Our Interview with the Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio — 30+ years rockin’ and they’re coming to West Palm

We’re looking forward to the Smithereens concert this weekend (4/21/13) at the Sunday on the Waterfront series here in West Palm! We had to opportunity to interview Pat DiNizio from the Smithereens this week!  Here’s some of our conversation with Pat:

DWP:  It’s great to have you here in West Palm (thank you City of West Palm.)  Is this the Smithereens’ first time playing in West Palm Beach?

Pat:  We’ve played many of the colleges in South Florida, played shows in Hallandale and Miami, the University in Gainesville; we used to spend a week to 10 days hitting the colleges in South Florida and we probably played West Palm in one of those tours. We’re looking forward to this show this weekend.

The Smithereens have passed three decades with relatively little personnel changes (many of your peers are touring with a fraction of the original personnel).  Forgive me if I associate New Jersey with drama, but you don’t seem to reflect the usual rock and roll stress.  How did you avoid that as a band and stay a unit for so many years?

There were relationships and friendships that preceded the actual formation of the band; Jimmy, Dennis and Mike knew each other for years before the band was actually created.  They went to grade school together, so any personal issues that they may have had were worked out in the years before the band.

There was a mutual respect and love; I really can’t remember any serious conflict. There were probably some issues that bothered certain band members but they were unspoken because we always put the band and what we were attempting to achieve with the band ahead of any individual concerns.  There were times that maybe you wanted to say something but you didn’t speak out because, as my Mom used to tell me when I was a kid, “Son, make a speech in anger and it’ll be the sorriest speech you ever made.” And I think that everybody in the group believed that, and we just cared about each other too much to insult each other, and create a situation that would force someone to give someone else an ultimatum or leave the band.

And that was so radically different that virtually every other band I had been in previous to this. I’d been playing in bands for years before and they never lasted; you could never get everybody to agree on anything, and someone would feel slighted or get bored and quit, and they’d be on to the next thing.  In the case of the Smithereens, we rehearsed virtually every night in my Dad’s basement here in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, where I still live, and it took us six years to get a record deal, so there was a unique chemistry happening then and now. Here we are, 33 years later; March 2013 was the 33rd anniversary of the band.  And did I add?  We have no job skills for anything else at this point? [Chuckles]

And you’ve been touring and producing records for all those years, correct?

There was really no self imposed hiatus [in producing records] but we reached the point of critical mass in that nobody wanted to put out our records. We’d had a great, 10 year, non-stop run of activity and non-stop touring, playing 300 gigs a year, living on the bus, having hit record after hit record after hit record.  And then grunge hit and the bottom fell out of our career and we had to hold on, and we held on, and we held on, and eventually our audience came back.  Those same nice folks that gave us a career and a life worth living came back because their kids were now in college. Their kids were out of the house, and they [their parents] always loved rock and roll.  What the kids don’t understand is that their parent’s generation that grew up on rock and roll, inside they’re still 16 or 17 and they still love to go out and listen to loud rock and roll.  But when you get married and have children and have a real job in the real world some things take priority and you become less active as a record buyer and a concert goer.  We’ve found though sheer persistence we’ve been able to continue to do what we do, thanks to the support of these folks, and it’s nice to still be here.

It looks like you’ll have a great summer and have an opportunity to renew your roots and expose your music to some new ears with your dates with Tom Petty.  It sounds like a match made in heaven. 

Yes, we’ve got six dates with them so far; I’ve had a lot of comments on my Facebook page about how it’s the perfect double bill, and in a sense it is, for those folks that grew up with the music of Mr. Petty and the Smithereens.  I can remember when I was writing our third Capitol Records release, Smithereens 11; I had a copy of Tom’s album “Full Moon Fever,” with the great song “Won’t Back Down,”  and we both had hits on the charts at the same time.

It’s such a wonderful opportunity and we’re very, very grateful to him for making the phone call and asking to have the Smithereens play with him.

Have you played any shows with Petty before?  

We haven’t played with Tom before, but we’ve toured with Bon Jovi, with the Pretenders, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Los Lobos, UB40; the list goes on and on. We had arena dates with ZZ Top; we’ve played with literally everyone.  We’ve done festival dates with Hank Williams, Jr. and Ted Nugent, opened for Bruce Springsteen, you name it, we’ve done it.  It seems that if you’re around long enough and if you survive long enough you’re going to wind up playing shows with everybody in every conceivable situation.

One of my favorite tracks on your latest album – 2011 – is “World of Our Own.”  It seems like a bit of the Beatles meets Pink Floyd with very atmospheric background vocals and interesting progressions.  One commentator alluded to some early progressive rock work by members of the band. What are those roots, and do those prog rock roots have a factor in this song or others by you?

I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, actually saw the Dark Side of the Moon tour; I can’t say that I’m a fan of all of their records, but we grew up listening to that and early Genesis with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and Yes. I know Chris Squire very well and it’s an honor to know someone whose music and playing meant so much to me as a kid.  It’s a part of my musical DNA.

[Regarding “A World of our Own]  I think you’re right; that’s a great and very complementary description of “A World of Our Own.”  That’s my favorite track from the album and I think it’s the best track on the album.  It’s got power, melody, real emotion, and a decent set of lyrics to it.  Is it a radio hit?  I don’t think so, nor do I care.  It might have been back in the old days.

The harmonies on that record and really, across the board with the Smithereens are right on.

I think that [Smithereens 2011] contains everything musically that we are.

How did you achieve that great guitar sound intro to “Bring Back the One I Love” on your latest album? 

That overdub part was Jimmy playing through– I think–one of those tiny Danelectro amps with a six inch speaker; he put it up on a countertop and our producer Don Dixon put a mic up to it and that’s it.  I think it was a Telecaster though the Danelectro, without a lot of processing, and we are fans of just plugging the guitar into the amplifier; that’s what we do live and that’s what we do in the studio.  That song and he majority of the Smithereens 2011 record was first takes.

You’ve played a bunch of different guitars through the years, but it seems that you’ve settled on Fenders.  Are you all exclusive to Fender guitars?   How do you get that great guitar sound live? 

Fenders are our main choice on stage, as well as a guitar we frequently go to in the studio; I’m very comfortable with my Fender Buddy Holly Stratocaster; I’ve used that guitar, but I’m comfortable with my John Lennon Rickenbacker, and Jimmy’s comfortable with his Rickenbacker also.  It’s really whatever guitar gets the job done. When we recorded “Green Thoughts,” our second album, everybody thought the guitars were Rickenbacker through Marshall Amps which we used live (and which was unusual ‘cause no one played Rickenbackers through Marshalls)  but in the studio we had Strats, Guilds, Rickenbacker guitars and basses; we had 40 guitars in the studio back then, but we don’t use as many now…

You did a few cover albums which really allow you to show your versatility and skills.  I was especially impressed with your cover of the Who’s Tommy; not an easy feat instrumentally, and you gentlemen did a splendid job… and your covers of the Beatles show you can nail those incredible harmonies with silky ease. The engineering and production work is great also, especially on the Tommy album.  And it’s great to listen to those Beatles songs rendered with 21st century recording tools.

What made you decide to cover Tommy? 

We had a 10 year period with the record industry in disarray, the effects of Napster and the terrible idea that music should be free and not paid for, unlike your groceries and the car you drive; after all, it is the composer and the band’s intellectual property.  No one wanted to pay a band to make a record unless you were 20 years old, but we’d had a long walk in the sun and we stayed with it. I went to the last label we’d had a record with and presented an idea for the Smithereens doing the Beatles which turned into a reimaging of the Beatles first album.  It was really successful – it broke download records on iTunes – and it put us on the front page of the New York Times leisure section on Sunday, so they let us do a Christmas album, another Beatles tribute and the live album.  I did a solo Buddy Holly tribute, but we really wanted to do a brand new studio album and that’s what our supporters and fans wanted to hear.  The label, though, figured there was a built in market for tribute albums, and they’re not wrong about that, so I came up with the idea that, since the 40th anniversary of Tommy was coming up in 2009, we should say something– let’s have the Smithereens cover Tommy.  The record label went nuts over it, green lighted it immediately.  My fellow band members, though, felt we’d already pushed the envelope too far, so when I went back to the label and told them we weren’t all on board, they asked what “will it take for you to do Tommy?”  And I said, “If you finance and release a brand new Smithereens original album we’ll do it,” and they (to my amazement) went for it.  We gave them Tommy, and we created Smithereens 2011, now we’re on to the next original album.

I came up with the concept for the Tommy album and sold it to the label, but it’s mostly the product of Jimmy and Dennis.  It’s unique in that it’s not a note for note recreation, but it’s more like the Who’s Live at Leed’s meets Tommy. And Live at Leeds is the best live album ever made.  In concert the Smithereens do a song “The House We Used to Live In,” and we created a musical scenario that in the live version is very close to what the Who did with Live at Leeds; it’s an 8-9 minute version of a two minute song, and probably as close to anything on Live at Leeds that you’ll hear a contemporary band do.

As a band you’ve seen the music industry transform to something almost unrecognizable from when you started.  How do you feel about a digital world without Tower Records, and the necessity of focusing more on touring than on producing records (if you’ve found that so)?

I don’t think that anyone’s making a lot of money touring either; expenses have gone up and no one’s getting paid any more for doing live shows.  I don’t know how to do anything else at this point in my life, or nor do I much want to.  We just will keep pushing, keep going.  There’s no choice, not for someone who’s committed.  I was destined to do this through good times and bad times.

And you’re working on a new album?

We’re writing it now; we haven’t gone in the studio yet, but it will be out by Christmas of this year.  Our manager has his own record label through Universal so we don’t have to worry about distribution or release, and it a lot easier to make records these days.  We did the overdubs for our last record in my living room after laying down the basics in the studio.  We used to love living in the studio making a record; now I love staying home and doing concerts on the road.  I don’t like being in a studio 24/7 anymore; I think you go in and work intuitively, go where your mind takes you.  I like doing records at home, since the technology enables us to do it.  And Inexpensively.  That being said, it doesn’t mean that everyone should be making records.  The market is glutted with stuff that sounds good – ear candy – but it doesn’t mean that it is good as far as song construction and playing.  There’s a lot of things you can do to hide ineptitude, like Auto Tune and stuff like that.  That’s out of the question, in our world, anyway.

Again, we’re excited to see your show here in West Palm.  Do you have any final thoughts?

I never have any final thoughts on anything; my thoughts are ongoing, we never use the word final [laughing]. I don’t like it when you’re on a plane, and they say “your final destination;” I’d like them to choose their words a little more carefully, please!  We’ll see you at the show this weekend!

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