SMITHEREENS GUITAR WIZARD Jim Babjak thinks back over 15 years of smoky bars, echoing theaters and faceless arenas. "It really does seem to me like we started yesterday," he says. "There's no real difference, except we get more stuff on the (backstage) rider now--more beer I guess," he snickers.
More has changed for the power-pop kingpins than an extra six-pack a night--Capitol has just released a 16 song "best of" for the band titled Blown To Smithereens. That's quite a jump for childhood friends who in 1971 started a band literally in their garage.
"I don't know how I feel about the 'best of,'" says Babjak. "It wasn't our decision to put it out. At least they were nice enough to ask for a little input, like some of the old photos."
The new package attempts to condense the band's history into a mere 60 minutes, offering a somewhat compressed overview of the band's divergent pop abilities.
"The 'greatest hits' isn't the best representation of the band, though I suppose it could be an introduction for people who haven't heard us before," agrees Babjak. "There are a lot of styles that we do that aren't on the 'best of.' There were some of the softer songs like 'Cut Flowers' that should have been on it. That's a great song that wasn't ever really heard."
The band was asked for some input on track selection, though Babjak adds with another laugh, "I wish I'd had a little more input, because I would have added one of my songs!"
As it stands, Blown To features 15 of vocalist/guitarist Pat DiNizio's stand-out originals, plus a sparkling cover of the Outsiders' '60s gem "Time Won't Let Me," featured in last year's movie blockbuster Time Cop.
"I think that our version of 'Time Won't Let Me' should have been a hit," says Babjak. "I think radio complained because there was no soundtrack album. Our track was the only song in the movie."
Despite the new release, Babjak says that promoting "hits" isn't the band's number one priority for the moment.
"This tour is fun because we're not really pushing a record. There's the 'best-of,' but that's on our former label, so when we get on stage we do whatever we want to do," he
"In a way it's amazing that we've been able to continue without MTV support," Babjak says. "They told us not to even bother to shoot a new video, because they wouldn't show it. This is the same station that once had us in heavy rotation, but then would only show our other videos once or twice."
says. "We're also doing a lot of songs we haven't done for years, and that keeps us on our toes. It's like in the early days when we'd take requests from the audience."
The current U.S. tour covers 37 dates in just seven weeks, culminating in a monster outdoor extravaganza at the new Denver airport.
"They expect like 200,000 people," says Babjak matter-of-factly. "I hope we do OK."
The Smithereens have been doing more than simply OK for the past decade and a half. Few bands--R.E.M. comes to mind--have stayed with their original lineup intact for their entire career over such a long stretch, and few have so harmoniously produced quality pop music with such seeming ease.
"It's because we're sort of like a family," says Babjak. "You see, I've known Mike (Mesaros) our bass player since 1964--we were neighbors and we both had the same accordion teacher! This is when The Beatles were just coming out.
"He knew (drummer) Dennis (Diken) already, but I didn't meet Dennis until 1971 when we were freshmen in high school. We started playing together the second day after we met. Mike picked up the bass--it was the only instrument left, and we finally met Pat (DiNizio) from an ad in a local paper in 1980," he says. "So like three months after we had been together we released that first EP, and it gelled. It's been working ever since."
What has been working is the Smithereens' blending of classic 1960s Beatlesque melody, hooks and jangles with meaty lyrics and a timeless pop sensibility. The band is also known for their happy-sounding upbeat songs about melancholy subjects.
Explains Babjak with a laugh, "That's because in the old days, when I played on the records, I never listened to Pat's lyrics! So I didn't know what the hell the songs were about, I was just playing how I felt. But The Smithereens 'sound'--I still don't know what the hell that is."
The band's sound has been shaped over the past five LPs, mainly by two producers with opposite methods.
"Our first producer Don Dixon likes to work fast, and we like to work fast too. Then we started to work with Ed Stasium, and it seemed like it took forever in the studio.
"I mean, Blow Up took like four months," he says of the band's fourth album. "That was ridiculous--I like to get in and get out. So that's what we did with the latest record (1994's A Date With...), we went in with Don again and did it in three weeks.
"Ed likes layers and layers of tracks," he says. "On songs like 'Top Of The Pops' I'd put six guitar tracks on the thing, while on our new LP we have basically one or two guitars, without layering anything.
"Sometimes when we're in the studio we have a day left over, so we'll just knock out some 'live' tracks, and we've been doing that for years. As a matter of fact, Capitol will be releasing a B-side collection, too. We've done Kinks and Beatles songs, a lot of different things," he says excitedly.
"We did a version of The Beatles' 'One After 909'--not the Let It Be version, but in the earlier style. It was kind of goofy. Pat and I were drunk and we both sang on that."
The Smithereens jumped from Capitol to RCA after 1991's Blow Up, and will start work on their second RCA disc this summer. Record company politics are admittedly not Babjak's cup of tea.
"Sometimes I don't know what record companies are thinking," he sighs. "Do they just want the quick buck or are they interested in bands like us that have longevity?"
The whims of media outlets such as MTV also raise Babjak's ire. The band was once one of MTV's hottest bands--with 1989's blockbuster 11 album--but now they find it difficult to find screen time with the trend-setting network.
"In a way it's amazing that we've been able to continue without MTV support," he says. "They told us not to even bother to shoot a new video, because they wouldn't show it. This is the same station that once had us in heavy rotation, but then would only show our other videos once or twice."
In the scheme of the band's 15 successful years, MTV's acceptance--or lack thereof--is merely a footnote.
"We've always done what we love to do--it's just fun, and that's probably why we're still together, despite label changes and changes in radio styles," concludes Babjak, getting ready to skip off to yet another gig.
"I think we'll always be around, whether we have hits or not."
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