Labor of love: Smithereens work to stay fresh decades after forming in New Jersey

For the CDTFebruary 7, 2014 

The Smithereens are, from left, Jim Babjak, Severo "The Thrilla" Jornacion, Dennis Diken and Pat DiNizio.

PETE PARKER — Photo provided

  • if you go

    What: The Smithereens

    When: 9:30 p.m. Feb. 8

    Where: Cafe 210 West, 210 W. College Ave., State College

    Info: 237-3449, www.officialsmithereens.com

The Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio, 58, remembers his older cousin taking him to the movies at the age of 4 to see Elvis Presley in “King Creole” in 1959. After that, he was so captivated by rock ’n’ roll that the next day he asked his dad to buy him a guitar so he could learn to play like Elvis. The course of his life was already set, with a few detours along the way.

“I was already playing in a rock ’n’ roll band when I was 7,” DiNizio said. “Then the Beatles came along, and within two weeks of their appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ there was a garage band on just about every corner in my hometown; in every town in America. There was a revolution.”

As he was growing up, DiNizio was influenced by a range of artists including Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beau Brummels, the Byrds, the Who and the Kinks. Later he took an interest in new-wave artists such as Elvis Costello and Devo, all sounds that became incorporated into his band, the Smithereens.

They rehearsed in his dad’s basement four or five nights a week for five or six years, and they would do shows on the weekends for which they received little money.

“But it was a labor of love,” DiNizio said. “We united our passion for rock ’n’ roll and our desire to make a living playing music and putting records out.”

DiNizio started the New Jersey-based band 34 years ago and into their fifth or sixth year, the four-man group got a record deal. Within six months they were playing Radio City Music Hall in New York City, opening for the Pretenders.

“We had a hit record and everyone thought we were a new band that had overnight success,” he said. “We had no success for six years and then, bang, we had a hit record. We were in the right place at the right time.”

The group formed in 1980 with DiNizio and Jim Babjak on guitar, Mike Mesaros on bass and Dennis Diken on drums. Mesaros left the band in 2006, and was replaced by Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion. The Smithereens have collaborated with numerous well-known artists including Suzanne Vega, Belinda Carlisle, Graham Parker and the Kinks. Last summer the Smithereens toured as support for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Like every rock band, the Smithereens have had to reinvent themselves to stay relevant, but DiNizio said the band doesn’t try to experiment with anything but just plays what they know and what their fans know.

“There’s no architectural map for coming up with an album or song,” he said. “We don’t sit down and write a particular kind of album. You just make an album as good as you’re capable of making, and reflecting who you are and what you are and what you’re feeling and thinking at the time you’re writing it and recording it.”

“There’s a commonality to it,” he said. “There’s a human touch that must exist in order for the work to be real, to strike that very real and very important responsive, emotional chord in the listener.”

When they released their sixth studio album, “God Save the Smithereens” in 1999, the band had matured, so as the members’ lives evolved, so did their music.

“Someone who wrote about it when we did it said ‘they’re not singing songs about boy meets girl, boy loses girl, or boy falls in love with girl anymore,’ ” DiNizio said. “They’re writing songs about mortality and redemption. These are themes that aren’t really relevant when you’re younger.”

As it is with many rock bands, success and longevity in a career usually translates into high expectations for fans, but most of the Smithereens’ loyal long-time supporters have stuck with them for over three decades of music.

“A lot of the people have kids in college now and they may be grandparents themselves, but they never lost their rock ’n’ roll heart,” DiNizio said. “They want to go see live bands and they want something they can depend upon. So we have to be twice as good as bands half our age and work 10 times harder.”

In 2011, the Smithereens released their 13th studio album, simply titled “2011,” a record that reflects the band’s attitude of just maintaining the relevancy of their music.

“It’s a reflection of who we are at this point in our lives,” DiNizio said. “It’s about writing the best songs that you can possibly write and recording them in a way where they will still sound valid and timely 20 years down the line.”

The Smithereens will debut a brand new CD, a re-creation of the Beatles first American concert, which they will perform on stage in New York at the Fest for Beatles Fans on Feb. 9. The tribute album is available for purchase on the band’s website at www.officialsmithereens.com. The band also is working on another original album, which is due to be released this summer.

At the end of the day, DiNizio believes it all just comes down to pleasing yourself first with your own music.

“In the end you have to like the album that you’ve made and you have to make the kind of record that you, as the artist who created it, can’t stop listening to,” he said. “If it has that effect on you then surely there’s someone else out there in the world who will feel the same way about it. They’ll know that it’s a labor of love and it’s a work of integrity.”

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