L-R: Mike Mesaros, Jim Babjak, Dennis Diken, Pat DiNizio
The Smithereens are among a small number of groups whose music transcends time. Their new release, The Lost Album, showcases the band at their prime, beautifully capturing their unique ability to incorporate a wide array of musical styles culled from a variety of genres and eras into songs that are instantly accessible and permanently memorable. Formed in 1980, the New Jersey quartet is celebrating its 42nd year and is as busy as ever. With 11 studio albums released between 1986 and 2011, the band earned its legion of devout fans through a near-constant touring schedule. Theirs is a lasting legacy of musical integrity and innovation that survived even the death of founding member Pat DiNizio in 2017. Known for their infectious, cleverly crafted songs that could be “mean, sweet, joyful, or brooding,” in the words of bassist Mike Mesaros, The Smithereens’ latest offering represents not only a remarkable gift for their fans, but also an enticing welcome to new ones. For the band themselves—Mesaros, drummer Dennis Diken, and guitarist Jim Babjak—The Lost Album is nothing less than “emotional gold,” according to Mesaros.
A lengthy conversation with Jim Babjak a few days before the album’s September 23rd release yielded wonderful insight, reminisces, and advice from a man who was there from the beginning, candid in his memories, and a refreshingly down-to-earth human being. With many exciting events looming on the band’s horizon, The Smithereens are decidedly not relegated to being “only a memory.” Read on and enjoy!
Roy Abrams: Thank you for taking the time to call and speak with me for little while today. Just as importantly, thank you for the decades of music! This album coming out when it is represents a real synchronicity for me. I fell down what can only be described as a “Smithereens rabbit hole” this summer, and it was an intense period of rediscovery. It lasted for a couple of months, and I was listening to everything I could, watching every live performance or interview that was available on YouTube.
Jim Babjak: I do that, too! Especially if I end up getting a boxed set of like, everything the Hollies ever did, or The Move, or the big Neil Young boxed set, you know. I dissect it, I remember things from the past, I hear new things, new mixes. I already preordered the Revolver vinyl and CD deluxe set. Like $300-400 on that stuff. That made me think, how much did I spent on The Beatles in my entire lifetime? It’s got to be the price of a car. I buy everything! I’ve bought the White Album, Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper, all the deluxe sets, All Things Must Pass. I was one of those guys who never gave up my vinyl. I remember when CDs came out, Oh God, it was so long ago now! People were selling their vinyl for pennies and getting everything on CD; now they’re getting rid of their CDs and putting everything on their iPod. I’m not getting rid of any of mine! I’m keeping it; it’s there! I don’t want to just depend on the air! I listen to vinyl every day. On the weekends, in the morning, I’ll put on a record.
RA: Aa a follower of your Facebook page, after learning about The Lost Album I reached out to your publicist the second I read your post. I’ve been listening to it nonstop and man, it's the return of an old friend. Hearing the opening chords of “Out of This World” brought the same chills-up-the-spine feeling as the first time I heard “Blood and Roses.” Speaking as one fan, and probably on behalf of all the others, thanks so much for doing this!
JB: People have said the same thing. As soon as they heard that opening chord, it was like, “Sounds like The Smithereens!” [Laughs]
|Jim Babjak in the studio|
The Lost Album sessions
RA: Can we discuss the background behind the new album and the decision to release it now?
JB: All I can say is that life just got in the way. There were just too many things going on. So, when we recorded that album, it was at a time when we lost our record deal and we just recorded everything that we had and wanted to see where we were going. When we got signed to RCA, we re-recorded half of them that made sense together. The rest of the songs that were left over, which is The Lost Album, were truly “lost.” There’s such a mix of styles on this album, it’s almost strange releasing it as an album, but here's the thing: When we were doing this, I was having a house being built, and we lost our record deal. I wasn’t sure what we were gonna do. But we are survivors so we just decided to go in and record it, but then after we got signed to RCA, we just kind of forgot about it and moved on to other albums, other tours. I ended up getting a day job for 19 years. I was raising my kids and, you know, I guess since I’m not working my day job anymore and (after) the loss of Pat, we went back and started looking through our archives. When I discovered this, I thought, “Well, this is really good. I think our fans might like this!” I think I did mention it to Pat maybe 10 years ago when I found it on a cassette, and (we) just never got around to it. You know what? There’s more stuff we have to look at, with what people might like. We don’t want to release everything. I also have a new album’s worth of solo material that’s all done and I never released it. It’s because of the day job, life going on, raising your family, making a living, touring; all this stuff just gets in the way, using all your tine to do this. It’s overwhelming, too. I’m in my record room right now and I’m looking at hundreds of cassettes. [Laughs] It’s crazy. At the same time, I’m working on new material for a new album using Robin Wilson and Marshall Crenshaw, so there’s also that. You’ve got to keep moving.
RA: The songs are so different, stylistically. It’s like a photo album in that the songs are snapshots of different moments in time. Regarding the recording process, did you do all the basic tracks live, then add overdubs? So many of these songs sound as if you had recorded a rehearsal and absolutely nailed the track.
JB: Yeah, for that time period, that kind of was like a rehearsal. It was so long ago that I don’t remember if it was the first take or second take, but we did do the (basic) tracks first. Pat would normally sing a rough vocal, although the lyrics weren’t all done at the time. We’d be sitting around the table eating chicken parmigiana sandwiches and writing down lyrics! [Laughs] That’s the way it still works. I should say that; there’s no exact method. There are a few times where I have written the lyrics first and then added music but most of the time, I’ll come up with a melody and music first, and a hook. Usually I like to come up with a hook, like the chorus, and then build around that. Sometimes it’s based on a true event in my life but it’s really hard to write a song that’s all true. It ends up changing. I wrote a song called “Point of No Return” … inspired by my late wife (who) passed away six years ago from cancer, I remember having to say to her one time, “I guess I’m wrong again this time,” because I would just let her have her way, you know? I was in the Lincoln Tunnel, on the way to record at Crystal Sound, and I was stuck in the tunnel, and I’m like, “Oh, man. It’s the point of no return.” And as I’m sitting in the tunnel, it kind of came together. I started writing this song about the point of no return in a relationship. It wasn’t exactly like that; the rest of it was all just made up. But going back to the sessions, yeah, pretty much we recorded the basic tracks, worked out all the riffs, solos, bass parts, and then put the vocals down. A lot of these are sort of unfinished. Like Mike says in the liner notes, it’s 80% finished. Some of them are fairly finished. I don’t know what more we would have added to “Out of This World,” maybe another guitar to strengthen it more.
RA: It’s part of the charm of the new album. Nothing is burnished to a high gloss, but that’s awesome. There’s a sense of “these are the songs as they should be.” There’s such a sense of comfort. For your fans, it’s a sense of coming home.
JB: Yeah, I kind of felt that it would get that kind of reaction.
RA: Referring back to the “Smithereens rabbit hole” I found myself in this summer, as a multi-instrumentalist myself who gravitates toward the bass guitar, I was reminded of how Mike’s bass lines are as integral to the band as a certain famous left-handed bassist was to his. With the 10-year hiatus Mike took from the band, you had Severo (“The Thrilla”) Jornacion take over the bass guitar responsibilities, which was a formidable task. Each musician has his own approach to the instrument, which results in a very different feel to the rhythm section and by default, the whole band. Was there any adjustment process for you during this transition?
JB: As far as my playing goes, I didn’t adjust anything—not a thing! [Laughs] I feed off of Dennis and Mike both but in those days, I guess I was just feeding off of Dennis. Severo would have to feed off of us. I would come up with counter melodies. The reason why is because when Severo was with us, Dennis and I and Pat would work together and he would come in later and do his bass parts, whereas with Mike, we would do it together, and I would wait to see what Mike was doing and what Dennis was doing. I would interweave between that, so we’re not playing the same thing. That started way in the beginning with Pat. Pat gave me these demos, and they had these simple chords, but I thought, “I don’t want to play the same thing he’s playing” so I gotta come up with some riffs, or I gotta lift a finger here, add a finger here on a chord just to make it sound different, and have the strumming be different, and that’s how we came up with a specific sound of the band. We were just feeding off of each other. I got to say, Dennis and I have been playing together since 1971; we were kids, 13 or 14 years old, and we were together for 9 years before we met Pat, just playing in my garage, playing at parties and stuff.
|The Lost Album|
RA: There’s a sense of real down-to-earthiness to the band, to the music, which brings me to another question: How do you and the other members manage to remain as grounded as you have?
JB: I don’t know. It’s hard for four guys to stay together that long. You know, the three of us went to school together—Mike, Dennis, and I—and we grew up in a working-class town, a factory town. U.S. Metals was there; my dad used to work there when I was little. Later on, he opened up a tavern. It was a blue-collar town, just a good work ethic. I don’t know—we all had (a lot) in common, we grew up in the same era, liked the same kind of music—which is very broad! During the disco period (not that I hate disco; it’s fine, I actually like some of it, but it’s not what I wanted to play), in those years I went back and bought records by Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters; I went back. We were all into the roots of what we were playing. That was my foundation; classic songwriting structure and a good hook and a good melody; we just all had this common interest and common goal to succeed as a band and make a mark.
RA: As well you have! Given the amount of time that you’ve spent with the others, what insight can you offer into each of them from both a musical and a creative perspective?
JB: Well, Dennis has been playing for a long time, and he can play anything. As you can tell by a song like “In a Lonely Place,” he is just a great drummer who can fit in anywhere. His musical knowledge and his record collection … when I first met him, he had hundreds of records, and now it’s in the thousands. (He has) an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Mike and I both had accordion lessons when we were 7, 8, 9 years old, and we had our Communion together in 1964, so we go pretty far back. His training for playing bass probably came from the accordion or piano when you’re using your left hand to play bass notes and your right hand to play melody. I think Mike’s bass lines are so melodic. Dennis and I were playing years before we started and said, “Well, you can play the bass, because that’s the only instrument left!” [Laughs] So he picked up the bass, I showed him how to play “No Matter What,” “Can’t Explain” and “My Baby Left Me” by Elvis Presley. This was after high school when he started playing. He picked up a Rickenbacker bass at a flea market, and we both bought leather jackets there [Laughs]. He went away to college for a semester, came back, and he absorbed the (styles of) Dee-Dee Ramone, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, Graham Maby—he absorbed all those styles into one! When he came back from college, it was like “Holy crap! This guy’s a world class musician!”
RA: There’s really no other bass player who sounds remotely like him.
JB: Yeah, it’s very interesting. He’ll tell me, “This is what McCartney would have done. He would have held the note here, or clipped a note here, or let it ring out here … all these subtle little things that nobody would think about unless you’re a musician. With me, when we’re playing live, I like to leave an open space for Mike and for the drums and for whatever. You have to know how to do that instinctively, you know. There are certain people I couldn’t jam with because they’re just masturbating on the guitar. That doesn’t interest me at all. You’ve got to play together, you have to weave in and out, and do countermelodies. Pat’s interesting because when I met him, he was really into the simplicity of writing songs like Buddy Holly. But before that, he was into heavy metal, listening to Black Sabbath and the later Jeff Beck stuff with Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all that stuff. So, his influences were a little different in that he liked the heavier stuff. I never listened to Black Sabbath back then. The heaviest I got was The Who and Led Zeppelin. You meld all those styles together and then you come up with us! It’s easy to say, oh, there’s a Beatles influence, or The Who, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s everything, the things we heard on the radio as kids in the ‘60s. The radio was just wonderful back then.
RA: Wasn’t it?! I was talking about that with my wife last night. Remember WABC and Harry Harrison?
JB: I love Johnny Cash, too. In high school, I would be afraid to say that I actually liked Tom Jones because my mom used to listen to Tom Jones while she was cleaning the house. And man, that guy had a set of pipes! I probably saw him perform five times in later years.
RA: Didn’t he appear on the same bill with the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show?
JB: Did he? I never heard that. [Author’s note: He did.] I know about the Hendrix/Monkees combination. We had a weird combination once. We opened for UB40 on a tour. That was an odd tour but it was a successful tour. Anyway, I digress, but there you have it. It’s everything from Johnny Cash to Led Zeppelin. [Laughs]
RA: What was the decision-making process like for you, Dennis, and Mike to carry on after losing Pat?
JB: Well, one thing is that we’re survivors, it’s the continuation of life. It has to go on. My wife had cancer for 16 months—pancreatic, which is the worst one to have—there’s no good outcome with that one. She said to me, “Just live your best life. Carry on. Go forward.” I was going to get a tattoo with her name on it and she said, “No, don’t do that. The next woman you’re with is not gonna like that.” [Laughs] So, she was looking out for me. I’m dating a wonderful woman right now. With that being said, my wife actually prepared me for this, and then when Pat died, we did a tribute show where the money went to a scholarship fund for young musicians. What we did was we called up everybody we know that could sing a song or two, which turned out to be a three-and-a-half, four-hour concert. Tons of people joined us: Richard Barone from The Bongos, Keith Zaremba from The Fleshtones, Bebe Buell (Liv Tyler’s mom, who was actually a centerfold in the ‘70s!), Marshall Crenshaw, who’s a longtime friend of ours since the early days—he actually played keyboards on our first album and baritone guitar on “White Castle Blues”—and Robin Wilson, who I had been reacquainted with. Pat had recorded some solo stuff in his studio in Arizona years ago. He was a clerk in a record store in 1988 when we were passing through Tempe, Arizona to do autograph sessions. There’s pictures of us with him as a young kid working there. All those guys came to see us before they were in the Gin Blossoms. He sang with us, (as well as) Ted Leo. There were so many guests! After the show Marshall and Robin both said, if you want to do some more shows in the future, I’d be more than happy to do it. That gave us a spark, and maybe three or four months later, we did our first show. I was kind of nervous, and it turns out our fans want to hear us play the music and see us live. It’s good therapy for us, and for me in particular, to keep doing what I love and moving forward. I don’t want to sit around and retire and do nothing. I want to keep going as long as I can. We all do. As long as people love hearing it, and we love playing it, there’s no reason to stop. Both Robin and Marshall add their own style to the band, and to the songs. I can’t wait for the new stuff (to come out), maybe next year; we’ve got to get our schedules together. People are so happy that we’re continuing. It’s keeping the music alive and it’s keeping us alive, and that’s a good way to look at it, too.
|Jim Babjak's little secret|
Photo by Cindy Sivak
RA: Isn’t it amazing that you can start off doing something musically when you’re in your twenties and forty years on, you realize that it becomes even more fun? I wish somebody had told me that when I was twenty!
JB: Yeah, it is more fun, especially now that we don’t have to answer to any record labels or anything. All that “Oh this next single has to be radio-friendly,” “You’ve got to use a click track, blah blah blah” … all that shit’s gone. [Laughs] Like, our first album and our second album, and the 2011 album, we didn’t follow any directions, we played from our hearts , and that’s the best way to do it. It’s not like I don’t like the big records that we had; they were a little slick, but that was good, that’s what radio wanted, that’s what our record labels wanted and I guess that’s what got us whatever mass appeal we garnered. That was all playing from the heart, too, but at least now we’re not being told what to do, and we’re just playing how we feel.
RA: What advice would you offer for young bands who are looking at the “music industry” such as it may be and are pretty daunted by it?
JB: It is daunting. It’s a whole different animal now. There’s a lot of things I didn’t know back then. I thought when we had a hit record, I’d start making a good living. [Laughs} But as far as record royalties go, it was very small. Whatever money we made was from hard work and from touring; months and months on a bus, playing cities. I don’t know, you’ve just got to follow your heart and maybe not do it for the money or the stardom, but that’s not a good thing to say. A lot of people do want the stardom and (to) make lots of money. I don’t think we ever had that mentality. I never liked the term “rock star.” I’m not a rock star, even back in the day. Mick Jagger’s a rock star, not me. Or Jimmy Page, or Elvis. I’m just a working musician, (that’s) how I look at myself. It depends on what you want out of life. And the main thing is to have something in your back pocket in terms of making money. As I mentioned, I had a day job for 19 years, from 2001 to last year, and recorded albums and toured. I balanced both and raised a family.
RA: Bravo. That’s beautiful.
JB: Yeah! [Laughs] It wasn’t easy, but I had to do what I had to do to survive and provide for my family. Now, it’s great. We get offers to play and we go! I tell people to do it for the right reasons. If it’s your passion, then go for it, but have something to back up your income, your schooling, your trade, whatever you need to do. You know what? The music business is a roller coaster, that’s for sure, because I’ve been through it many times. I’ve been up and down so many times, at least ten times. This house was being built, that I’m living in now, when we lost our record deal. I thought I was gonna lose my house, you know? I actually went to work in a warehouse for a while, loading trucks. I was loading trucks when our Greatest Hits came out, and I was praying to God that nobody would recognize me, because there were articles in the newspaper about us, they were playing on the local radio station, but I was pretty anonymous, nobody recognized me. It was the same when I started working in an office. I was in a cubicle, and for many, many years nobody knew I was in a band. I kind of liked it that way. It’s hard if you’re starting out as a musician, you’ve got to have thick skin. Even with us, we got a lot of rejection letters to our demos, there were club owners who told us we sucked; pretty much for the first five or six years, but there were a few people who did champion us, like the owner of Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village, Pat Kenny. He would book us on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, once a month, on the weekend. The same thing (happened) with the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, (owner) Bobby Albert, who also passed away recently. That a regular gig, I call it our Cavern Club, because we played there every month. You’ve just got to go with the flow and roll with the punches, is what I say. Have a thick skin and if you really believe in yourself, then don’t listen to everybody else. They might tell you, “Oh, you can’t sing.” But they’re just people; they might think that a good singer is somebody you’d see on American Idol. Listen to Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Neil Young. Their voices are unique and they fit with the music. They’re not necessarily great voices (to me they are!), so it’s hard to say. You might think you’re not talented but if you feel like you are, go for it! [Laughs} Long answer, isn’t it?
RA: Where you do feel popular music is heading? Do you sense any kind of subcultural return to roots or do you see us becoming gradually submerged into a vat of technological ear candy, in terms of what constitutes our so-called Top Forty?
JB: Oh, God. I’m afraid I don’t even listen to what is Top Forty and haven’t for a long, long time. I’ll be in a restaurant or tavern or somewhere where they’re younger, hipper … oh, yeah, in Whole Foods, I heard Tame Impala, and I’m like, “Wow, this is really cool!” Did you ever hear of them?
RA: I actually have, because one of my students recently made me a playlist that contained several Tame Impala tracks. Very interesting!
JB: What do you think of them? There’s a couple of songs that remind of what Paul McCartney or The Beatles would sound like today. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I liked it a lot. There’s a band called Rival Sons—I don’t know if you’ve heard of them—my younger kids are turning me on to more modern kind of rock bands. They’re out there, but you have to hear them on college radio or Sirius. I heard them on a college station. I tend to listen to that because that’s where you can hear newer music. Now that I have Shazam, when I’m in the car, I can press the button and see who it is, and then order it. There’s another band I heard on the radio and said, “I’ve got to have this” It’s a band called Lord Huron. Have you ever heard of them?
RA: No, I have not.
JB: Oh, check it out! The song is “Mine Forever”—check it out! It’s got a great hook, it’s pleasant, and I think they’re touring. I was somewhere once and I saw their name on the marquee. I thought, that’s great. So there is like –I don’t know if you’d call it “underground”—but I don’t even know, Rival Sons might be playing big venues for all I know. Really well-produced stuff. They’re out there! But as far as being Top Forty, it ain’t gonna happen. I know that even if we put out a great album—let’s say we put out the greatest album in our lives next year—there’s no radio station that’s gonna play it, other than like college or satellite. They won’t play the new Pearl Jam album or the new U2 album, so why would they play us?
RA: Are there any plans to return to Long Island in the near future? I know you came to Eisenhower Park last summer.
JB: I don’t know, I don’t see anything on the books right now. I’m at a loss. I depend on our booking agent for that.
RA: I just want to say thank you for putting The Lost Album out. You and your friends have brought a lot of joy and a lot of happiness to a lot of people for many, many years, and I am overjoyed to see that the journey continues. I’m greatly looking forward to the new album next year and hope our paths cross again for another interview at that point.
JB: Yeah! And hopefully, we’ll see you whenever we play your area.
© 2022 by Roy Abrams