As a teenaged disciple of indie rock, roots rock, soul and blues, Ohio-native Erika Wennerstrom folded away her Catholic school uniform to set about the serious business of making music. Forming a basic but brawny trio with Mike Lamping and Kevin Vaughn, the new front woman of Heartless Bastards pricked up the ears of gig-goer Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), who immediately lent a hand in securing their first recording deal with Fat Possum.
Two passionate and well-received albums later (2005’s Stairs and Elevators and 2006’s All This Time) but smarting from a freshly wounded heart, Wennerstrom picked up for Austin, Texas in a practical bid to dust herself off. Finding solace in songwriting and renewed vigor with Dayton ex-pats Dave Colvin (drums) and Jesse Ebaugh (bass), Wennerstrom celebrated the release of critically acclaimed LP The Mountain in 2009.
Credited with “vocals channeling all the swagger and spit of a young Robert Plant” (Rolling Stone), Erika’s primal, battle-ready voice reveals not only experience, tenacity and accrued wisdom, but a deep-seated resolve to rise up and – as Wennerstrom attests – moving on.
So where did the band’s name came from?
Heartless Bastards came from a bar top trivia game I played after work one night. It asked what Tom Petty’s backing band was, and ‘Tom Petty and the Heartless Bastards’ was one of the wrong choices.
And why did it resonate so strongly with you?
I thought it was pretty funny but I thought it sounded catchy, too. I’d always been a big fan of Joan Jett and The Blackhearts growing up and the name was sort of reminiscent.
You’re definitely masters of balls-out rock and roll but you also have a keen sense of when to hold back…
[We’ve] been playing [together] for several years and have really developed dynamically…the mellow, quieter tunes on the album make for variety that’s always nice on a record. I generally like albums with varying tempos: rockers and ballads. I try to approach my own that way as well.
Your lyrics often center around searching, self-discovery, realizations…Is music your therapy?
It’s very cathartic for me; I think expressing those emotions through a creative outlet allows me to move on from various things in my life in a positive way. I find a lot of comfort in the songs as we perform them on the road.
Your song Into the Open has been a favorite of mine since my friend included it on her official ‘wedding soundtrack’. The piano intro is so delicate but your voice is so powerful; it just immediately spoke to me. What are some of the songs that tug at your heartstrings?
Gosh…that’s constantly changing for me but I guess some would be (Sittin’ On the) Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding, Street Fighting Man by The Stones, The Crossroads by Sir Douglas Quintet and Strangers by the Kinks. I just think they’re all great songs.
I once read that you love Hope Sandoval’s voice and that really struck me because your styles are so different. Who are some of your main inspirations on your vocal style?
I have so many it’s hard to even scratch the surface, but some of them are Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Mahalia Jackson, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, T-Rex, Kim Deal, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Thin Lizzy, Spiritualized…and on and on.
Has your move to Austin had an impact on your sound?
A little, but I feel the biggest inspirations for this album have been influencing me for a long time. I do feel inspired by living there though. Seeing so many good live bands, whether local or touring through, always make me want to work on song ideas when I get home that evening.
Give me a snapshot of where you were at when your new record, Arrow, was being written.
I wrote the songs after wrapping up two years of touring from The Mountain. I went on several road trips to clear my head. A lot of the album is about my journey and finding myself again after the end of a nine-year relationship. I felt like I found myself again through the writing process.
Is it different than your previous records?
Yes…and I think they are all different. For starters, it was written at a different period in my life; there are different musicians on it than the previous records and I also explored different influences on this album. I’ve never tried to make the same record and never will.
And now that its released, how are you feeling?
We’re all really proud of it and looking forward to playing the songs every night on the road.
Do you feel like you’re getting closer to your best music written with every album?
Sure. I think I’ve branched out and experimented in a way that I hadn’t felt fully comfortable with before. Perhaps I feel so comfortable with the band I’ve been playing with for the last several years that trying different directions feels more natural than forced. I also think this is the closest recording the bands had that really captured what we were trying to sound like.
You’re touring now in support of Arrow…what’s the vibe been like?
It’s been going great; people are really responding to the new material.
Does it feel natural – or easy – to perform?
Yeah, I guess I’d say so. The band has a great time performing and I think when you’re having a good time up there it makes things feel really natural.
What are your crowd favorites that never fail to get an amazing reaction?
There are several tracks that get a great response: Sway, Gray, Into The Open, Hold Your Head High and The Mountain.
Who’s the coolest/most exciting/most terrifying person who’s been put on your guest list and/or watched you play?
We had Roger Daltrey’s publicist call and have him put on our list once in Boston but we’re not sure whether he actually came though. Once, several years ago, we got done playing a set opening for Lucinda Williams when I looked to the side of the stage and J. Mascis, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were sitting there.
If you could interview any musician alive or dead, who would it be and what would you ask?
Probably Tupac; I’d ask who shot him.
Mark Nathan (guitar) is the newest member of The Heartless Bastards line-up. The quartet will tour through May in support of Arrow.
2/24 – New York, NY – Webster Hall
2/25 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
2/27 – Baltimore, MD – Ottobar
2/29 – Charlottesville, VA – The Southern
3/1 – Chapel Hill, NC – Cat’s Cradle
3/2 – Atlanta, GA – The Earl
3/3 – Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge
3/5 – Knoxville, TN – Square Room
3/6 – Birmingham, AL – Bottletree
3/7 – Memphis, TN – Hi-Tone Cafe
3/8 – Fayetteville, AR – George’s Majestic
3/9 – Fort Worth, TX – Lola’s
3/10 – Houston, TX – Warehouse Live
3/30 – Tucson, AZ – Club Congress
3/31 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
4/2 – San Diego, CA – The Belly Up
4/3 – Los Angeles, CA – Echoplex
4/5 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
4/6 – Eugene, OR – W.O.W. Hall
4/7 – Vancouver, BC – Media Club
4/8 – Portland, OR – Aladdin Theatre
4/9 – Seattle, WA – Crocodile
4/11 – Boise, ID – Neorolux
4/13 – Aspen, CO – The Belly Up
4/14 – Denver, CO – Bluebird
4/15 – Santa Fe, NM – Santa Fe Brewing Company
4/17 – Tulsa, OK – Caine’s Ballroom
4/20 – Austin, TX – La Zona Rosa
5/11 – Baton Rouge, LA – Spanish Moon
5/12 – New Orleans, LA – One Eyed Jacks
5/15 – St. Petersburg, FL – Orpheum
5/16 – Orlando, FL – The Social
5/17 – Gainesville, FL – Double Down
5/18 – Athens, GA – 40 Watt
5/22 – Chattanooga, TN – Rhythm and Brews
5/23 – Lexington, KY – Cosmic Charlie’s
5/24 – Bloomington, IN – Bluebird
5/25 – Columbia, MO – Mojo’s
5/26 – Iowa City, IA – Gabe’s
5/29 – Lawrence, KS – Granada
5/30 – Norman, OK – Opolis
5/31 – Ozark, AK – Wakarusa Music Festival