“Andy called each of us individually back in 2013 to ask what we thought about forming a band together,” recalls Easton. “We’re all old friends. The plan was to play the kind of music that was the reason we all played music in the first place, inspired by the bands from the '60s who inspired us.”
It’s pretty easy to determine which bands influenced the Empty Hearts when listening to the group’s eponymous debut album released in 2014.
Various songs bear distinct hallmarks of the sounds of the Beatles, the Byrds, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Who combined with the attitude of garage rock bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Pretty Things and the Standells, and guitar riffs that edge into the early Seventies a la Led Zeppelin and T. Rex.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of the album was how close it sounded to the musicians’ influences and how little it sounded like the music that each individual was previously best known for.
On the Empty Hearts’ follow-up effort released this year, appropriately called The Second Album, numerous influences are still apparent, but a distinct personality unique to the band has emerged as well.
“This album definitely shows growth from the first record,” Easton says. “We had to become a band, and that takes time. Between the first album and this one we did a lot of hanging and traveling together.
“We were already friends before, but we became better friends. That’s part of the chemistry. We’re less inhibited and showing more of ourselves. The more we’ve gotten to know each other, the more of our personality has come out.”
The Second Album delivers an even more diverse collection of styles, including hard rockers like Death by Insomnia and The World’s Gone Insane, the Memphis-meets-Muscle Shoals Southern soul of Well Look at You featuring the Uptown Horns, the power pop of The Best That I Can and Come On and Try It and the wistful balladry of The World as We Know It, Moves On and Indigo Dusk of the Night. Ringo Starr also makes a special guest appearance, playing drums on Remember Days Like These.
Easton recorded all of his guitar tracks at Babiuk’s Fab Gear Studios in Fairport, New York, near Rochester. “Recording at Andy’s studio is such a blast,” Easton says. “Without exaggeration, he has almost everything, from sitars and tambouras to any vintage amp you’d want to play through, all with new tubes and good speakers.
“There are claviolines, Mellotrons and chamberlains, and even Framus Star basses like Bill Wyman used to play – things you never see much at all. It’s a great clubhouse with all sorts of esoteric stuff that makes it a really fun atmosphere for geeking out and exploring your creative options.”
Although Babiuk also owns the Fab Gear music store, which could provide just about anything the musicians needed, Easton brought his own guitars to the sessions due to his personal needs as a left-handed player. Easton still owns a very impressive collection of vintage and custom left-handed guitars, but for the album’s sessions he played only four instruments.
“Because I had to travel from Los Angeles to Rochester, I was limited by how much stuff I could bring,” he says. “I brought a Gibson Custom Shop 1960 Les Paul Standard reissue with a cherry red finish. I’ve always liked red Les Pauls – I’ve had one since the beginning of the Cars.
“I also brought a butterscotch blackguard Tele, a rare Rickenbacker 12-string that is the Roger McGuinn limited edition – they made only three lefties with Mapleglo finishes – and a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic. Those four guitars covered most of the ground I needed.
“I didn’t need to bring any amps, fortunately, but I brought my main pedalboard. All of my pedalboards are done by Nick Conti at this company in Ohio called Tonetronix. Anything else that I needed, Andy already had it in his studio or music store.”
For amps, Easton relied on the holy trinity of Fender, Marshall and Vox.
“Andy has a beautifully tweaked 50-watt Marshall plexi that I used a lot,” Easton says. “He also had a Vox Super Beatle that was a natural pairing with the Rickenbacker 12-string. I used the rocker switches to dial in that really hard, snotty midrange like you hear on the Beatles’ Revolver on songs like She Said, She Said. That always sounded to me like they were using the MRB middle boost switch on those Vox amps. I also used a really nice Fender Twin Reverb.”
Easton’s Tonetronix pedalboard included the following pedals: an MI Audio Crunch Box and Hermida Audio Zendrive distortion/overdrive, JangleBox compressor, Tech 21 Roto Choir rotating speaker emulator, Dunlop TS-1 Stereo Tremolo, MXR Echoplex Delay, MXR M300 Digital Reverb, Keeley 30ms Double Tracker, TC Electronic PolyTune 2 Mini tuner, Dunlop Cry Baby Mini Wah, Dunlop Volume(X) Mini and ISP Technologies Decimator II noise gate.
“I use the Crunch Box for my high-gain stuff,” Easton says, “and I use the Zendrive for overdrive. Tonetronix added a loop switcher to my board so I can switch between those two pedals or switch them both out with just one click. The Crunch Box is a wonderful pedal. There’s not a bad setting on it. You could plug it into a Fender Twin with JBLs and it will sound like a Marshall.
“In fact, it sounds better than just plugging into a Marshall. I use the first version – they’ve released several different versions of the Crunch Box over the years. I went on Reverb and grabbed as many of them as I could find because I like it so much. If it broke I wouldn’t want to be without one. It makes life easier. I can plug it into any amp and make it sound cool.”
Easton expresses similar enthusiasm for the Keeley 30ms Double Tracker pedal.
“Most people think I have to have a chorus pedal somewhere on my board because of the sounds I recorded with the Cars. That’s actually the last thing I’d want on my pedalboard. The 30ms Double Tracker does the chorus effects I need, but it sounds really cool and doesn’t sound so '80s.
“When I recorded the Cars’ first album, I only had two pedals: a Morley EVO-1 Echo Volume with the spinning magnetic disc for delay and a Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble. [Producer] Roy Thomas Baker told me that I didn’t need to use the chorus pedal, and he showed me how to get chorus effects in the studio. He had me play a riff, then he adjusted the recorder’s varispeed a couple of cents slower or faster and had me record a second track that was identical to the first.
”When he played it back, the two tracks created a natural, organic-sounding chorus effect because the pitch of both tracks was slightly different and the wow and flutter from the tape machine created little phasing inconsistencies. That’s the chorus sound you hear on Bye Bye Love. The 30ms pedal is a version of that studio effect that I can use live.”
The Second Album shows Easton’s breadth as a guitarist perhaps more than anything he has previously recorded. On Well Look At You he plays slinky sliding double stops in the style of Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree and Reggie Young but with his own distinctive voice.
For The World as We Know It, Moves On he played seductive bends that evoke Amos Garrett.
“That was the Les Paul though the Twin dialed in to a clean tone with the 30ms Double Tracker on the arpeggiated chords,” he says.
“It’s clean, but it’s still fat and sweet. The Les Paul has a pair of Lindy Fralin’s True 60’s PAF humbuckers. That’s the finest pickup I’ve found. It’s touch-sensitive and it does everything you want it to do on a record. It’s not overwound – it’s just good.”
One of Easton’s favorite performances on the new record is Death by Insomnia.
“I originally wrote that as an instrumental track for a film that was shown at Sundance years ago,” he tells us. “I wanted to make a song out of it, so I showed it to the guys and they went to work on it. I did Roy Buchanan-style lead stuff on it, which was challenging because it was very different from the other songs we were working on. The solo is supposed to sound kind of crazy and out there.”
While Easton and his bandmates felt that they had written a strong collection of songs for their debut album, this time around they aspired to deliver a true classic album experience with two distinct parts like the sides of a vinyl record and a flow that evolves throughout from the beginning until the end. Easton says that producer Ed Stasium played a significant role in helping the band achieve that goal.
“Ed Stasium is like the fifth member of the band when we’re recording,” Easton explains. “He had a lot of input into the sequencing as well as the mastering. Clem and I both thought of Ed when we were looking for a producer for our first album.
“We knew he would be a really good guy for producing this band, that he’d have fun with it and would enjoy it. He’s one of us. We’re not working under pressure from some label. We’re just all kicking around ideas together and having a good time making music. Imagine that!
“We all agreed that we wanted the album to take listeners on a journey. It’s presumptuous for us to say that this record does that, but that was one of our main goals. We wanted the songs to be fun, but we also wanted to make a good album with a beginning, middle and end. We wanted a record that was like the days when you’d invite your friends over to listen to a new album, turn the lights down, take a puff of something and listen all the way through without talking to each other.
“One of my bugaboos about the way people listen to music these days is that they do it in isolation. To me there’s nothing like listening to something like the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East with someone else and enjoying all the little details together. That was a great thing to do, to just share the joy. Music shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. You need to vibe off of other people. Hopefully people will do that with this record.”
While the Empty Hearts started out as a way for four like-minded musicians to have fun together between tours and projects that paid their bills, Easton says the band has become a more fulfilling pursuit over time.
“We’re at a certain age where we’ve fought all our battles and seen the top of the mountain. Now we’re just trying to have a good time playing music and making people happy. I’m very grateful. I don’t take anything that’s happened for granted. It’s always been music for me.
“My mom was a Julliard-trained singer, and she had her own radio show in New York sponsored by Hershey’s Chocolate. I have a cousin who has taught choir in high school for 40 years. There are a lot of good musicians and talented people on my side of the family.
“I started playing guitar when I was only two years old. There are pictures of me playing all the way back then, so obviously I didn’t get into music just to meet girls. I just love to play music. That’s what makes me happy. Mission accomplished.”
- The Empty Hearts' Second Album is out now via Wicked Cool Records.