WhatsUp Interview: Dennis Diken of The Smithereens – Updated – Ted Leo to Join Band

Band to Play Greenwich Odeum Saturday

Updated 11/15: We’ve just learned that RI-based singer-songwriter Ted Leo will be joining the Smithereens at this show. He’s slated to officially join the band on tour in 2019.

Looking for a good night rock and roll, served up Jersey style? No, we’re not talking about Bon Jovi or the Boss, but an often-underappreciated quartet that broke out in the mid-80s when rock and roll was more or less on the back burner.

The Smithereens arrived on the scene post-punk and pre-grunge, when popular tastes were changing – Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna ruled the airwaves and “Underground” music was becoming “Alternative.” Out of the Garden State came the jingle-jangle power rock sounds of the Smithereens.

I spoke with Smithereen drummer Dennis Diken last week, in advance of their show at the Greenwich Odeum Saturday night. He shared stories about the band’s origin, their chart-topping debut album, and the loss of founding member Pat Dinizo.

Pat Dinizio

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Smithereens fans were devastated last December when they learned of the sudden death of lead singer and main lyricist Pat Dinizio. They band, however, had no doubts about carrying on – and adding noted singer/guitarist Marshall Crenshaw to the mix.

“Pat was so much a part of our band, explained Diken. “The three of us (Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, and Mike Mesaros) grew up playing together in the same town. This is what we do, so we just continued doing what we do.”

“We’ve known Marshall forever, we’ve known him since just before we recorded out first album, we played on bills with him, we opened for him a number of times in the early 80’s and he actually played on our first album. He played Hamond B-3 organ on “Strangers When We Meet” and 6 string bass on “White Castle Blues.” Funny thing, if you look at the album credits, he used a pseudonym, he called himself Jerome Jerome. I don’t know why he did it…”

Diken explained how Crenshaw came to be a part of the mix.

“Before Pat passed, we had a January show at the Count Basie Theatre already scheduled as a Smithereens gig. (Springsteen guitarist) Steven Van Zandt, who was the producer of that show, suggested we keep the date and bring in guest vocalists and make it a celebration of Pat’s life and his music.”

“That gave us a chance to hear other vocalists, and hear them play with Mike, Jimmy and myself. Marshall was a perfect fit, as was Robin Wilson from Gin Blossoms who will be performing with us in the new year, as will Ted Leo, who I believe lives in Rhode Island.”

“Losing Pat was a big blow, it’s certainly different playing with Marshall. We were never looking to find a sound-a-like or bring in anybody that was trying to be a clone of Pat, but Marshall’s been a big part of our extended family for a such a long time, we’re cut from the same cloth, coming from a classic song background. It doesn’t sound like Pat, but it really works.”

The Early Years

The band’s power pop sound has its origins in suburban New Jersey and later New York City where they gigged in the early 80’s. Diken described the early years…

“It brings back memories of our scuffling days, we were part of the Bleecher Street scene where we were playing a club called Kenny’s Castaways. It was our New York home base. Pat Kenny who owned the place was kind of our spiritual godfather – he championed a lot of musicians. Steve Forbett came out of that scene, Suzanne Vega I believe played there as well.” (From the late 70’s till it closed in 2012, the club was known to host an eclectic group of artists including Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Willie Dixon and the Fugees.)

“We formed in 1980 and put out a 4 song EP called Girls About Town. We played a lot of clubs all over New Jersey and New York and we were starting to branch out a bit. By 1983, Pat was really growing as a songwriter and we did this record called Beauty and Sadness which got reviewed in Rolling Stone which was a big deal for us.

“We were starting to move along, and in 1985, on Good Friday that year, we recorded songs at the Record Plant in New York City. It was totally self-produced, we worked with our trusty engineer Jim Ball and went ahead and got really good sounds and cut five tracks. Those tracks all appeared on Especially for You,” their break out release in 1986.

We sent those songs on a 5 track demo to every possible label … finally, Enigma Records liked it and brought in (noted Producer) Don Dixon. We hit it off – he let us be ourselves which was always very important to us in the studio. We thought we made a pretty good record.

Meet the Smithereens

After a string of acclaimed  albums in the 80’s and 90’s the band recorded an unexpected album in 2008, Meet The Smithereens. A year later, they followed with The Smithereens Play Tommy, a tribute to the Who, another early influence on the band.

“We were approaching the 50th anniversary of Meet the Beatles. I thought it would be a fun project. We learned to play by listening to Meet the Beatles, among other records, but that certainly informed our playing, our musical attitudes, our whole musical spirit when we were kids as it did for a lot of young people in 1964. I think we cut all the tracks in one day, it turned out to be quite a success. The New York Times reviewed it and a lot of people re-discovered the Smithereens, booking agents, journalists … it did really well for us.”

Your sure to hear cuts from that album and more Saturday night. A few seats are still available. Click here for details.