Today’s math lesson: The Romantics + Blondie + The Cars + Chesterfield Kings = a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup guaranteed to be as much of a blast for the players as it is for the fans.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
As any fan of rock and roll knows, supergroups are a hit or miss thing. For every supergroup that succeeds, there’s another one that either gets torn apart by egos or that simply fails to live up to the sum of its parts. When I first heard about The Empty Hearts earlier this year, I had my fingers crossed that they wouldn’t disappoint; thankfully, they don’t!
The Empty Hearts are Wally Palmar of The Romantics on lead vocals, rhythm guitar and harmonica; Elliot Easton of The Cars on lead guitar; Andy Babiuk of The Chesterfield Kings on bass; and Clem Burke of Blondie on drums. If you came of age in the early ’80s (as this writer did), this band amounts to a sort of New Wave dream team. The mere sound of Wally Palmar’s voice or Clem Burke’s distinctive, Keith Moon-influenced drumming is enough to make you remember the days when you could turn the radio on and hear these and other like-minded bands. What’s great about The Empty Hearts’ self-titled debut (released earlier this month on the 429 Records label) is that it proudly wears its influences on its sleeve and yet it sounds totally fresh. You get the feeling these guys had a blast making this record — which, apparently, they did.
The Empty Hearts contains a dozen tracks and was produced by Ed Stasium (The Ramones, Living Colour, etc.) and recorded at bassist Babiuk’s Fab Gear Studios in Rochester, New York. Even though Palmar is the frontman as it were, this is clearly a collaborative effort and the Hearts are very much a band. There are no big egos dominating the disc; rather, it’s just four guys who are playing new songs inspired by old bands — the bands that made them want to get into rock and roll in the first place. And rock and roll they do! Songs like the album opener “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street,” “Soul Deep,” “Perfect World,” “Just a Little Too Hard” and “Drop Me Off at Home” are straightforward rockers that hearken back to both the British Beat and American garage rock. But not all the songs clock in at 90 miles an hour; there are a couple of cool detours and scenic routes on this ride. “I Don’t Want Your Love,” the first single, is an almost Slade-like slice of glammy rock and roll. “Jealousy” is a midtempo blues stomp while “Fill an Empty Heart” and “I Found You Again” are more delicate, the latter even displaying a surprising country influence. All in all, The Empty Hearts is a fun, fantastic debut.
For this piece, I interviewed Palmar and Babiuk, two of the most unpretentious guys you’ll ever talk to.
BLURT: I’ll start by asking how the four of you came together in the first place.
WALLY PALMAR: I’ve known all the guys in the band, some longer than others. But I’d have to say the main instigator of this would probably be Andy. I was still out of the road with Ringo at that point, in 2011. He contacted me when I was going to South America with them and threw this idea at me. I had enough on my plate at that time and I go, “What makes you think you’re gonna be able to get these guys?” He goes, “Well, it’s just a thought, you know? Let me do some work.” And he asked if I’d be into it. I go, “Yeah, I’ll help you finish up some ideas. Personally, I don’t know if we’re gonna get the other guys.” Even though Clem played with The Romantics for a stretch… At any rate, by the time I got back from the tour with Ringo, he had contacted everybody and everybody seemed to be on board, even without hearing any song ideas! [But] I had some song ideas, and [Andy] had some, and we kinda started fleshing out these ideas. And eventually, we took ’em out to the West coast to hook up with Clem and Elliot. [Then we] all sat in a room together and started to throw these ideas around…
But you have to keep in mind one thing… There’s a lotta bands out there that will get together and say, “Let’s go play, do some clubs, this and that.” That was never our intention. Our main intention from the get-go was [to] put out a record. That was the focus. After one trip out to the West coast, I went back to work with Andy a little more in Rochester, and then [made] another trip to the West coast, It started to take shape. And once it did, it all started to happen fairly quickly.
ANDY BABIUK: Wally and I had known each other for like 25 years. We did a lot of shows with The Romantics. It was like, “Hey man, we should do something sometime.” And years go by and you just never do, because everybody’s busy. [But] I really just had this idea: ‘Remember when you picked up a guitar when you were a kid? Because you liked The Beatles and The Stones and The Kinks. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a band where everybody gets in a room and just writes songs and plays?’
And so [Wally] was part of the Ringo All-Starr Band and they were goin’ to South America and I was wishin’ him a good time and all that. And I just said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we started a band?” He goes, “Yeah, but I live in Detroit and you live in Rochester!” And I said, “Well, how ’bout we get Clem Burke? He lives in LA!” (laughs) He goes, “Well, who were you thinking’ about on the guitar?” I go, “Elliot Easton. He’s one of the nicest guys I know and he’s also one the most brilliant guitar players I know. So imagine that. Wouldn’t that be fun? We all get in a room and write songs together?” [Wally] was like, “Wow. It’s kind of a crazy idea. We all live in different cities.” I said, “Go on your tour and have fun. Call me when you get back.” And he called me and goes, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that idea. It sounds great.” Next thing you know, we flew out to LA. And we got together in a studio and started writing songs and havin’ fun, just jammin.’ That’s kinda how it started.
Oh, did [you know] how we got named? You’re a writer, so you might be aware — but go find a name for a band that’s not been used. Good luck! I have an attorney friend of mine. He was aware of what we were doing and he’s like, “You better be careful picking a name… There’s gonna be some little kid band in Iowa that plays in a bar that has an attorney, and they’re gonna sue you and make you stop using the name. So choose wisely.” Every name we thought of was used. So [finally] we asked Little Steven. He goes, “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna give you my secret list of 20 killer rock and roll band names that I’ve been saving.” [But] of those names, almost all of them were used…. It took us months to think of a name. Months! Every name we thought of, somebody’s using it. So I get a text message from Little Steven. “You fucking guys think of a name for your band yet?” I just sent him a one word answer: “No.” I get a text back: “You’re gonna be called The Empty Hearts. I said so.” (laughter) You’re familiar with The Sopranos?
Yeah, of course!
AB: When I tell you that Steven is exactly like Silvio Dante, I’m not lying. He’s not acting on that show. [He says] “The only difference between me and Silvio Dante is that he gets to kill people and I don’t!” So he sends me this text. “You guys are gonna be called The Empty Hearts. I said so.” I highlighted the whole thing, I copied it and I sent it to the other three guys and I said, “Okay, guys. If any of you [wants to] argue with Silvio Dante, be my guest. If not, I guess we’re gonna be called The Empty Hearts.” That’s literally how we got named.
It’s a really good album. And in a way, it reminds me of what The Traveling Wilburys did — a bunch of guys from other projects coming together and no one has a big ego.
AB: Well, yeah. It was kinda like that. It wasn’t like I showed up with a ton of songs and said, “Hey guys, can you play on my record?” It wasn’t that. We have a rule in the band: it’s gotta be fun, and the minute it’s not fun, let’s stop. We don’t really take it all that seriously. We just shot a video — well, two videos — for the album. And I mean, we were just sittin’ around talking about things like The Three Stooges and stuff. We do more of that than anything else. We have a lot of fun just hanging out! It kinda shows in the music, I think, when a band’s having fun.
The lead song [on the album] is “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street.” What inspired that? Did you write the lyrics or was it more of a collaborative thing?
WP: I can tell you [that] Clem had the title. We were doing a song… This was at a rehearsal. After we did the song a couple of times, we took a break, he walked up [to me and just said] “90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street.” I go, “Okay.” It fit the actual phrasing of the chorus that we were singing. You know, we had an idea [of] how we wanted the chorus to sound. The melody was written and the phrasing was written and it just so happened that that was his title. It was great.
AB: I think I came up with some “na-na-na” thing but I didn’t really have any lyrics for it. And Clem goes, “How ’bout ’90 Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street’?” I go, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” He goes, “Well, you know, [it’s like when] you’re on a path to full destruction but you keep on goin’ down it.” I think that time thing there was Clem’s thing. And then Elliot came up with [something]. Just very organic.
Another one I like, which kinda hearkens back to The Romantics, is “Drop Me Off At Home.”
WP: Oh yes! “Drop Me Off at Home.” I think Andy had the chord structure and… when we brought it to the rehearsal studio, everything just fell into place. I think I had the title. And it kinda lends itself to a simple, rock and roll, Detroit-type thing. You know, some of the lyrics are kinda funny. And it probably came about late at night (laughter). Sometimes you come up with ideas at that time and you sleep on it and take a look at it the next day [and] sometimes they don’t make that much sense! But this one happened to stick so we just ran with it.
One of the other songs that stood out to me was “I Found You Again.” Most of the album has more of a rock and roll vibe and that’s almost a country-ish ballad. Who came up with that?
WP: I can pinpoint that. That was Andy’s. He had this idea and he had a title and the chorus was not quite what it is now. But he had a title, and an idea of how he wanted the song to be. It was more in that vein of… almost like a “Dead Flowers” or something like that. So we sat around and I helped flesh out that idea too. Clem came up with the perfect beat for it, Elliot came up with the idea of playing [what] sounds almost like pedal steel guitar but he’s doing it on a Telecaster. He did a phenomenal job.
AB: I had [the] idea for that song. I think I played it for Wally initially. I said, “I got this idea. What do you think?” He goes, “Yeah, it’s pretty good. How ’bout if we do this to it and change this?” You know, I had some lyrics. Then when we got together, all four of us, it evolved even more…. I [said], “Elliot, did you ever learn how to play pedal steel?” And he’s like, “You know, I never did.” But at some point, he switches his guitar and puts a compressor on, a treble booster. All of a sudden he goes, “Are you thinking something like this?” And he starts playing the guitar like a pedal steel! I’m going, “How the fuck do you know how to do that?!?” (laughs)
What does each of the four of you bring to the band that’s unique?
AB: I think each guy had enough of a career where they’re known for doing something [already]. You know, Elliot Easton [is] one of the few guitar players where you could hum his leads. He has a very specific way of playing that’s kinda cool. And on this record, he just did his stuff… [By] the same token, some of the songs that had a lot of pocket to them — you know, like on the Blondie song “Dreaming” — that wouldn’t be the same song if some other drummer played it. I mean, [Clem] played a drum part that made that song, without a doubt. He’s a real great drummer and if he’s allowed to do his magic on a song, it becomes his signature. With Wally singing, it’s [also] gonna sound like his thing. But how many rock and roll bands use harmonica? You can name them on one hand. Arguably, Wally played the most memorable lead harmonica part on any song ever. I mean, “What I Like About You” [has] a pretty famous harmonica break. So we kinda tried to highlight that stuff. We wanted each guy to just do his thing.
WP: The easiest way for me to explain it [is] this way. You name the bands: Blondie, The Cars, The Romantics, The Chesterfield Kings. [They] all have their own styles. No two of those bands are alike, if you really break it down. There are similarities that chain us all together — but they’re all different styles of bands. You put the elements of all those bands into one blender. You get Clem playing the drums the way he knows how to play… You put me in there doing what I do, singing, rhythm guitar and harmonica here and there. You’ve got all the guitar work on The Cars right there. And you get that thumping, driving bass that was very noticeable in The Chesterfield Kings. You put them together, throw it in a blender [and] see what comes out.
Wally, in terms of The Romantics… I know a lot of people love In Heat, a lot of people love the first album. [But] I thought [the band’s sophomore LP] National Breakout should have been a breakout! Even now, I still love that album. I’m just curious: any memories of making that particular record?
WP: We had done quite a bit of touring to promote that first record, and we could have continued to tour even more. But the record company, I think, wanted us to get into the studio and do a follow-up. You know, we had a little bit of a buzz. So we had [new] song ideas and we also some songs that never made it onto the first album. We were pretty much prepared to go in and record. We recorded that [album] in New York with the same producer, Pete Solley. The first album was recorded down in Florida. We enjoyed doing that album a lot because we knew that we kind of had our footprints in the ground, so to speak, and that there was an audience there at that point.
It’s funny, it feels like a New York album to me… It seems like the scope of The Romantics’ music got broader on that album — even though I know it didn’t have a huge hit on it, like some of your other albums did.
WP: Right. I have to tell you, that’s one of my personal favorites too. I mean, I like all of ’em, don’t get me wrong. You know, they’re all your children. Some children [are] just a little bit better than others.
Andy, tell me about some of the bands or, in your case, the bass players that were big influences on you when you were a kid?
AB: Well, the bands really freaked me out when I was a kid were The Beatles and then The Stones. You know, I had two older sisters that were into The Beatles. I think I stole my sister’s Beatles ’65 record when I was five or six years old, something like that. Then I [saw] Help! and I vividly remember telling my parents that that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a Beatle… [My mom] was trying to reason with me and trying to explain that that’s not a real job. (laughter)
So obviously, McCartney was a big influence as a bass player. Bill Wyman. I just published my book Rolling Stones Gear, which is a history of all their equipment. So I had the pleasure of actually going to Bill’s house in London. For me, that was a thrill because I’ve always admired his bass playing. You know, really solid. [He’s] not overly flashy but always makes the band great. That’s always been more my style. I’m not the guy that’s gonna be playing those crazy bass lines. Honestly, I love Entwistle too but I’m more in the vein of a Bill Wyman kind of thing.
Wally, you also mentioned playing with Ringo in the All-Starr Band. I imagine that The Beatles were a big influence. What was it like touring with Ringo Starr?
WP: It was an honor to even be asked in the first place. I was wondering how I was gonna fit into the scheme of things. But once we got to rehearsals and I saw how the whole show was gonna go, it turned out to be a great time. A ton of fun, you know? There was work involved too. But once you do all the rehearsals and learning everybody else’s songs and knowing what you have to do and then you get onstage, it was a lot of fun. [Ringo is] just a great person [with] great stories. It was great being able to be onstage and take a look to my left and seeing him standing there between myself and Rick Derringer. He was right there singing vocals. And then you turn around 10 minutes later — we’re doing, for instance, “Talking in Your Sleep” — and he’s playing drums!
Was it surreal at times?
WP: Oh yeah! Very much so. Like I said, you’re standing there and you take a look and he’s there singing “Photograph” or he’s behind the drums singing “Boys” or “I Wanna Be Your Man.” You know, it’s crazy. If asked to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Top photo: Robert Matheu