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Smithereens’ Drummer Dennis Diken Discusses New Singers Joining Band on Current Tour

by Eric Althoff

Smithereens lead singer Pat DiNizio died in December 2017 after a lengthy illness, but his bandmates knew they had to continue on. Thus the New Jersey group continues to perform with a roster of “fill-in” vocalists, including Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms.

“It became known to us that Robin Wilson was a big fan of the Smithereens, and {that} the Smithereens were very influential to Gin Blossoms and the…Phoenix music scene in the ‘80s,” said Dennis Diken, the Smithereens’ drummer, adding that having guest vocalists effectively brings the Smithereens full-circle as they themselves backed up Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks in 1991. 

“The Kinks loomed so large…and it was such a thrill for us to play with them,” Diken said. “I think it’s kind of the same way for Robin to step in and sing with the Smithereens.”

Whoever may be out front of the Smithereens, the band continues to tour as they turn the momentous age of 40 in 2020. Wilson will join the Jersey boys on vocals when the band comes to the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia on January 17th.

Formed in 1980, Diken and DiNizio joined pals Jim Babjak and Mike Mesaros on their rock odyssey when they were but fresh-faced schoolkids. 

“I’ve known Mike since 3rd or 4th grade, and I met Jimmy on the first day of high school,” Diken said. “The three of us, even before we met Pat, were kind of a force unto ourselves…learning to play together really. We couldn’t be stopped.”

And stop they haven’t. The ‘80s were good to Diken and company, with “Blood and Roses,” “A Girl Like You” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” earning them a fanbase thanks to their music videos and vibrant style. Four decades later, Diken says he remains close with his surviving band members—which isn’t always the case.

“We’re blessed that we’re still friends,” he said. “Being in touch with friends that long…I think it keeps you centered and keeps your spirit young.

“But 40 years, man. It’s really mind-blowing.”

The Smithereens are no strangers to the capital region, having performed in the DMV since those halcyon days. Diken says he is especially fond of returning to Anthony’s, Falls Church’s storied Greek and Italian restaurant—conveniently sited near the State Theatre. 

“Since our first show, Maryland, DC {and Virginia} have been outstanding for us. It’s been so wonderful to play there,” Diken said. 

Furthermore, he said the DMV’s Smithereens fanbase sets their annual clocks by their return to the State Theatre. Diken says the band tries to play there every January, thus kicking the year off right for their DC-area fans. 

“When I think of venues where I look out and just see joy on our fans’ faces, the State comes to mind,” he said. “I think people plan their early part of the new year around us.”

Diken still lives not far from his hometown of Belleville, New Jersey, and the Meadowlands sports and entertainment complex.  As a side hustle—yep, even a successful rocker like him has one—Diken guest DJs on local radio station WFMU, where he has been on staff since 1996. 

“If you asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grow up, my first answer would have been a DJ,” he said, adding that “free-form” radio—in which a jock plays more what he wants versus a predetermined playlist—was a big deal in the New York/New Jersey area of his youth. Indeed, Diken started listening to WFMU in 1968, long before he ever worked there.

“Every DJ has their own {method}, but I like to have a rough idea of what I’m going to be playing” before physically getting behind the mic, Diken said, adding he brings his own records into the studio. “I won’t have it mapped out in terms of set list, but once I get there, that’s when the juices get flowing. It’s like playing a live mixtape on the air.”

Callers and listeners used to dial in from around the Tri-State area during his show. Now, thanks to the internet, they can message him live from around the world.

“It’s a great means of self-expression and communication. I love doing it,” Diken said of his radio show. 

The Smithereens, who were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame last year, are working on new material, Diken said, and their song list for the State Theatre remains somewhat in flux.  But what he will promise is that 2020 will see treasures from the Smithereens vault finally seeing the light of day. After all, there’s four decades’ worth of it in there somewhere.

Meantime, in addition to hired gun Robin Wilson, other vocal pinch-hitters on the current tour include Ted Leo, Susan Cowsill and Marshall Crenshaw, who has been in the band’s orbit since the early days and even played keyboard and bass on their first full-length album, 1986’s “Especially for You.” 

When asked if he still practices on his drum kit, Diken chuckles somewhat mischievously. 

“Do I need to? Yes. Do I? No,” he said, adding that he needs to ensure he remains physically and psychologically fit for life on the road.  

“That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions,” Diken said of perhaps putting in more practice time on the percussion set, “and I probably would have told you the same a year ago.”

“The band really just practices when we’re breaking in new material or rehearsing songs we haven’t played in a long time. And that’s really done at soundcheck.”

Diken, 62, is at a point where friends and colleagues are settling into retired life. But he refuses to use that word, saying that in addition to the Smithereens and DJing on WFMU, he also freelances his percussion skills out to other artists. 

“I don’t punch a clock, I don’t drive to work every day. It’s not like it’s a grind,” he said, adding that even though the schedule can be demanding, he and his bandmates continue to do what they love. 

“The fact is all of us still love to play,” Diken said. “We couldn’t keep doing this if our fans didn’t keep coming to see us and hear us. And the State Theatre…audience has been so supportive.”

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t keep playing. It’s what we do.” 

Catch the Smithereens at the State Theatre in Falls Church, VA on January 17, 2020.

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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