USA TODAY Talk Today chat from December 15, 2003

What's A Smithtone?

National Geographic shot of some Afghanistan rebels
The original "militant" members of Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages, circa 1980.

Tracing the roots of Del Lowell & the Smithtones is an arduous task. The band, and I use the term “band” surreptitiously, formed in 1979 in Caracas, Venezuela, under the auspice of Del Lowell. Lowell, a graduate of Venezuela State University, mastered the ancient pumice whistle at the age of five and by 13, convinced six of his suburban playmates to form a musical group, Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages. Averroes Smith and his two younger brothers, Leonard and Dumenga, made an immediate impact on Del’s music. Averroes, or Manny to his friends, excelled on the keyboard while Leonard, an apprentice fisherman by trade, took to the passionate pounding of the bass guitar. Dumenga, just eight years old in 1979, attempted to take guitar lessons to fit into the group. The other three members, Nikki Sixx, George Strait and Cyndi Lauper, only stayed with the Hostages for two years before floundering out of the music business. Nice career moves!!

In the early ‘80s, Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages played mostly South American outdoor concerts for free. The average concert attendee was bipedal, in their mid-30s and tone deaf. After Sixx, Strait and Lauper left the Hostages in early 1981, the now-foursome was forced to reinvent their sound. As Lowell later explained, “The world wasn’t ready for pumice whistle-based dance music … yet.”

Lowell and the three Smith brothers followed their collective hearts and packed up their 1973 Saab minivan and drove up to Los Angeles, USA. The quartet left Venezuela in July 1981 and arrived in California in March 1984. “We got lost in Tijuana for two years,” recalled Lowell in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report. Upon arriving in the United States, Lowell told the Smith brothers to take five to seven years off (or less for good behavior) while he wrote new material. Dumenga, the most musically talented of the four, used the hiatus to become a member of the San Diego-based metal group, Foam Tide. The two-piece band released just two tapes of their music, before band leader Mike Petersen took his grunge chops north to Seattle in 1992. “(Petersen) moving to Seattle was the best thing to happen to me. He was suffocating me,” Dumenga told me in a phone conversation in August of 1998.

OK, it's Poison
Dumenga, Del, Manny and Leonard (L to R) are all glam in this 1985 promo still.

In late 1996, Lowell was finally ready to commence an Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages comeback. He tracked down the elusive Smith brothers and they proceeded to cut tracks at Dumenga’s home studio. Unfortunately for Lowell, though, all of his pumice whistle sheet music was destroyed in a mysterious fire in December of that year at Dumenga’s studio. Oh well. Dumenga did save the day, however, as he hunkered down and proceeded to literally regurgitate hit song after hit song. Mixed in with Dumenga’s ear-splitting guitar cuts were Manny’s keyboards and Leonard’s bass, which gave the tunes “dance fever” qualities. Lowell then followed up with some crucial pumice whistle overdubs, and his mastery of another ancient South American art -- the programming of the Alesis SR-16 drum machine -- proved invaluable. And to keep with the band’s time-honored tradition, no vocals were added to the final mix to encourage karaoke.

I don't know what this thing is!
The only known photograph of Del Lowell's infamous pumice whistle.

Thirteen tracks later, Lowell and the Smith brothers shopped their untitled master to all the big name record companies. Sony and Warner Brothers got into an eight-figure bidding war, which eventually turned off the band. “We didn’t come this far to sell out,” Lowell lamented, and the band withdrew their disc for consideration. Since the band produced their own music, they decided to also release the disc on their own label. But first things first.

“We didn’t feel right about still calling ourselves Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages,” Lowell said. “It was too easy of a sale. The disc would go platinum in a week and where’s the challenge in that?” Dumenga then recommended that the band be renamed, Del Lowell & the Smithtones. The CD was titled, man makes plans and God laughs, another Dumenga-inspired move. The disc was released to the public on Friday, August 7, 1998, on TDK compact discs and six months later, its sales had reached 11. Del Lowell & the Smithtones got what they wanted after all. Anonymity.

“We’re thinking of re-releasing it under Ayatollah Khomeini & the Hostages so we can sell a million of them, and I think we’ll accept Sony’s $12 million offer now, too,” Lowell recently told me. “Can you pass that on to them for me? I’m starting to miss car payments now.”

He's kidding, of course. Will the hysterical hijinks ever end? The music world is collectively crossing its fingers.

Al Gore
February 1999