An exclusive chat with the Blondie drummer about the second album from his current band and the good old days on The Bowery
“I don’t think there’s that many bands doing the kind of music that we do,” says iconic drummer Clem Burke during a call from Los Angeles, where he lives most of the time these days.
Although Burke is best known as a member of Blondie, in this case he’s actually referring to The Empty Hearts, the group he formed with Elliot Easton (who was the lead guitarist with The Cars), Wally Palmar (The Romantics vocalist), and Andy Babiuk (The Chesterfield Kings bassist). Their latest release, The Second Album, just came out on August 28.
VIDEO: The Empty Hearts “Come On and Try It”
The Empty Hearts, Burke says, are “really rooted in rock and roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s, power pop from the ‘70s, and garage rock.” He cites influences such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and Raspberries. But, he adds, The Empty Hearts took that classic sound and “brought it into the 21st century.”
Burke and the other members formed The Empty Hearts in 2013 because they’d all crossed paths for decades, leading to their longstanding friendship. “We weren’t motivated by money. We wanted to have fun. It was good to be able to do it for the love of it and to see where it would lead us.” Things turned out as well as they’d hoped, with the band putting out a self-titled debut album in 2014 and often playing shows in the years since then. “We get so much enjoyment playing together,” Burke says.
Even though all of the members have had significant success for decades, Burke says their goal has been to capture the excitement they’d all felt at the start of their careers: “We wanted to get back to what it was like to be in a band when we first started being in bands – remembering what it was like the first time you picked up a guitar, or the first time you sat behind a set of drums,” he says.
Still, the members’ collective lengthy musical experience definitely helped when they started writing songs together: “It came together pretty easily – everyone knows what to do on a song,” Burke says. “We all communicate with one another and cooperate with each other’s aspirations and where the song is going to be heading. We’re all able to really formulate it as a group effort.”
Another friend in their musical circle, Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, has also played a significant role with The Empty Hearts: he’s the one who suggested the band name in the first place, and The Second Album is released via his record label, Wicked Cool. “He’s keeping the flame alive for rock and roll,” Burke says of Van Zandt.
VIDEO: The Empty Hearts “Run and Hide Ftom You”
Burke also says that producer Ed Stasium has been a crucial influence on The Empty Hearts, again thanks to a longstanding professional and personal relationship with the members. “He goes back to the roots of CBGBs,” Burke says, referring to the legendary New York City music venue where Blondie and many other influential bands got their start during the 1970s. “He produced The Ramones. Ed became like a fifth member of The Empty Hearts. It’s really great to have him on board. He’s a major help.”
Out of all the people who helped create The Second Album, though, it’s clear that Burke is most excited that Ringo Starr played drums on the track “Remember Days Like These” (Burke backed him up on tambourine). Having a former Beatle appear on this album was “a big deal” for Burke, who says that Starr was a key inspiration for him when he first begin playing drums while he was in high school in New Jersey. “After seeing The Beatles, they all stood out – it wasn’t like Ringo was in the back. There were four rock and roll stars. I was like, ‘I’ve got to do that!’”
Burke says they were able to get Starr to play on this album because Wally Palmar had been a member in Starr’s All-Starr Band for a couple of seasons. Also, Burke knew Starr from a project they both worked on with fashion designer John Varvatos in 2014.
Coincidentally, John Varvatos now has a store in the space where CBGBs was located – the boutique displays photographs from the club’s heyday and protects much the original graffiti on the walls behind plexiglass. “I always thought it was cool how he preserves a lot of the history,” Burke says of Varvatos, pointing out that other celebrated clubs from that time period certainly haven’t received the same reverent treatment. “Max’s Kansas City, I think that’s a deli [now]. You’d never know Max’s Kansas City was there unless you knew the address. But at least with the John Varvatos store, you still get the history of the music scene from CBGB a bit.”
VIDEO: The Empty Hearts “Coat-Tailer”
This talk of CBGBs reminds Burke of a good memory from his early career: “The first time I heard the Blondie [1976 debut] single “X Offender” on the jukebox at CBGBs, it meant a lot more to me than hearing it on the radio,” he says. “Being inside the club and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, wow, somebody played our song – isn’t that amazing!’”
Burke says he’d had a feeling right from the start that Blondie could be a big success, though: “When I met my fellow band members in Blondie back when, it was like, ‘Yeah, these people are cool.’ And obviously Debbie [Harry, singer] had something special. I wanted a strong person – I was trying to find somebody to front my band that had charisma and the creativity of a David Bowie or a Jim Morrison – and really, Debbie filled that.”
VIDEO: Blondie at CBGB 8/15/75
Burke’s confidence in Blondie’s prospects helped him get through the years of very hard work that it took to get his career off the ground. “When we first started Blondie, I was going to college and I was working part-time, so my day was pretty full,” he says. “There were times of not getting home until four or five in the morning, then getting up and going to school. People thought I was crazy!”
Almost five decades later, Burke has proven those early naysayers wrong: he is now considered one of the best rock drummers of all time. Despite his reputation, Burke remains modest, however. “I try not to be in competition with anyone,” he says. “I just do my thing, and people seem to like it a lot of the time. I’ve been lucky. I thought by the time I was thirty [years old] I’d probably be out of the business, or I wouldn’t really have a career much further than that. Who would have known? It’s pretty amazing.”