Friday, March 25, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE Interview with THE SMITHEREENS!






As the music industry constantly evolves and new musical genres come and go, it’s always nice to be reminded that Rock ‘n’ Roll is not a dying art form. While many acts attempt to alter their sound to fit a trend or a fashion, there are bands like The Smithereens who carve out their own niche and stick to it.

For over 30 years, the guitar-fuelled quartet from New Jersey has remained true to their original blueprint and they’ve literally rocked themselves into the music history books. With hit singles and radio staples (“Blood And Roses”, “Yesterday Girl”, “Only A Memory”, “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”, “A Girl Like You”), The Smithereens have embedded their hook-laden Pop tunes into the hearts, minds and souls of music fans around the country (and the world, come to think of it). And they didn’t need a gimmick: just a cache of great songs and plenty of determination.

Although they formed and made a name for themselves during the Punk and New Wave era in the ‘80s, The Smithereens have never aligned themselves with any particular scene and therefore, they’ve avoided being lumped into the dreaded “Former ‘80s Band” category. Their sound is a timeless blend of muscle and melody and they are just as relevant today as they were when they formed three decades ago.

As the band prepares to drop their first album of new original material in 11 years, Spaz was able to chat with vocalist, guitarist and main songwriter Pat DiNizio about the new platter, 2011, and their career to date…


SPAZ: Smithereens 2011 is just about to drop. How are you feeling about the album at this point in time?
PAT DINIZIO: We’re getting a great reaction based upon feedback that I’m getting on my Facebook page and some personal e-mails based on the 90 second segments that are posted online. Everyone seems to think it’s a great return to form. It reminds them of Green Thoughts and Especially For You and the first several albums that apparently meant so much to them when they were in high school and in college. We’re very happy to hear that. It was certainly a labor of love. It’s very challenging, to say the least, to come up with your first complete album of all-new original material in 11 years. I have released solo albums, but a Smithereens album is altogether different. I’m very pleased with the response so far.

SPAZ: It’s been over a decade since the last Smithereens album of original material. Did you have a huge stockpile of songs to choose from when you went into record the album?
PD: No, everything was written specifically for this album. I live in New York City on the lower East Side on Avenue A, what they used to call Alphabet City. There’s a rehearsal studio, which is on Avenue B about a block away from my apartment. We went back to that studio because that’s where we wrote and rehearsed the material, back in 1987, for our second Capitol Records album, Green Thoughts. We really wanted to go right back to the roots. It’s a $12 an hour rehearsal studio. The amps and drums are exactly the same as they were 25 years ago. They were in the same position. I think a can of coke that I crushed up and threw in the corner was still there! (laughs). We went back to those roots to write and rehearse the album. Back to New York, back to the old neighborhood, back to the old studio, which was fortunately still there, and wrote everything from scratch.

SPAZ: Do you think your surroundings effect the way that you write?
PD: I don’t know. I mean, a writer is a writer is a writer. I wrote most of the material for Smithereens 11, which was a fairly aggressive album, looking out the window at the Catskill Mountains in a house my then-wife and I were renting. I think it’s all really what you’re feeling inside more than anything. I felt, in this case, for me to be completely focused, it would be good to go back to the apartment where I wrote most of the Especially For You album and songs like “Blood & Roses” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”. I wrote “Only A Memory” there. I felt that I wanted to go back and I was thrilled to go back because those places still existed. I wanted to create a state of mind where I would be able to be at my best.

SPAZ: What inspired the songs?
PD: The way that we did this was that Dennis (Diken), our drummer, and I got together and I had him record a lot of different drum loops and I worked with those. I said I want you to play the drum pattern for every song on the Beatles’ Revolver album! (laughs) And I recorded them on cassette and took it home and I just had the rhythms playing all the time. Then I called the guys in and we worked on all the material together based on that starting point. You always need a starting point… a point of reference. With me it always starts with a rhythm. I come up with riffs and things, then I sing melodies on top of it. The words and titles usually come later. I mean, there’s no ONE way of working. In the case of “Blood And Roses”, it hit me in an instant. I was walking home from work back in 1985. I worked at a nightclub called Folk City. The song just came to me. The real struggle was to get it on tape and sing it into the tape recorder before I forgot it. Other times, the songs take longer. There’s a song on our first album called “Alone At Midnight”. I couldn’t get a handle on it. It literally took three years to write the song but it’s certainly become a favorite amongst the folks who have been nice enough to support us for the past 31 years.

SPAZ: The album is filled with great Smithereens songs. “Sorry”, “One Look At You”, ‘Rings On Her Fingers” and “Bring Back The One I Love”, in particular, are on par with your best. Is it an exhilarating feeling to get these new songs out to your fan base and a whole new generation of listeners who may not be familiar with the old tunes?
PD: Yes, certainly. We see these younger folks coming to the shows. We’ll meet them at the autograph table after the show because we always say “Hi” to everyone when we’re finished with the show. There was an instance recently in Washington DC where we played. There were these three skinny long haired kids who reminded me of how I looked when I was 18. They were standing right in front and were just staring at us like we were four far-out old dudes… and I just couldn’t get a reaction out of ‘em. Afterwards, they were saying “Dude, it was really great. My dad was playing me your records when I was five years old and I never thought I’d actually get to see you play live!” and I said, “But you weren’t reacting.” He said, “No, man, that’s how we enjoy the show.” (laughs). It’s a different thing. But I was probably much the same (at that age). But it’s heartening, indeed, because kids my daughter’s age are listening to us. She’s going to school in Santa Barbara and she says “Dad…”, well, she calls me ‘dude’ now. It’s the California influence. She says “Dude, you are famous!” And I said “What do you mean?”. She goes “All we listen to here is Classic Rock and, dude, you’re on the radio every day!” I said “Thanks, dude!” (laughs). The kids are apparently aware!. Unfortunately for them, there aren’t any new Rock ‘n’ Roll bands that have a ‘classic’ sound. I don’t like the expression ‘Classic Rock’ as much because it says that you ‘were’ rather than you ‘are’ and we ‘are’! We exist and the music that we write is as timely as anything we’ve ever done.

SPAZ: Once again, you roped in producer extraordinaire Don Dixon to helm the album. Because of your history with him, was Don your first choice as producer on this new record?
PD. Yes, absolutely. I worked with Don on my first solo album, which came out in ’98 or ’99. I worked with JJ Burnell, the bass player of The Stranglers, and Tony Smith, who plays with Lou Reed. I saw Tony play with the Jan Hammer Group and then the Jan Hammer-Jeff Beck Group so that was a thrill. And Sonny Fortune, who used to play with Miles Davis, so it was an interesting thing. Don and I worked on that record and we were talking about doing another Smithereens record for many years. So yes, Don was the obvious and only choice for this album. It was like picking up where we left off in ’94, when we did our one and only album for RCA called A Date With The Smithereens. I think Don was consciously setting out, in terms of production of this record, to make an album that has great emotional impact and really capture the excitement and energy of the songs rather than making what we refer to as ‘an audiophile record’. I think his template was Green Thoughts and Especially For You. The album is reminiscent of those Smithereens records in terms of the sonic properties of it but the songs are thoroughly modern.

SPAZ: The Smithereens have carved out their own niche in the music business. In the 30 years you have been around, you’ve lived through dozens, if not hundreds, of new musical movements and hundreds of bands have lived and died in that same amount of time. What keeps The Smithereens going?
PD: I think, basically and most importantly, a love of music. We started the band for the right reasons because we thought there was nothing cooler than being in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. We grew up on TV shows like Shindig and Hullaballoo. We loved records: we loved buying 45s and looking at cool record labels like Dunwich and Bang. We loved Rock ‘n’ Roll radio and it’s what we wanted to do. I also think it’s the fact that the band is family. We’ve been together so long. My ex-wife used to say to me, “Pat, what is it like being married to four people?”, meaning her and the other three guys in the band. (laughs). And for us, to have done 300 shows a year, lived on a bus 300 days a year together for nearly 10 years during the early days of the band’s success…. That speaks volumes to the solidarity that exists within the band.

SPAZ: You guys are one of the very few bands that emerged during the ‘80s that don’t seem to be weighed down by that “’80s Band” tag hanging over your head. Do you attribute this to the band’s timeless sound? Or perhaps the fact that the band never aligned itself with any particular genre in the first place?
PD: Back in the early days, we would do gigs at the very few local venues that supported original music and we’d hear other bands say “We’re going on hiatus for the summer. We’re taking the summer off.” I knew they were never going to make it because they didn’t have the commitment. You never stop playing! That’s one of the reasons why our sound is still relevant. We’ve never stopped playing and we never lost our edge. We’re a very simple, easily-understood Rock ‘n’ Roll band. We still plug directly into the amplifiers: we don’t use any effects pedals whatsoever so it’s that pure guitar tube-amp driven sound. We’ve preserved the live sound of the band. People come to shows now… some people haven’t seen us in 20 years. Their kids are grown and they are active again and they are going out and they are going to see live music. And they are shocked because while we don’t look the same, we’ve all grown older, they close their eyes and it sounds exactly, if not better, than the way it sounded 20 years ago when they first saw us. It’s a great responsibility and it’s a great trust that we have with our audience. We are intent on never letting them down. The goal was to be unique and have our own sound and not compromise in any way.

SPAZ: What do you think of the current music scene…. And it’s use of auto-tune?
PD. I’m certain that it (auto-tune) serves a purpose… I must say that anybody that hears this record, you should know that the vocals were done live without auto-tuning, without any sort of editing. They were done the old way. You go for a great, emotional, real performance.

SPAZ: Do you feel that the Smithereens have anything to prove?
PD: No, which is a beautiful thing at this point. We’ve done everything that we could possibly do. We’ve got platinum albums, we’ve done things like Saturday Night Live.... We’ve somehow managed to survive a lot of the shows and events we did. Things like the first episode of MTV Unplugged. Well, that show’s no longer around, but we are. Arsenio’s no longer around, but we are. We’re fortunate. We’re just a bunch of guys from New Jersey with guitars, that’s all. We do it our way and people seem to understand it and we’re very appreciative of the fact that they do understand what we’re all about. Many of the folks in the audience could’ve been in a band like The Smithereens. We just had the wherewithal to stick it out for six years and then we got signed for two corned beef sandwiches (laughs) by a label out of El Segundo, California called Enigma. So, we were standing on the right corner at the right time, and we were very lucky lucky. And we feel very lucky that we have this wonderful gift that’s been bestowed upon us and that we’re able to go out and do shows and people still come and the shows all sell out. I can’t explain why. I can just say that I’m very grateful and that I’m very happy that I’m given this opportunity to write songs and make albums and sing and play guitar.

SPAZ: What’s next for the Smithereens?
PD: We’re waiting for the record to come out and we’re looking at various tour opportunities for the Spring and Summer. And it’ll continue until whatever happens happens. I always wanted to go out with my boots on like Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash and guys like that. We’re lifers in this band: we’ve been doing it for 31 years. I can say with some reasonable authority that if this album does well, it will enable us to do another original album and we certainly won’t wait another 11 years! (laughs)

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your CD, DVD and record players?
PD: Ah, geez. That’s a bit of a loaded question. I tend to listen to records that I liked when I was growing up. I’m more visually-oriented: I watch movies at home, I don’t listen to music. I’m surrounded by music all the time. The last thing I do when I go home is listen to music. I don’t want to hear anything. I watch a lot of movies. I’m more inspired by movies. I did pick up Jeff Beck Live At Ronnie Scotts DVD and I picked up a recent Neil Young DVD. I’m interested in seeing what everyone’s doing. I’m amazed at the old-timers who still have their talent and are just forging ahead. Jeff Beck is playing better than I’ve ever heard him play. People like that are role models for me: they give me the strength to carry on.

Thanks to Pat DiNizio

Special thanks to Tony Pellegrino and Mike Logan.










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