The Empty Hearts present vintage rock sound in dangerous new era 

click to enlarge The Empty Hearts, from left to right: Elliot Easton, Wally Palmar, Andy Babiuk, and Clem Burke. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WICKED COOL RECORDS
  • The Empty Hearts, from left to right: Elliot Easton, Wally Palmar, Andy Babiuk, and Clem Burke.
It’s nothing but the best for The Empty Hearts when the band goes off in search of inspiration. As Andy Babiuk tells it, there was this one night …

“I was backstage at a Stones show, hanging out with Mick Jagger,” Babiuk says, “and he goes, ‘Hey Andy, I have this song that I think would really work for The Empty Hearts.’ And he literally like, sang the whole song to me.”

Alas, it was, literally, a dream gig.

“And so I got up and I hummed the song into my iPhone and went back to bed,” Babiuk says. “Had I not done that, I would have never remembered it.”

Under those Freudian circumstances, Jagger doesn’t get a writing credit on “Well, Look at You.” Like Mick needs the royalties, right? The song appears on The Empty Hearts’ new album, to be released on August 28.

It’s called “The Second Album,” which is unarguable. But it is also an acknowledgement of 60 years of rock history and the highly influential “The Beatles’ Second Album.” Which could be argued, in those days of cross-Atlantic record-releasing strategies, was actually The Beatles’ third or fourth or fifth album, but please do that on your own time.

The Empty Hearts are a band that wears its influences, as well as its connections, on its record sleeve. The new album’s first single, “The World’s Gone Insane,” is already getting airplay on Sirius-XM satellite radio’s “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” show. Steven Van Zandt has a night gig as guitarist with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and it helps to know guys like that. And since Van Zandt himself named The Empty Hearts, and he’s releasing “The Second Album” on his Wicked Cool Records label, he has a little emotional tug there.

And, circling back to The Beatles, it helps to know guys like Ringo Starr, who plays drums on another of the new album’s songs. As it turns out, all four guys in The Empty Hearts have a personal connection to Starr, so how could he say ‘No’?

Dreams aside, Babiuk has met Jagger. That collaboration has yet to emerge.

The Empty Hearts are what the rock world likes to label a “supergroup.” Something assembled out of pieces scavenged from other bands. It started with Babiuk, the bassist with Rochester’s now-extinct garage-rock revivalists The Chesterfield Kings. Rummaging through his years of music-industry connections, Babiuk built The Empty Hearts out of Blondie drummer Clem Burke, The Cars’ guitarist Elliot Easton and The Romantics’ lead singer Wally Palmar.

“We put the band together with the idea that we would all be respectful to each guy’s main band,” Babiuk says. “Like, if Blondie had to go do a tour for a year and a half, well, O.K., we can’t do anything because Clem’s on the road with Blondie, you know, and they had an album come out and he was out for a year and a half. A little bit longer, actually. And Wally will get a string of summer shows, like open up for Rick Springfield or something, with The Romantics. He’s got to do it, it’s how they make their living.”

As Babiuk admits of The Empty Hearts, “None of us depends on this as an income.”

“We do it at our leisure so it’s fun and it’s actually an enjoyable experience, instead of having a gun to your head and you have to get it done,” he says.

Babiuk gets it done at his Fairport music store, Andy Babiuk’s Fab Gear. But he’s also an author or co-author of three photo-drenched coffee-table books on the instruments played by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and on guitar pioneer Paul Bigsby.

They led to his work as a consultant with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Using archival photos, he’s authenticated long-lost guitars once owned by John Lennon and Bob Dylan. The Dylan guitar turned out to be the actual electric one he played — to the dismay of folk purists — at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and sold at auction for almost a million dollars. Babiuk was also the technical adviser on the 2012 film “Not Fade Away,” the story of a 1960s rock band. One that’s sorta like The Empty Hearts.

The Empty Hearts’ first album came out in 2014, with a release party at Sticky Lips BBQ Juke Joint, followed by a tour of America and Japan. That won’t happen with “The Second Album.” The band had a big release show planned at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. A night with friends, media, celebrities. Drew Carey was going to be the emcee.

“And then we were gonna do a tour after that,” Babiuk says. “And you know, well, so much for that. Nobody could tour. The Rolling Stones can’t, nobody can. Nobody in the world’s touring, nobody’s doing anything.”

The coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on everything. “We actually, at one point thought, Jesus, should we not put the album out?” Babiuk says.

The label decided for the band. Of course, it would release “The Second Album.” It is the perfect sound of summer.

In writing the songs, all four guys bring something slightly different to the studio. Yet, “by the time it finishes,” Babiuk says, “it doesn’t sound like the original idea, it mutates into The Empty Hearts sound.”

Back in the Mesozoic Era of rock, before downloading, the “Best of” albums were designed as a total listening experience.

“And so when we set out to do this album, we really wanted to do an album with a lot of different kinds of stuff in it,” Babiuk says. “Different textures, little-bit-different types of songs. So it would take you through a journey, like you put it on and you listen through the whole record. And by the end of the record you go, ‘Oh wow, this is like a whole thing. This is not just a bunch of songs that happens to be on a CD or an LP or whatever, that you put on in no actual order.’ It’s kind of thought out.”

Geographically, The Empty Hearts are pretty spread out. Burke and Easton live in Los Angeles, Palmar in Detroit, Babiuk in Rochester. The band has done some recording in Los Angeles, which makes it easy to call on musician friends; while recording a Christmas song a few years ago, they pulled The Bangles into the studio.

But a lot of the work is done in Rochester, where “no one bothers us,” Babiuk says. The booklet accompanying the album has photos of the band spread out in Fab Gear Studio. There’s a shot of them standing on the Court Street bridge, near Dinosaur Bar-B-Que; there are no vegetarians in this band. Fairport’s Mr. Dominic’s on Main at the Green Lantern Inn, darkly Victorian in style, is also conveniently near Babiuk’s studio, so the band would wind down there over martinis late into the night. “It’s kind of known for being haunted,” Babiuk says.

That suits The Empty Hearts. Babiuk’s reading material influences the songwriting. Such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” a book with an unusual structure, narrated largely through journal entries by one of the main characters. Babiuk suggested to Palmar that the structure could work for a song as well.

“So I said, ‘Hey Wally, I’ve got this idea for a song, we’ll call it “Jonathan Harker’s Journal,” and the title will never be in the song, and it’s gonna be about Dracula, but we’ll never talk about Dracula or anything.’”

The listener will have to listen hard for the vampires:

It’s been taken from you
That life that you’ll miss
Hunger and eternal darkness
Figures lurking, shadows, madness

Yeah, that couldn’t be just anyone.

There will be a video for “Jonathan Harker’s Journal” as well. On Halloween, The Empty Hearts are releasing the song as a single on orange vinyl, backed by another track from the album, “The Haunting of the Tin Soldier.” That one has a kind of “Twilight Zone” creeping madness to it.

The band members share a common interest in horror films. And The Three Stooges. The final track of “The Second Album” is a jangly, harmony-heavy song called “Indigo Dusk of the Night.” It sounds like something by The Kinks, or the psychedelic pop of XTC. As the song draws to a close, those strange vocals behind the music, Babiuk says, are the band reciting Stooges lines backwards.

Inside jokes are a thing with The Empty Hearts. There’s a ’60s period-looking icon on the album cover, “Deltaphonic High Fidelity.” That’s not suggesting the height of stereo technology, but is a joke on the kind of cheesy airline headphones — the ones you steal — that come with watching an in-flight movie. Palmar likes to carry them around and hand them out to the recording-studio engineers.

Another running joke came out of the song “Remember Days Like These,” when Babiuk and Palmar were closing out the night at Mr. Dominic’s. “We’re having martinis and Wally’s lamenting, ‘You know, I think Clem played it too fast,’ ” Babiuk says. “ ‘I really wish he would have played it more behind the beat.’ ”

You know, like how that guy from The Beatles used to do it.

“Nobody asks Ringo to do stuff because… you’re gonna ask a Beatle to play on your record?” Babiuk says. “It’s like, yeah, right.”

But they all knew Starr. Babiuk took the same technique he used to validate the Lennon and Dylan guitars — looking at old photos — to match the patterns on a pile of Starr’s scattered drum pieces, re-creating a historically accurate kit that Starr played while with The Beatles. Palmar had been on a few Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band tours, and Babiuk kept badgering Palmar about getting Starr to re-record the drum part on “Remember Days Like These.” So one day, Palmar was talking to Starr on the phone about another matter, and he brought it up.

According to Babiuk, Starr said, “Why do you need me to play on it? You’ve got Clem Burke, he’s one of the best drummers there is.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t play like you.”

“So,” Babiuk says, “we got a Beatle to play on our record. It’s kinda cool.”

But the thing about “The Second Album,” and these times, is that not everything’s cool. “The World’s Gone Insane” is one such song that demonstrates this. It came out of Easton noodling on a guitar riff in the Fab Gear studio, and Burke fidgeting over the news of the day. It hits on a couple of different levels.

“Someone will die, a friend of ours or, you know, somebody that we grew up liking,” Babiuk says. “This has been happening quite a bit, as you know, and famous people that we all grew up listening to. And, ‘Ahh, man it’s so crazy, it’s so insane, the world has gone insane’ — Clem would like pace around and say it. And so it was his idea to call it ‘The World Has Gone Insane.’ And we kind of wrote it about what was happening at that moment — which, as we all know, the world has been going insane.’”

There are different levels of insanity. The song was written a year-and-a-half ago. “And who would think that it would turn out even crazier?” Babiuk asks. “Even with the COVID thing.” The accompanying video is much newer, a rapid-fire montage of images of President Trump and recent unrest in the streets.

So now, no tour. No Drew Carey. It’s the COVID thing.

“The numbers should be going down, and they’re going up,” Babiuk says. “There’s a problem, and until we have people that actually face the problem correctly and actually try to solve it, we’re gonna be in this situation for a while. Other countries have done it, and they’ve done it correctly, and it’s just not happening here.”

The U.S. ban on immigrants from countries that were once claimed to be the source of COVID-19 is now running in the other direction. “We’re now that country,” Babiuk says.

“A U.S. band can’t even go, like, to Spain and play, because they won’t let you in the country. They don’t want any Americans.”

A world that has always welcomed American rock bands is now wary of them. Even in America. Promoting “The Second Album” now means posting videos on the internet.

“If it wasn’t for that,” Babiuk says, “all bands would be even more doomed than they are now.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].
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