The Empty Hearts are inarguably rock and roll royalty: the band members are guitarist Elliot Easton (The Cars), drummer Clem Burke (Blondie), lead singer Wally Palmar (The Romantics), and bassist Andy Babiuk (The Chesterfield Kings). With a lineup like that, it’s no surprise that their new singles, “The Best That I Can” and “The World’s Gone Insane” (double-premiering at American Songwriter on July 1), are both impeccable examples of ‘60s-influenced garage rock.
“Those two songs in particular, really came about from a mutual collaboration in the recording studio,” says Burke, calling from his New Jersey home. “Someone would have a riff or a title. We’d all pick up on one another’s vibe and where it’s going with the song, and we would all fall into a groove. And we collaborated on the lyrics. All the songs are credited to the four of us. There’s a lot of give and take. It came together really organically.”
Both of these songs are taken from The Second Album, which is indeed the second album from The Empty Hearts (their self-titled debut came out in 2014). The Second Album (pre-order) will be released on August 28 by Little Steven’s Wicked Cool Records label. (Little Steven, a longtime friend to the members, is also the one who came up with the band name The Empty Hearts.)
The band’s goal with this album was, according to Easton (calling from his Los Angeles home) to create an album that was like the ones that the members enjoyed in their youth, where “You would get together with your friends and listen to the whole album from beginning to end and nobody even talks,” he says. “The sort of record that you start at one place and it takes you on a little journey and sets you down someplace else.”
Easton recalls how, despite the band members’ diverse backgrounds, they agreed on their musical style right from the moment they formed The Empty Hearts in 2013: “Let’s form a band based on playing music that reminds us of why we wanted to play music in the first place,” he says. “In other words, the stuff we always loved and all the common ground that we share in our mutual influences.” He and Burke both cite groundbreaking ‘50s and ‘60s artists such as Elvis and The Beatles as key influences.
Beyond their shared musical vision for The Empty Hearts, Burke says that they also enjoy playing together simply because they respect and like each other. “We are all admirers of one another’s musical abilities, and we’re able to collaborate as friends and have a good time,” he says. “One of the big things about the band is the camaraderie. When we record, when we perform, we’re having a really good time, so it has that essence of what it was like to be in a band as friends when you first started out.”
Since his own early days in the music business, Burke has gone on to become one of the most celebrated drummers in rock, but he says his goal when he started out was simple: “I knew I didn’t want to have a job!” he says. “Playing music is playing more than working. I began to be in bands when I was in high school. I was always playing a lot at high school dances, birthday parties, shopping center openings, all this kind of stuff. I moved to Manhattan and I got involved in that whole scene that was going on at CBGB’s, and one thing led to another. I think it was a combination of hard work and luck, and I’m happy with everything.”
Easton – who has also had an astonishingly successful career (and who, like Burke is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee), also had no doubts about what he wanted to do from his earliest days. His mother was a Julliard-trained singer, and she encouraged his emerging musical talent. “I have pictures of me at three years old with my guitar and my hair slicked back, already a rocker!” he says with a laugh.
Now, both Easton and Burke are thrilled that Ringo Starr – whose drumming with The Beatles proved so pivotal during their formative years – is the guest drummer on “Remember Days Like These,” one of the tracks on The Second Album. “To have started out as a 10-year old seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and having that affect my life in so many ways – to get Ringo to play a track was an incredible gift,” Easton says.
“When The Beatles performed on television in the United States the first time, they seemed otherworldly. It seemed like they were from another planet. Very, very different for us when we were kids,” Burke says, adding that having Starr play on the song means “We got The Beatles seal of approval, which is amazing. It’s amazing to have a Beatle on [our] record. I’m really, really happy about it.”
Given The Empty Hearts members’ pedigree – and that of their guest musicians – it’s likely that expectations for The Second Album will be high, but Burke says he doesn’t worry about that. “I don’t really try to think about it that way,” he says. “I just try to play the best music that I can. I like to find a group of musicians that I’m able to work with that I like, and have confidence in our abilities.”
Easton agrees that the pressure is off, as far as the members are concerned. “You know what it is? We’re not 23 [years old] anymore. And we’ve all had good success in our lives. We don’t have a chip on our shoulder. We’re not trying to prove anything to anybody. We just want to make some good, fun rock and roll – get out of your chair, dance, have a good time!”
Still, Easton adds, “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with this record, how it’s accepted and where it goes and how people get to it. I’m really excited about it and proud of it. We hope people will give the album a chance, and we hope they like it.”