Interview: Erika Wennerstrom (of Heartless Bastards)

on February 14, 2012, 11:50am

Today, that is Valentine’s Day, Austin-via-Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards release their fourth album, Arrow. Press releases discuss the heavy personal writing process that guitarist/vocalist Erika Wennerstrom undertook, writing tracks on road trips stretching between a lake cabin in the Allegheny Mountains and a ranch in West Texas. Produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno and featuring the first recorded contributions from touring guitarist Mark Nathan, Arrow is like a new page in the Bastards’ book. We had the opportunity to sit down with Wennerstrom to talk about her process, the new album, and more.

After the last tour, you took a series of road trips around the country, which you said ended up being reflected in your songs. You also said your last album, The Mountain (2009), was rooted in the aftermath of a longterm relationship and that your new album, Arrow, is you being comfortable again. I’ve also read that you suffered from writer’s block. Were your trips meant to be a form of therapy?

I get ideas in my head all the time, so I don’t get writer’s block in a sense of musical ideas. My writer’s block comes when I have to sit down and put words to the melodies that are in my head. That’s always been a difficult process for me. I think it’s because I write from a very personal part of myself, and I think it just takes me a while to feel comfortable with putting those thoughts out there for people to hear. So, that’s just a kind of very time-consuming, difficult process for me, and that’s what I get writer’s block with. When I went on that road trip, I already had most of the songs for the album in my head. It was just a matter of, I needed to focus and try to force myself to get those thoughts out of my head.

When you were on the road trip, was that meant more as just a traveling thing, or did you actually play shows while driving around?

No, I didn’t play any shows or gigs. I just wanted to focus on writing new material.

You’ve always seemed to be able to balance the gritty, more rocking guitar with the mellower acoustic numbers. There are a few mellow songs on this album (and I say mellow just for lack of a better word) that still hit you over the head. The first single, “Parted Ways”… my initial impression, for some reason, was that it reminded me a lot of early 70’s Stones. But then while I was walking into the studio tonight, I was humming “Parted Ways” a little bit, and I kept breaking into Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain”.  

You know, the inspiration for that song is actually Thin Lizzy’s cover of the old traditional song “Whiskey in the Jar”. That song used to be on the jukebox when I bartended in Cincinnati all the time, and I always loved it. I never got sick of that song. When the melody for “Parted Ways” came in my head, I knew I wanted to approach the song in that way, because that song is rocking, but it’s got acoustic guitar in it. And that’s kind of almost every song on this album, other than three. So, seven of the songs are on acoustic guitar, but a lot of them are rock and roll songs, though, like, “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” is acoustic, too. And T. Rex does that same thing; they’ll put an acoustic guitar to, like, a rock sound. I like the percussive elements. It’s a different way of approaching songs than I have in the past, something new for me.

Was that a conscious decision to write differently, or is that just how things worked out?

I think it’s sort of just how things work out. Like, I get these melodies in my head, and I don’t even know where the ideas come from. The melodies are there, and I don’t record them. I tell myself if they’re any good, I won’t forget them. And so I just carry these ideas around with me for long periods of time, and then eventually I have to sit down and force myself to work them out and focus. So, a lot of the ideas I had in my head over the three-year period of The Mountain… er, two-year period, I guess, between when The Mountain came out and we recorded. And some of these ideas… like “Marathon” was actually meant to be on the last album, but we ran out of time. “Down in the Canyon” I started writing in 2007, started writing it possibly for All This Time, but I just didn’t feel like it was coming together right. I think sometimes if you’re not feeling quite right about how the idea’s coming together, it’s better to just shelve it for a while and get back to it later and hope that something sort of gels eventually.

With that in mind, the Heartless Bastards have had numerous lineup changes over the years. I was looking at the interaction of all the players, and it was almost like a game of Mastermind where you’re trying to find the perfect combination. The three that you’re playing with now – Dave Colvin, Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan – you’ve all recorded with in the past, yes?

Dave’s from my hometown in Dayton, and then I was living in Cincinnati when I started working on Heartless Bastards, the ideas. And it was a recording project, so Dave recorded on that. And Jesse. And then when I moved to Austin, I happened to run into Dave here. He was going to UT. So, I just kind of happened to run into him, and I needed to find a band, and I asked him if he was interested in playing drums. And then I called up Jesse. He was living in Covington, Kentucky, which is pretty much Cincinnati. I called him up and asked if he’d consider moving down to Austin to join the band. I’ve known Jesse for years and always thought he was a great bass player. He was on the demo as well. I just had a good feeling that he’d be a great fit for the band. But Mark… I recorded The Mountain, and then we did a fall tour before its release–Dave, Jesse, and myself as a three-piece–and we brought Mark on. We met him through a friend, and he did sound for that tour. We got along really well. We had similar tastes in music. We had been hearing that he was a really good guitarist, and when we were looking to add a fourth member for the release of the album at the beginning of 2009, we asked Mark if he was interested, and he said, yeah. We didn’t even try him out. He just joined the band. So, Mark wasn’t on the demo.

You said that you felt a connectivity with these guys that helped make Arrow the strongest record you’ve ever done. Would it be safe to say that after all these years you’ve actually found your four-piece? 

Yeah, I think so. I don’t have intentions of changing musicians all the time. It’s kind of how life happens. When I first started the band, Dave was even in the original live lineup, but he got an opportunity for work or something in San Francisco, and he moved away. And Jesse was busy in another band at the time, so I didn’t ask him. Sometimes you just make things work, and I don’t mean that in any reflection of the previous band on the records. I don’t mean it didn’t work. When Mike Lamping, my ex-boyfriend, and Kevin Vaughan came into the band, we worked together for two albums. But when Mike and I split up, it was really painful. It was really hard to continue working together. So, I moved to Austin, and I just sort of needed to start over. There were session musicians on The Mountain because I hadn’t begun the process of looking for a new band yet. Mike McCarthy, who produced it, suggested that I go ahead and just concentrate on writing the songs and that he had people in mind, and then if it didn’t work out, we could cross that bridge when we came to it. Moving to a new place and everything, I just kind of went with that. But I don’t have any intention of changing band members all the time. Sometimes things come up in people’s lives. Dave just became a father, but he’s making it work with the band. I guess I just mean that people’s lives are some of the other elements that… if anybody ever needs to leave because they need to do something for themselves, then that’s okay, but I have no intentions of looking for any other new members.

I kind of viewed Heartless Bastards as your project, and the artists were chosen to fulfill what vision you had.

Yeah, although now I really feel like with everybody I’m playing with right now, that we all have such diverse tastes, but we have similar tastes. I feel like I could want to go in any direction, and we would be able to do it as a band. When we toured on The Mountain, Jesse was playing banjo; he plays peddle steal. Dave has a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies and can totally play jazz drums, which are very complex. I mean, maybe one of these days I’ll want to do a jazz album or something. I don’t know. But I feel like everybody’s got very diverse styles. If I want to go in a certain direction, I think they’ll be just as into trying something new for themselves as well, so we can kind of go there together.

The Mountain was produced by Mike McCarthy, who’s produced Spoon, and Arrow is produced by Jim Eno, Spoon’s drummer. Is this a result of you moving to Austin, or are you just really big Spoon fans?

Well, I actually moved to Austin because I have family here, and my management at the time was here. When I moved here, I was sort of starting over, and it just seemed like a good place to go. I mean, I’ve always liked the town as well, touring through, but I didn’t really move here for the music scene, although it’s a nice plus. Yeah, I’m definitely a fan of Spoon, but I chose Jim Eno because I think he’s just got a great temperament. I knew we would work together really well. We have mutual friends here in town. At one point, I think, Jim expressed some interest in recording an album, and we really like what he’s done with his own band. He also produced Black Joe Lewis’s album… I’m drawing blanks, but he’s produced several other albums as well. I just heard really good things about how he produces, and it worked out really well. He came to a couple of practices, and he sat, and he listened to the songs and made some suggestions here and there, which we would try out. Some of the things definitely worked out, and we agreed that they were good changes to be made. We really just decided we liked working with him. Jim also has really diverse tastes. A lot of the approach of the album, as far as recording it, he was like, “What are some of your inspirations for these songs? What would you want it to sound like if you recorded it?”

For instance, “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” is T. Rex-inspired, so I was like, “I’d really love to get that T. Rex sound.” That’s one of my favorite bands ever. And then I mentioned “Whiskey in the Jar”, the Thin Lizzy cover, so we took the recording process and kind of went for the sounds. I felt like Jim really helped us figure out how to get the sounds that we wanted. We worked together really well as a team. Like on “The Arrow Killed the Beast”, I was like, “I’m thinking something like Ennio Morricone meets Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, like them singing over an Ennio Morricone song.” Their voices together, they always record them really reverbed out, like it’s in a canyon or something. I’ve been really inspired over the last several years by Ennio Morricone, and that was like, to me, the song was approaching a cross between the two. But I feel like Jim was really good at helping us get those sounds that we’re looking for. It was just a really great process. I enjoyed the whole thing.

I read that you said you were “really, really happy” with this album.

I am. I feel like it’s the closest I’ve gotten to where I was trying to go with ideas. I felt like it was a combination of working with a band. On “Only for You”, I was trying to make myself sound like Curtis Mayfield. I was inspired by… I love the way he sings real close to the mic. But when I was talking to the band about it, they were just as into going in that direction of, like, 70’s soul and R&B. It was something different for them and me. And then Jim has similar tastes and diverse styles of music that he likes. I just felt like the band and Jim, we all just worked together and got to these places. It’s just been a great experience.

heartless bastards Interview: Erika Wennerstrom (of Heartless Bastards)For this album, you’ve changed lineups, changed producers, and you’ve also changed labels. Your first three full-lengths were all released on Fat Possum; The Arrow will be released on Partisan Records. What was behind switching labels?

I just thought at this point that maybe it would be good to try somewhere else. We didn’t have a big falling out or anything, as far as Fat Possum. I certainly wouldn’t say anything negative about them, but Fat Possum’s been the only label I’ve ever been on. But I felt like… one thing about Partisan, they’re sort of a new label, and I feel like they’re still growing and wanting to, in a sense, grow and progress as a label. I feel like with Heartless Bastards and this project, I just feel like there’s room for the band to grow as well, and I feel like with Partisan, we’re kind of… I keep on using that word team, but as far as with Jim and the band, I feel like we’re going to be a good team. We’re working together.

Considering the first single is titled “Parted Ways”, is there anything behind the Valentine’s Day release, or did that just happen to be happenstance?

It’s sort of happenstance. I had planned on naming the album Arrow, and Partisan didn’t even realize it yet, because I just hadn’t told them the title, and then they came up with this idea. They were like, “We thought it’d be really funny to release a Heartless Bastards album on Valentine’s Day.” I agree. I totally concur. I was like, “So you know, I was planning on calling the album Arrow.”

I hope people don’t think I’m naming the album based on a marketing plan, releasing it on Valentine’s Day. It was just a total coincidence, and then somebody from Partisan was like, “Most people don’t ever remember the date an album’s released.” Maybe because it is funny, and Heartless Bastards and Valentine’s Day, maybe people will remember for a while. But I could not tell you the release date of any album I’ve ever purchased in my life, other than, I remember always the release dates of my own albums.

When do you go on tour?

We leave Monday [February 5, 2012], so like, six days from now.

How long is it going to be?

I think it’s right around five weeks. Then we get back to Austin, and it’s South By [South By Southwest]. I almost feel like we’ll get home, but it’s kind of a continuation of the tour there for a little bit.

Well, good luck on the road and with the album. I was listening to it today, and I really, really enjoyed it.  I have to say “Simple Feeling” is one of my favorite tracks. It reminds me a lot of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

Yeah, actually, that’s definitely an inspiration for it, or when we were writing it. I brought the idea in, and that was probably one of the least formed songs that I brought into the band. Dave and Jesse were there that day, and I was like, “I have this idea and this melody and kind of an idea of structure, but…” Yeah, that one just kind of came together. We were at first, “Does that sound too much like that,” and we decided that it was different enough.

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