Andy Babiuk just wanted to have fun. But after a three decade run with influential garage giants The Chesterfield Kings, some of the fun had checked out. He felt beat up, beat down, wore out.
"I'd been doing the Chesterfield Kings for 30-plus years," Babiuk says. "And it was getting to be a lot of work. I was like 'You know, I wanna have fun.' Remember when you were a kid and you picked up a guitar because you wanted to have fun? You talk to anyone who's been in a band for a long time; you get beat up by the business and how it all works."
So the Kings disintegrated and Babiuk pursued his writing career, churning out three books as well as concentrating on his boutique guitar shop, Fab Gear in Fairport, before diving right back into the same rock 'n' roll racket with a few like-minded friends.
Ladies and gentlemen, The Empty Hearts.
The Empty Hearts has an extraordinary cast of characters. Wally Palmar from The Romantics on guitar and vocals, Elliot Easton from The Cars on guitar, Clem Burke from Blondie on drums, and Babiuk on bass. But the staggering pedigree isn't the point, according to Babiuk.
"I said, 'If I'm gonna do another band, I'm gonna do it with guys I want to hang out with,'" he says. "These are all fun guys, not just world class musicians. I don't want to teach guys how to be in a band, I'm too old for that — I'm tired. I've got six kids already, I don't need more. I wanna play guitar, I wanna play music and write songs. And I wanna be with guys who want to do the same thing. We're all friends socially, we hang out and talk about Rat Fink and goofy shit like that."
Hanging out; that's how it started. Hanging out and a little drunk talk.
"You're hanging with the guys backstage, drinking a beer," Babiuk says, "and you're like 'Hey man, we should do something together.' And then you never do. It never happens. If you could do it, you would do it."
But the idea lingered, the urge persisted. Babiuk found himself on the phone with Palmar. He made the pitch.
"I said, 'Remember when you got a guitar as a kid because you loved The Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and Chuck Berry ... all those other great bands we grew up with? Imagine if you started a band with that mentality.' You can't spin back the clock but you can put yourself in a room and mentally just do this because it's fun."
Palmar left to go on tour in South America with Ringo Starr with a promise to Babiuk to consider the idea.
Palmar returned gung ho for the project. They just needed to flesh out the operation. A few phone calls later and Easton and Burke were on board. They were exactly what the band needed; they were exactly what the band was about. No explanation was required.
"You don't have to explain to Clem Burke about Bo Diddley," Babiuk says. "You don't have to tell him about The Who. He's lived it, he knows it; it's his life. Elliot Easton likes the same crap we do and he's a killer guitar player. Let him do what he wants, he's Elliot Easton."
It was late 2012 and the band that would be The Empty Hearts got together in an empty L.A. rehearsal studio. Things started clicking right away.
"Real fast, just like that," Babiuk says. "It was like, 'That sounds pretty f***ing good for not having played together before.' It really took on a life of its own. It was fun, and the cardinal rule was, 'Guys as soon as it stops being fun, it stops.'"
Part of the fun was not knowing where it was headed.
"The concept was cool," Babiuk says. "But what was it going to sound like? The idea was to write songs together." Those sessions and the eponymous debut album that was soon to follow resulted in some awesome, classically-rooted rock 'n' roll. Rootsy quotes and ghosts slink throughout the LP's 12 tracks, whether it's The Beatles, The Who, The Amboy Dukes, or even Rockpile. What isn't readily apparent, is the member's previous claims to fame. The Empty Hearts is much more than a mere mash-up of The Cars, The Romantics, Blondie, or The Chesterfield Kings. According to Babiuk the quartet let the music decide. It wasn't forced.
"When you put together a band you're going to want to sound like something," he says. "Yes, we come from other bands but this is our band. So it was, 'Do we like it? Yeah. Do we want to pursue this? Yeah. Ok, let's keep writing songs and see what happens.'"
There was no immediate desire to play live. It was first things first, like polishing the product.
"We didn't want to just go out and start playing shows," Babiuk says. "We've all been through the battle we've all learned something. 'Let's use that knowledge now to do it the right way. Let's cut an album, put it out and then go out and play. This way it was a legitimate band with all original material, not playing each other's covers."
So The Empty Hearts holed up in Babiuk's studio lair in Fairport with legendary producer Ed Stasium (The Ramones, Talking Heads, Living Color, etc.) and cut the album in five days. Babiuk emerged elated.
"I'm really proud of it,' he says. "It's the best thing I've ever done."
It was the bands fun mantra at work. Some of the songs were caught on the first take.
"Then it became a joke," Babiuk says. "If you made a mistake, you had to pay 20 bucks."
With the album finished and set for release August 5 on 429 Records and a plan of attack in place, i.e. a US/Japan tour in October, the band still needed a solid name; all the good ones were taken ... or so they thought. Enter Little Steven Van Zandt.
"He texted me," Babiuk says. '"You f***in' guys choose a name yet?' I said 'No. Then he said 'OK, you're The Empty Hearts.' I asked why and he said 'Because I said so.' So I forwarded the text to the guys and said 'If anyone wants to call Silvio Dante up and tell him no, be my guest.'"
Depending on who you ask — or when you ask the question — you'll get a variety of explanations of what the Sound ExChange Project really is: A local contemporary classical ensemble; a chamber group; an artist collective; composers; curators; educators; community-investors.