CLIMBING THE MOUNTAIN Heartless Bastards

Erika Wennerstrom has gone through hell,
but don’t try to pin the Tortured Artist Effect on her.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“I think there’s
like 15 Mexican restaurants within three blocks of where I live, and I’ve
probably tried half of ‘em.”

 

Erika
Wennerstrom giggles diminutively at her newfound chile relleno addiction, the Dayton, Ohio native downright giddy
about the epicurean delights and fresh start she’s found in her new adopted
home, Austin, Texas.

 

Life hasn’t always
been so sunny for the 31-year-old frontwoman for Fat Possum Records rock trio
Heartless Bastards. Just over a year ago, Wennerstrom packed her bags and left
behind friends and family in Ohio
after the dissolution of a 10-year relationship that left her heartbroken and
listless. The break-up didn’t just result in the loss of a boyfriend, but also
her bandmates: bassist Mike Lamping left shortly after his falling out with
Wennerstrom and took with him drummer Kevin Vaughn, both of whom had played in
the Bastards since their stellar, under-the-radar 2005 debut Stairs and Elevators.

 

“We had a lot of
the same friends and with a relationship that long, I felt like it’d be a lot
harder to be in the same city,” Wennerstrom says of Lamping. “My manager is
here in Austin,
and I have some family down here as well. There’s a lot of music going on, and
the weather’s real nice. I’d met a lot of cool people coming through here on
tour over the years, so it seemed like if I was going to go anywhere, it made
the most sense to come here.”

 

 

 

I Could Be So Happy, If I Just Quit Being
Sad

 

“I came down
here to Austin to get my master’s degree in music and was at a Dr. Dog show one
night standing up near the front when Erika came nudging up through the crowd
and stood next to me,” recalls new Heartless Bastards drummer Dave Colvin, with
a laugh. “I hadn’t seen her in years, but that’s how we reconnected.”

 

Colvin and Wennerstrom’s
friendship dates back almost a decade when the duo served as the rhythm section
for Shesus, a mostly female punk rock band (“I was the only dude,” he quips)
that played the Cincinnati
club scene in the late ‘90s. While she was not the primary songwriter in the
band, Colvin says Wennerstrom was “unique in the sense that she wrote great
songs and also had the perfect voice to deliver them. She’s been able to do
that since the first day I met her.” After the dissolution of Shesus,
Wennerstrom enlisted Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh of Cincy blues rockers
Pearlene to record a handful of her songs over a Christmas holiday.

 

“At the time, it
was just a recording project for me and not really a band,” Wennerstrom says.
“I figured once I recorded the demos, I could pass them around and put a band
together.”

 

The band she
assembled – then-boyfriend Lamping and Vaughn – drew their moniker from one of
the wrong answers to a quiz question on a bar-top music trivia video game
(Question: What’s the name of Tom Petty’s backing band?). The trio gigged
steadily throughout Ohio, but didn’t catch
their break until after a sparsely attended show at the Lime Spider in Akron, when the demos made
their way into the hands of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney.

 

“I listened to
it in my car the next day, and it blew me away,” Carney says. “It was obvious
that she had a real good sense of melody, and I really liked the way she played
the guitar. It’s not very technical at all, but it’s really, really powerful.
You don’t hear that many women playing Les Pauls through blown-out Vox
amplifiers. That struck me as being pretty awesome.”

 

Carney passed
the tape to Fat Possum label chief Matthew Johnson, who quickly saw the group’s
potential and met them in New York
for an audition. Within a week, the band was signed and Wennerstrom was in the
studio recording her first full-length as a bandleader.

 

“I just thought
that thing was gonna bomb,” she says with a laugh. “I’m honestly still
surprised at the response we got from it. We didn’t really have a lot of time
to experiment or try different sounds. We were all convinced that it was horrible
and the band would be over before it even really began.”

 

Stairs and Elevators was released in February 2005, and
critics praised the Bastards’ raw, stripped-down garage rock and Wennerstrom’s
otherworldly, androgynous voice. A cross-country tour supporting the Drive-By
Truckers followed that spring. A year later, the band released All This Time, the sophomore effort
garnering more accolades and winning the band a spot at the Austin City Limits
Music Festival. But by the time the band returned to the festival the following
year, Wennerstrom’s relationship with Lamping was fracturing and the band was
on the outs.

 

 

 

I Could Be So Funny, If I Just Quit Being
A Drag

 

“I was dating
this girl for a short time and as these things happen, she happened to be a big
fan of Heartless Bastards,” producer Mike McCarthy says rather sheepishly, on a
break between sessions at his studio in Austin.
“She told me I needed to record them, but I’d never heard of them before. I
listened to the first two records and was just blown away. I just remember
thinking, ‘Man, this girl can sing.'”

 

A Cincinnati native himself, McCarthy reached out to Wennerstrom
and invited her down to Austin
for a meeting. Having produced the band’s first two albums herself, Wennerstrom
was naturally a little apprehensive at the prospect of bringing a total
stranger into the studio.

 

“Some producers
jump from job to job, and maybe they’re amazing at what they do, but in the end
it’s just another job to them. With Mike, he’d heard of us and wanted to work
with us,” she explains. “The more I talked with him, it seemed like he believed
in what I was doing. It’s important to me to work with people who care as much
about something as I do.”

 

With her
personal life in upheaval and no band to speak of, Wennerstrom decamped to Austin and found an
apartment on the east side of town. Though she had a handful of songs written
while Lamping and Vaughn were in the band, she bagged them and hunkered down to
write what would become The Mountain.

 

“There were days
at a time when I couldn’t come up with anything,” she recalls. “I don’t know if
I was still getting over the break-up of my relationship or if I had writer’s
block. The melodies would sometimes just pop right out, and I’d arrange the
whole thing, but figuring out what I wanted to say took a long time. Even if I
knew what I wanted it to be about, just putting it into words was difficult for
me.”

 

The words on the
11 tracks that make up The Mountain sound at times like the inner monologues of a lonely soul. Some songs (“Had to
Go”, “Wide Awake”) come off as dark confessionals; others, like frantic cries
for help (“Out at Sea”). But a few (“Hold Your Head High,” “Early in the
Morning,” “Be So Happy”) are brave anthems of independence, as if Wennerstrom
is shouting down the thunderclouds overhead.

 

“I just feel
like I’m getting better at creating the songs I hear in my head,” she says. “This
is my third album, and it’s getting easier to find the sound that represents me
as a musician and an artist.”

 

“She’s just a
natural,” McCarthy says. “Her voice is so powerful, and her lyrics just make me
want to cry sometimes. They’re so true and honest and down to Earth. She’s just
so real.”

 

Sonically, The Mountain is an ambitious step
forward for Wennerstrom, due in no small part to McCarthy’s production
instincts. When Wennerstrom showed up in Austin without a band, McCarthy –
who’s manned the boards for artists ranging from …And You Will Know Us by the
Trail of Dead to Patty Griffin to Dead Confederate – enlisted drummer Doni
Schroeder and multi-instrumentalist Billy White, two old friends and regular
collaborators who brought a fresh perspective to the session. The move was a
masterstroke. While the gritty simplicity of the Heartless Bastards’ sound
remains intact, Schroeder and White brought a looseness to the music that
enabled Wennerstrom and McCarthy the freedom to explore new sounds. Whether
it’s the luminous pedal steel riffs on the title track, the mandolin on “Wide
Awake,” the violin on “So Quiet” or the banjo on “Had to Go,” the duo’s choices
were bold but take nothing away from Wennerstrom’s performances.

 

“I wanted to go
for instruments other than guitar for overdubs in general ‘cause Erika’s style
and approach to playing the guitar is so specific that having another guitar on
there didn’t seem very interesting or cool to me,” McCarthy says. “Adding more
guitars would have detracted what makes Erika a special guitarist with a unique
sound.”

 

With the record
complete, Wennerstrom began the search for a new touring band, auditioning
musicians from the fertile Austin
music scene.

 

“It’s scary to
play with new people,” she admits. “I played with some different people, but
I’m kind of a shy person, so the idea of rushing off to tour with complete
strangers in a van for a good year and a half was a little scary to me. That’s
when I decided to call Dave and Jesse.”

 

“When she called
last summer, it was exactly the right time,” bassist Jesse Ebaugh says. “She
didn’t even leave a voicemail, but she didn’t need to. When I saw that she
called, I knew what she was gonna ask. She didn’t even have to ask.”

 

A week later,
Ebaugh was riding in a minivan with Wennerstrom down to Austin with his gear packed in the back. “By
some strange twist, Erica is back with Dave and I, the two guys she recorded
those first demos with,” he says. “We’ve come full-circle, and it feels real
good right now.”

 

Some may see
Wennerstrom’s decision to reunite with Colvin and Ebaugh as an attempt to
restore some familiarity in a chaotic time in her life, like a child clutching
a security blanket. Wennerstrom doesn’t buy it, nor does she subscribe to the
belief that all great art is birthed from the heartbreak and grief of a
tortured artist.

 

“I’d like to say
no, ‘cause I’d rather not have to go through all of that in order to write
great songs. It just so happens that I went through a particularly
heartbreaking time in my life, and these songs were born out of it,” she
concedes. “But I really think now I’ve found a band that I can grow with. I
don’t want to discredit anyone in the past lineups, but I just didn’t feel like
things were growing. Now that I’m playing with Dave and Jesse, I really feel
like this is a band that not only I can grow in, but we can all grow in
together.”

 

[Photo Credit:
Arol Horkavy1]

 

 

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