BLURTING WITH… The Heartless Bastards

Erika Wennerstrom
on the new album, on touring, and on the artists who inspire her – among them,
Thin Lizzy and Curtis Mayfield.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Editor’s
note: we first profiled the Heartless Bastards in the fall of 2009, around the
time the band’s third album
The Mountain was starting to nationally, and during a
period of transition that saw them playing for steadily-increasing crowds. 2 ½
years of solid roadwork later and on the eve of the release of a new album and
an accompanying tour, founder and frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom checked in with
us to tell us what her life’s been like since – and now. That new album,
incidentally, titled
Arrow, found the
BLURT reviewer enthusing
thusly: “
The best part of Arrow is that it aims to please no one while at the same time charming the
pants off of everyone. The band, for its part, seems to have picked up on a few
lessons too: Wennerstrom, lauded for her husky, coffee-rich vocals, digs a
little deeper into her range as her bandmates (bassist Jesse Ebaugh, guitarist
Mark Nathan, and drummer Dave Colvin) channel their vigor to move into more
progressive musical arrangements… It’s a fresh sound and a fortified passion
that once again proves that Wennerstrom and Co. really do have heart.”

 

Some bands need to be listened to repeatedly and ruminated
over before you can truly understand what they’re all about. The Heartless
Bastards are not one of those bands. Within 60 seconds of pressing play on just
about any one of their tracks, Erika Wennerstrom’s booming voice and the band’s
chunky guitar riffs will hit you square in the gut. But for all the power of
their albums, the band’s sound translates best live, which is why they’ve built
up a following the old-fashioned way – through word-of-mouth that comes from
years of hard touring. We talked with Wennerstrom as the band got back on the
road to support its new album, Arrow,
released in February on the Partisan label.

 

***

 

BLURT: You
traveled a lot before recording Arrow.
What did you get out of that?

ERIKA WENNERSTROM: It just helped me create my art. It was
for inspiration. I get melodies in my head all the time and that’s how the
ideas of songs start. But for me to sit down and focus and try to write words
is a really big challenge. It’s a very difficult process for me, and I went on
those trips to try to focus.

        Writing songs
isn’t easy at all. I tend to wear heart on my sleeve, and it can be difficult
to put myself out there and express myself and my emotions for the public’s
ear. [My travels] helped me find direction and what I wanted to say within the
songs and get to a point where I was comfortable saying it.

 

Your
previous album, The Mountain, was
inspired by the end of a long relationship. What inspired Arrow?

A lot of Arrow is
about getting back in touch with myself after a relationship. I wrote it over a
three-year period where I found a lot of comfort in being on my own and grew
comfortable with that. I think I’m in a good place now.

 

How has
the band changed since The Mountain?
What impact did all the touring have on you?

I feel like this is the strongest work I’ve written. I’m
very proud of it. The band toured a ton on The
Mountain
and I think we became a very tight unit. The more any band plays
together, the more things happen naturally. I still get nervous going up on
stage, but the more we go out and play in front of audiences, the more I feel
comfortable with what I’m doing.

 

Is that
why you recorded most of Arrow live
in the studio?

[Producer] Jim Eno recommended – and I really liked – the
idea of going on tour before we recorded the album. That way the songs have
been played so much, it just feels natural. It can be easy to second guess
yourself when you’re playing new material and he wanted it to be like a reflex.

        I feel like it
really helped capture the live sound of the band
more than any of our albums. We did a tour with Drive-By Truckers in February
and March of last year, then went into the studio two days after we got back.
Because of how it came together, this is the closest record to what our live
sound is.

 

What
was the recording process like?

 It’s a challenge to
learn how to make albums and get them to sound like you wanted them to when you
started. They change direction and some songs end up being different than what
you imagined. Growing with the band and getting to know each other through
touring, they understood where I was trying to go. We also have similar
influences. If I was inspired by a particular artist and wanted to take a song
in that direction, everyone got it.

 

What
are some examples of that?

The song “Got to Have Rock and Roll” was inspired by T. Rex.
They generally have a really tight drum sound, so we put drums in the vocal
booth to get that sound. “Down in the Canyon” is the opposite. It was recorded
in a big room, so you have this really open, roomy sound for the drums.

 

What
other bands influenced the album?

When I used to bartend in Cincinnati,
Thin Lizzy’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar” used to come on the jukebox all the
time and I never got tired of it. I don’t know consciously how it happened, but
when the melody for “Parted Ways” came into my head, something made me think of
that song and I wanted to take in that direction. I love how they and T-Rex
have a lot of acoustic guitar, but play it in a way that’s really rocking.

        On “Only for
You,” our big inspiration was Curtis Mayfield. I love the way he sings, that
falsetto style. That was me trying to imagine myself sounding like Curtis
Mayfield. And Ennio Morricone was an influence for “The Arrow Killed the
Beast.”

 

The
first thing everyone talks about when they hear the Heartless Bastards is your
voice. Are there other singers besides Mayfield that inspired you?

I like so many different artists that in the process of me
wanting to sound like 30 or 40 different people, I found my own voice. I want
to imagine myself singing like Curtis Mayfield, but I know I won’t sound like
him no matter how hard I try.

 

The
Heartless Bastards are currently on a North American tour through April 20;
following a short break, they’ll resume on May 11 and run through the end of
the month. Go to their official website for a full itinerary.

 

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