When Cars guitarist Elliot Easton visited Japan a few weeks ago with his new alt-rock supergroup The Empty Hearts, he was stunned by two things: first, that Tokyo still had an active four-story Tower Records store in its Shibuya district; and second, that his band (with Chesterfield Kings bassist Andy Babiuk, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and Romantics vocalist-guitarist Wally Palmar) was one of its featured artists.
Its self-titled debut was released on Nippon Columbia there (429 Records in the U.S).
“Tower had a whole end-cap display of our album, with a giant cardboard cutout of the group and everything – stuff that you just never see anymore for a new band over here,” says Easton, who brings the group to The City this week.
Easton, a true original, is known for the sleek, angular style he created on The Cars’ 1978 self-titled debut and subsequent recordings such as 1980’s “Panorama” and the group’s surprise 2011 comeback “Move Like This.”
Along the way, he’s been honored with several signature guitars, including his green Gretsch Duo Jet and Gibson’s recent Tikibird model.
But his Empty Hearts work is more expansive. With Palmar’s gruff voice riding shotgun, Easton exuberantly bounds through garage (“Soul Deep”), jangle (“Fill an Empty Heart”), and even country (“I Found You Again”).
“Drop Me Off at Home” is reminiscent of The Faces, whose original keyboardist Ian McLagan was a guest on the sessions (led by Ed Stasium).
“I enjoy this new freedom – there’s more room for improvisation,” says Easton, 60, who has issued one solo disc (1985’s “Change No Change”) and stayed busy in the studio backing other artists.
“But people have never really gotten to hear me play this way, and they weren’t aware of what I really can do just from hearing me in The Cars. Although, if you listen to ‘Best Friend’s Girl,’ that’s kind of a Bakersfield solo, so the elements were always there.”
The Empty Hearts initially was a transcontinental pipe dream.
Babiuk and Palmar started working together in New York, then pitched the Los Angeles-based Burke and Easton on a teamup. A skeptical Easton agreed, thinking nothing would come of it.
“But I should never have underestimated Andy’s perseverance,” he says. “He and Wally kept coming out to California, and soon we had enough songs for a record.”
Easton’s new outfit just may be one more feather in his cap. “Somehow in my career, I’ve gotten tagged with this silly notion of being one of the great underrated guitar players,” he says. “But I never felt that way. I always felt pretty well-recognized by the guitar community.”
IF YOU GO
The Empty Hearts
Where: The Addition, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 19
Tickets: $30 to $35