- - Monday, December 22, 2014

Best known as the drummer for Blondie, Clem Burke is easily the hardest-working man in rock ‘n’ roll. Over the decades, he has also played with The Ramones, The Knack, Checkered Past, Dramarama, The Eurythmics, Bob Dylan and dozens more. Currently he is touring and recording with three groups: Blondie, The International Swingers (alongside Sex Pistols bassist Glenn Matlock and James Stevenson from Gene Loves Jezebel) and The Empty Hearts with Elliot Easton of The Cars and Wally Palmar of The Romantics.

Mr. Burke discusses the future of Blondie, why being in The Ramones almost killed him and his rock ‘n’ roll life.

Question: How did the Empty Hearts come together?

Answer: Elliot Easton and I worked together briefly on a project with the late Doug Fieger of The Knack. Elliot, Doug and I played with keyboard player Teddy Andreadis [of Guns N Roses] and formed a band to play alongside Los Lobos and Jackson Browne. But Doug was sick and passed soon after. Wally Palmar and I worked together in The Romantics together for about ten years until my day job, aka Blondie, reformed in the late nineties.

Thankfully we all now have the ways and means to make music without having to worry about the economics of it. It allowed us to kind of go back to square one and be a band just for the love of music and for the excitement of all of us playing together. We’ve come full circle.

My ambition is to just continue as a musician and keep playing. And since I’m the drummer I need everybody else. I’m not gonna be solo (laughs).

Q: You are also in the International Swingers. Would you call that your punk band?

A: I don’t know that it’s a punk band other than the fact that the inventor of punk — if you want to look at it that way — my friend Glenn Matlock from the Sex Pistols is in the band. He’s a great musician who played in the reformed Faces and with Iggy Pop, as have I. There is probably a bit of punk attitude.

Q: The record has a nice vintage sound. Did you use vintage instruments and equipment to create that?

A: [Producer] Ed Stasium had a lot to do with that. He did a bunch of Smithereens records and Living Color’s “Cult of Personality.” He’s basically the fifth Ramone, because Ed was there behind the scenes, playing, singing and recording on many, many Ramones records.

Q: Speaking of The Ramones, what was it like playing in that band as “Elvis Ramone”?

A: I came to The Ramones with the attitude and mandate that I wasn’t necessarily interested in being in The Ramones. Although, in retrospect, I did enjoy it. I might not be here today if I had continued to be in The Ramones. The best idea they had was to get Mark Bell, aka “Marky Ramone,” back in the band when I left. He’s a great drummer.

I wasn’t interested in staying in The Ramones for a couple of reasons. Joey Ramone was a pretty good friend of mine; Johnny Ramone was kind of a taskmaster. I didn’t like the fact that he and Joey didn’t speak to each other. Dee Dee Ramone, although he was a great artist, I think had a few mental problems, walked the tightrope between manic and depressive and was a heavy drug user. Although I think he died because he stopped using heroin and tried going back. Supposedly that’s what happened to Sid Vicious too. Not to be morbid, but it’s a perfect circle that all four of them are dead now. It is really completed.

Q: I imagine doing a club tour with Empty Hearts is a lot different from touring with Blondie. What is the biggest adjustment?

A: Sleep in general. Delegating time to sleep when you are doing a club tour is difficult. The time between the sound check and the gig tends to be the most boring time. I always find myself extremely tired right before the show starts, then when you hit the stage the adrenaline kicks in. Trying to sleep when you’re in a band and in a van is difficult. The Blondie thing is like being on a luxury pleasure cruise.

This tour makes me not take Blondie for granted, although I never really did. Blondie has a giant staff. The hotels are better. I’m a big advocate of physical fitness. And health. At my age and doing what I do, you have to. But with this tour I don’t really mind. I’m happy as long as the hotels are clean. You really only spend a few hours sleeping there. I’ve slept next to Debbie Harry for nearly 40 years. She’s in the bunk next to me.

Q: What keeps you motivated to make rock ‘n’ roll?

A: The music keeps me motivated — the joy or performing and playing music. I don’t think of this as being a work-intensive thing. I think any artistic endeavor brings about a lot of joy, even if it is through pain. The audience’s adulation also appeals to me from a narcissistic standpoint.

Q: Do you ever see a time where you won’t play drums anymore?

A: In some ways I do. But then again, I would be happy to just go and play in a bar in a little blues band or jazz band. Or I could be like my dear friend Earl Palmer. He played on 90 percent of Little Richard’s songs, drummed for Eddie Cochran and was the drummer on “La Bamba.” He and Hal Blaine played on all the rock ‘n’ roll hit records that came out of Los Angeles in the ‘60s. Hal played well into his 80s. I went to his retirement party, and he was supposed to play two sets. He played the first set with such intensity they carried him out. He never played again.

Q: What is the future of Blondie?

A: I always say give it another 18 months. Debbie was saying the other day that after all this time she is finally almost coming to accept she is what she is. At this point we’ve been together longer this time than the first time out. We reformed in 1996 and put a new album together; we didn’t just go out and start playing the oldies circuit. We just did Glastonbury this year, headlined the iTunes festival at The Roundhouse, where Chrissie Hynde opened for us, and played a gig in Hyde Park opening for Jeff Lynne’s ELO in front of 60,000 people.

Q: What’s your take on the state of rock ‘n’ roll in late 2014?

A: Rock ‘n’ roll is now beyond middle-aged. And there are lots of people who play rock ‘n’ roll that are now beyond middle-aged, i.e., The Rolling Stones or Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll itself as, if you want to call it an art form, to me is more akin to jazz these days. It’s not pop music. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t popular. It’s a form of music that many people enjoy and like and people go to see, but it is not what’s pushing the culture forward. It’s not popular music. [It’s akin] to the way jazz musicians must have felt in the 1950s with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. All of a sudden the big bands were gone and it was all about rock ‘n’ roll. There is always going to be an evolution of rock ‘n’ roll.

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