Something Else! Interview: Andy Babiuk on the newly formed Empty Hearts

A new band has arrived on the block, and considering the pedigrees these guys possess, they are bound to be a hit.

Made up of Wally Palmar (the Romantics), Andy Babiuk (the Chesterfield Kings), Elliot Easton (the Cars), and Clem Burke (Blondie), the newly announced Empty Hearts play fat-free, but high-calorie rock and roll, meaning the kind of stuff residing in the same area code as bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Pretty Things, the Kinks, and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

“We’ve been friends for years,” says Andy when asked how the Empty Hearts came to be. “We also played shows together, in our separate bands — and would hang out backstage, talking about doing something together someday. Everyone in the band has the same taste in music, our record collections are alike, and we started talking about why we got into music in the first place. The key is to have fun playing music and that’s what the Empty Hearts are about.”

The band’s self-titled debut album, pressed on the 429 Records label, is slated to be released August 5, 2014. “I Don’t Want Your Love (If You Don’t Want To See Me)” is the first single culled from the disc. Piloted by a blues-bred rock groove, a gripping chorus, and a hook as sharp as an ice pick, the song proves to be an instant winner. Produced by famed knob twirler Ed Stasium, The Empty Hearts was recorded in a week and contains all original material.

A true democracy, each member of the Empty Hearts pitched in on songwriting duties. “We didn’t want to be a cover band,” Andy tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “We literally sat in a room and wrote the songs together. Our approach was definitely old school. It was a very easy thing to do and evolved quickly. There were no hiccups. I think it’s important that we’re all friends, not just guys getting together to play music. That’s one of the things that makes the band work. We have a lot of common interests, other than music. For example, we can talk about Three Stooges just as much as talking about music!”

Also appearing on The Empty Hearts is legendary keyboardist Ian McLagan (the Small Faces, the Faces, the Bump Band). “He’s getting ready for a Faces reunion, so he won’t be touring with us. But who knows, if he’s in a nearby town, he might join us,” says Andy in reference to the band’s tour this fall, which includes dates in America and Japan.

Andy is certainly no stranger to the road, as his previous band the Chesterfield Kings seemingly toured every nook and cranny imaginable.

“But we never made it to Japan, so I’m really excited about going there,” says Andy, who never suffers from stage fright. “I just get all pumped up and have fun when I play. It’s really a two-way thing when you’re up there. You’re feeding off the audience’s energy and they’re feeding off yours.”

The Beatles were the band that sparked Andy’s love of music: “I saw the movie Help! when I was a kid and I vividly remember telling my parents I wanted to be a Beatle when I grew up,” he says, laughing. “I have two older sisters, who listened to music, and one of my sisters had the Beatles ’65 album, which I played so much the vinyl turned to gray. I even told Ringo this when I was working on my Beatles Gear book. There’s actually a funny story behind that record. I wanted the album, but my sister wouldn’t give it to me. My parents didn’t allow her to wear make-up. She was around thirteen at the time. But I found some make-up in her purse and told her I would tell our parents she was wearing make-up if she didn’t give me the album. So she gave me the album. That was nice of her to do that, because she could have just beat me up, then taken the album back from me. So the Beatles were definitely the first band I was into.”

Andy never took formal music lessons. “Back then, there was no internet and you learned to play from records or befriending guys who played guitars so you could hang out with them and watch what they did,” notes Andy, who developed an instant rapport with the instrument. Andy initially played an acoustic guitar, which belonged to his sister. “But I put a mic in the guitar, jerry-rigged it and cranked it up!” Andy enthuses, adding that his first electric guitar was a Dan-Electro that he still owns and keeps in his office.

A connossieur of vintage instruments, Andy owns and operates Andy’s Fab Gear, a boutique shop located in Rochester, New York. The boutique also has a studio, where The Empty Hearts album was recorded. Andy’s Fab Gear further provides music lessons. “We sell high-end equipment. We’re esoteric, not mainstream,” says Andy. A collector’s dream, the shop has housed had many cool, interesting, and fascinating items. One such artifact, which sold for just under a million dollars, was the electric guitar Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 that simultaneously caused a controversy and launched a musical revolution.

Due to his passion and expertise, Andy is the ideal person to write about instruments, and he has done so in the form of two books, Beatles Gear and Rolling Stones Gear that are not only recommended reading for gear heads, but fans of the bands. As assumed, much research is dedicated to these tomes, yet Andy thoroughly enjoys the work because he is so heavily into the topic. As an added plus, he received support and assistance from members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Andy has also authored The Paul Bigsby Story, who he affirms was the father of the Fender guitar, not Leo Fender as history tells us. But Andy can’t see himself penning an autobiography. “I’m not one to look back and say I did this or that,” he confesses. “I just do what I do and move onto the next thing. So it would be hard for me to have to go backwards like that. I’m always moving ahead.”

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Andy was a founding member of the Chesterfield Kings, who like their idols, unwillingly pioneered a movement and genre. “Our idea was to mimic one hit wonders from the ’60s like the Blues Magoos, the Music Machine and the Electric Prunes, along with a bunch of obscure bands. That’s the type of music we liked and listened to. When we got together, in 1978, the ’60s really weren’t that long ago, when you think about it now. But we were different than what was going on then and because punk and new wave, which was different, was happening then, the press put us in the same category,” Andy says. “Then we were called a garage band because of our ’60s influences, and that’s how it was for the kids in the ’60s, forming bands in their garages because they were copying the Stones, the Kinks, and the Beatles. The term ‘garage band’ is used so loosely now though. Anything that’s a little sloppy is called garage rock, and what’s made it even more confusing is when Apple came out with Garage Band.”

Active for three decades, the Chesterfield Kings issued swarms of swinging singles and several excellent albums bursting with fuzz guitars, rattling keyboards, ringing tambourines, and gritty vocals. Although the band never achieved commercial success, they received loads of praise and their influence persists today.

“I’m proud of what the Chesterfield Kings did, but I knew it was time to fold the band when it just wasn’t fun anymore,” Andy tells us. “I remember talking with Joey Ramone some years ago. He was saying he wanted to quit the Ramones, and I thought he was crazy. They had such a good thing going. But Joey had a point. With a band like the Ramones or the Chesterfield Kings, everybody expects the same kind of songs over and over again. It gets stale after a while and even if you want to change your style, people don’t understand what you’re getting at. I wanted to do something fresh. Every band has super highs and super lows, but I wanted to do something different where people weren’t putting expectations on you.”

If Andy wasn’t involved in music, he would no doubt remain in some arm of the arts. “I really enjoyed working on Not Fade Away with David Chase,” says Andy, who supplied technical assistance and held the role of musical consultant for the 2012 film, which focused on an early-1960s band. “That movie really captured what it was like back then, right before the Beatles and Stones came out, and guys were playing in surf bands to meet chicks. “Not Fade Away” really shows how the Beatles and the Stones changed everything. So if I wasn’t doing music, writing about it, or if I didn’t have the boutique, I’m sure I would be doing something with TV or film.”

A satisfied soul who clearly lives in the present, Andy is focusing his energy on the Empty Hearts for now. “I really don’t like it when people call us a supergroup,” he states. “All the guys in the band, Clem with Blondie, Elliot with the Cars, and Wally with the Romantics, have had huge success, but we’re really just friends getting together to make music. We just want to get out there, play good rock and roll and have fun. I’m really excited about this new adventure we’re embarking on!”

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.