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With a band name like The Heartless Bastards, a new album titled Arrow, and a release date of Valentine’s Day, it actually kind of makes sense (in a slightly twisted way) when vocalist/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom mentions that the series of events leading up to now were kick-started by the end of her decade-long relationship with the drummer of her former band.
After the breakup, the Akron, Ohio-native wanted to transplant herself, deciding that the new place for her was the vibrant musical landscape of Austin, Texas. Naturally, a new Heartless Bastards formation was born there. Drummer Dave Colvin, who had played with Wennerstrom in a former band, happened to live in Austin. He and bassist Jesse Ebaugh had both played on Bastards’ early demos back in Ohio, so after running into Colvin, Wennestrom contacted Ebaugh. who agreed to move down to Austin from Ohio.
While making their 2009 album, The Mountain, the trio asked Mark Nathan—an Austin guitarist and recording engineer since the mid-’90s— to track some last-minute parts, which led to him joining them on tour to help with the live sound. Wennerstrom says Nathan brought an element of playing that she hasn’t yet achieved, and that stylistically he grows her musical ideas into more sonically adventurous creations. So the Bastards’ added Nathan as lead guitarist.
Indeed, Arrow possesses a certain “coming-of-age” feeling. It was conceived as Wennerstrom set out on a series of road trips, seeking isolation in order to write. “I feel like this album is me getting back to myself and who I am on my own and feeling comfortable with that,” she says about the process.
The same rings true for the Bastards as they recorded their first album as a foursome. They took a unique approach to find their band’s groove—road-testing the songs during a 30-day opening stint for the Drive by Truckers before going into the studio. After playing the songs live together for a month, Nathan says they felt pretty dialed in as they headed into producer Jim Eno’s (Spoon) Public Hi-Fi studio in Austin.
Arrow is tangible proof of a solid, roots-rock outfit born by Wennerstrom’s thoughtful writing and one-in-a-million growl, but anchored by Nathan’s multifaceted guitar work. This combo leads these Bastards into a three-leg tour which runs into this summer, as they celebrate an album that was named by Spin as a top winter album to listen to.
We talked with Wennerstrom and Nathan about why two guitars are better than one, and how this approach allowed The Heartless Bastards to make their most realized effort to date.
Photo by Ben Clark
Erika, what has kept you playing the guitar since the first time you picked one up?
Wennerstrom: My dad sent me an acoustic guitar for my 16th birthday, but I didn’t really start to figure out how to play it until I was 18. But I’ve always wanted to sing and then realized I wanted to write songs as well. So I taught myself how to play as I was writing my own songs.
Mark, who are your main heroes/influences when it comes to guitar players?
Nathan: My three favorite guitar players are probably Mike Campbell from Tom Petty, James Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders, and I’m also a big Keith Richards fan.
Erika, is it true that when it comes to performing you were a little bit gun-shy in the beginning?
Wennerstrom: Another reason I wanted to play guitar is that I thought it would allow me to feel comfortable just standing there as a front person and playing versus needing to be some sort of entertainer moving around all over the stage. But I’ve always enjoyed writing songs, I used to write them on piano, or I’d write vocal melodies. I realized as I’d get ideas in my head that if I could learn guitar it’d be easier than trying to convey what I heard in my head to someone else.
I know this is a guitar magazine, but I’m sure you’re used to talking about your voice because it’s so amazing. Did you always want to sing?
Wennerstrom: I wanted to sing since I was old enough to think about doing anything—I might have even been 3 years old. I’ve got so many influences, like maybe 50 to 100 big influences, so I feel like I ended up with my own voice through trying to emulate them all. Anyone from Iggy Pop to Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, T Rex, Black Sabbath. “Parted Ways” is inspired by Thin Lizzy’s cover of the Irish folk song “Whiskey in the Jar.”
Was the songwriting for Arrow a solo journey?
Wennerstrom: I’ve always sort of put the songs together and then brought them into the band. But I feel that each band member contributed to how the ultimate sound of the songs came out.