They have been called everything from “America’s Rock Band” to “New Jersey’s Second Favorite Musical Export.” They are The Smithereens! Dennis Diken on drums. Mike Mesaros on Bass. Jim Babjak on lead guitar. And the late great Pat DiNizio on vocals. Their signature sixties retro fused sound ruled the airwaves in the time of 1980s “Alternative Rock.” They didn’t just create songs, the built anthems. I dare you to sit still while listening to “Blood & Roses,” “Top Of The Pops,” “House We Used To Live In” or “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” You can’t do it. The band, now in it’s 42 year continues to tour the world. Not an easy task, considering their lead singer died in 2017. With a little help from their friends, Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms, and fellow eighties stalwart Marshall Crenshaw, The Smithereens continue to tour and keep the band’s songs and vision alive. To further celebrate they are set to release “The Lost Album” on September 23rd. A 12-track masterpiece of classic Smithereens songs for the archives featuring Jim, Mike, Dennis and Pat DiNizio. I caught up with Drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak For this exclusive Alchemical Interview.
Alchemical: You have had a successful four-plus decades as a band. But what would you have done if the band hadn’t taken off?
Jim: I was going to move from New Jersey to Arizona with my parents and open a tavern. We had a tavern in New Jersey and In 1979 talked my parents into selling it and moving to Arizona. They sold the house and tavern and moved west. They expected me to go but right at that time Dennis and Mike and I started playing with Pat. And getting serious about the band. My dad was pissed at me for 6 years and didn’t really talk to me. Until our first album came out and we were on the charts. Then we [were] a proud dad.
Dennis: I always wanted to go into radio when I was a kid. I wanted to be a DJ. Even with that I always knew I would eventually end up playing music. I was determined I was going to play drums in a rock and roll band. I get to do both now. I do a weekly show now called “Denny’s Den” on WFMU and online (https://wfmu.org/playlists/DI/)
Alchemical: What was the moment you knew the band was going to “Make It?”
Dennis: We were in Los Angeles playing the “Playing The Roxy”. Our single “Blood & Roses” from our Enigma record was still happening [on the] radio. The video was all over MTV. But we were working on releasing “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” which was the second single from our “Especially For You.” It was summer and after soundcheck, the promotion guy for our label pulled us aside at the stairs there at The Roxy. We had a meeting and he told us that it looked like “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” was getting added at key radio stations and was about to take off. At that moment I heard the second single was happening I thought, “Wow, maybe we really have a shot now.” Because it was not just one single. It gave me hope that we wouldn’t be a one hit wonder. I’ll never forget that moment and that feeling. It was a big deal to me.
Alchemical: What were some of the highlights of the years you were signed to Capitol Records?
Dennis: There were so many. Playing on “Saturday Night Live” was big.
Jim: That was huge for four guys from New Jersey. Funny I just ran into John Lovitz at the airport while waiting in line to board the plane. I introduced myself and reminded him of the time we played SNL. He was part of the cast. He asked me who was the host and I told him, Corbin Bernsen. He didn’t seem to remember but was nice enough. Recording our second album “Green Thoughts” at Capitol Records in L.A.
Dennis: That studio meant so much to us. Following in the footsteps of everyone who had been on the label before us. The Beatles. Al Martino. The list was long. Another big moment was getting to know and work with Del Shannon was a huge thing for us. Somebody put us in touch, and I sent him a tape of our “Especially For You” album and he really liked the band. We became pals. We asked him to sing on “The World We Know” on our first Capitol album, “Green Thoughts.” He came by that legendary studio, and we sung on the same microphone. Later Jimmy and I returned the favor and sang harmony on his album.
Alchemical: What was the first big purchase you made when you hit the big time?
Jim: It was a car. A 1987 Toyota Camry. And down payment on a town house.
Dennis: My house. I didn’t get a new car until about five years ago. I’m not much of a consumer.
Alchemical: You toured the world. How did you spend your off time on tour?
Jim: Dennis and I have been best friends since we were fourteen. We would go on walks everywhere. Walk to the Eiffel Tower. Rented a hammer and chisel and chipped off pieces of the Berlin Wall. We were tourists. Went around to pubs and talked to locals. We didn’t take any of that for granted. Still don’t.
Alchemical: How did the band find its voice after Pat died in 2017?
Jim: I got a lot of calls from people saying “I sound just like Pat” but to me having a sound-alike was too creepy. We are not like Journey who can get away with a sound alike. That doesn’t sit well with me.
Dennis: We had a scheduled gig on the books. It was planned before Pat passed away. And Little Steven was involved. He suggested we turn it into a tribute to Pat. He helped us call and see who we could get to sing with us.
Jim: We called Bebe Buell. She once recorded a cover of our song “Top Of the Pops” and then Peter Zaremba of the Fleshtones agreed to be on the show. Followed by Richard Barone of the Bongos. And Marshall Crenshaw.
Dennis: We knew Marshall since we opened for him at The Fastlane in New Jersey in 1981
Jim: Plus he played on our first album under a fake name. “Jerome Jerome.” He joked he used the fake name after he heard Pat wasn’t going to pay him. (Laughs) But I think he just didn’t want hassle from Warner Brothers his record label at the time.
Dennis: Then Robin Wilson from Gin Blossoms agreed to do it. He told us in rehearsals what a huge fan he was of the band and how much our album “Green Thoughts” meant to him.
Alchemical: How did you go from one show to having Marshall Crenshaw and Robin Wilson tour as guest vocalists with The Smithereens?
Dennis: After the benefit show both Robin and Marshall approached us independently and said, “If you guys ever want to do live shows we would love to be part of it.”
Alchemical: How did “The Lost Album” come about?
Dennis: After we were dropped by Capitol Records and before we signed to RCA, we went into Crystal Sound a studio on West 19th in New York City. The studio is no longer there. Sadly, the owner has passed away. The engineer died as well. We paid for everything and produced everything ourselves. Like our early days. We produced enough material for a double album.
Jim: We worked hard. Recorded whatever was on our minds. Then we got a record deal with RCA. We took half of what we had done on our own and re-recorded those as our album: “A Date With The Smithereens.” The remaining twelve songs went into the archives.
Dennis: Lately we’ve been going through the piles of tapes and CDs we have. And rediscovered those twelve tracks. They had a cohesive feel and sound and that’s why they make up “The Lost Album.”
Alchemical: Besides “The Lost Album” is there any brand-new Smithereens music in the works?
Jim: Yes. I’ve been writing with both Marshall and Robin. I’ve also been writing a song with Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills. Hopefully that song will be on the album. We’ve talked with Susan about doing a live show. Have her do an entire Smithereens show and have a female voice on all those songs. That would be wonderful.
Alchemical: What can fans expect from a new Smithereens album to sound like?
Dennis: It’s a little too soon to say because we haven’t cut anything yet. It will be songs with the essential Smithereens feel and sound because it is still the same guys playing on it. Add that to the essence of The Smithereens that happens when the three of us play together. Jimmy hitting one chord. Me hitting one flam on the snare. Mike with that bass rumble. That one blast of sound is the essence of the band.
Alchemical: Anything else coming?
Dennis: We continue to play live all the time. We play with the same enthusiasm we always have. We never stopped playing. The heavy touring years were eighty-six thru ninety-two. We played a lot of colleges and did well with that audience. Then they grew up a bit and looked elsewhere musically. The kids who liked us when they were in college, graduated, had families and stopped coming out. Then they grew up and came back. Remained loyal. We see them and their kids now at shows.
Jim: I see a lot of older bands going through the motions playing their hits. Boring. Not us. When we hit that stage, I feel like I’m seventeen again. As far as releases we are getting back the rights to a lot of our records. This December we will reissue our Christmas album on CD and for the first time on Vinyl. I also have my own line of coffee. It took five years to develop and now it’s real. People can get it at: https://www.babjaxcoffee.com/
Alchemical: Jim why do you sign air sickness bags and hide them on planes?
Jim: I’ve been doing it going back thirty-five years. It comes from the old “Kilroy Was Here” doodle. I was bored on a plane with a barf bag and a sharpie. That evolved into my “cheers” logo. No one has showed up at our shows with one they found. Yet! But with Facebook it’s now becoming a thing.
Keith Valcourt is a Los Angeles based music and entertainment writer. He has interviewed thousands of celebrities in the worlds of music, film, TV and comedy for dozens of outlets including: L.A. Times, Washington Times, LFP Publishing, ChelseaCommunityNews.com, RetroRoadMap.com LaArtsOnline and more. Much More
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