question about what keeps a band together, I think a shared sens of humor is very important.
How do you promote a solid rock record in a time of ring tones and hip-hop?
We really do it the same way we always did: we hit the road, we do press, we do radio. But of course all the social networking comes into play now, which is something we didn’t have back then. It helps that we haven’t put a record of new material out in so long. Our fans were hungry for this. It’s getting attention because it’s been a while. It’s a good record. We did play well on it. I think it’s succeeding on it’s own merit.
Are you touring to support the record?
Yes, but we’re not going to go out and do three months of touring. We’re doing pretty much what we always do which is extended weekends. There is a lot more focus on promoting this record at our shows. We are out there and hitting new places, and places we haven’t played in a while.
Will we have to wait another twelve years for the next original CD?
We’ve been really encouraged by the reaction we’ve gotten so far. We’re digging playing the new stuff live, so I think we’ll probably get back a lot sooner. I heard Pat saying recently somewhere that we should, “Get on it right away.” I think within the next year or so we’ll be working on a new one.
Apart from The Smithereens, what are you up to musically?
I put out an album called “Late Music” a couple of years ago by my act which is called Dennis Diken with Bell Sound. We are continuing to write and record music with them for a follow up. I have also been doing gigs with this legendary punk band The Sicks F*cks. It’s funny because in 1977 I was asked to be their drummer originally but I declined. I’m good friends with their lead singer Russel Wolensky for years now. They asked me to play with them at the annual Joey Ramone Birthday bash in 2010 in New York. It was a lot of fun. We’ve done a half dozen gigs since.