Erika Wennerstrom: A Glorious Bastard

Posted August 6, 2012 in
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Heartless Bastard's latest album, Arrow.

Aside from having one of the best band names in the business, The Heartless Bastards are fronted by Erika Wennerstrom, a singer/songwriter who digs into deeply emotional territory and belts it out with a wail that’s somewhere between Janis Joplin and Marianne Faithfull. On Arrow, the band’s fourth studio album, the Bastards offer an acoustically driven tour of the American West, circa 1970.For a quick taste, I dare you to check out this music video and not have your socks charmed off. Before their current tour, the band has enjoyed a spot on The Late Show With David Letterman and has participated in several national music festivals. They’ve been touring since late July, and on Aug. 10, they will be bringing their unique and countrified rock music to Salt Lake City. Wennerstrom was kind enough to chat with SLUG about road trips, Ennio Morricone and life on the festival circuit.

SLUG: Lately, The Heartless Bastards have made some big changes. You’ve brought Jim Eno onboard as producer, switched from Fat Possum to Partisan Records, and the band’s lineup has changed (Dave Colvin is back on drums and Jesse Ebaugh is the bassist). What was the motivation behind these changes?
Wennerstrom: It’s pretty common to switch producers. We all like Jim, and it seemed to be good timing for him and us. Part of growing as a band is to try new things. As far as the label, I just do what I think is going to be best for the band at the time. There hasn’t been a falling out with Fat Possum or anything like that, it’s just best for us right now.

SLUG: How has the new lineup influenced the tone of Arrow?
Wennerstrom: Each person has a unique sound of their own. We have a very good chemistry together and they all have great musical intuition. It wouldn’t be the same record without them, but I write the songs before I bring them in, so it didn’t change the direction of the songwriting.

SLUG: Arrow is a heavily acoustic album yet it still rocks pretty hard. How did you pull it together?
Wennerstrom: It was the result of different influences that I had while writing the album. The song “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” was influenced by T. Rex—they had that driving rock sound, but it was done with an acoustic guitar. Another influence was Thin Lizzy’s cover of the Irish traditional “Whiskey in the Jar,” which does the same thing. I started playing acoustic guitar at some of our practices, and these influences started to open up. We eventually tried all of our songs with acoustic guitar. It worked out really well because Mark plays electric and I’m playing acoustic, which really opens up the space in the songs. Each guitar has extra room to breathe. Jim did an amazing job producing this record. He just helped us try to get where we wanted to go. He didn’t try to change the direction or anything like that. He had seen us a few times live, and he wanted to capture how we sounded live on this album.

SLUG: I read that you were also influenced by the film composer Ennio Morricone. What about his style did you incorporate into this album?
Wennerstrom: I was always a huge fan of Spaghetti Western music that I would hear in Clint Eastwood movies as a kid. I took a few trips out to West Texas, and I was very inspired by the desert landscape of that area. “The Arrow Killed the Beast” was the song that was mainly inspired by Morricone. I guess the idea just appeared in my head, and we all liked the idea of approaching the song like a Western movie.

SLUG: How do you feel like your music has evolved over the course of four albums?
Wennerstrom: I feel like with each album, there are always things I’d like to have done differently. With Arrow, I think I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t, at least according to my personal taste. This is the first album that makes me proud every time I hear it. I felt like the process of making it was smooth and it was a really positive experience. We’re all very proud of it, and I don’t think we would have done anything differently. So, it took me four albums to feel that way (laughs), and I hope I continue to feel that with future albums.

SLUG: Arrow conjures up some vivid images of traveling along the open road. Were there any specific destinations that inspired you?
Wennerstrom: West Texas, definitely. Also, I took a trip up to the Catskills in New York, which was where I started my road trip. I went to All Tomorrow’s Party’s to try and get over my writer’s block. I stayed up there for several days. I just wandered around, really! I was mainly on the trip to isolate myself. When I have writer’s block, I tend to find any excuse to avoid sitting down and writing. Sometimes the only answer is to isolate myself. Some people think it sounds fun, and in some ways it is, but it’s not easy to go into isolation for a month in order to focus and find the right words to express myself. I found it much more challenging than fun!

SLUG: You’ve got a unique and powerful voice, and I know touring can really put a strain on vocalists. How do you take care of your voice between shows?
Wennerstrom: I used to have a lot of trouble losing my voice. On our first album, I wasn’t thinking about performing the songs every night, which caused me a lot of trouble. Ever since then, I make sure the songs on each album aren’t going to strain my voice when we perform. Drinking lots of water helps, as does not getting too drunk.

SLUG: I heard that you were working on composing a film soundtrack. What’s that process like?
Wennerstrom: The soundtrack is just about finished. We’re really proud of the material, and it was a great experience. We went to the same ranch where we worked on Arrow and recorded it in an old bunkhouse. I contacted Chris Funk, the guitarist for The Decemberists, to see if he would be interested in producing it. He’s very talented and has done some production work with Langhorne Slim and Red Fang, so I thought it would be a good fit to work with Chris. It was an interesting process as far as writing the songs. Usually, filmmakers want the songs to be edited to fit the film, but in this case they wanted to edit the film to the songs that we wrote. They hadn’t even filmed the movie when I wrote the material for the soundtrack. I was a little bit worried because I didn’t want to put in all the work and have the music not fit. But they’re really happy with it, and I really liked the material. I told myself that even if it didn’t fit in with the film, we’d release it on an EP or a future album. It sounds a lot different than what people are used to with us.

SLUG: I listened to Sweet Tea, the project that you composed with Alex Maas from The Black Angels, and it was awesome. Was that for fun or is it a legitimate side project?
Wennerstrom: It’s sort of both. Alex had asked me if I was interested in doing a duet, which I thought would be a lot of fun. We actually just recorded another song that got wrapped up last week. It’s a cover of the song “After Laughter Comes Tears” and it’s going to be on a compilation for Light in the Attic Records. We’d like to do more songs together, but we’re also busy with our own bands. It seems like our record cycles are always different too. At this point, we’ve never really had the time to do a full set of songs, but maybe we’ll just do a song here and there and eventually have enough for a tour or an album.

SLUG: In addition to touring on your own, The Heartless Bastards are often found on the festival circuit. What are some of you favorite festivals to play?
Wennerstrom: We’re playing a festival called Pickathon just outside Portland, Oreg. It’s a very small, intimate festival—I think they cap it at 5,000 people. A lot of the artists camp or we’re all at the same hotel. Most artists play two sets, so if you miss one while you’re playing, you can catch it again. It’s very intimate for the audience, and it’s a great setting to get to know other musicians and do collaborations. This year, the festival has Neko Case, Dr. Dog, A. A. Bondy, Blitzen Trapper—and a bunch of others.

SLUG: The Salt Lake show marks the last leg of this tour. What’s on the horizon for The Heartless Bastards?
Wennerstrom: Once we get home, we’ve got about 10 days off. Then we head to Bumbershoot in Seattle. Then we get back to Austin where we’re starting another tour.

The Heartless Bastards and Little Hurricane will be playing at The Urban Lounge on Friday, Aug. 10.Tickets are available at 24tix.com or at any Graywhale CD Exchange.

Photos:
Heartless Bastard's latest album, Arrow. Heartless Bastards. Photo: Nathan Presley