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Interview with Stephen Butler of Smash Palace

By Gary Wien

Smash Palace will be coming to the Saint in Asbury Park on Saturday, October 21st. The bill also includes Luzer, South Of The Bridge and Porter Block. Upstage Magazine recently interviewed Stephen Butler of Smash Palace via email about the band.

Let's go back to the beginning to give people a brief history of where you and Smash Palace came from. When you first started out, your brother and you were in a band called Quincy. In a span of like six months you were signed to Columbia Records and began making noise around the country and then suddenly it was all over. Did Quincy Jones really sue you guys? What went down?
yep, quincy jones sued the band. columbia records had just released our first album and we were on tour. we were playing the wiskey on the sunset strip in LA when quincy jones saw our name on the marquee and slapped us with a law suit. he tried to have all of our records taken off the market...needless to say, it hurt the record sales in a big way...we couldn't believe it. no one in the band knew who quincy jones was. we did record another record but brian and i left before it was finished...we weren't into the direction that the producer and the label was taking the band so we just left. if you don't like the music you're making ...why do it? we then put smash palace together.

At the time you were signed you were majoring as a classical guitar major. How difficult was it to switch from that world to writing pop songs?
i was always a rock guitarist at heart and started playing beatles and stones songs as a 10 year old. brian was a singer and a harmonica player intially. we started writing songs together when i was 12...brian is 5 years older than me. as far as classical guitar goes, it's just another side to my playing. i love it and practice everyday. i think it does in some abstract way, influence my rock playing.

Some people have a hard time with the words pop music. I personally love a great pop song, what's your take on pop music? Do you dislike the term or do you think it fits what you are doing?
i don't have a problem with the term pop music. it means popular music...some popular is music is great and some isn't so great. stephen foster, irving berlin, buddy holly, chuck berry, the beatles, the stones. nirvana all wrote pop songs. i'm very happy to be in the same company as these artists writing and playing pop music.

After Quincy came Smash Palace. I know there was a movie in the early 80s called Smash Palace. Where did the name come from and is there a story behind the name?
i nicked the name smash palace from the movie. when brian and i started the band, we had booked our first gig and club owner said "what's the name of your new band"? he had to know by the next day for the advertising so I got out a tv listing and saw the name smash palace...thought it sounded alright and called him back..done!

Both of the bands were part of the 80s Philly scene that had bands like the Hooters and Tommy Conwell straddle both Philly clubs as well as Jersey Shore clubs. This is Smash Palace's first time at the Saint. Is this also your first time performing in Asbury Park?
i have always considered quincy and smash palace to be jersey bands. i'm proud of that...new jersey has had some great artists that have come from here. who was that guy from asbury park that got real big? oh yeah...bruce springsteen (just kidding of course) both bands were discovered playing in nyc clubs...not in philly clubs. hilly kristal, the now "former owner" of cbgbs managed quincy for awhile. smash palace got signed initially playing at kennys castaways in nyc. this is our first time at the saint .. we have played the stone pony before.

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You took some time off after Smash Palace's records originally came out. What did you do and what led you back to playing music again?
after smash palace folded, brian and i became staff songwriters at emi and then later bmg publishing. we made good money but didn't enjoy the experience. brian then went into toy design at tyco toys and i was a high school teacher. we just needed a break...the music business can really get to you after awhile and taking a break from it was much needed for the both of us. we reformed in 1999. i built a studio in my house and brian and i recorded the next smash palace cd "fast, long , loud". we just got back to basics and had a lot of fun. it was the first cd we ever made that we liked. we then made "unlocked" in 1991 and "over the top" in 2004 and now "best of 99-06"
we'll most likely do another one next year.

It looks like the show you guys did at the Cavern Club in Liverpool played a major role in the rebirth of the band in a big way. Am I right?
i was having a real hard time getting a new deal for smash palace. the cd from 2001 and 2004 were self released. i was offered a gig for the band in 2005 at the international pop overthrow festival in liverpool england..home of the fab four and i asked dyanne DiSalvo the rhythm guitarist and phil rizzo the bass player if they would like to do the liverpool show and they said yes but my drummer couldn't do it ( greg didonato actually was leaving anyhow to join a cover band!) so i asked anthony bezich to play for us .. we played the cavern club on a very hot may evening. the cavern was packed and needless to say, we were really exited about playing there. the deal was, with 140 bands playind at this festival over a 5 day period, you had 30 minutes to play no more and no encores. well we just happened to play one of our better sets and david bash who organized the event had us come back to do an encore because the place was going a little nuts...we were the only band to do an encore. there were some music critics in the audience that nite and they in turn told art herman at zip records about our show. i had a message on my machine when i got back from liverpool asking me to send him a cd..zip is now our label... so yes, i guess you can say we're new jersey band that was discovered playing the cavern..

I don't want to try reading into the lyrics, but at first glance it almost sounds like "Lucky Me" is a good way of describing your life with music right now. "Free again..." -- How different is it to be doing this without being on a major label? What's the most difficult thing you've encountered this time around?
it's so much better artistically on a indie label. art herman at zip records is a music lover and gives smash palace lots of freedom in that respect. at the majors, they are picking over ever detail...constantly changing things that don't need changing. i guess it's a way to justify a job. of course, indie labels can't spend the kind of money on you to promote you the way a major label can, but i'd take artistic freedom any day. the hardest thing is financial freedom. a couple of the guys in the band have full time jobs and it's hard to pick up and leave on a tour. we just back from a uk tour and it's a lot of fun for everyone and we love it, but there are responsibilties to be taken care of at home. phil and anthony have been very fortunate to have understanding bosses at work. dy and I are our own bosses ...lucky us.

Your brother Brian helped write and produce the record but is not part of the touring band. Why not?
brian is recently married, teaches art at the university of the arts and rowan university and likes writing and recording but doesn't really have the time to do the live shows...it's a lot of work. he has always gone back and forth between art and music..his 2 passions.

I noticed you have a show coming up with the Bay City Rollers. That's pretty cool. What's the most awkward bill you can remember being placed on?
i think the bay city rollers did some great power pop songs. it should be cool...not sure about the kilts though. the weirdest bill ever for us? when the beastie boys opened for us at rowan university spring fling...who thought of that one? and i really like the beastie boys...maybe it wasn't such a weird thing after all.

Finally, after reading some of the press you've received I think Smash Palace is kind of unfairly being labeled as a band with that 80s sound. I think your record is great and I'm a huge fan of 80s music, but I think your record sounds much more contemporary than that. What are your thoughts on the last record and being mentioned with the 80s music?
i agree with you completely.. I'm not too bothered about the 80's thing and it may be one of the few unforeseen benefits of not having a big hit in the 80's is that lots of people have never heard of us and treat us a new band...especially in the uk. we aren't doing 80's music (i'm not dissing the 80's) i'm more rooted in the now. i listen to lots of new music and there are some great bands out there that i'm excited about and my real roots are the 60's so i'd say it's contempory music with 60's rock pop influences.

For more information on Smash Palace visit the band's website at http://www.smashpalacemusic.com

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 10/16/2006



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