There’s not really anything heartless about the Heartless Bastards.
A cursory listen to Erika Wennerstrom’s plaintive voice, paired with the rest of the band’s rugged, basement-bred rock, yields expansive levels of emotion. This is a group that cares deeply about what it's doing.
Formed in 2003 in Cincinnati, Heartless Bastards (a moniker derived from a pub trivia game answer choice to the question what is the name of Tom Petty’s backing band) is the culmination of a dream Wennerstrom had ever since she picked up a guitar as a young girl in Dayton. Drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebagh, both of whom played on Heartless Bastard’s demo, returned to play the band’s third album, The Mountain, on tour. They’re permanently in the lineup, along with newer guitarist Mark Nathan, for the just-released (and varietal-sounding) Arrow.
Now based out of Austin, Tex., Heartless Bastards’ nomadic tendencies bring them to Indianapolis for a Feb. 18 performance at Radio Radio. NUVO caught up with Wennerstrom before the show.
NUVO: How long have you played music?
Erika Wennerstrom: I’ve wanted to be a singer since I was old enough to think about doing anything. I didn’t really start getting the courage to do it until I was around 18 though. That’s when I picked up guitar as well. I’m 34 now, so I’ve been playing for 16 years.
NUVO: How much has Cincinnati and the Midwest inspired your songwriting?
Wennerstrom: A whole heck of a lot. I feel to this day most of my biggest inspirations I’ve been listening to for decades (come from there). I think my musical roots and tastes were formed a long time before I moved to Texas. Having hometown artists like Guided By Voices and The Breeders was very inspiring and it really gave me the feeling you didn’t need to live in a city like Los Angeles, New York City or Austin to have a career in music.Â I definitely find living in Austin to be inspiring in a different kind of way, and really love living there.
NUVO: How much did Dave Colvin and Jesse Ebagh help to make Arrow what you consider to be Heartless Bastards' best album yetWennerstrom: I’ve been touring with the same band now for over three years, and I feel we’re a tight unit. We all have similar musical tastes, which are very broad, so it makes it very easy to communicate where I’m trying to go with a song. We did a month-long tour before we went in the studio to record the album, and I really think that helped capture our live sound. I don’t think you can get that kind of sound with session musicians. Or, at least, it would be pretty unlikely. I think the whole band has great musicianship. There’s a whole lot of camaraderie there. I personally feel [and] hope that people can sense that on the record.
NUVO: Why did they return to the lineup?
Wennerstrom: Well, I moved to Austin after splitting from a nine-year relationship with Mike Lamping, who was in Heartless Bastards since 2004. I thought moving to Austin would make it easier to adjust after the breakup. I happened to run into Dave Colvin there. He was going to the University of Texas at the time. I asked him if he’d be interested in rejoining the band. He was in the original lineup, but moved away shortly after we started playing live. He was just finishing up school, and said he’d be down for rejoining.
Then, when I was trying to think of someone to play bass, I instantly thought of Jesse Ebaugh. The Heartless Bastards used to play shows with another band Jesse was in called Pearlene. I always thought he was a phenomenal bass player. He told me I couldn’t have caught him at a better time, and he moved to Austin. He was on the original demo I had done with Dave as well, but Jesse wasn’t ever in the live lineup until the Austin move.
NUVO: How important is it to your creative process to hone new songs on tour before recording them?Wennerstrom: I think it really helped us capture the band’s live sound on this album. I would certainly like to continue to try to do that whenever it’s possible in the future.Â
NUVO: Do you like working in the studio, or is it difficult in comparison to performing live?
Wennerstrom: I really enjoy both. They both present different challenges, but they are also both equally rewarding in different ways.
NUVO: Have you found yourself adding more influences and musical styles to your sound over time?
Wennerstrom:Yes, definitely. I think a lot of the different sound and musical styles I’ve explored over time are generally old influences. I’ve began feeling more comfortable experimenting with them. I think it helps that the band and myself have a lot of the same diverse musical tastes, so when I’m wanting to go in a different direction the band enjoys trying out different styles. An example is “Only for You,” (on Arrow), on which I was going for a ’70s soul R&B vibe.
I was inspired by Curtis Mayfield’s vocal style for that song. “Down in the Canyon” was influenced by Black Sabbath and Neil Young. “The Arrow Killed the Beast” influences were a combination of Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. I think working with this band has allowed me to explore those influences because they are just as enthusiastic as I am about trying those different directions.Â
NUVO: Are you heartened to see bands like The Black Keys playing arenas?
Wennerstrom: I think the state of rock music today is in a very good place. Bands like The Black Keys (Editor's Note: Whose drummer, Patrick Carney, helped Heartless Bastards get signed to Fat Possum Records) are winning Grammys. It’s great to see them do so well. There are a lot of upcoming releases I’m really looking forward to. Especially Spiritualized’s new album a couple months from now.