AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS DIKEN
"Christmas With A Smithereen"
By David Iozzia
The state of New Jersey isn't the birthplace of rock and roll, but it's given birth to Frank Sinatra, The Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen and the 'E' Street Band, Bon Jovi, and countless others. I was thrilled when presented with the opportunity to interview Dennis Diken, the drummer from one of the "other" bands, The Smithereens. After playing their first gig in 1980, The Smithereens released a few EPs and a handful of albums on Enigma and Capitol Records before moving to RCA. Their records included Top 40 hits like "A Girl Like You," "Too Much Passion," and a hit single that took the band and their record label by surprise, "Blood & Roses." The Smithereens have continued to tour throughout the 21st century, and 2007 was a busy year for Dennis and his bandmates. In January 2007, the band released "Meet The Smithereens!" It's their track-by-track re-working of "Meet The Beatles." In the Fall of 2007, when the weather started to change and the leaves began to fall, the Smithereens released "Christmas With The Smithereens." Dennis Diken, the musician, probably doesn't appear on any Top Ten drummer lists, but he'd sit high atop any listing of "renaissance men." Drummer, producer, musicologist, deejay, writer, music fan, record collector, and all-around nice guy, Dennis has done it all. He's still doing it all today, and we sat down recently at a New Jersey restaurant to talk all about it.
Dave: Happy Holidays to you and your family. I hope Santa brings you everything on your list. Looking back at 2007, was Dennis Diken naughty or nice?
DENNIS: I guess I can answer better after I see how big the stash is under the tree!
Dave: Many bands "salt and pepper" a record with songs of a different tempo and a different theme so that a listener can play it any day of the year and find a song that works with whatever mood they are in. A Christmas album is the polar opposite; it is so limiting. Why did your band choose to record "Christmas With The Smithereens"?
DENNIS: Christmas records have always captured our imagination since we were kids. It seemed like a fun idea, and we wanted to add our names to the list of great performers who are associated with holiday music: The Beach Boys, The Ventures, Bing Crosby, etc.
Dave: Did recording a Christmas album during the summer present its own set of challenges?
DENNIS: Not for me, I'm not sure about the other guys. For me, whenever we make a record I get inside the piece of material we're working on and shut off the rest of the world in the process.
Dave: Which cover song from "Christmas With The Smithereens" was most gratifying to re-invent?
DENNIS: "Christmas" by The Who. We cut the basic track in one take without a run through, if I recall correctly. Jimmy (Babjak) did a great job singing that one. "Christmas Time Is Here Again" was a blast to cut. We threw in a bunch of sounds and ideas that I feel do the tune justice. I also loved singing the Beach Boys tune, "Merry Christmas Baby."
Dave: "Christmas With The Smithereens" is the band's first "holiday" album, but you've been down that road before. You produced and drummed on a record by the Husky Team titled "Christmas in Memphis." The re-arrangements, like "Auld Lang Syne" with a "Green Onions" groove, were really cool ideas.
DENNIS: The Memphis records were very influential to me as a kid so this was a blast. These sessions were cut "live" with all the musicians playing together in the studio. We did the whole thing in two days, with a bare minimum of overdubs and "fixes." This is the way many of my favorite records were made. To me, it's the best way to work. All the guys bounce off each other as we cut, and we all breathe together. Oftentimes, we chose to live with little mistakes, which can really add to the charm of a disc.
Dave: My personal rule is not to play any Christmas music before December 1 or after January 1. What's the Dennis Diken rule for playing Christmas records?
DENNIS: Yeah, maybe the second week in December for me.
Dave: What is your all-time favorite Christmas song? Why?
DENNIS: "O Holy Night" comes to mind. It's one of the most inspired, stirring pieces of music I've ever heard. "Little Saint Nick" is pretty great too!
Dave: Your band's previous record was "Meet The Smithereens!" It's a complete re-working of "Meet The Beatles." I think it's innovative yet I'm sure others will find it sacrilegious. What was the thought process behind it and what were the challenges recording it?
DENNIS: We were invited to play a festival called "Abbey Road On The River" in Louisville, Kentucky, a few years ago. "Beatle bands" from all over the world converged to participate in this event that lasted two or three days. The promoter had seen us perform several encores like "Rain" and "A Hard Day's Night" over the years and came up with the concept of us doing an all-Beatles set at this show. The success of that gig planted the seed of "Meet The Smithereens!" It seemed like a fun idea.
There were several challenges we faced in the process. For my money, Ringo did some of his best playing on this album, and some of the fills, like those on "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "Not A Second Time," were quite tricky to nail. The harmonies are rather sophisticated, and it took some doing to get them right. But all in all, this album is in our blood, so after sussing the basic musical nuts and bolts we went to town and had a ball!
Dave: Should Smithereens fans expect a "Beatles" set at future concerts?
DENNIS: We may choose to do the entire album at certain shows. In any case, we will be playing some numbers from "Meet The Smithereens!" at our future gigs.
Dave: Looking ahead to 2008, what's The Smithereens' game plan for next year?
DENNIS: We're planning to record a new studio LP, release a live album, and look for some other surprises. Gigs are being booked too. Hopefully Dave, we'll see you January 18 at B.B. Kings in NYC!
Dave: Speaking of local gigs, I saw The Smithereens recently in Lakewood, New Jersey's historic Strand Theatre. What a great venue to attend a concert! One of my favorite Roxy Music songs is "Do The Strand." I doubt that they wrote the song about playing that venue. What was the Smithereens' impression of playing at that venue?
DENNIS: I loved the venue. I never knew it existed until recently. The staff were wonderful to work with. Nice folks! I love old classic theaters, and I look forward to attending some shows there soon. Good people of New Jersey, support this fine establishment!
Dave: That's enough for now about 2007 and 2008. Let's go back in time and revisit the 20th century. When you first became interested in drumming, were you hitting the dinner plate with your fork and spoon or were you from the "hitting pots and pans with wooden spoons" school of drumming?
DENNIS: Before I attended grammar school I did my coloring, drawing, and TV watching from an old school desk that a neighbor gave us. Around age 4 or 5 I picked up my Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys and began beating on coffee cans with plastic lids, which my parents asked neighbors and relatives to save for me! I kept a container of marbles on the desktop to create a rattle for a snare-ish sound.
Dave: Northern New Jersey, where you and I grew up, had a very big drum and bugle corps scene. Was that a factor in drawing you to appreciate rhythm or was it more the songs you heard on television and radio?
DENNIS: No, I never was interested in playing in a drum and bugle corps or school band. I think I was turned off by the uniforms. Radio and the television programs in the late '50s and early '60s, which offered a wide variety of musical styles, had an influence. So did my 45s, which I listened to over and over.
Dave: Were you self-taught or did you take drumming lessons?
DENNIS: I'm self-taught, and I don't read music. My New Year's resolution for 2008 is to learn to read drum notation. This would help me greatly to learn songs on the fly. I've been using my own hieroglyphics to get by, but knowing the real deal would come in handy, especially when I play a show with many different singers and types of music.
Dave: Creative people strive to learn something new each and every day. Assuming it's not too late, what will be the pros and cons of going back and learning how to read music?
DENNIS: Well, I believe it's never too late to learn. I'll let you know after I go through it. I wonder if it will come to me easily, having been drumming for nearly 40 years already, or if it will dramatically change the way I "think" while playing!
Dave: Since you don't read music, what techniques do you use to learn new material?
DENNIS: I came up with my own way of notating certain feels and accents. For example, I find that the groove on The Beatles "A Hard Day's Night" comes up on a lot of tunes so I'll scribble "HDN" on the chart when it's appropriate. When I'm just playing songs and not extended pieces of music, it's easy to chart out the song form.
Dave: Before I ask about your drumming influences, how influential was the day of February 9, 1964?
DENNIS: I had already been deep into rock and roll radio and had started to collect 45s by 1964. By age 6 my musical spirit was on fire. I already had several favorite drummers although I didn't know their names, as many of them were studio players. And while a lot of singing groups could be seen on Ed Sullivan and several other TV shows, The Beatles' first appearance was electrifying. They played their own instruments and sang - no lip-synching here! The sound and energy was like nothing else anyone had ever seen, and they looked like alien creatures. And there sat Ringo on his perch, separated from the other three, with his kit and body English in full view. On that day in 1964, countless kids across the USA instantly knew that there could be nothing cooler than to play in a rock and roll band!
Dave: Which studio drummers were your biggest influences and what did you steal from them?
DENNIS: Hal Blaine has always been a great influence and inspiration to me. I admire his unfailing knack for making a track feel good and how he supplies exciting fills at just the right moment, or how he lays back. Hal knows when not to play. My ideal is Earl Palmer, if I could only play like him! He swings like mad, and I love how he sets up solos and drops bombs. The great New York City session men Gary Chester and Buddy Saltzman had an incredible "rhythm of life" quality and bags of tricks that still make my head spin! I love the lilting character of Nashville's Buddy Harman's playing. Muscle Shoals' Roger Hawkins was earthy, funky and soulful and he's been a big role model for me. He and Stax man Al Jackson went right to the heart of the groove and were unshakable. Another underrated Memphis guy is Gene Chrisman. The Motown drummers taught me how to say a lot with a little. Across the pond, Bobby Graham is my favorite U.K. studio man. He had a buoyant yet very direct feel, as heard on the early Dave Clark 5, Kinks, and Petula Clark sides. Then there was Kenny Jones with The Small Faces, Greg Errico with Sly and the Family Stone, and Johnny "Bee" Badanjek. I can't say for sure what I took technique-wise from them, but I channel bits of all of their personalities and approaches. And mind you, we're only scratching the surface! I can list so many others.
Dave: Which drummers did you watch in concert and what did they teach you about showmanship and presentation?
DENNIS: Keith Moon was from another planet; I'm still trying to figure out what he was doing! He was the ultimate showman, a complete original. I loved watching The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. He embodied the primal rock and roll feel, and he sported a formidable visual pulse. I felt that Dennis was underrated, and he played on more of the groups' records than is given credit for. Two guys whom I've studied on video clips are The Rascals' Dino Danelli and The Turtles' Johnny Barbata. I rank them highly among the greatest rock and roll drummers. They both came from the big band school and had a strong visual presence. I guess I took stick-twirling from them! I can remember cracking up watching Joe Morello play. It seemed as if he was telling jokes on the drums! I've also admired The Kinks' Mick Avory's fluidity. Being self-taught, watching other players and visualizing myself doing what they did was a big part of my learning experience.
Dave: Too many people whom I talk to are blinded by the technique and the gear of the musicians they idolize. What characteristics do look for when you watch another drummer?
DENNIS: I appreciate technique as much as anyone, but I really admire a players' sense of swing, feel, vitality, personality, ideas, and expression above anything else. It's unfortunate that some young players get hung up on gear and all the trappings. It should always be about what you have in your heart and in your head. Playing the song, bringing whatever is called for by that piece of music, and playing with your fellow musicians is more important.
Dave: Speaking of gear, what's your preferred drum kit and set-up?
DENNIS: It's a Pearl Masters Series Maple Custom and a Steve Ferrone model snare, Sensitone. I use a 9x13 rack, a 16x16 floor tom (sometimes two), and a 22x20 kickdrum. I've been with Pearl since 1988, and I think their drums are great. If anything, their quality has improved. My cymbals are Zildjian 22" or 20" A ride (size depending on the gig, sometimes a sizzle), 20" medium or medium-thin A crash (sometimes a Zildjian Vintage series), and a 19" or 18" medium or medium-thin A crash. My hats are 14", usually New Beats or Mastersounds. I've favored Zildjian A's of late but I grab a K on occasion, like the Custom High Definition K ride for jazzier shows. I like to try to mix it up, again, depending on the gig. I use Pro Mark 7A drumsticks, hickory, with wood tips. For years I was using 747s for The Smithereens gigs and switching to the lighter stick for singer/songwriter or jazz-type dates. Now I find that the 7As give me enough whomp for the heavy hitting and allow me to comfortably finesse the lighter lifting. I use Evans G2 heads. For percussion, I use Rhythm Tech.
Dave: Touring isn't always lengthy runs where you drag your drum kit from city to city. Often, the musical menu features "drums du jour," a different rental kit at each gig. Talk a little about the trials, tribulations, and challenges of playing on rented equipment.
DENNIS: I don't know how much I can say about that, you just tweak 'em and you play 'em. Sometimes you need to spend time to make sure everything is positioned just how you need it to be. If a snare or cymbal (especially a ride) is not to my liking, it can make it difficult to play to the best of my ability. But we pretty much know in advance what we're getting at each show so there aren't too many surprises. More often than not we are pleased with the gear that is supplied. Steve Lobmeier, who works for Evans, has been a great help to me with tuning and set up, as well as moral support.
Dave: Think back to your first gig drumming for The Smithereens and compare it to your most recent gig. How have you evolved as a musician?
DENNIS: I've burned off a lot of my youthful overplaying, although sometimes I think maybe not enough! I'm glad that I've embraced all styles of music as a listener. I think being open to the vast universe of sounds out there is key to any musician's growth and adaptability. My sense of time has improved, I'm more sympathetic to my fellow players, and I've become more comfortable with my lot as a drummer. Having said that, I do believe there is always room for improvement. That's a good thing for anyone to keep in mind. There is always a higher plateau to reach; one can always strive to attain new goals, no matter how accomplished the player might be.
Dave: The Smithereens, in addition to The Beatles, have covered songs by The Kinks and Iggy Pop. Let's have a little fun and allow them return the favor. Pick Smithereens songs for The Beatles, The Kinks, and Iggy Pop to hypothetically cover. I'll pick "Yesterday Girl" for The Beatles, "Only a Memory" for The Kinks, and Iggy gets "Blood & Roses."
DENNIS: The Beatles - "Point of No Return", The Kinks - "Yesterday Girl", Iggy Pop - "Groovy Tuesday"
Dave: It must have been a "pat on the back" when MTV featured The Smithereens on the second installment of "Unplugged." Was it a "knife in the back" when The Smithereens were featured on VH1's "Where Are They Now"?
DENNIS: No, not at all. It was good publicity and a lot of people got in touch with us after it ran.
Dave: In the early 1980's, The Smithereens toured as the backing band for legendary songwriter Otis Blackwell, as well as recorded two albums. Look back and talk a little about that time of your career, not as a musical experience, but as a learning experience.
DENNIS: For those who aren't familiar with Otis, he wrote a bunch of great tunes for Elvis, including "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up" as well as "Great Balls Of Fire" and "Breathless" for Jerry Lee Lewis, and classics like "Fever" and "Handy Man." By the time we began playing with him in 1983 he had already earned and lost a fortune but he never gave up. He was still writing some real good songs and gave his all in live performances. Looking back, I think the best thing we came away with is that careers are cyclical and an artist can weather the ups and downs that we experience in the music business. Follow your bliss, as the saying goes. There was a lot of practical learning from Otis. Some rehearsals were more him talking and going off on tangents than actual playing. I played a rehearsal tape from 1983 recently and the first thing I heard was Otis saying, "Fellas, before you ever get on a plane, make sure the return ticket is in your hand. I've heard stories of musicians that were stuck in Europe because the promoter screwed them out of a return ticket."
Dave: If I asked you for The Smithereens' defining moment, either onstage or on record, you'd probably tell me that it's yet to come. So instead, I'll ask you for your personal highlights so far with The Smithereens, onstage and in the studio.
DENNIS: Some highlights were playing Radio City Music Hall for the first time in the fall of '86 on our first tour (opening for Lou Reed) and playing The Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J., on the same tour. We attended countless concerts as fans there in the '70s so it was very meaningful for us to do a gig there (though I seem to recall it wasn't a great set!). Playing four or five sold- out nights at The Roxy in Los Angeles in the summer or fall of '86 on our first tour was a big moment for us, experiencing success on the "other" coast. Another one that comes to mind is when we opened for Squeeze at The Brendan Byrne Arena [now known as Izod Arena] at the Meadowlands in N.J., in Summer 1988 on the "Green Thoughts" tour. It was probably the ultimate "homecoming" show. Our parents were in the audience, and fans were dancing around the perimeter of the venue on the upper tiers. We could see their silhouettes in the exits. Sharing a mike in the studio with Del Shannon during the Green Thoughts sessions was almost too cool to be true. It's not just the big shows and big names because small things mean a lot. Being able to play in a band with my best friends is a real gift and blessing. The special moments together when we play well also become career highlights. The gold records are great, but it's doing the work and being together that is really important.
Dave: Since The Smithereens were a "New Jersey band," in the early days did you feel any pressure from your record company or the media to change to a sound a bit more like Bruce Springsteen?
DENNIS: No, never. I guess since we succeeded with our own sound, the labels felt that we knew what we were doing, or we were just lucky somehow. I don't remember much A&R presence during the Capitol years at all.
Dave: The Smithereens recorded a cover version of "Something Stupid," which was Frank Sinatra's duet with his daughter Nancy. Almost 20 years later, it's come full circle when you recently did the drum tracks for her self-titled album.
DENNIS: I dug Nancy's records as a kid and so, naturally it was a thrill. Hal Blaine did her records in the '60s so I channeled him for this date! Funnily enough, that year I worked with three of Hal's old accounts: in addition to Nancy, I subbed on Dream A Little Dream, the off-Broadway musical starring Denny Doherty of The Mamas & Papas, and I recorded with Ronnie Spector. By the way, Nancy's daughter A.J., who is also a great singer, helped out on her mom's session. Another cool thing was that this particular Sinatra date was held in Hoboken!
Dave: We could talk all day about the Internet, computer technology, and the impact they've made on the music industry. I'll narrow my focus to MySpace.com, which gives bands another avenue of getting their music heard, self-promoting their concerts and records, and networking with their fans. Comment on the MySpace phenomenon, specific to your newest musical project, Sleeping Giant.
DENNIS: I have a MySpace page for my Sleeping Giant project though I've only scratched the surface with it as of yet. I'm told that it's a fantastic marketing and networking tool. The Internet on one hand killed the music business as we knew it, and loved it, and hated it. On the other hand, it's created a way for people who wouldn't have gotten record deals or found other avenues to get their music heard. It's a whole new world out there.
Dave: Another project that you drummed on was the self-titled record by The Roost. Not only was it produced by Andy Johns, who engineered most of Led Zeppelin's records, but it also had keyboards added by John Hawken of The Strawbs and Ian McLagan from Small Faces.
DENNIS: John Hawken is an amazing player. If you've never heard his barrelhouse work on "Tobacco Road" by The Nashville Teens (from 1964), check it out! We've done a few real nice gigs together, and he plays on several cuts on Meet The Smithereens. I wasn't present for Ian's overdub session in Austin, unfortunately. I'm a huge Small Faces fan!
Dave: I guess that question is a good segue into this one. The record producer is one of the unsung heroes of recorded music. You wrote 10 essays on producers for a book titled "The Encyclopedia of Record Producers." Speaking as a musician, from your side of the glass, what traits do you look for in a producer?
DENNIS: A good producer should be a combination of psychologist, babysitter, cheerleader, and have a strong vision of what the final product should sound like. It's important that the producer "gets" what the band is all about and doesn't compromise the integrity of the group's essence. Above all, he or she should have good communication skills and be very clear in their direction to the musician.
Dave: You've sat on the other side of the glass and produced records. How about self-critiquing yourself.
DENNIS: I'd leave that to the artists I've produced to comment on, but I hope that my years of experience on the other side of the glass gave me the goods to make musicians comfortable in the studio.
Dave: A few months ago, I listened to you spinning platters as a guest deejay at an FM radio station, WFMU. How satisfying is it when you get the chance to share music and talk about other musical artists with radio listeners?
DENNIS: If you would have asked me at age 8 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered, "a deejay." Sharing music on the air is akin to playing onstage for an audience. There is a give and take to both platforms. I do shows on WFMU, which is a free-form station. Programming your own sets is a great form of self-expression.
Dave: The on-air talent at most terrestrial radio stations can no longer be journalists or musicologists. They have to be either "zoo mentality" entertainers or voices and personalities catering to demographics and agendas. As satellite radio evolves and continues to impact terrestrial radio, do you foresee a return to the airwaves of music journalists?
DENNIS: People like Vin Scelsa are still successful with such a format. I think if the public demands it, then it will come back.
Dave: Weird N.J. is a magazine that chronicles unique people, creepy experiences, and strange landmarks from our home state of New Jersey. It has since evolved into a series of books about weird New Jersey and many other states and a TV show on The History Channel called "Weird U.S." Feel free to plug the theme song.
DENNIS: I co-wrote the theme to Weird U.S. with two other talented collaborators. Chris Bolger is a great musical spirit and Dave Amels is the other half of Husky Team. He and I have co-produced a number of projects together, including "Christmas In Memphis." We're always gassed to be involved in any Weird N.J.-related endeavors, being big fans of the magazine. I've been involved in writing and creating ads for television, including Nickelodeon's "Noggin."
Dave: As a touring musician, you've been in almost every nook and cranny of our great country. Share your strangest "weird United States" story.
DENNIS: It's probably not the strangest, but the only one that comes to mind was the time was when we played Lubbock, Texas (probably 1990). After a day of making the rounds of radio stations, the Capitol promo guy brought us to the grave of our hero, Buddy Holly. A breeze was blowing and the sun was setting so we shined the headlights on the gravestone for better visibility. You really had to be there, but it was an eerie, twilight moment, with an air of spirituality. Mike (Mesaros) scooped up a little clump of dirt from the gravesite and kept it in a small chewing tobacco tin can. A few weeks later, the cops stopped our tour bus, allegedly for speeding. They came on board and commenced a search, hoping to find contraband. They gleefully grabbed Mike's "stash," and I couldn't help cracking up while we tried to explain the situation. They went away mad. "Rave on," I say.
Dave: That's all of the questions I have Dennis. Thanks for the interview. Are you working on any other projects or playing any live gigs that you'd like to promote?
DENNIS: The Smithereens will be on the road a lot in 2008. I'm looking forward to releasing my Sleeping Giant album called "Late Music." It's not a drum record, so to speak. It's very lush in terms of vocal harmony, and I'm excited for people to hear it. I'm also on new records by Ronnie Spector and Tommy James. Also, I want to send out a sincere thanks to the fans who have supported The Smithereens all these 28 years and who have offered me kind words about my playing. It means the world to me.
Full Name: Dennis Diken
MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sleepg
Birthday: February 25, 1957
Birthplace: Belleville, NJ
Favorite beverage: Johnny Black and soda
Favorite food: stuffed cabbage
Favorite N.J. pizzeria: Barcelona's in Garfield
First record you ever bought: "Return To Sender" by Elvis Presley
Last CD you bought: Scott Walker's "The Drift"
Favorite U.S. city to visit: Los Angeles
Favorite international city: London
Favorite film: "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"