By Chris M. Junior
When familiar musicians from established bands join forces to start a new group, it almost always looks great on paper.
But what the finished product sounds like on tape (or whatever recording-playback medium is in use) can often tell a very different story.
Clem Burke is confident that what he and his fellow Empty Hearts — Wally Palmar, Elliot Easton and Andy Babiuk — have promised on paper is fulfilled on polycarbonate.
“Every track is great,” he says.
But The Empty Hearts’ eponymous debut is the epitome of the old-school album; it is meant to be savored as a sum of the whole, not chopped up into two-minute pieces.
“It’s not for people with short attention spans,” Burke says. “The album really flows, and we’re all proud of it.”
The band brings together artists representative of some of the best of 1980s pop: Blondie drummer Burke, Romantics singer-guitarist Palmar, Cars guitarist Easton and Chesterfield Kings bassist Babiuk. The quartet convened in March 2013 to record The Empty Hearts’ self-titled debut, but the album stayed in the vault until Aug. 5, 2014, when it was released by 429 Records.
Palmar and Burke discuss a variety of topics, including how they became members of The Empty Hearts and what fans can expect at the band’s upcoming concerts (check theemptyhearts.com for details).
GOLDMINE: The term “super group” — is it appropriate for a band of well-known individuals such as The Empty Hearts, or do you find that label to be misleading or even archaic?
WALLY PALMAR: People are going to coin the band whatever way they want. When we put the band together, [that term] wasn’t at the top of the list because we never considered ourselves to be any form of “super group.” The Empty Hearts, we are who we are. We’re four individuals from other bands, and those bands are fairly well known. It’s one of those things that is going to describe itself, essentially.
CLEM BURKE: I find it somewhat intimidating. I would say that we are journeymen. We’re professional musicians who have been in the music business for a long time now. I like the word “journeymen” — it sounds better than “veteran;” it wasn’t like we went to war or anything. And “survivors” is kind of a dramatic word to use, although a lot of people have fallen by the wayside, both physically and many other ways through being in the music business. But I think journeymen sums it up. To me, a supergroup was Blind Faith. So is Andy Babiuk the Ric Grech of The Empty Hearts? I don’t know.
GOLDMINE: Talk about getting the call from Andy Babiuk for this project. What did he say in pitching his band idea to you, and what was your immediate reaction and response?
WALLY PALMAR: He called me up a few years ago, and at that point, I was finishing up my tour of duty with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. Andy had an interesting prospect: “Wouldn’t it be nice to put a band together of guys who all get along, they’re on the same wavelength, with no attitudes?” I said, “All that sounds good on paper. Who do you have in mind?” And he mentioned Clem, then he mentioned Elliot. I said, “All these guys are busy with projects, and I have The Romantics. How about yourself?” And he said, “Well, I just finished up stuff with The Chesterfield Kings, and I’m right in the middle of this Rolling Stones gear book.” I go, “Then you’ve got your hands full. How are you going to make this work?” And he said, “Well, I got some ideas. Any way you might be able to help finish up some songs?” So it started as simple as that. From that point, it was just a matter of phone calls. We took the song ideas that we had, then we put everybody in one room after Clem and Elliot [got involved].
CLEM BURKE: I’ve known Andy for a long time. I was playing with Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers at a little club in Rochester, New York, and Andy and his wife showed up at one of the shows. We started talking about collaborating on something at some point. I’ve known Elliot for a long time, and we were trying to put a band together with Doug Fieger [The Knack] before Doug passed. So it was the axis of Andy and Wally being good friends and wanting to do something, and Elliot and I being friends and wanting to work together in a band.
GOLDMINE: Whether it’s a sports team or a band, fans like to talk about the hard-to-qualify element known as chemistry and how it contributes to success. That said, how much bonding — personally and musically — was there within The Empty Hearts leading up to the recording sessions?
CLEM BURKE: It’s like that Bruce Springsteen song “Bobby Jean”: “We liked the same bands/We liked the same clothes.” We had common ground based on those types of things. No one answered an ad to be in this band. I played with Wally in The Romantics for about 10 years, so we have history. The only person that I hadn’t really worked with before was Andy. We were able to carve out the time, and every time we got into the studio, there was chemistry and a musical bond, and a friendship was forming amongst the four of us.
GOLDMINE: Clem, how did you approach this material as compared with coming up with drum parts for a Blondie album?
CLEM BURKE: There was a lot of spontaneity in this record. Modern-day pop music is a lot of programming and a lot of studio manipulation and computer science going on. This record is the antithesis of that. The first mandate that [producer] Ed Stasium had when he came into the studio on the first day was no click tracks on the drums. Not everybody is going to get into a room and play like a band like we did when we were 15 years old in somebody’s garage or front room. And that’s basically what we did, but of course we were a lot better on our instruments than we were back then (laughs). It just kind of exploded from there. Andy has a great studio room, a big, open loft space, and the atmosphere was very conducive to just getting in there and playing.
GOLDMINE: The album was recorded in March 2013, and both its existence and that of the band were kept under wraps. That’s difficult to do in the age of the Internet. Were any special steps taken to keep everything quiet?
WALLY PALMAR: It was very tight-lipped. It just worked out the way it did. It’s not like there was any real special plan for this. A lot of things we just let happen because it was out of our hands. We were dictated to by each individual’s schedules — and that includes Ed, too. It was just one of those things that developed when the time was right. We slowly started to add to it. And how about this for timing? It just so happened that Clem had done a project with Ian McLagan, and while I’m in Rochester (New York) doing vocals, Ian is in Rochester and Buffalo that same weekend. So all of a sudden, there’s a phone call to Ian: “We’d be honored if you wanted to even come by and possibly lay down some tracks.” So Ian comes by and does his part.
CLEM BURKE: I just think the people we were working with were all people who can keep their word. I mean, our friends knew about the band, but we didn’t want to make any announcement about it until we were able to place the record. There were a couple of options, but we’re happy with 429, given its roster of artists and the background of that label.
GOLDMINE: How do you envision the breakdown of the set list each night when The Empty Hearts tour this fall? Will the signature bands of each member be represented by a few songs?
WALLY PALMAR: At one point, we said, “Let’s put the album together so it has a flow like a live show,” so a large percentage of the sequencing came out of that. I can easily see us doing the album from front to back and having a really good flow during the set. [Also performing songs by our main bands] would play into our favor (laughs).
CLEM BURKE: I think the set list is going to be dictated by the venue. We are kind of operating on all fronts with this band, but perhaps ultimately the band might be the type of band people want to see in maybe a soft-ticket environment, as they call it in the business — playing casinos and things like that. But if we’re playing a rock club, the set list would most likely consist of the album with a few choice covers. I think The Romantics’ material would be the easiest to focus on because they are a great, traditional rock band. The Cars and Blondie stuff takes a little more adapting. But I don’t think that’s our primary motive at all. The primary motive was to make this record, go out and play and have people recognize The Empty Hearts as a great live band. GM