Riding high on the release of their most recent full-length release Arrow, the now four-piece bring their classic mix of garage rock and blues to Philadelphia this month. Stopping at Union Transfer on October 29th, just days before Halloween, the stop is part of the home stretch for the band as they work their way back to their home in Austin, TX. We caught up with singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom to reflect on not only on this tour, but also in making their latest album.
Backtrack a few months to February of this year. Heartless Bastards release their fourth record Arrow, their first since putting out the well received The Mountain in 2009. A few major aspects were different this time around.
First, they have a new home in Partisan Records. The Mountain and two earlier releases came out Fat Possum Records, an independent label based in Oxford, MI. “The deal that Partisan offered seemed to make the most sense, and to be what I thought would be the best for the band at the time,” explains Wennerstrom. Also home to bands like Deer Tick and Middle Brother, the switch seems logical given the similarities in sound. It’s been smooth sailing ever since the change. “They’ve been great to work with,” Wennerstrom adds.
Second, was a bit of a lineup change. Throughout all three of their previous albums, the Heartless Bastards at the core were always a three piece, with singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom at the helms playing along side a drummer and bassist. Prior to beginning the recording process for Arrow, the band expanded to include an additional guitarist. While not shifting their overall sound, the dynamic of the group has changed a bit.
“It certainly takes the pressure off me from being the only guitar player”, Wennerstrom comments, “I leave more space in the songs as I write now. Jesse who plays on bass, and Dave on drums, joined right after The Mountain was released, and Mark who plays guitar, joined right before The Mountain release”.
The motive for expanding the band came back during the recording process for The Mountain. Wennerstrom explains, “[t]here were a lot of four piece elements on the album that I really wanted to be present in the live show”. Following the months of touring behind it, the band went back into the studio, solidifying with the four members.
The last major adjustment was working with a new producer. The Mountain was produced by Mike McCarthy. McCarthy, known for producing the alt-rock group and fellow Austin residents Spoon, fleshed out a more country sound for the band. For Arrow, they went from working with the producer of Spoon to their drummer. Jim Eno was brought in for the record and shifted the sound back to more of a garage/blues tone. Reflecting on the experience, Wennerstrom adds “Jim was great. He asked us where we wanted to go with the album and how we wanted to approach recording sounds with each song, and then he helped us get there. It was a great experience”.
Despite the several major changes leading up to the making of the album, the band was relatively pressure-free during the entire process. “I felt really good about my song ideas”, Wennerstrom says,”I just write what I think are good songs and hope people respond to them. I think if you really believe in what you’re creating and feel passionate about it then worrying about what peoples opinions are is a waste of time”. She finishes, “when creating art you can never please everybody, and so I focus on pleasing myself”.
That isn’t to say the recording process was an easy one though. With three years between The Mountain and Arrow, the journey along the way at times was slow moving. “The whole album was a challenge with that”, Wennerstrom details, “Sometimes I would come up with a verse for one song instantly and it would take me a month to come up with the second verse”. There was even a point where to overcome a bad case of writer’s block, Wennerstrom took to the road just to travel and isolate herself.
Influences for the album are not too hard to pin down. After a quick listen of any song from the catalog of Heartless Bastards’ songs, a tip of the hat towards any number of classic rocks bands is easily distinguishable, yet not overused. Specifically on Arrow, Wennerstrom cites “T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Ennio Morricone, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Curtis Mayfield and Wilco” as some of the larger influences. Yet it did not stop with relying on artists to draw inspiration from. Living in Texas, Wennerstrom also relied on the vast, spacious landscapes when writing. Many trips were taken to the western side of the state to simply just take and reflect in openness of the countryside. Wennerstrom mixed in with that the atmosphere of living in the lively and always active music scene that makes up Austin. These different areas helped push Wennerstrom through the various ups and downs of creating and writing songs.
With high expectations set, Heartless Bastards released their fourth full-length album Arrows in February and received favorable reviews from many different publications. The Onion’s AV Club gave it an “A-“, Paste Magazine an “8.0” and Rolling Stone graded it 3.5 out of 5 stars. It gathered other warm reviews from newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune.
After a short spring tour and hitting the summer festival circuit, Heartless Bastards then announced a massive fall tour that would stretch from coast to coast. Starting in California and ending in their home of Austin, TX, the tour would see the band on the road from the middle of August to November. As with any major tour, the band played host to the typical major markets (NYC, Philly, Chicago etc.) as well as some other alternative venues in smaller cities. In just looking at their schedule, places like KPRI at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, CA and the Food Truck Festival in Indianapolis, IN catch the eye.
Wennerstrom adds to the list of more interesting venues “a train depot in Santa Fe” and a “bed and breakfast place with a rock club attached called Blue Moon in Lafayette”. Expanding on the train depot, “[t]hat was the first time trains were going by as a backdrop for the stage”. The bed and breakfast served a more comfortable setting. Wennerstrom continues, “[a]fter staying at like a hundred Holiday Inns this year it really made me feel at home to stay in an old house. We all sat on the front porch after the show, and then retired to our rooms. It was real nice”.
Once the tour comes to an end next month, the band plans to continue keeping busy. There are already new road maps planned for additional shows in the works. On top of that, Heartless Bastards will start work on their follow-up to Arrows. Between a busy life of traveling city to city each day and spending countless hours writing, rewriting and recording, time will be sparse for much of the foreseeable future, but Wennerstrom and company are no strangers to this. Great success doesn’t come without hard work.
As for now though, the band is staying steady and focused on the current road ahead. As they make their way down the east coast, Heartless Bastards will come into Philadelphia on October 29th. They will take the stage at the city’s newest venue in Union Transfer and it will be the band’s biggest headlining gig in the city. While throughout much of Arrow they display a more relaxed form of garage rock, Heartless Bastards bring a different sound to their live performances. The spaciousness and wide-open feel to the songs still remain the same but a harder, edgier side is added. Be sure to come out to see what Heartless Bastards have to offer after the collimation of three hard years for work.
Written by: Matt Kelchner