The Heartless Bastards are a four-piece rock band originally from Dayton, Ohio. The band's sole constant member is vocalist and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. Raised in Dayton, Wennerstrom moved to Cincinnati after high school where The Heartless Bastards first took shape. While doing a short tour of the midwest, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney saw them at a show, and passed their demo on to Black Keys label Fat Possum, who signed the band. Led by Wennerstrom, the group makes a rootsy mix of country and rock. The band has released four albums to date, 2005's Stairs and Elevators, 2006's All This Time, 2009's The Mountain, and Arrow, released February 14th, 2012 on Partisan records. The Heartless Bastards are currently touring North America in support of Arrow.
Austin-based Heartless Bastards, who release their fourth album today, have been around for nearly a decade, and they sound vital as ever. Their new album, titled Arrow, is packed full of growling, distorted guitars, thunderous drums, and lead singer Erika Wennerstrom's vocals towering over it all. Call them indie rock, alt-country, whatever, this is the sound of people who could not possibly be doing anything but making music, which may just be the essence or rock and roll. We spoke with Wennerstrom while she was at home in Austin, preparing to head out on their current national tour, which began a week ago. Personable and laid-back, Wennerstrom discussed her struggle to write great songs, the bands excitement to play live, and how their discovery by the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney almost didn't happen.
Band of the Day: Question: Your new album Arrow comes out February 14th, I assume you guys are pretty excited for the new album to come out?
Erika: Definitely, yeah!
Band of the Day: Have you been working on it since 2009 when the last album came out?
Erika: Well, I've got music in my head a lot. So my ideas always start with a melody and maybe I'm driving somewhere, or maybe the band's flying somewhere, and I'm just looking out the window of an airplane. I get a lot of ideas when I'm in motion. But I mean, they just kind of appear in my head and I store them in memory, it's really hard to write songs on the road, trying to focus and figure out how to arrange them. But a lot of the ideas were forming in my head during touring for the Mountain, but as far as trying to sit down and focus, and hash out the ideas further, I waited until I was done touring the Mountain for the most part.
Band of the Day: When you say they come in your head and you remember them, do you remember the best ones then some fade away, or 10 songs come into your mind and they all made it onto the album?
Erika: There's more songs than that, it's a matter of what I end up deciding to focus on. And it's over a period of time. I just kind of save the ideas, and some of these ideas that appear on Arrow actually have been in my head since even before I recorded the Mountain. A creative idea almost tells me when it's ready to be formed. Maybe I tried working on the song five years ago and it didn't seem to work out right, but I really liked the idea and believed in it. So, I have some other songs and ideas that I still like to work on that I've had for seven years or longer. I think something in me figures out at what point in my life it makes sense for it to be worked on. Or I just had the chorus in my head before and hadn't had an idea for the verse, and all of a sudden the verse appears to me, so I have a chorus from seven years ago, and a verse from 2010.
Band of the Day: So you don't record demos and then come back to it?
Erika: Yeah, for the most part. I did finally start using the voice recorder on the iPhone and I record ideas sometimes, but I find that I usually remember them, and I told myself that if I feel like an idea is solid to me that I won't forget it. But I do record ideas sometimes and I find I don't go back and listen to my recordings very often!
Band of the Day: Has moving to Austin had much of an influence on your music?
Erika: Well, there's definitely a lot of music going on here, I mean I'm sure that parts of living in Austin have effected me and the music. But I feel like the songs I produce are a product of the environment, a lot of the biggest inspirations for me are things that I've loved for decades. It's inspiring to be around lots of bands that are playing, there's always live music going on here. Sometimes just seeing a really great live band can inspire me to go home and work on my own stuff more, even if I'm not trying to sound like them specifically. Like an art rock or noise rock band, I can find things very inspiring even if I'm not trying to mimic it. I find it inspiring that they're going out there and trying to do what they do.
For the album I honestly feel like a lot of my inspirations came from traveling. I took some road trips surrounding writing the album. A lot of that was getting on the open road. I went to a friend's ranch in West Texas and stayed out there a couple weeks. I took a month long trip towards the East coast and stopped and stayed with friends, stayed in cabins in the mountains.
Band of the Day: Sounds like a pretty alright life.
Erika: Well, you know in a sense that might sound like a big vacation, but it was really to force myself to sit and focus, and that really is a big challenge to me. I definitely found some adventure in that, but I don't know, for me it was a very difficult process. So even though I was traveling and circling around the country it was, ok can I do this? I love music and write songs as a career, can I sit down and focus and actually have a career? I don't think of it like a vacation.
Band of the Day: For you is writing something where if you sit down and spend time writing something you like will come up? Or do you need to wait for your muse to strike?
Erika: The latter of what you said. It's a giant challenge for me to focus and find direction and what I'm doing. It's a very difficult process that takes a lot of time for me. The melodies will pop in my head all the time, but to try to finish those ideas and fully form them...I'll work on those for a month and come up with two lines.
Band of the Day: Do you come up with 20 lines you don't like and whittle it down to two. Or just two at all?
Erika: I'll write lots of things and keep on throwing it away.
Band of the Day: One theme that comes up in the album is new beginnings. Do you have any goals for 2012? Any big changes you'd like to make?
Erika: We've been touring a lot over the last couple years and we're excited to get back on the road. I love playing live, the whole band does. We're really proud of the album so we're looking forward to pushing the album and getting out there on the road and having people hear the music.
Band of the Day: You'd mentioned that the same bands have inspired for you a while. Was there one band growing up that made you think, wow, I want to do this?
Erika: I wanted to sing since I was old enough to think about doing anything, like three years old. As far as being inspired to want to do what I do my musical tastes have definitely changed but I've always wanted to do this. When I was a kid I'd listen to pop music, there was lots of old soul, R&B type things. Music my mom listened to like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Ray Charles. Things like that, but I love pop music too. As I got older my tastes morphed and I mean there was probably a point as a young adult where I got into things that are still very much present in my life, T. Rex, Thin LIzzy, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. I've always loved Spiritualized, Spaceman 3, I very much loved all the R&B and soul from my childhood. I have a soft spot for Hall & Oates.
Band of the Day: Weren't there a lot of bands around Ohio that you liked?
Erika: Yeah, Guided by Voices. When I was about 15 somebody turned me on to Bee Thousand, then Alien Lanes came out around then and I became a really huge Guided By Voices fan. The Breeders came out when I was in high school, when I was 17 or 18 and old enough to get into shows and see live bands. And the Afghan Whigs were from a city not too far away. There was a whole bunch of stuff going on around then.
Band of the Day: The Black Keys, another Ohio band, helped you out early in your career, right?
Erika: Yeah, we did a show with the Black Keys in the Cincinnati area, at a club just over the river in Kentucky. We opened for them there and then we ended up playing Akron, their home town maybe a month or two later and Patrick showed up. I don't know if he remembered or just randomly came, but part way through but I remember playing the set and thinking oh is that Patrick the drummer from the Black Keys?
When we showed up at that club there were five people there, and the owner came up to us and said you know, you guys don't really even have to play. I'll pay you. And we were like, well we'd actually kind of like to play. I mean we're here, if it's ok with you we'd like to play. Then halfway through the set Patrick came in. We ended up saying hey and having some beers. On this CV I had my email and a phone number, but I had moved so it was a different phone number. And Fat Possum [The Black Keys' label] had been trying to call and email, but it always went to the junk mail. That was back when I was new to email, I'd only been emailing for a couple of years and I guess I thought the computer would automatically know what was junk so I never really checked the junk folder. It was a band email and my boyfriend at the time was in the band, and happened to check it. I got home from my bar-tending shift that night and there was a note on the table that said why didn't you tell me Fat Possum had been emailing? And I had no idea. So we almost maybe didn't play in Akron, and we almost missed the emails from Fat Possum.
Band of the Day: Your album comes out Feb 14th and we're featuring it on that day, Valentine's Day. How would you change Valentine's Day if you had that power?
Erika: I've never been a big fan of Valentine's Day personally. It can be really nice if you have a significant other…maybe because I haven't for quite a bit, I haven't been that big of a fan of it. But all the purple stuffed teddy bears that are probably going to get thrown out in six months…it's a pretty commercial holiday, but the idea of it is nice. So maybe I'd just reach out to family and say happy Valentine's Day. I don't know what would be possible to improve it. I don't know if there's much hope there.
Band of the Day: Have you ever had a cool Valentine's Day experience?
Erika: I personally think that in relationships the best part is the laugh, so I would usually try to give really funny gifts. One year I gave my significant other Billy Bob teeth. I probably shouldn't admit that! I buy silly gifts that have nothing to do with Valentine's Day, something funny. I think there's nothing better in life than to laugh and finding something that seems silly or something is a good idea to me.