Monday, April 14, 2008

Meet the Smithereens

As the weather warms, The Smithereens will be playing a number of shows on both coasts. Visit their website--mark your calender... To help buzz the launch of their last CD, Meet the Smithreens, I penned a feature on the band last year for The Aquarian, New Jersey's rock paper. Here's the unedited long-form of that interview with my pal, lead singer/writer Pat DiNizio:

Meth: Tell me about playing with Paul McCartney.

DiNizio: Gary Talent of the E Street band, who was a friend of ours, gave me a call and said he was the music director for the annual Buddy Holly Celebration that McCartney puts together every year. This time it was going to be held in NY City at The Lonestar Roadhouse to herald the debut of The Buddy Holly Story on Broadway. I remember the date vividly—this was Sept. 4 of 1990 and I was getting married on Sept. 1 in Chicago. I asked Gary if there was any chance that Paul would be there and he said most likely; that whenever he does one of these annual Buddy Holly events he’s usually there. I thought, well, if he’s ever going to be there, he’ll be there for this event because he owns the Buddy Holly song catalogue and he’s obviously going to push the musical. So we changed our honeymoon plans—we delayed our honeymoon by a week and eventually we went to Japan. I just had the feeling that Paul was going to be there so I went. And for me, as one of millions of kids who saw the Beatles the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, and who dreamed of nothing else but being in a band like The Beatles, it was a dream come true. I actually found myself later in the evening on stage with him and the rest of the musicians who played that evening—it was sort of an All-Star band that was thrown together. I played bass and Paul sand “Lucille” by Little Richard, a great, old rocker. It was one of those moments when you wished that someone had snuck in a video camera because there were no cameras allowed for the event and very few people had video cams that were portable back in 1990. About a year later, I went to pick up the mail and I opened the mail up and there was a videocassette with a little note that said, “I thought you might like this.” And it was whole event on video.

Meth: Did the rest of the Smithereens play that night, too?

DiNizio: No, just me. I played because I had written a song on Smithereens 11, an homage to Buddy Holly, a tribute to his early relationship and his widow Maria Elena. The song is called “Maria Elena”. I had sent her a copy and met her and her daughter and we all became friends. She was there, as well, and they asked me specifically to come and sing that song because it was obviously part of an album that was doing very well for us at the time.

Meth: I’m just feeling your place here, Pat.

DiNizio: It’s a good feeling, Clifford. It’s quiet.

Meth: It reminds me of my old Fraternity House. We had a big, old house in Dover, New Jersey.

DiNizio: So you used to go hang out at The Showplace.

Meth: Yeah. My band played there several times. It was a big deal for us because the Ramones had just played there that weekend.

DiNizio: We couldn’t really secure a gig there. It was too far from where we were based and we didn’t have a fan base in that area. But we’d go up there and pay them a fee to do some recording. We’d get up there on a Monday night when nobody was around. We’d hook up a reel-to-reel tape recorder and get a live board mix. It was a very live-sounding room, which I liked about it. We used it to record early demos—we’d do live backing tracks without vocals at The Showplace and we’d come home and transfer that tape in a recording studio and we’d add vocals. It really gave it a dynamic sound because we hadn’t figured out yet how to bridge the gap between the live sound of the band and what would become the studio sound of the band. They are two distinctly different things. Other bands make the mistake of trying to sound exactly like they sound live, but smart bands don’t make that mistake. There was a studio Beatles and there was a live Beatles.

Meth: What do you prefer?

DiNizio: I enjoy the immediacy of a live performance—I enjoy the immediate feedback that you get from an audience; you know whether you are on your game or not, whether people are enjoying it. It’s thrilling to play live and we still put 200% into everything that we do. But the studio is also fulfilling on another level. It’s more difficult to get to the point where you can say I enjoy listening to it because it’s a building stage. You’re starting with your basic tracks and you’re adding guitars and you’re layering and you’re putting your vocals on and you’re mixing. You don’t know really, until the eleventh hour of the project whether what you’ve done has any merit at all. In other words, it’s a longer process. The only real moment of enjoyment is when you’re listening to the final product and you know you’ve done a good job. And hopefully other folks might find enjoyment in the recordings you’ve created. But for me, going in the studio is very difficult. I don’t necessarily enjoy the process. I appreciate it. I’m happy to still have the ability to make records. But it’s not fun.

It was fun in the early days, when we hadn’t yet made records, but it was always pressure. It was thrilling. It’s still thrilling. I still get that tingling, that sense of excitement whenever we go in the studio, but there’s nothing about it I take for granted. It’s extremely challenging and stressful because I really work at it and I want everything to be the best that I can get.

Meth: How involved are you in the production?

DiNizio: I would say that on all The Smithereens albums, although we’re not credited, we certainly co-produced those records. There’s so much input of ours on everything.

Meth: You don’t get on the board?

DiNizio: I sit behind the producer but I don’t operate the board. I think my energy is best spent on thinking of good, creative melodic ideas and arrangement parts, not worrying about the technical aspects of the recordings. I leave that in the hands of the professionals. It’s a blessing when you find yourself in the studio with someone who really does get it, who really understands what the band is all about. That was a process of elimination in the early days. Our first demos were done with individuals who, while well-meaning, didn’t really understand the band, you know? They didn’t really know how to capture the sound of the band in a recording studio.

Meth: Who did you want to sound like, other than The Beatles?

DiNizio: I don’t know that we were really going for a sound. I think it just happened. In fact, the band today stills sounds very much the way we sounded when we first sat down and played together in my dad’s basement right here in Scotch Plains in March of 1980. It hasn’t changed that much except, perhaps, the songs have grown and matured. Some of the first songs I wrote, while charming, are not great compositions. It’s someone learning how to write songs. Yet some of the songs—in fact my first composition, “I Don’t Want to Lose You” wound up on Especially For You and a lot of folks like that song. “Elaine” was song number two and it wound up on “Green Thoughts.” So you never know. It just took a long time to get to that point—to actually sit down and attempt to wrestle with that beast. Understanding how songs work, the mechanics of songs, having to dig deep inside and come up with melodies that are memorable... The hurdle that I had to get over in terms of my live performances—it dawned on my on stage one evening at Kenny’s Castaways, that I was singing original material that contained lyrics that revealed a lot of my inner life and my personal life, to complete strangers.

Meth: Standing naked in front of strangers.

DiNizio: Exactly. And I felt uptight for a little bit but I eventually figured out that this is the job, this is what I do, this is the situation that I’ve put myself in. So I have to deal with it. After I came to terms with it, I started feeling comfortable because I realized that if the song lyrics were well written, then other folks would live through them as well.

Meth: Did you know you had a hit when you wrote certain songs? Songs like “Blood and Roses” for instance?

DiNizio: The only time that I had the feeling I had a hit was when I wrote “Girl Like You,” which was written for Cameron Crowe for his film “Say Anything.” And after a minor argument with the producer James L. Brooks, we decided to take the song back and save it for ourselves. And that being said, obviously I had a feeling at the time that it was a hit or we would have given it to them. We decided to save it for ourselves because it might have been released on a soundtrack album and got lost and then it would have had no meaning later on, on one of our records. But my feeling with that was based in part on the fact that the first album was a hit, the second album had a #1 rock radio single…we were on a roll and it was likely that radio would receive a song like this from us. I had that feeling. I didn’t know if it was a hit but I remember my wife at the time saying, “It’s a good song, but it’s not your best song.”

Meth: What did she think your best song was?

DiNizio: She never spoke of that.

Meth: How about your daughter?

DiNizio: She doesn’t have a favorite but she’s finally gotten a chance to come to some of the live shows, which is a big thrill for me, that she’s old enough now to attend the concerts and actually see what her dad has done for a living for the past 27 years. I remember while writing Smithereens 11 playing a demo of “Blue Period” and my wife Mary saying to me, “Did you really write this song?” Not saying how good it was but inferring that it baffled her that I was able to come up with it.

Meth: “Blue Period” might be my favorite.

DiNizio: Mary was also of the opinion that songs like “Blue Period” should have been hits. They weren’t. They were handled improperly or perhaps they were out of time. They might have hit in 1966 or 67. There were always problems on every level, with management, with distribution.

Meth: It’s been a long time since you’ve had a record contract. How did you end up with Koch?

DiNizio: It’s not really a contract. We’ve licensed this new recording—we own it and we’ve licensed it to Koch. It’s sort of the new model for 2007.

Meth: Let’s talk about this album, “Meet the Smithereens.” Without knowing anything, my guess was the seed for this disc was planted when The Smithereens did “I Want to Tell You” for Songs From The Material World (A Tribute to George Harrison).

DiNizio: No. Not at all. In fact, I was very much against recording that because the arrangement for “I Want to Tell You” was absolutely perfect as it is on Revolver and I couldn’t imagine any way that we could improve it. In fact, in terms of our history, for many years we were asked to do cover songs for movies. We did a version of “Time Won’t Let Me” for “Time Cop,” the Jean-Claude Van Damm film, and it was an okay version. Mr. King, who wrote the song for the original Outsiders, who recorded it in 1966, said that it was the best version of the song that he ever heard. So we got the vote of approval from the guy who wrote it, which meant a lot to us. But there’s not too much you can do with it. So I was very anti doing cover songs unless we could absolutely make them our own. Somehow, we did achieve that with “I Want to Tell You”—it’s a little different.

Meth: I’m not saying this because we’re friends or because I’m sitting in your kitchen drinking your bad coffee—

DiNizio: You don’t like the coffee?

Meth: —but it’s the best track on that album, by far. Most of those tracks weren’t repeatable—not Bill Wyman’s, not John Entwhistle’s.

DiNizio: The track works well because it’s kind of like The Who meets The Beatles meets The Smithereens. And it sounds like us. So I was pleased. I came and I did my vocals and split. But we have a lot of covers—some are good and some are not so good. I remember when they were making this Christian Slater movie when he was a big star in the early ‘90s called “Kuffs”—they wanted The Smithereens to record a version of The Who’s “Shaking All Over” from “Live at Leeds”—but they wanted it to sound like The Talking Heads. And it’s like, “What are you, dreaming? We’re The Smithereens, not The Talking Heads.” So we did a version of it and it’s okay. We did “Wooly Bully” for “Encino Man” and a version of Ringo’s hit “It Don’t Come Easy” and then I didn’t want to do anything that we couldn’t improve on. But that being said, when it came time to record our most recent studio album, which was also for Koch, “God Save the Smithereens” (1999) I felt strongly that based on the theme of the record, which was originally about Apocalypse 2000. There was a tremendous amount of concern and fear and loathing surrounding the millennium, as you recall, Clifford. And I had been listening to a lot of short-wave radio, picking up a lot of weird signs and signals from all over the place, and the album was really for me, initially, about the end of the world. So “Gloomy Sunday” was one of my favorite songs, which Billie Holliday originally recorded. The song was infamous for having inspired people to kill themselves. Whether what was true or not, I don’t know, but they pulled it off the market at a certain point and stopped playing it on the radio because it had this terrible effect—it was just so depressing. We did a version of it that ranks with anything, I believe, that anybody ever did in terms of covering that song. We did it Smithreens-Beatles style; we took the beat from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and we really did make it our own. I’m very proud of that particular recording. That’s when I realized that we could take a cover and do something totally different with it and turn it into something that sounded like we wrote it... In the case of “Meet the Smithereens,” which is our song-for-song recreation and interpretation of the first American release by The Beatles on Capital, we follow very closely the structure of the songs while maintaining our own identity as The Smithereens.

Meth: Often when I’ve seen you play, even in your solo performances, you’ve often thrown in a Beatles song.

DiNizio: When we first started playing…we all learned from the masters, from The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beau Brummels. We learned from newer groups like The Jam about live performance. The Stranglers. These were contemporaries of ours at the time, but you take different things for different sources. What we were trying to achieve with Meet the Smithereens was to capture the subtle background sounds of The Beatles and not lose our identity. Come on—let’s play a couple tracks.

© 2007, Clifford Meth

1 comment:

Matt Wardlaw said...

Clifford - great interview! Thanks for sharing it!