- - Sunday, May 31, 2015

They are the second-greatest musical export from the great state of New Jersey — with the first being a guy named Bruce. Since the late 1980s The Smithereens have been churning out smart, well-written, pure American rock ‘n’ roll, with hits such as “A Girl like You,” “Blood and Roses,” “Only a Memory,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Top of the Pops” to their credit. Their live shows are legendary: two-hour-plus affairs packed with singalong moments and blissed-out rock joy.

Some 3 decades in, guitarist/vocalist Pat DiNizio guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken continue on. In advance of their D.C. show at The Howard Theatre on Friday, drummer and band historian Mr. Diken discussed the magic, memories and music that made them The Smithereens.

Question: How long have The Smithereens been together?

Answer: It’s hard to believe it, but we formed in March of 1980. So we’ve been together for 35 years.

Q: What is the secret to your longevity as a band?

A: No matter what ups and downs we experience, there is a deep, underlying respect within the band for each other’s talents and personalities. We understand that we have a signature sound that is created only when the members of the band hit the stage or studio and play together. This is something precious that cannot be bought, faked or imitated. The fans keep us going. We meet them after each show, and we are continually gobsmacked when we hear how our music reaches them, gets them through hard times, helps them forget their troubles and, basically, entertains them. It gives us a very viable reason for doing what we do. I feel the same way about the music and artists that affect me, so I totally get it.

Q: The core remains you, Jim [Babjak] and Pat [DiNizio]. How did you first meet?

A: I met Jimmy Babjak in earth science class on the first or second day of freshman year in September of ‘71 at Carteret High School. I introduced myself after spying color pictures of The Who from Hit Parader magazine that he’d plastered on his notebook. We became fast friends and began playing together that very week. We explored all the possibilities and limitations of our drums/guitar lineup during our high school stint.

In 1978, I answered an ad in the N.J. music paper The Aquarian and teamed up with Pat DiNizio’s cover combo called The Like. We rehearsed for several months and played one gig. After The Like split up, Pat started to write songs. He eventually asked me to go in the studio with him to play on some of his original tunes. When we talked about starting a new band together, I brought Jimmy in, and [bassist] Mike Mesaros soon joined up with us.

Q: Who is playing bass this tour?

A: Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion, of Los Angeles, California. When Mike decided to call it a day, we called on [Mr. Jornacion], who we had met at in-store appearances and West Coast gigs. He was a superfan of The Smithereens and knew all our songs.

Thrilla does a very fine job, and he fits in with our musical and cultural sensibilities.

Q: The Smithereens have released CDs of Beatles and Who covers. Are those the two groups that inspired you guys to form the band?

A: Yes, there are so many influences who inspired us, but those are two of the major ones. The Beatles’ terrific songs and musicality spoke to any young aspiring musician in the ‘60s, and they projected perfectly by their image what it meant to be in a band. The Who combined smashing, powerful musical bombs of sound with melodic hooks and sweet harmonies. What they did was right in line with where our heads were at as teenagers.

Q: The last proper studio CD was 2011’s “2011.” Any plans to release a CD of original material?

A: We hope to record this year. We have a lot of ideas; we just need to schedule rehearsals and sessions.

Q: What can people expect to see when they come out to the D.C. show?

A: We play the well-known songs that people come to hear as well as album cuts and some select covers. We have a real good time doing what we do, and the audiences seem to feel the same way.

Q: Apart from the band, I know you have other musical projects, side gigs and writing jobs. What are you working on?

A: I’ve been playing drums with Dave Davies [of The Kinks], and a live album of our NYC show from last fall will be issued this summer. I hope to do more dates with him later this year.

I’ve [also] been writing tunes for a follow-up to my first album, “Late Music.”

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: The Smithereens in concert

WHERE: The Howard Theater, 620 T St. NW, Washington, DC 20001

WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m.

INFO: Tickets $25 to $60 by calling 202/803-2899 or visiting TheHowardTheatre.com


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