Wally Palmar: Vocals/rhythm guitar/harp
Elliot Easton: guitar
Andy Babiuk: bass
Clem Burke: drums
“You can make it if you try/Take a little time/I can help you find a way to/Fill an empty heart.”
Even though The Empty Hearts feature members of Blondie, The Cars, Chesterfield Kings and The Romantics—as well as being christened by Little Steven Van Zandt from his super-secret list of unused band names—this is no cynically constructed super group. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Clem Burke, two-time Grammy nominee and MTV Video of the Year Award winning guitarist Elliot Easton, bassist Andy Babiuk and lead singer/rhythm guitarist Wally Palmar have parlayed a combined lifetime of rock ‘n’ roll into their self-titled 429 Records debut, a sterling collection of influences that include ‘50s American roots rock ‘n’ roll, ‘60s British Invasion and ‘70s garage-punk that is anything but retro, rather a refreshing return to core musical values.
There’s the clarion power chords of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” in “Soul Deep”, the Stones-by-way Chuck Berry twang of “Drop Me off at Home,” the Yardbirds’ bluesy R&B of “Meet Me Around the Corner,” the Led Zeppelin epic sweep of “Loud and Clear,” the “Wild Horses”/ “Dead Flowers” country-rock of “I Found You Again” and the Faces’ “Stay with Me” party vibe in “I Don’t Want Your Love.”
Co-produced by the band with Ed Stasium [The Ramones, Living Colour, The Smithereens] at Babiuk’s Fab Gear Studios in Rochester, N.Y., the album shows off the well-honed stylistic strengths of each individual member, with the Faces Hall of Fame keyboardist Ian McLagan adding Wurlitzer and Hammond organs into the mix.
“These are all friends that I felt could get along both socially and musically,” says longtime Chesterfield Kings bassist Babiuk, who started the ball rolling by calling old-time pal, Romantics’ singer Wally Palmar and asking if he wanted to start a band. “Remember when you first picked up a guitar because you loved the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks? Wouldn’t it be great to get in a room, write songs and play them like we did when we were teenagers? And that’s just how it started.”
Blondie drummer Burke had previously played with Palmar in the Romantics and with Easton on several Blondie sessions and in an aborted band featuring Doug Fieger. Easton and Palmar knew Babiuk from frequent stops at his former employer, Rochester’s legendary House of Guitars, before Andy started his own guitar store, the ultra-hip Fab Gear. All four came of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in indie punk/new wave bands that demonstrated a love of classic rock and roll. When Babiuk revealed he didn’t want to make another Chesterfield Kings record, he told Little Steven, with whom he was working on David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” his own homage to the ‘60s, that he wanted to do something different.
“We’re the last rock band standing,” laughs Easton. “The whole idea is to have a blast playing with friends. We were just laughing and in high spirits all the time. No drama. It was just a lot of fun, and you can hear that in the grooves.”
“Those common influences are what brought us together,” adds Burke. “We’re survivors and lifers of rock ‘n’ roll. We take from everything that’s come before musically. A lot of people have never heard or seen a band like this. There’s a freshness to it, at the same time as it’s a recollection of the past. Being a rock musician today is like being a jazz musician back in the early days of rock.”
The band got together to rehearse the material, then headed to Rochester, N.Y., where they hunkered down with Stasium to record the album.
“Having Ed aboard was a major stroke for us,” says Clem, a sentiment all four chime in on. “He was real hands-on, a fifth member of the band. And the great part was, right from the start, he said, ‘No click tracks.’ We really did this record old-school, all in the studio together, playing from the heart.”
Each member contributed to the final product, with Palmar providing many of the lyrics from ideas thrown out by the others, creating what Clem describes as “Chuck Berry poetry.”
“As soon as we knew what we were going for in each song, the ideas flowed very quickly and painlessly,” agrees Wally, who has also played as a member of Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. “I can’t put my finger on it, or analyze it. It’s all about the chemistry between us. It just happened and it worked. It felt right. It sounded good when we recorded the album and it sounds even better now.”
How can you go wrong with a world-class guitarist like Easton, who gets to display his own remarkable talent, sounding like Pete Townshend one minute, Keith Richards the next, Jimmy Page another, and even emulates a pedal steel with a little dial-twisting on his Telecaster.
“This is the band I want to be in right now,” says the long-time The Cars member. “There’s plenty of room for me to stretch out. We listened back to some of the rehearsal tapes and it sounds like they could have been recorded at the Fillmore East in 1969.”
Of course, it’s 2014, and the members of The Empty Hearts are all too aware of the obstacles they have to face in a record industry that is, to put it mildly, “not what it once was,” according to Elliot.
“I didn’t want us to get so beat up by the business we never wanted to play again,” says Babiuk about his inspiration for starting the band.
“No one answered an ad to be in this group,” nods Clem. “We came together as friends to make music and have a good time. And that’s the way it’s been working out.”
“We all like the same things,” says Andy. “We all laugh at the same humor, like the Three Stooges. When a band is playing music and having fun, people can sense that, and that’s when it catches on. We don’t give a f**k.”
But, of course, they do. The Empty Hearts are carrying the torch for a specific type of rock ‘n’ roll they were raised on, and hope to pass it on to another generation for safekeeping. They sound like they’ve been a band all their lives, taking the DIY ethos of their punk-rock roots and updating it to a drastically altered music landscape.
“We haven’t been together 20 years, but cumulatively, we’ve played four times that long,” notes Palmar.
“We’re all just big fans of one another’s abilities and band histories,” acknowledges Clem.
“I don’t want your love/If you don’t want me.”
It’s a line Elliot Easton came up with for the song of the same name, a raucous affair that sounds like it was recorded in a drunken bar, with patrons shouting out the chorus, but it symbolizes the band’s approach. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth it. And now they’re ready to take it on the road.
“We’re just really excited to play live,” says Andy, pointing towards a fall tour after the album’s release.
It’s left to Clem Burke to sum up the raison d’etre of this happy accident.
“We might be called The Empty Hearts,” he says. “But our hearts are full with the love of rock ‘n’ roll… How’s that for cornball?”
The Empty Hearts are ready to fill yours up.