Interview: The Empty Hearts/Blondie
As the drummer for Blondie, Clem Burke has kept the beat on some of the most notable and beloved punk and new wave songs ever made and he is doing the same in his other band The Empty Hearts, an all star group who have come back with a host of new material in 2020. Gavin Brown had a chat with Clem to talk about The Empty Hearts and their new album which is titled The Second Album and singles ‘Jonathan Harker’s Journal’ / ‘The Haunting Of The Tin Soldier’ as well as working with revered producer Ed Stasium and legendary Beatles drummer Ringo Starr on the album. The also chatted about what Blondie are up to next and the band’s legacy, his career as a musician, the New York scene he was part of that centred around CBGBs and his brief stint as drummer of the Ramones.
E&D: The Empty Hearts have just released the single ‘Jonathan Harker’s Journal’ / ‘The Haunting Of The Tin Soldier’. Can you tell us a bit about both of those songs and their inspirations?
Clem: ‘Jonathan Harker’s Journal’ is inspired by the original Dracula and kind of came out of a riff of Elliots and actually, the other chaps are fans of the 60s monster movies and the macabre in general, that’s kind of the inspiration for it. I kinda like those films, but they’re not really my favorites, and ‘The Haunting Of The Tin Soldier‘, well we’re all big fans of the Small Faces and they have the song ‘Tin Soldier’ but actually in the States, we really weren’t as aware of the little toys. It seems like a lot of people from the sixties, would reference the tin soldiers that they had when they were kids. I know Andy was over in the UK working with someone who had a vast collection of tin soldiers, like a room full of them. It kind of dawned on us that for kids of a certain era, that was a big thing. I don’t know if you collected tin soldiers or not, maybe it was before your time, but I think at one time it was a really big deal for a British kids to have a collection of tin soldiers. We all played with soldiers when we were kids, that’s kinda where that came from, and the fact that they never age, obviously they’re inanimate, and that was kind of the inspiration from that, the Small Faces song refers to the fact that you’re a tin soldier, you’re not ageing, you don’t have any emotion and things like that, it’s kind of a metaphor for that. The band, we’re big fans of the music of the sixties. We kind of all came together under the inspiration to play music that was inspired and reminiscent of what came before and also to kind of bring it into the modern age. That was one of the main reasons we got together, we wanted to play the music that inspired us and also we wanted to feel when we would get together that the feeling was like the first time you picked up a guitar, the first time you sat behind a set of drums was like this muse and you could be around three others with that common ground. That is what created the chemistry within the band and ironically, we were formed basically to be a live band, of course, thats not an option at this time. On the first album, we did manage to tour a bit, but not as extensively as we’d have liked to, we were planning on getting to the UK, but never did at that time. Now, we are just trying to raise the awareness of the band and hopefully be able to get out and perform. We’ve created quite a catalogue of songs now with this album and the predecessor, the first album that we did.
E&D: With playing live, have you talked about doing any possible livestream gigs at all because you can’t play live at the moment?
Clem: Yeah. I mean, that’s going to be the reality it seems. It’s more becoming more and more reality day by day. Perhaps we might do that at some point, I’ve done one or two things like that already with different people. I just did a little thing with John Doe from X. We did a little Cramps tribute and we all recorded our parts separately and virtually. We’re kind of hoping to wait this thing out and be able to get out and perform live again, but it really remains to be seen what’s going to happen at this point in time, but we really want people to know about this album.
E&D: With your second album called The Second Album. What’s the reaction to the album been like so far?
Clem: Well, everything that I see online and the reviews that we’ve gotten here and there have been very positive for people that are of a certain aesthetic, they kind of get what we’re trying to do. The reaction seems to have been great. I mean we all really respect each other’s playing abilities and composition abilities. We felt really confident that the people would really like this album. The only things that I’ve seen have been very positive. Elliot Easton is a great guitar player, so he really shines on the record all in all. Everyone is a very great player. People are enjoying the guitar playing a lot and the sonics on the record. Our producer Ed Stasium, he also produced the prior album that we did a few years back. He’s really like the fifth member of the band and he’s worked with everyone from the Ramones to Living Colour to The Smithereens. He’s really great with bands and creating an atmosphere in the studio that’s conducive to a recording.
E&D: How did the recording sessions with Ed go and what does he bring to The Empty Hearts sound?
Clem: He’s just brilliant to work with and he’s really becomes like the fifth member of the band. I think Ed has probably contributed musically to every record he’s ever worked on whether it’s a little bit of backing vocals and as far as ideas and arrangements go, he’s a complete producer/engineer, it was hands on. We all managed to really collaborate together really well and we are all good friends and we really wanted to be bringing back that feeling we had when we first began to form bands and so many years later to still kind of have that spark. It’s kind of like with the Springsteen record that just came out, that’s the big group thing that he was talking about, just getting in the studio and playing live with with members that can communicate really just through the music. Things just go unsaid, everyone just starts playing and arrangements come together and the flow of the music comes together very easily. That’s what we find with The Empty Hearts too. He’s talking about it like this revolutionary thing, which it is in a way, because recording doesn’t really take place that much where a band is live in the studio recording, which is what we did with The Empty Hearts, then adding overdubs later on. It is really very organic, the whole recording process for us. We have a studio in Rochester, New York that our bass player has, so we’re not worried about time or money. It’s very easy to record there and it’s very relaxed, so I think that’s reflected in the record as well.
E&D: The album features the song ‘Remember Days Like These’ with Ringo Starr. How did that come about and what was it like working with him on the song?
Clem: I was doing an interview on the Beatles station on Sirius and they kind of referenced when Ringo first went into record Abbey Road, George Martin had the session drummer, Andy White playing on the first recording of ‘Love Me Do’ and Ringo was assigned to tambourine, and that’s basically what I did in this recording. I played tambourine and we co-wrote the song. It was amazing to have him on the record. Our singer Wally Palmar performed in Ringo’s all star band for a couple of tours a few years back, so he he was friendly with Ringo from working together and I had I had met Ringo once or twice. It’s like we got the Beatles stamp of approval on the record, that he consented to perform on. It was amazing. It kinda is a tradition because on the first album, Ian McGlagan played keyboards on our first album, sadly, you know, Ian passed soon thereafter and it was kinda crazy for me. I’d met Ian in Texas where he lived in Austin a few years back, and I worked on a record with him, with a guy called BP Fallon. I called up Mark and ironically, he was between Syracuse and Bunkerwell and Rochester’s right in the middle and he was on tour. He had the time so he came in and recorded with us, which was amazing as well, but Ringo was kind of just a one-off, he played the drums on the one track and he did an amazing job, and it was a great feeling. That track is kind of reminiscent of a Beatles track in a way, especially the keyboard/guitar instrumental break so we’re really happy that he was able to contribute.
E&D: The Empty Hearts released a Christmas single last year. Have you got any plans to do the same this year?
Clem: We’re gonna re-release it, but that was kind of the object of that. The songs ‘It’s Christmastime’ and the B-side ‘Joyful Noise’ which is kind of a Bo Diddley Christmas song, which I don’t really think that there’s been one so far so we were happy to create that Bo Diddley groove and have the lyrics and once again, Ed did an amazing job on it. ‘It’s Christmastime’ is really reminiscent of Spector and the Wall Of Sound, which is kind of what we were going for, and then Vicki and Debi Peterson from The Bangles also sing backups on that. That was a real one off one that came together really quickly, but we were really happy with that. We co-wrote it with Steven Van Zandt, we were in the room writing and we had him on a speakerphone contributing. That was kind of fun!
E&D: Have you still got plans to release a book about your music career at all?
Clem: I’ve been working on it, you know, at one point I was working with Chris Charlesworth at Omnibus. I’m working on it. It’s a process for me. It’s not really my life story. It’s more like a memoir, like you said, of my music career and kind of anecdotal and I really want to incorporate a lot of my archival stuff into the book as well. I’ve had several offers and especially with this pandemic, I’ve been working on it some, so hopefully one day it will arrive and people seem to want it. Obviously my work with Blondie is my main day job let’s say, but I I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years and there’s a lot of stories to be told, you know, so it wouldn’t really just be the story of Blondie. It’s my time with Eurythmics and with Iggy Pop, I played with Nancy Sinatra and things like that so I’m hoping to get it together one day.
E&D: Talking of Blondie, you will hopefully be hitting the road next year, are you looking forward to getting back out on the road and touring?
Clem: Well, yeah, I think everyone is, that’s a working musician. We have dates announced in the UK for November with Garbage and hopefully then we’ll be able to do those shows. Yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to it. I know everyone in Blondie is very much looking forward to it. Debbie’s saying she can’t wait to get out and perform again. It’s kind of funny how everything got all shut down, your life that you’ve been basically living for so many years. I mean, everyone’s staying in one place for the most part, people that are used to traveling quite a bit and all that. Hopefully those dates will happen and maybe they will be able to coincide with some Empty Hearts dates around that times as well.
E&D: Are there any plans for a new Blondie album at all?
Clem: Yeah, it’s been in process for some time, we had a few songs, a few demos, and our people are writing during the pandemic, that’s one thing that it kind of allows time for. There are plans for a new Blondie album, but prior to that, there’s going to be an EP coming out. We played some shows in Cuba last year and we made sort of a mini documentary of that. That’s going to be coming out along with an EP of some live performances in Cuba with that we performed with local Cuban musicians, and then I think when the tour comes about, there’s going to be an archival box of the first six Blondie albums, along with a book with unseen photos and a lot of archival tracks, demos and things like that. That’s going to be called Against The Odds as long as, and the tour is called Against The Odds. There are a couple of boxes coming out. It’s been a long process because we’ve all been contributing and trying to make it right, for the legacy of the band because we’ve never really had a box like this. There’s still plenty of stuff in the works. You know, there’s plenty of things that can be done. For myself primarily I do miss performing live and playing shows. I do an art session here and there, but it’s strange how things are kind of locked down. You never really know.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable moments in your time with Blondie?
Clem: Oh, wow. There’s that many! Our first national tournament in the US, when we toured with Iggy Pop with David Bowie on keyboards for The Idiot album. We had our first album out and it was amazing driving from New York city to Montreal overnight to do the first show and arriving at the venue and being basically pretty tired. Actually, we played at Max’s Kansas city the night before and after the gig we got into an RV and a caravan and we drove to Montreal and we were all just lying about in the dressing room and the door opened and David Bowie and Iggy Pop came in to introduce themselves, so that was pretty amazing. On that tour, I got to get to see David and Iggy perform every night and that was great. There’s lots of gigs. We played in Glasgow on Hogmanay, I think it was 79 into 80. That was a pretty momentous occasion. We had the Pipers come out and play the beginning of Sunday girl at midnight. That was an amazing event. A highlight for me in the UK was playing the Royal Albert Hall. I really, really enjoyed that. I liked that venue a lot, but there’s been many, many really fun things that have happened with Blondie along the way, obviously.
E&D: You played drums for the Ramones briefly. Was that a fun experience for you?
Clem: Yeah, it was interesting, you know, they had asked me to join the Ramones several times over the years, but I was always otherwise engaged basically. I had just come off the road with Eurythmics and their drummer, Richie Ramone, quit quite suddenly so I really was just a fill in and at the time I wasn’t really interested in being in the Ramones full time. I thought it would be kind of too constricted from my style playing, but once I kind of got into it, Joey and I spoke of kind of expanding things a bit, but Johnny in particular was very rigid and just wanted the one style playing. I played with the Ramones without ever rehearsing with them, so it was a bit trial by fire and it was kind of insane because they didn’t really get along and I was kind of very in the middle of it all. I think it worked out for the best that Mark returned to the band, but it’s interesting how many people mention that. I’m proud of my name, Elvis Ramone. I came up with that name. I’m kind of proud of that. Johnny in particular was a big Elvis Presley fan so he went for it, and so I broke the mould in Ramones names, as far as being Joey or Clemmy! It’s interesting how many people mention that though. I mean, the Ramones to me, they were like the Beatles of our generation. I think probably the second most influential band of all time as far as rock and roll bands, I mean, they created a revolution in the sound and the music really stands up and it’s amazing how well known and successful the Ramones are today. It’s very sad that none of the original members are alive. It’s kind of crazy.
E&D: How exciting was New York when Blondie was starting out with the Ramones and Talking Heads and that whole CBGB/Max’s Kansas City scene?
Clem: New York City was always an exciting place from when I was a teenager, going there and going to shows at the Fillmore East, for instance, or just walking around Greenwich Village, the history that exists, whether it be poets or musicians, the whole folk scene. It was always an exciting place. Playing at CBGB, I always felt as though it was a special thing. Even back at the time, I had the analogy in my mind that it was a bit like our version of The Cavern, that it was an incubator and a workshop for a lot of interesting music and I got to see it all, but for me, my favourite band back then probably was Television. I mean, amazing band, and Billy Ficca , the drummer was and still is an amazing drummer. Basically, we would be at CBGB every night or you would walk from CBGB uptown to Max’s Kansas City to see the Heartbreakers and then go back down to CBGBs to see the Ramones. When it started off, it was a very, very small scene, but with lots of interesting musicians and people, and it was very inspiring. I think without all of the bands that came out of CBGB we wouldn’t have had the success with Blondie. I think we all kind of fed off each other and, we created that scene as opposed to just being an isolated band, trying to be successful. It was a great time, you know, a really great time and I look back on it very fondly and I think I learned a lot from a lot of different musicians there, whether, whether it be from Jerry Nolan or Johnny Thunders or obviously the Ramones and just everyone, it was very inspiring to be around that whole musical scene.
E&D: That’s great Clem, thank you very much for speaking to us.
Clem: Thanks Gavin, it was nice speaking with you. I want people to know about The Empty Hearts album and if you can out there, check it out, it’s on all the platforms. Everybody stay safe out there and hope to see you sometime.