Not Such Heartless Bastards
Erika Wennerstrom Talks Musical Pasts, Bright Futures
Last month, Heartless Bastards celebrated the one-year anniversary of Arrow, the band’s latest and arguably most heartfelt record to date. But the Ohio-cum-Austin garage rockers have plenty more to celebrate. Since the Bastards’ inception, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom has been, more or less, the only stable member. But now, alongside Dave Colvin, Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan, Wennerstrom seems to have finally found a lineup worth holding on to.
Despite nearly four years together, Arrow marks the first album on which Colvin, Ebaugh, Nathan, and Wennerstrom all play. Produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, Arrow finds the Bastards more adventurous than ever, exploring everything from blazing rock riffs (“Got to Have Rock and Roll”) to ’60s-inspired country twang (“The Arrow Killed the Thief”) to good old American blues (“Low Low Low”). This Friday, the band brings Arrow to SOhO Restaurant & Music Club as part of a short West Coast tour. I checked in with Wennerstrom to discuss her Ohio roots, her not-so-new bandmates, and the record that helped unify Heartless Bastards, once and for all.
I’ve read a lot about how you’ve known you wanted to sing since you were quite young. What were some of the formative albums you remember growing up? It was right around my freshman year when I heard the Pixies for the first time, and they’ve consistently been a band that I love. The Breeders were from actually my hometown, and that year they just exploded — I think they had a No. 1 hit. I was into Nirvana, like most people, and I got really into punk rock when I was old enough to drive. A friend of mine knew about all-ages shows, so I started going to see live music and got really into punk rock and bands like the Stooges. Dayton [Ohio] had a really strong scene when I was that age, especially for a town that size. Guided by Voices had released Bee Thousand; Brainiac was getting really big, and a couple of years later they toured Europe with Beck. There was a lot of really great live music.
Were your parents very musical growing up? Not really. I mean, I learned that my dad played guitar in college, but my mom’s always been a huge fan of music. I know my dad is really proud of me and appreciates what I do, but he’s never been a big music listener — I couldn’t tell you one album that he owns. But my mom’s always loved jazz and Otis Redding and old soul and R&B. She really likes to go out and see live music, so when my brother and I were younger, we’d go see her friends play jazz in restaurants and have dinner — not that I appreciated jazz music when I was 6 years old. We also had a lot of family friends who were musicians, so when my parents had parties, people would bring their instruments and play in the living room. I think that was kind of inspiring.
How would you compare Arrow to past Heartless Bastards records? Each record is such a different experience. On the Mountain [from 2010] was the first time I ever worked with a producer. I had just moved from Ohio [to Austin] and had split up with one of my bandmembers, so I was kind of starting over. For On the Mountain, we used session musicians. But after the record came out, I had to put a band together, and I’ve been playing with them for the last four years now. After being on the road for a couple of years, it was really great for everybody to finally work together and go in the studio and record an album.
How was Jim Eno as a producer? Really good. We invited him to a practice, and he came and he sat and he listened and made suggestions. We just really liked working with him right off the bat. He asks you what your influences for your approach to recording or for the song itself [are]. He really wants to find the vision that the band’s going for — he doesn’t take it and make it his own. We worked together, and I think we made a really great team.
Has your writing process changed now that you have a permanent band? When I start the songs, I’m working by myself — that’s kind of always been the way I like to work, at least for the initial idea, but then I bring it in to the band. I feel like everyone has really good instincts. I’ll express some influences and tell them the vibe of what I’m going for, and we all work together, and it becomes a collaboration. But I like to start on my own and get a feel for how a song is forming. I feel like if I bring a song in early, it can go in all different directions, so I like to try and figure stuff out before. I have these ideas, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to get it out.
It’s been a year since Arrow’s release. Have the songs changed a lot on the road? Definitely! We did a little bit of touring before we went in to record Arrow because we wanted to give the record this live sound, but now we’ve been playing these songs for — we’ve done a lot of touring in the past year. [Laughs.] You play those songs every night, and they’re only going to get better. A lot of the changes we’ve made are subtle, but they’re there. Things will morph a bit, like, Dave will do a different fill, and we’ll all sort of play to that and complement it. I’ll even change phrasing on vocals and things. Over time that stuff just kind of happens; I don’t even think about it.
Heartless Bastards play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Friday, March 29, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.