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Interview: Heartless Bastards - Arrow

Frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom bares her gritty, powerhouse voice to guitarist Mark Nathan’s haunting melodies, realizing the true sound of the Heartless Bastards

Listen to "Parted Ways" from Arrow:

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.

Photo courtesy

Mark, it sounds like you have a lot of freedom and space in this band. How do you approach adding your own touches, or magic, to Erika’s visions?

Nathan: I play first in my gut what seems to be the right thing for the song. It’s really important for me to play something that compliments the vibe of the song and isn’t just about nerdy guitar stuff. A lot of that is about tone and texture, and also a lot of it is also about not playing sometimes and letting everything breathe.

How did you go about getting a stripped-down, live sound in the studio?

Wennerstrom: I think there was a definite goal to play the songs on the road and capture the live sound of the band. Until now, I didn’t really feel I had been able to do that with past albums. We all loved that approach. A lot of these songs, when we really sat back and listened, didn’t really need any guitar parts or layers. We felt that they were pretty strong on their own. Mark did all of the guitar live on “Simple Feeling.” I did overdub my acoustic but I didn’t want my vocals going into the acoustic mic and my acoustic going into the vocal mic and having problems with mixing later. So we did scratches for those and we went back and laid those down. “Low, Low, Low” we did totally live; we sort of sat in a circle and even the vocals are live on that song.

Was there a certain way you mic’d your amps?

Wennerstrom: Definitely another approach to recording this album was re-mic’ing amps and drums specific to how we wanted it to sound per song. Each song had its own setup to give it it’s own identity for the album. This has all been a learning process for me. For my first album we just set it up and hit record. We did closed, small-room mics for the drums for “Got to Have Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Only for You” because I was going for kind of a ’70s R&B sound. And then we put the drums in a big room for a lot of the other songs.

Nathan: We mic’d everything fairly close, depending on what song we were doing and how large the space was in the recording rooms that the amps were in. Sometimes we were able to get some room sounds and sometimes not, it just depended on where the drums were. But generally on my stuff I used three main amps: a handwired Vox AC30, a Marshall JCM 800, and a late-’60s Fender Super Reverb. As far as mics, it was usually a Royer R-121 and a Shure SM7, or a Royer R-121 and a Neumann U67.

What are your preferred guitars on tour?

Wennerstrom: I play acoustic on seven of the 10 songs on the album. I mostly used my Gibson J-45 and a Les Paul Studio.

Nathan: My main guitar that I’m taking with me live is my ’68 SG, which I’ve had for a long time but I recently had some work done to. I got it refretted and I got all of the electronics completely redone—I got new Throbak pickups and new pots. There’s a guy in Austin named Ed Reynolds that I take my guitars to and he did a great job. I also have a Japanese Fender Jazzmaster from the ’90s.

You mentioned you were going for a ’70s vibe on “Only For You.” How did you go about that?

Wennerstrom: That song I had pictured in my head as sounding like Curtis Mayfield and his falsetto vocals. I talked to the band and told them I’d like to take it in a sort of ’70s R & B soul sort of direction, and then Mark added the electric guitar parts.

Nathan: I actually played a Gretsch on that one. A friend of mine was kind enough to loan me a ’55 Country Gentleman, so I used that and a Super [Reverb] for that tune. I was real happy with the way that one turned out.

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On “Simple Feeling” there’s sort of a prolonged, fuzzed-out, experimental blues solo. What were you doing there?

Nathan: Actually that whole song is one take, there are no punches or anything. I did all of that live. I was playing my Jazzmaster through two amps—I was using an AC30 and my Marshall and then I had my signals split up and I was using different effects in each amp. I had them raised up on a chair so I could move the knobs and get the delays to oscillate, and I had a tremolo pedal and I was sweeping the range on that. So I was doing all of those things live.

So was that off the cuff, or did you plan it?

Nathan: I had an idea of what I was going to try and do. I took a while to get it set up, to figure out what effects were sounding good with what right order and what amp and going back and forth with Jim [Eno] about it. Once we started tracking, we did three or four takes and there was just one take where everything came together—it was the one.

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Are there any songs that you’re really enjoying playing live now?

Wennerstrom: I feel like my songs are my kids, and it’s hard for me to pick total favorites. Certain nights I do like playing certain songs more than others, it really depends on the mood I’m in. It’s like if you’re driving somewhere trying to figure out what to listen to in the car, it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Sometimes I feel that way even about my own songs.

Nathan: I’m really like doing “Simple Feeling” because I get to do all of that fun, psychedelic, freak-out stuff. I also really like playing “Only For You” because it’s sort of a departure from what the band’s done in the past.

What are you listening to in your free time?

Wennerstrom:We haven’t had much free time lately [laughs]. The one band we’ve been able to listen to because they’re on tour with us is Hacienda. It’s three brothers and a cousin from San Antonio, Texas. Dan Auerbach produced their last several albums I think. I like Jonathan Wilson. I also saw a taping from Austin City Limits with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings with the Decemberists and I’ve become a super fan.

Nathan:I find myself going back to older music. I dig this band Graveyard from Sweden a lot, but as far as new music I haven’t been doing a whole lot of seeking out of new stuff.

Erika Wennerstrom’s Gear

Acoustic: Gibson J-45
Electric: Les Paul Studio and ES125

Hand-wired Vox AC-15, Fender Deluxe Reverb

Gain boost, MXR Carbon Copy Delay

Ernie Ball (.010-.46)

Dunlop Tortex (.73mm)

Mark Nathan’s Gear

’68 Gibson SG, ‘90s Japanese Fender Jazzmaster

Handwired Vox AC30, Marshall JCM800, late ’60s Fender Super Reverb

Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, Boss PS-3 shifter/delay, Z.Vex Super Duper, Z.Vex Volume Probe, Keeley-modded Boss tremolo, Keeley-modded Ibanez Tubescreamer, Malekko Chicklet Reverb, Malekko 616 analog delay

DR Strings Pure Blues Heavy sets (.011-.50)

Dunlop Tortex (.5 or .6mm)

YouTube It

Guitarist Mark Nathan uses a borrowed Rickenbacker to nail his twang-rock power solos on the first single from the new album:

The Bastards cause a raucous for their primetime television debut with an especially high-energy, inspired performance:

An intimate solo performance by frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom armed with her two instruments: her Gibson J-45 and an impeccable voice: