Interview: Dennis Diken – Ear Candy That Matters

Dennis Diken“Ear candy that matters.” That’s one of the succinct labels drummer/vocalist Dennis Diken uses to describe the songs on his album Late Music (Cryptovision). The Smithereens drummer stepped out for a solo project in 2009, and Late Music is the audio result of a project that has (in some ways) spanned more than 30 years from inception to fruition. Over an expansive Indian buffet we spent the better part of a recent evening discussing the back story of the new record.

We started out reminiscing about a wide variety of pop acts that enjoyed a heyday in the 60s. I mentioned the recent Gary Lewis and the PlayboysComplete Liberty Singles 2CD set and that brought back memories for Diken. “Those Gary Lewis records were big with me when I was a kid, when I first got my drum kit and was learning to play. That was Hal Blaine on drums. I’m a major fan of that stuff.” He mentioned the song “Tina”, a midtempo ballad with some fine harmony vocal backing. “Great melody, great bridge on there.” Diken is that sort of music lover who both appreciates the song for what it is and finds fascination in the mechanics of the song construction and arrangement as well.

Our conversation turned to The Rascals. And as it turned out, Diken is the Guy Who Knows Everybody. “I played with Felix a couple of years ago, which was a real gas,” he told me. “That was a dream come true.”

“I love the Rascals,” he continued. “We could talk all night about them. Garfield, New Jersey — my home town — is where the Rascals got their start. There’s a place called Choo Choo Club, off Passaic Street. That’s where they cut their teeth. It was a nightclub, one of those places where the band sets up behind the bar,” he laughs. “There’s another place in Garfield called Charlie Blood’s. I go there at least once a week. It’s a restaurant-bar, and it’s been there since 1938. Sal, the owner, is one of my best friends; he’s cousins with The Rascals’ David Brigati. Sal’s a real music fan, and he loves when I come in, because we can talk music. And he knows his stuff, too.”

Being the music fan that he is, Diken would have been quite happy to talk about the music of others all evening. But Late Music is an exceptional album of original material, so I steered the discussion in that direction. I pointed out the similarities — instrumentation, arrangement and vocal performance — between Late Music‘s “Let Your Loved One Sleep” and The Lovin’ Spoonful‘s “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind.” Diken shrugged and said, “You’re not the first person to point that out. But the thing is, I was really going for more of a Mickie Most [producer of UK hit pop records in the 60s] feel.” Which just goes to show that the influences of great 60s pop often live below the surface, and manifest in unintended (and unconscious) ways. “We never mentioned that in the studio; no one said, ‘hey, now let’s go for a Lovin’ Spoonful feel on this one.’ I guess that the people playing on it were just of that mind. But when people say that to me, I’ll take it. It’s a great compliment.”

Dennis Diken (center) onstage with the Smithereens Diken handles nearly all the lead vocals (and plenty of harmony vocals as well) on Late Music. We talked about listening to the old Beatles stereo albums, with the vocals panned to one side and instruments to the other. That’s how I learned to sing harmony, I mentioned. “Same here, with drumming,” Diken revealed. “I’d listen to one channel of records by the Association, with Hal Blaine.” Though Pat DiNizio is the primary voice of the Smithereens, after hearing Late Music, listeners will realize that Diken’s voice has always been a big part of that band’s sound as well.

The always self-effacing Diken asserted that since DiNizio wrote much of the Smithereens’ songs, there’s no one better to sing them than Pat himself. But on Late Music, he said, “these are my songs; they’re my lyrics. I feel them, so…I sing ’em!”

Diken recounted the story of how the Smithereens started; a concise version of that story was penned by Smithereens guitarist (and Diken’s boyhood friend) Jim Babjak in the liner notes to The Smithereens Play Tommy. To that story, Diken added a summation of his primary teenage motivation: “I had to ‘find a new place where the kids were hip’,” he laughed. His early cover bands played hits of the day, but Diken wasn’t satisfied: “I wanted to find someone who could play — and dig — ‘I Can’t Explain.’ That was my benchmark. And it was difficult, especially in 1971. People were into playing the Eagles.”

His initial meeting with Babjak seemed full of positive omens: “Day one of freshman year. Day one, period one, row one, seat one.” They’ve been musical comrades ever since, forming a band with Babjak’s friend, (now-retired) Mike Mesaros on bass, and eventually adding guitarist-vocalist Pat DiNizio as songwriter and lead singer. The band has since released more than a dozen albums (a new release is expected in 2010). During their commercial apex the group placed five albums in the “Billboard 200” and a dozen of their singles made it onto the singles charts, including 1988’s “Only a Memory,” which reached #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart.

Diken cited the moment that rock and roll — especially the Who — really clicked for him and Babjak: “I think what really pushed Jimmy over the edge was going to see the Woodstock movie with me. When the Who came onscreen, that was galvanizing for him. And it was for me, too. I was already into them; I started liking the Who around spring of 1967, when ‘Happy Jack’ came out.”

Dennis Diken with Bell Sound - Late Music I mentioned how the guys in the Byrds tell a similar story, how seeing A Hard Day’s Night onscreen set them on their path. “You see [the ideal] unfold before your eyes,” Diken observed. “Here’s the image of what you want to be, already in front of you. To see the Who onscreen, onstage — Townshend doing his windmills, Moon flailing — to see and hear that spectacle is pretty electrifying, crystallizing.”

Save some scattered tracks, the Smithereens haven’t released an album of new compositions in several years. But Diken has been writing and demoing songs ever since the 1970s; he’s amassed quite a backlog of material. So, I asked, is Late Music Dennis Diken’s All Things Must Pass?

He laughed and then considered the question. “I never thought about it that way, but it’s an interesting way to put it. Some of the songs do go back quite a way. Back as far as 1991, from a writing standpoint.” He recalled that the Late Music project — though it certainly wasn’t known as such — began in 1993. “Some of the elements of some of the recordings go back to 1993, ’94. So Late Music is a literal title in a certain sense,” he chuckled. “It took a long time to do. And I should have done it a long time ago. It was something I’ve been trying to get done since that time, and owing to other commitments, it took until now.”

Diken’s primary collaborator on the project has been Pete DiBella. The duo’s work together goes back to 1976. “Pete placed an ad in a local weekly, The Aquarian. His band, his writing partnership, was seeking ‘a singing drummer into Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys.’ Which,” Diken laughed, “was very rare in 1976!”

“So,” he continued, “I was all over that. I went to his house in Piscataway NJ. He had been doing home recordings of all these short little pop songs. They were really melodic and rife with harmonies. I realized right away, this guy’s really talented. Especially with vocal arranging; he was some kind of a savant. He still is, in his way. He’s untrained, but he just knows what makes music great.” Diken took care to give credit where he believes it’s due: “I’m calling Late Music a solo album, but it’s really a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. It’s Pete’s collaboration with me that has made these songs what they are. All of the songs on the album are really the result of the meeting of our minds.”

“As far back as the mid 70s,” Diken continued, “Pete DiBella was the guy who could wring the most out of a four-track recorder.” He revealed that ‘Standing in That Line’ was “recorded on a four-track cassette. I kid you not.” So this modern teenage symphony was put down using essentially hobbyist equipment? But then where’s the hiss? Diken’s rejoinder: “There’s too much sound for hiss! There’s no room. We saturated it. That recording is a testament to Pete’s genius on a little grey Fostex four-track.”

Diken said that DiBella “had been woodshedding since 1974. He had had a Teac quarter-inch recorder, and he really knew how to work it. He knew how to layer harmonies. So he had been doing that all these years…around the same time that [prolific pop auteur, NJ-based] R. Stevie Moore had been doing it. But Pete never really got notoriety for it; he never stepped out front that much. So we did some home recordings together, and we played out in some live situations together, and stayed in touch all these years. I learned a lot from him about recording and about songwriting. I wrote a few things with him, and I sang and played drums on some of his recordings.”

The story continued. “So Pete and I did all these things, and then the Smithereens started getting busy and were on the road. But we kept in loose touch. Then around ’92, I was on a break from the Blow Up tour, and had a little time. Pete and I got back in touch, and we decided to get back at it. So we started writing together. And we pretty much looked at it as a demo process. But the songs started to take on a life of their own, which often happens. We’d get a certain vibe on a demo, and we’d say, ‘I don’t know if we’ll really recapture this; it’s so fresh, so in the moment. Let’s just finish the demo and see what comes of it.’ And most of these tunes on Late Music were approached that way. They were songwriting demos, but we liked what we heard.”

Diken was quick and enthusiastic to share credit for the project. And DiBella’s not the only hero in bringing Late Music to fruition. “For some of these songs, the song ideas were down, and certain overdubs were done, but they were all unfinished. So Dave Amels [of Reigning Sound, and a frequent Diken collaborator] insisted we finish the album. And I’m eternally thankful to him for making it happen. So what we did was take one or two other songs that had begun on four-track cassette. And one of those song sketches was ‘The Bad Merry Go Round’. There are elements of the finished version that are from that four-track cassette.”

Bill Kopp and Dennis Diken That song is very much in the vein of The Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, another four-track creation. The arrangement’s complexity belies its technologically humble origin, and in fact the song has a long history. Diken continued: “Back in the late 90s, before Dave got involved, Pete and I worked on that, and added to it. But we ran out of tracks, so we bumped it up to half-inch eight track reel-to-reel, and added to that. We did the drums for the song on the eight-track. But we ran out of tracks again! So we took the tape to L.A. and bumped it up to two-inch to finish,” he laughs. “We covered the gamut, and we stuck with it. Instead of re-creating the demos, if it was possible, we’d just add to it.”

As we spoke, I pointed out what I saw as a direct connection between the Smithereens’ championing of underappreciated songs (like those on their B-sides the Beatles album) and the choice of styles served up by Diken on Late Music. Diken agreed that the connection exists, but doesn’t think it was intentional. They didn’t, he insists, set out to make a retro album. “Pete and I just did what we did. Of course, in some cases we referenced some things, either by listening to them or maybe even just talking about them while we were recording. I might say, ‘it would be really cool to have a vocal wash right here that sounds like The Association.’ And then Pete would say, ‘You mean, like this?’ and he’d just go for it. Or I’d say, ‘You know that Dan Hicks cut that’s got that really cool guitar twist?’ Pete’s a muso without being a muso. He’s savant-like; he gets what makes cool music work. For example, if you wanted to talk to him about Procol Harum, he could do that until doomsday. I could play a Julie London record and tell him I like the feel of it, and he’d be able to run with it. It was a joy to record this stuff.”

So, I asked, did or didn’t they set out to, for example, record a song that sounded like a Pet Sounds outtake? Or a cut off of Happy Jack? “Not at the outset,” Diken replied. “When I recorded ‘Sun’s Gonna Shine in the Morning”, I was certainly thinking of The Who. But when I wrote it, I don’t think that I was.” Then he explained his typical songwriting process. “In the case of ‘Long Lonely Ride’, I was listening to some records. Then I took a shower. And in the shower I got inspired, and came up with every part of the melody of that song. I put it on my microcassette right away. I wasn’t thinking of The Who. I had the melody, and I think I had the title line.”

Like all musicians, Diken is a product of his influences. Perhaps surprisingly for a high-powered drummer associated mostly with straight-ahead rock and roll, the lifelong New Jersey resident named the Four Seasons as a primary inspiration. Their records, Diken revealed, “were my early inspiration to get into pop music. The rhythm tracks on Four Seasons records are phenomenal; they’re really punchy. And the [drum] fills on those records come from a very strange place sometimes.” He’s a true champion of their work. “I was really fortunate to get the assignment to write the liner notes for a Four Seasons box set. I think they’re a very much misunderstood group. So my mission was to try and enlighten people who are listening to this music as to why these songs are more than just some records on an oldies radio station. There’s innovative songwriting and arrangements.”

I asked Diken which drummers have informed his style, influenced him the most. I expected to hear names like Hal Blaine, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Diken confirmed those suspicions, but then added some less-obvious names to the list. “There’s a guy named Buddy Saltzman; he played on the Four Seasons records.” He continued, “I got to interview him last year for Modern Drummer magazine.”

“And,” he continued, “Bobby Graham, the British drummer who Shel Talmy called ‘the greatest drummer that Britain produced.’ Dennis Wilson — he gets short shrift, because he did play on a lot of Beach Boys records. Gary Chester, another New York session drummer.” He named more still — Levon Helm, Kenney Jones in his days with the Small Faces, Greg Errico of Sly & the Family Stone (“a huge role model for me”), Muscle Shoals session drummer Roger Hawkins, Dino Danelli from the Rascals (“one of the greatest rock and roll drummers ever”) and “Another guy who nobody ever talks about: Johnny Barbata from the Turtles.” (Turtles lead singer Howard Kaylan agrees; read my interview with him here.)

Diken said, “Technique is great, and you need it to execute your ideas — but what I like most in a musician is ideas and feeling. What’s in your heart and soul, and how you use that power to express it.” He then spent ten minutes straight waxing poetic on the drumming genius of Ringo Starr, as I vigorously nodded my head in agreement.

Back to the genesis of Late Music‘s “Long Lonely Ride.” Diken recalled, “I was listening to the song ‘Big Man’s World’ on the Dawn (Go Away) album. The song has a very cool and unusual drum intro. That inspired ‘Long Lonely Ride’, I think, along with ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’ by The Who.” As far as overt influences, Diken summarized: “We imbibe those things, and they have to come out. On some songs, The Beatles tried to be The Shirelles or Ben E. King. The songs are filtered through their influences and their abilities. And it usually comes out a little different, but you can still see where it’s coming from.”

Diken enlisted the help of many friends for the recording of Late Music. If his goal had been to craft an album that highlighted his musical and cultural touchstones, he couldn’t have done any better than to assemble that particular lineup of musicians. But in most cases, the participation of people like Jason Falkner, members of the Wondermints and The Honeys wasn’t part of a planned strategy. It more or less just happened. “The simple answer is this,” explained Diken. “Once Pete and I were working together, we were doing great with just the two of us. I was playing drums, a little autoharp, and singing. He was doing everything else, really. And that’s how we planned to do the album; that, plus Dave Amels putting a few things here and there. Because Pete could execute closest to the bone what we had in mind.”

Dennis Diken onstage with the Smithereens “But there came a point around 2002 where Pete got involved with other things in his life, and he wasn’t available to work on it any more. So when Dave Amels said ‘We’ve got to finish this record,’ the question was: How do we do it? Dave had access to a studio in L.A. called The Bomb Factory. So in two sessions — one in 2004, one later — we finished the album. Andy Paley came in for the ’04 sessions; I can’t begin to tell you how much he contributed in spirit. On a song like ‘No One’s Listening’, he literally dreamed some of the instrument parts.”

Diken agreed that the players on the record “had the goods — the sensibilities — to work on this project. But it was never, at the outset, the idea to call on these people. It was more out of convenience. But thank God they were available!” He met the Honeys years ago while doing research for a Capitol Collectors Series release (he’s a frequent liner notes author and in-demand reissue project researcher); they subsequently sang harmonies on the Smithereens’ 11 album, and stayed in touch with Diken, eventually adding their distinctive vocals to Late Music‘s “Tell All the Fools.”

“I’ve got an ad for the album in the magazine Weird New Jersey,” Diken said, “and the line I use in the ad is ‘Every song is a different world.’ And that’s the way I feel about this album; there’s certainly a thread through the whole album, but I think every song stands on its own, sounds different from each other. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I’m happy to say that’s how it turned out.”

Perhaps not a jack of all trades — he neither reads musical notation nor plays guitar — Diken is certainly jack of many trades. In addition to his decades-long and ongoing Smithereens gig, he plays drums on a wide array of sessions and live dates; he’s worked with Mary Weiss (Shangri-Las), Chris von Snidern and countless others. He has penned liner notes for many albums, and curated several reissues. And he’s a disc jockey. “I’m a staff member at WFMU, free-form radio station in New Jersey. It’s the hippest radio station in the world,” he gushed.

“When I was a kid, five or six, if asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, my answer would always be: Disc jockey.” It’s all of a piece, really, he believes. “I’m passionate about music. Anybody who wants to deejay, or write about music — it’s about sharing the music.” He conjectured (correctly, of course) on this music journalist’s motivation. “I’m sure a lot of what drives your writing is the idea that, ‘This stuff is great! I want you to know about it!’ There’s a real life force to that. I became crazy about records at a very young age. And I still have that same feeling, that same passion.” That passion is in full flower on Dennis Diken’s Late Music.

“Every moment of writing and recording Late Music was a blast,” Diken gushed. “And there’ll be more, by the way,” he confided. “In the can, we’ve got song demos for another one and a half albums. At least.” While we’ll have to wait for those — there’s no set schedule for the next labor of love from Dennis Diken and his cohorts — some live dates to promote Late Music are being planned. Follow Diken on his Drums a Go Go site at

Read a review of Dennis Diken’s Late Music here.