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Dennis Diken teams up with old friend for side project

Dennis Diken.jpg

Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken is quick to point out that the recently released Late Music (Cryptovision Records) is not a solo album.

The 1960s-flavored pop and rock songs on the album, which is credited to Dennis Diken With Bell Sound, were “hatched,” Diken says, along with longtime friend Pete DiBella. Along the way, they had help from Dave Amels, Andy Paley, The Honeys and members of The Wondermints, with recording done in New Jersey and California.

Diken recently sat down to talk about reuniting with DiBella, Amels’ role in making Late Music a reality and what the future holds for The Smithereens.

Medleyville: While Late Music has your name out front, Pete DiBella is your main Bell Sound cohort/collaborator on the project. Talk about your early home recordings with him in the 1970s, how you reconnected in the 1990s and the circumstances that led to you guys making Late Music together.
Dennis Diken: “First off, let me say that Late Music would not exist without Pete DiBella. Every song is a collaboration. In some cases, I came up with a melody and/or lyric first and other times, Pete’s ideas formed the basis of a tune. Pete is a very talented guy and I’m fortunate to work with him.

“I met Pete and his friend George Smith in the fall of 1976 when I answered an ad in The Aquarian Weekly, a well-known and respected Garden State music paper, that called for a singing drummer who was into The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. This ad really piqued my interest because the majority of bands that were playing the bountiful N.J. club scene at the time were largely about Southern rock, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, ELP and what have you. The prospect of joining forces with like-minded souls who dug harmonies and the type of pop songwriting I loved was pretty hard to come by back then.

“Pete had already amassed a catalog of several dozen demos. I think he got his 4-track Teac reel-to-reel in 1974 and had been writing and recording like crazy in the confines of his bedroom in Piscataway, N.J. The songs were hooky, quirky, imaginative, harmonious and lots of fun. I think most of them were well under three minutes each! Some were written with George, whom Pete knew from the Rochelle Park/Hackensack, N.J., area. George played fantastic bass and drummed and sang on a number of the tracks — he also co-wrote some songs with Pete). George became a dear friend, even after Pete and I fell out of touch later in the ’70s and ’80s. He passed away in 1986. I miss him and think about him often. Late Music is dedicated to the memory of my Mom and George.

“So I got the opportunity to play drums — much to the chagrin of Pete’s peace-loving Dad — and sing on some tracks and even dabble in songwriting with Pete. This was my first experience with multitrack recording, home or otherwise, and I discovered then and there that this is something I wanted to do for the rest of my life! I think David Crosby put it best when he said something to the effect of ‘recording is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.’ A year or two later, I paid my first visit to a ‘real’ studio with Pete when we cut a few tracks at Bob Speiden‘s Quality Sound studio in Plainfield, N.J., [where] The Smithereens’ first session would take place in 1980.

“My eyes were opened to the basics of putting a song together and how a recording was built at those early sessions. Pete was a gifted, self-taught musician who woodshedded with The Beatles‘ catalog and could play almost any of their songs on the spot. … I did some gigs with Pete — his band of floating members was called Pix –and stayed in touch, albeit loosely, during the ’80s, as The Smithereens started to get busy.

“I began formulating some song ideas while on breaks during The Smithereens’ Blow Up sessions in 1991, and then when my wife gave me a microcassette recorder for Christmas, I started putting down melody ideas regularly and wanted to demo them properly. I had the occasion to meet up with Pete in 1992 and it we discussed the notion of returning to our old hijinx. It was fun to get back together and we started to get together regularly to write songs together in early ’93.

“Pete was living in a log cabin in a forest clearing in Andover, N.J., at the time and he had a small toolshed kind of room equipped with a four-track cassette machine. What we now know as Late Music was originally considered a demo project. But as we got deeper into the recording process, it became apparent that a number of the cuts had a vibe we’d probably never be able to duplicate in a ‘real’ studio. So we kept working on what would have remained demos until they ended up as masters!”

This album features the most lead vocal work you’ve ever done. Who are your singing role models, and did you do anything special to prepare for your vocal sessions?
Diken: “Many people have likened my voice to Howard Kaylan of The Turtles, and I take this as a huge compliment. But I never intentionally tried to sound like him, although I always thought of him as a great pop vocalist and a very unique voice. Some of my favorite vocalists are Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, along with Mike Love. I think Love is highly underrated. I really dig Bruce Johnston, Terry Melcher, Del Shannon and Roy Wood, at least in terms of who I might have ‘channeled,’ perhaps unconsciously, when doing a lead vocal for Late Music. I didn’t really do anything else in terms of prepping for the session, except for drinking some Armagnac.

“Also, I’d like to point out that Pete DiBella is the lead vocalist on both ‘Standing in That Line’ and ‘Temptation Cake’ on Late Music.”

What’s the story behind Andy Paley dreaming up parts for the song “No One’s Listening”?
Diken: “He really dug the songs we were working on, and this one inspired him to come up with a great arrangement. He put down guitar, 6-string bass, and keyboards, all the while beseeching us to ‘trust me, this’ll work!’ He was right! We loved his ideas.

“One morning he called us, all excited. He’d just woken up and wanted to rush over to the studio to record a piano part he’d dreamed! It was very exciting to see someone so passionate about the music we were creating.

“I’m grateful to Andy and his great contributions to the project. He’s a very talented fellow, and he kept digging into his storage space to bring over unusual instruments, like the Zellophone, an old, kind of glass xylophone, which he added to ‘The Bad Merry-Go-Round,’ or the celeste on ‘Lost Bird’ and ‘I’ve Been Away.’ Also, he helped out greatly with some of the vocal arrangements.

Late Music exists as a finished record due to Dave Amels’ unflagging support and belief in the songs that Pete and I were writing. While many of them languished as demos in varying stages of completion over the course of several years, he encouraged me to finish the recordings and get this music out to the world. Although it took untold hours of studio time and lots of focus and hard work, Dave shrugged it off by saying, ‘It had to be done.’

“Some of the recordings began as 4-track cassette, then were bumped up to half-inch 8-track, then onto 2-inch 24 track. By the way, ‘Standing in That Line’ was completed on a four-track cassette! It’s a testament to Pete’s prowess on this format. As I said before, we felt we had some magic on the original versions so we followed through with those, utilizing the original elements on most tracks. I’m quite glad we did!

“Dave brought so much to the proceedings, serving as an engineer, producer, keyboardist, coach, etc. I rely on him to get a good vocal performance from me, in terms of checking for pitch, etc. If it weren’t for Dave, Late Music may have been issued as an EP. And of course, he released the record on his Cryptovision label.”

As a longtime Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fan, what was it like to have The Honeys and members of the Wondermints contribute to this album?
Diken: “Originally, I intended to finish the entire album here in New Jersey with Pete, but life got in the way and it wasn’t to be. I was pretty busy, too, with Smithereens gigging and other projects, so we were always trying to find the time to schedule sessions for what was to become Late Music. Plus, we were faced, in some cases, by the limitations of what we had at our disposal in our home studios versus what we wanted to achieve sonically — especially bass and drums sounds.

“So, with Dave’s urging and amazing organizational skills, we tackled the big list of tasks at hand and finished it up. I met up with him in L.A. — once in 2004 and finally in 2006 — to work at The Bomb Factory. … Dave had a hand in equipping the place and knew it intimately. What’s more, it was available! So we called on the friends we knew and thankfully they were in town.

“In 1989, The Honeys sang on two songs on Smithereens 11, namely ‘Cut Flowers’ and ‘Baby Be Good,’ and I had stayed in touch with them. They were game for the session and did a great job. I love their genetic vocal blend — Marilyn and Diane are sisters, and Ginger is their cousin — and they’re total pros. I’ve dug their records for years and it was a special treat to be able to hear their unique sound on ‘Tell All The Fools.’

“I’ve come to know Nick “Wonder” Walusko, Probyn Gregory and Nelson Bragg from hanging out at Brian Wilson shows over the past few years and have admired their talents. So it was a no-brainer to have them on the record. Nick was jonesing to play electric sitar on something, and ‘Let Your Loved One Sleep’ seemed like the perfect choice. I loved Probyn’s Telecaster work on this tune also. Ditto his French Horn on ‘So Hard to Say Goodbye.’ After Nick put down the guitar solo on ‘Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long,’ I told him over the talkback that he’d surely had ‘too much to dream’ the night before! Nelson Bragg was a great asset on the harmonies on ‘The Bad Merry-Go-Round’ and a great supporter of the project.

“Another guy who added a lot to the proceedings is Dan Markell, a somewhat unsung talent. In addition to his fine bass, guitar and keyboard work, he let me crash at his apartment in North Hollywood, like, constantly!”

The Smithereens have kept busy in recent years with tours and various recording projects, but it’s been 10 years since the band last released a studio album of original material. What’s the status on an all-new Smithereens album, and what does 2010 hold for the group?
Diken: “We plan to release a new studio album in the first quarter of 2010. And we’ll be coming to your town — hopefully!”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior