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 writers block. Were your trips meant to be a form of therapy?
I get ideas in my head all the time, so I dont get writers block in a sense of musical ideas. My writers block comes when I have to sit down and put words to the melodies that are in my head. Thats always been a difficult process for me. I think its 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, thats just a kind of very time-consuming, difficult process for me, and thats what I get writers 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 didnt play any shows or gigs. I just wanted to focus on writing new material.
Youve 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 Distortions Ball and Chain.
You know, the inspiration for that song is actually Thin Lizzys 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 its got acoustic guitar in it. And thats 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; theyll put an acoustic guitar to, like, a rock sound. I like the percussive elements. Its 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 its sort of just how things work out. Like, I get these melodies in my head, and I dont even know where the ideas come from. The melodies are there, and I dont record them. I tell myself if theyre any good, I wont 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 didnt feel like it was coming together right. I think sometimes if youre not feeling quite right about how the ideas coming together, its 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 youre trying to find the perfect combination. The three that youre playing with now – Dave Colvin, Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan youve all recorded with in the past, yes?
Daves 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 hed consider moving down to Austin to join the band. Ive 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 hed be a great fit for the band. But Mark… I recorded The Mountain, and then we did a fall tour before its releaseDave, Jesse, and myself as a three-pieceand 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 didnt even try him out. He just joined the band. So, Mark wasnt on the demo.
You said that you felt a connectivity with these guys that helped make Arrow the strongest record youve ever done. Would it be safe to say that after all these years youve actually found your four-piece?
Yeah, I think so. I dont have intentions of changing musicians all the time. Its 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 didnt ask him. Sometimes you just make things work, and I dont mean that in any reflection of the previous band on the records. I dont mean it didnt 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 dont have any intention of changing band members all the time. Sometimes things come up in peoples lives. Dave just became a father, but hes making it work with the band. I guess I just mean that peoples lives are some of the other elements that if anybody ever needs to leave because they need to do something for themselves, then thats 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 Im 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 Masters degree in Jazz Studies and can totally play jazz drums, which are very complex. I mean, maybe one of these days Ill want to do a jazz album or something. I dont know. But I feel like everybodys got very diverse styles. If I want to go in a certain direction, I think theyll 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, whos produced Spoon, and Arrow is produced by Jim Eno, Spoons 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, Ive always liked the town as well, touring through, but I didnt really move here for the music scene, although its a nice plus. Yeah, Im definitely a fan of Spoon, but I chose Jim Eno because I think hes 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 hes done with his own band. He also produced Black Joe Lewiss album Im drawing blanks, but hes 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, “Id really love to get that T. Rex sound.” Thats 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, Im 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 its in a canyon or something. Ive 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 were 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 its the closest Ive 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. Its just been a great experience.
For this album, youve changed lineups, changed producers, and youve 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 didnt have a big falling out or anything, as far as Fat Possum. I certainly wouldnt say anything negative about them, but Fat Possums been the only label Ive ever been on. But I felt like one thing about Partisan, theyre sort of a new label, and I feel like theyre 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 theres room for the band to grow as well, and I feel like with Partisan, were kind of… I keep on using that word team, but as far as with Jim and the band, I feel like were going to be a good team. Were working together.
Considering the first single is titled Parted Ways, is there anything behind the Valentines Day release, or did that just happen to be happenstance?
Its sort of happenstance. I had planned on naming the album Arrow, and Partisan didnt even realize it yet, because I just hadnt told them the title, and then they came up with this idea. They were like, We thought itd be really funny to release a Heartless Bastards album on Valentines Day.” I agree. I totally concur. I was like, So you know, I was planning on calling the album Arrow.”
I hope people dont think Im naming the album based on a marketing plan, releasing it on Valentines Day. It was just a total coincidence, and then somebody from Partisan was like, “Most people dont ever remember the date an albums released.” Maybe because it is funny, and Heartless Bastards and Valentines Day, maybe people will remember for a while. But I could not tell you the release date of any album Ive 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 its right around five weeks. Then we get back to Austin, and its South By [South By Southwest]. I almost feel like well get home, but its 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, thats 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.