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INTERVIEW – Elliot Easton, The Empty Hearts – August 2014

| 26 August 2014 | 1 Reply

INTERVIEW – Elliot Easton, The Empty Hearts – August 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

The Empty Hearts - Elliot Easton 01

It might be the most fun you’ll have on CD this year, with nods to The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Faces. It is the debut album from The Empty Hearts – the newest ‘supergroup’ on the block – and guitarist Elliot Easton tells us that it was as much fun to make as it is to listen to.

“I think that’s the key to the whole thing,” the guitarist – a member of new wave band The Cars for many years, and also a veteran of Creedence Clearwater Revisited, as well as having four solo albums under his belt – says, “that we had so much fun making it that it is fun to listen to, because I think that comes through in the music.

“We had a great time making it. It wasn’t a million overdubs or people recording their parts separately and stuff like that. So many records are made where you start with the drums or you start with [something else.] It was the four of us just bashing away in a room.

“When you make a record and you have everybody playing in the room together,” Easton continues, “you get all these swirling overtones or the cymbals mixed with the guitars and things. The guitar leaks a little bit into the drum mic or the bass leaks into the guitar mic. It just creates this joyous noise! I don’t think that there’s any way that you can simulate that other than just having a bunch of good musicians playing together and playing off each other.”

The Empty Hearts 01

The Empty Hearts also features Clem Burke, drummer with Blondie, Wally Palmar of The Romantics on vocals & rhythm guitar, and Andy Babiuk of 80s garage fuzz revivalists The Chesterfield Kings on bass. In addition to elements of all those bands, The Empty Hearts sound is thick with homage for the bands of the 60s British Invasion and the 70s wave of garage rock.

“I think that just comes down each of us just playing the way we play,” says Easton, the architect of the guitar sound on The Cars hit singles Let’s Go, Shake It Up, Magic and Drive. “If you hear the guitar in a Cars record, you’re hearing me. If you hear an Empty Hearts record, you’re hearing me. There’s some touchstones that you say, ‘I can recognize that a little bit from a Cars’ record.’ It’s just because that’s the way I play. It wasn’t really discussed or meant to be particularly a homage to anything more than what music we like.

“Yes, some of it might have a garage rock vibe,” he carries on. “That’s for sure. Of course, Andy coming from the Chesterfield Kings, he has a great pedigree in that. When I listen to it, I hear things from, say, the Beatles White album. Like I Don’t Want Your Love always sounds to me like something that could go on The White Album. Then, there’s a countryish song that sounds almost like a Dead Flowers- Stonesy kind of thing. There’s different elements. I’m not being defensive, I’m just saying there’s definitely different threads running through the music, not just garage rock.”

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With such a pedigree of experience between the band members (They have nine US Top Ten hit singles between them) ranging through garage rock, punk and new wave, what comes through strongest on the record is their love of superstrong melodies. At its roots, The Empty Hearts is a classic pop rock ’n’ roll album.

“I’ve always felt it doesn’t really matter the genre you’re talking about or what style of music,” Easton elaborates. “For me, it’s always come down to songs. You could make the best recording of a lousy song and nobody will care or you could make a so-so recording of a great song and you’ve got a chance.

“It’s like the Beatles. The Beatles weren’t virtuosi or anything like that, but their songs were so damn good that it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best guitarist in the world or the best drummer in the world. It’s all there, really, to frame the singer and to frame the songs.”

With the modern music industry chewing up & spitting out all who dare to kneel before it, it’s unusual to see a new band – albeit one whose members have such impressive resumes – generating such a buzz already.

“If that’s true, I’m certainly glad of it,” Easton enthuses. “I don’t keep track of everything that’s going on in the press and everything like that. If you tell me there’s a buzz about the band, then I’m delighted to hear that because we’re very sincere in what we’re doing. This isn’t some sort of calculated corporate thing to try to [create] a band of a bunch of guys. We’re just all friends. We’ve know each other for years and decided to give it a try. It was a very organic, honest effort.”

The Empty Hearts - The Empty Hearts cover

In addition to the foursome, Faces legend Ian McLagan lends a hand, playing keyboards on the tracks. Another consummate musician with such an intuitive touch, Easton agrees that McLagan’s playing elevates the album.

“I think that came through Andy. I didn’t know him, but it might’ve been Clem or Andy or even Andy through Little Steven. Anyway, he came out and played. He loved the music. It was very natural and comfortable for him. He sat down and played Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano on it. He had a great time doing it because he could hear that his band was one of the big influences in there, and that we had great respect for his work and were just so pleased that he would come and play on our record. [His playing], I say it’s got the glue – it glues it all together.”

Easton says the band was christened The Empty Hearts from a top secret list of unused band names held by Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band guitarist Little Steven.

“Yeah, that’s really kind of true. When we were casting around for a name – Andy is pretty tight with Steven, The Chesterfield Kings were on [Steven’s label] Wicked Cool Records, and were even in an episode of The Sopranos [which co-starred Steven], if you can imagine, and Andy was a technical advisor on that Not Fade Away movie that David Chase did – so he’s pretty tight with those people, and I guess Steven sent him a list. There are such people that they collect cool band names, and he had a whole list of names, so we ran copyright checks on most of them – and most of them were already taken!” he laughs.

“But we liked The Empty Hearts and it was free, and we thought it was a cool name – so Steven definitely came up with it.”

As befitting such a bunch of what the guitarist calls ‘rock n’ roll lifers’, the eleven tracks came together in a variety of ways.

“Andy and Wally started writing together up in the northeast,” he begins, “Andy lives in Rochester, New York – as far away from L.A. as you can get, just about, and Wally lives in the Detroit area. They got together and got some song ideas going. Then, the two of them came out to Los Angeles where Clem and I live and we went to a rehearsal space that you can record at.

“They showed us what they had, and we worked on those and developed them and added maybe a section here or there or just some arrangement ideas and, of course, put our own ideas for melodies and hooks and solos and intros and things like that that complete the song. I had some ideas that were unfinished. Those guys let me finish them. We’d come up with a cool track. Those guys would go back to the Northeast, [where] Wally would work up a lyric for it and stuff like that.

“Everybody [pitched in]. Clem had a title – 90 Miles An Hour Down A Dead End Street. We said, ‘That’s a good name for a song,’ so we wrote it. That was that. The inspiration came from everybody, just at different times and in different ways. For I Don’t Want Your Love, I had the chorus, the chords and the melody. I showed it to the guys, they liked it and we arranged it. Then, Wally wrote verses for it.

“We’re so spread out that whenever we get together we just try to get as much done as we can. The writing was very much like that. Let’s hear everybody’s ideas and take the good ones. In the short time that we’re all in the same city limits, let’s develop these songs. We did it like that. Every time we’d get together we’d get a little bit more done – we did that a few times.

“Really, before we knew it,” Easton concludes, “we had a batch of songs that we were happy with. We didn’t overdo, over-rehearse or beat them to death or anything like that. We refined them to where they were in good shape. We went to Rochester and laid them down with all of us [together.]”

The Empty Hearts 03

That natural process of building songs from the ground up, then recording them live all in the same room shows – The Empty Hearts sounds organic, fun, and has a warm, old time rock n’ roll vibe to it.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be, man!” chuckles Easton. “That’s what it’s all about.”

The guitarist has mentioned the track I Don’t Want Your Love, which sounds – more than any other on the record – like it was birthed in a Rod Stewart & The Faces-style late night drunken sing-along.

“It didn’t,” he laughs, “but it ended up as one!”

“I think at the time we were putting the background vocals on that one we had finished tracking the album, [so] everyone was in high spirits – ‘spirits’ being the operative word there! I think we all had a few shots and were feeling pretty good.

“I always saw it as a party track,” he continues, “where you’d hear people in the background or glasses breaking or people laughing. There’s a lot of ‘whoa’s, that kind of stuff. We were just having fun.”

As if the foursome and their special guest keyboardist weren’t enough, the band called in old mate Ed Stasium – a veteran of albums by Living Colour, The Ramones, Talking Heads among many others – to co-produce with the band. Easton can’t sing his praises enough.

“There’s a mutual respect there,” he begins. “I’ve worked with Ed before. Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band made a solo record called Lights Out – Eddie produced that. I played on that. I know Eddie since the ‘80s. I lived in New York for a time. Of course, Clem knows him from the whole punk rock scene because Eddie did all those Ramones’ records and Talking Heads records.

“We trusted Ed to be like an honorary fifth member of the group while he was there. It was great to have an unbiased opinion that could mediate the whole situation and a fresh ear to help us and say, ‘What do you guys think about doubling up on that chorus?’ or whatever it may be.

“He had our trust and we had his trust. We all know what we’re doing. Ed certainly fell into that category, too. We trusted Ed to take care of everything going on on the other side of the glass to make sure that the sounds were being recorded well. We trusted him implicitly with that so that we could just concentrate on the music and don’t have to run back and forth between the control room and the studio floor. It was great to have someone who was up here and was one of us who just… he was having as much fun as we were. In fact, he said it was the most fun project he’s ever worked on which I took to be a high compliment!

“We all know each other pretty well and probably heard a lot of [each other’s] stories already,” Easton continued, addressing the balance between work and play in making the record. “We knew that we had limited time, but we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. There was a lot of joking, but we also got down to work. We’re serious about making the music really good, but it didn’t stop us from having fun. The jokes were flying, everybody’s laughing. I think that’s where we started this conversation – you can hear on the record that these four guys are having a ball playing music they really love. At this stage in our careers, I can’t imagine why we would want to do anything else!”

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Talking of Little Steven naming the band, Easton says he also loved the end result.

“I don’t think he heard it until it was actually finished. When he heard it, he loved it. He loved it. A few of the songs now are in rotation on his Sirius radio station, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I’m hearing from people that just started to hear the songs. I haven’t heard it on the radio yet – I’d love to. He really liked the record a lot when he heard it. He didn’t get involved in the process of recording or writing or anything like that. We didn’t really need an outside person like that, but when he heard the record, he liked it.”

Easton says the only impediment to the longevity of The Empty Hearts will be a lack of interest.

“It all depends, I suppose, on how the reaction is out there. If people love the band and we can go out and tour and support this thing and work, I don’t see any reason why there would be any end in sight. We enjoy each others company. We love playing together. If this works out, I’m sure we’ll make another record. We want to tour. We want to play for everybody. It’s a good time of life.”

No disrespect intended, but coming up to 61-years old, with Wally a little older and Clem only a couple of years behind, is touring the world really what you want to be doing in your 60s?

“Absolutely!” demands Easton. “Look, I remember reading a quote from Mick Jagger saying, ‘I can’t imagine singing Satisfaction when I’m 30.’ People always said that kind of stuff – ‘it’s for teenagers. It’s teenager music. It’s a young man’s game.’ Rock ‘n’ roll is growing up. I’m among the first generation to see what happens because the original generation of rock ‘n’ rollers are just now hitting their 80s and stuff like that. I don’t have a problem with it.

“Like I said, the Stones are out there doing it in their 70s,” he continues. “They’re rocking stadiums wherever they play. I think if you still have the desire and the energy – I’ll be honest, when I strap on a guitar and get onstage, I still feel like I’m 16-years old. That feeling is still there. However old you are, that just goes away when you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll music for an appreciative audience. It just makes you feel good and it keeps you young, I think.

“We’d love to come to Australia. They’re just working on it now – working on dates and touring and stuff like that. Clem had some responsibilities; he’s still touring and finishing up his Blondie tour. Then, after that, we’re just gung-ho ready to start work and touring. I would love it. I think Australia might be just one of those places that would be really good for this band.”

This story originally appeared in edited form in X-Press Magazine’s 5 August issue

Category: Interviews

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  1. Thanks for this, Shane! You know, I always liked and appreciated Easton’s understated way of playing–he instinctively knows what a song needs and what it doesn’t. It was always just right! He’s not a flashy player, and sometimes when listening, despite being guitar-biased, I’d just be so caught up in the song as a whole and how well it all worked together. But he’s truly underrated for this reason. I looked him up a while back and was surprised and happy that he was still performing and making new music. I appreciate that you featured him and are helping to bring his name back in the minds of music lovers all over. Cheers!

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