Here's an interview from a few years back with Jim Babjak of The Smithereens backstage before a gig at La Zona Rosa in Austin as part of the SXSW conference. Babjak, and in fact, everyone in The Smithereens, are about the nicest musicians you can meet. Despite getting nearly chased out of our interview room by some of the staff, we talked about today's music, influences on The Smithereens, how he gets his sound and some of the memorable gigs over the years. If there's one observation you can make about Babjak, this is a guy who loves his job. And watch for a Smithereens' take on Tommy coming soon.
Q. Do you listen to any of the new bands out there?
Jim: I listen to the radio. I was watching Saturday Night Live the other day. I saw Wilco. They’re good. I have their albums. Someone gave me Soundtrack to their Lives. I really liked that. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. People usually turn me on to new music. I wouldn’t say I’m in a bubble. My kids are 19, 17 and 13. Some of the stuff my kids listens to I can’t stand. I don’t know what it is. It’s just noise.
Q. Do you think that’s any different from your parents listening to your music?
Jim: I remember when I was young. My dad came into my room and I had Sticky Fingers on. My dad said he liked it. I’m like, what? I thought that was pretty cool. My dad didn’t like the Beatles or new music. He was almost the same age as John Lennon. It was really strange. But I guess he was from the old school. My oldest son raids my CD collection to get what he calls classic rock. My younger kids love The Who.
Q. The Beatles and the Byrds are often cited as big influences on The Smithereens. What else was an infulence on you?
Jim: Those tags were put on us. The Beatles were the first band that I was exposed to where I said yeah, I want to play guitar. Like thousands of other people. But when I actually started playing and heard the Who for the first time I was just amazed at the sound he was getting out of the guitar.
There were certain moments that influenced me. I had this weird album from Monterey Pop. It had Otis Redding on one side and Jimi Hendrix on the other. It had this silver cover. I think bought it for $.99. Hendrix did "Like a Rolling Stone." And the way he opened the song, bam, hitting the E string. He hit it so hard. That to me made me want to play like that. It seemed like it was sexy, passionate. It wasn’t like anything I heard before. This guy’s going all out. That’s when I really started to play.
Another group called The Move, which never really made it in the states. I liked some of their stuff. They had a song "Sunshine Help Me" it was a live song from the Marquee club. It had this long extended solo in it. He was playing these leads as if he’s playing a sitar. Riding it. I started experimenting with that. Kind of like the Taxman solo. Those sounds appealed to me and moved me. Those are the things that initially influenced me.
As far as bands… it was all the bands, British invasion, stuff, yeah. I also liked the Beach Boys. Dennis turned me on to that. But when disco came around I really rejected it in a big way. That’s when I went back and started listening to old Elvis records, Buddy Holly records, Chuck Berry. I really got into the 50’s rock and roll stuff. That gave me a base.
And then what was really amazing, was around around 1976, I went to CBGBs and I saw a band called Television. And we saw The Ramones, and The Dictators. We saw them many times. Also groups that you didn’t hear of afterwards, like The Shirts, The Planets. I saw the Talking Heads at CBGBs with three people in the audience. It was a good time. I even went out and bought Television’s single "Little Johnny Jewel." 5 bucks back then. That was a lot of money.
What happened to me then, it made me realize that I could actually do this. Because up to that point the dream was so far away. We’d see the Who at Madison Square Garden or the Kinks, seeing all these bands in bigger venues. I saw Frampton on the tour when he recorded the live album, it was great. We went to all these concerts. But it was larger than life. What happened at CBGB’s was we saw bands just getting on stage and playing and it made it real. It made me realize we could actually do this. Because we saw them up close. And to me the mystery was gone. It was right in front of me. I thought, yeah, I could do this.
Q. What did you think of the Ramones?
Jim: Wow. I’m trying to put myself back in to that time. Because now it seems normal. But it was out of this world. It really was.
We toured with The Ramones for three weeks back in ’86. That was great. We were very respectful that it was their show, their audience. So we did our set very quickly. But after a while people really liked what we were doing. Joey was a really nice guy and he liked our music. He’d joke with us that we were getting too good, we might be off the tour. One night we were out Holiday Inn bar in New York. It was last call and Joey ordered twenty budweisers for the five of us. He was like that.
Q. What in your view makes a classic Smithereens sound?
Jim: I don’t know if I do anything consciously. I remember years ago I would never plan a solo that I was going do on the record. I would always just wing it. For a long time I thought I was being lazy. But I think subconsciously I just wanted to keep it fresh and see what would happen.
Then as we got on to a major label they wanted to hear demos. So the first album, we just went in and did it. Which is great. That’s the way I love doing it. I remember "Time and Time again" on the first record. I was standing right next to Dennis. We didn’t have any isolation booths. We didn’t do our tracks separately. I played it standing right next to him. This is a guy I’ve been playing with since 1971, we were teenagers when we got started. And the song was going to be a fade. So, I thought alright, I’ll just screw round with him and jam a little bit at the end. It was just one take and it came out so good, that our producer Don Dixon said we’re keeping it. Theres no way I would be able to duplicate it back then. Later on we’d have to do demos and I’d do these great solos on demos and I could never reproduce them. It would take a lot of work if the vibe wasn’t there.
Q. You've been using a Telecaster for quite a while now.
Jim: That’s my guitar of choice for live shows since 1994. Because it’s a workhorse, it’s the perfect guitar. I can take it on the road and beat the crap out of it. And really play the damn thing and it won’t go out of tune if I stretch the strings. I love that guitar. It's a '52 reissue and I can get some good sounds out it. I can just turn it down a bit and get a nicer tone. Or I can crank it up.
In the early days I was using a Rickenbacker. I borrowed a Les Paul for Behind the Wall of Sleep for the recording. I didn’t own one at the time and I wanted it to sound tougher. But I had a tough sound out of the Rickenbacker too, with Marshall combination. I don’t use any effects. I use the 800 Series Marshall 100 watt, that's what I’ve always had. I tried using effects around 1988. Our roadies made me do it. I hated it. It didn’t sound like me. To get a true sound, without effects, I figured that was good enough for me. All those effects were great for Hendrix, but I never had a desire to use them. Maybe it’s just more stuff that can go wrong. And you travel you want to minimize that. Also, deep down, I always felt when I saw bands that used use a lot of effects I thought it was to cover up their lack of ability.
Jim: I don’t know. I haven’t been thinking about it. Because everything you read is just negative. Record companies are consolidating, going out of business. People are stealing music off the internet. Kids today they don’t understand that it costs money to make these things and make your living from it. Everything seems so negative. You’ve got Paul McCartney selling albums in Starbucks. Everything seems screwed up. To me playing live is the best. They can’t take that away from you. I said that back when we first got signed. The record industry can do anything they want to us, drop us, whatever. But we’ll still be around. As long as we’re healthy and alive we’ll always keep playing.
Q. Any advice for younger bands?
Jim: The only advice I would give is be true to yourself and don’t try to sound like someone else. I know its easy to say, find your own style. It can happen. When I first started, I thought I was copying Pete Townsend, or the Beatles, but after a while you find your own place. I don’t know how or when it happened, but it does happen.
Q. What are you most proud of in your career?
Jim: That’s a tough one. Most people would say a specific guitar solo or something. For me it’s our longevity. What am I proud of? Geez. I’m proud that I didn’t become a lame parody of myself. I feel like I’m always getting better. And I’m always enthusiastic. People say to me ‘How do you play the same songs every night?’ But I change it up for myself. If the audience is great, I’ll play better. I’ll improvise better. I definitely feed off the audience.
Q. Any particular gigs that stand out?
There were so many. At one point I was going to try to compile a list of all the shows we’d done. I remember when Joey Ramone died they’d done over 2,000 gigs. I know we’ve surpassed that. But I don’t have the time to put this stuff together.
Saturday Night Live was a pretty good high even though it wasn’t our audience. It was really friggin’ cool. And it was really live. That was what was cool about that show. It was really going out live across the country. We did the big festivals Glastonbury, Reading. Those were pretty cool. We did have some good gigs. Whenever we toured Spain we always had a great audience.
To me a memorable gig isn’t necessarily a great show. I remember Dennis falling through the stage. We were doing an encore and I was playing drums. Our shows had a lot of mayhem. Dennis was jumping up and down and he fell right through the stage. I think that was in Richmond Virginia. That kind of stuff to me is funny.
We played in Iceland at this opera house. We sold out two nights in a row. That was pretty cool going to Iceland. Bands don’t go there. They treated us like the Beatles. They were interviewing us. They did a TV special. The opening act was the SugarCubes, their very first gig. The guitar player was so excited he somehow fell into the orchestra pit and broke his arm.
But sometimes it’s just the people that you meet in the pubs, or walking around Belgium or wherever you are. I remember those things sometimes more than the actual shows.
That's me hanging with the band backstage at South By Southwest. Thanks for indulging me guys! And don't forget last year's Live in Concert and watch for the band's punked-out version of The Who's classic Tommy coming May 9.