Q&A: Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom—A Break-Up Gives Birth to a New Lineup, a New Home and a Brand New Album

Heartless Bastards, left to right: Jesse Ebagh, Dave Colvin, Erika Wennerstrom, Mark Nathan. (PHOTO: Nathan Presley)

We always thought Erika Wennerstrom, Heartless Bastards’ head honcho, would escape the curse of being labeled “confessional,” despite the fact that she was a girl with a guitar who sang about her feelings. C’mon: Wennerstrom’s guttaral, anguished vocals and Heartless Bastards’ raw, heart-gripping songs were so rock ‘n’ roll they defied that lame “chick music” label. With the original lineup of Kevin Vaughn on drums and Mike Lamping on bass, Wennerstrom had a power trio to rival the Police, or Cream.

Six years and three albums later, Wennerstrom has not only endured a break-up (with former bandmate Lamping) and a move from Ohio to Texas, she also went through a definitive evolution in sound and two major line-up changes—Heartless Bastards is now a quartet (Jesse Ebaugh is on bass, Dave Colvin on drums, and Mark Nathan as second guitar). There are more country elements in their music. And there are more instruments as well. Arrow, the band’s fourth set, isn’t as riff-driven as Stairs and Elevators was, yet it still remains catchy. There’s more howling, and it’s slower—but it’s still bad-ass.

The difference? The “C” word—we mean confessional!—isn’t so taboo anymore. Sort of. “I don’t know if I’d [label my music] confessional, but I definitely put a lot out there,” Wennerstrom says.

Your debut, Stairs and Elevators, blew me away. In spite of Heartless Bastards’ recent line-up changes, Arrow seems  more similar in essence to Stairs and Elevators than, say, Mountain. Why do you think that is?
I write the songs for the band, so even with the line-up changing over the years the style in which I write is still there.

How did living in Austin affect your songwriting versus living in Cincinnati?
Most of my musical influences have been with me for quite some time. The experiences in my life are in my songs though, and living in Austin for four years has certainly influenced the album. Although I do spend over half my time on the road, and so I’d have to say that the rest of the country has influenced my life and album as well.

You now have another guitarist. What brought that change about?
I thought adding a guitarist would make our live show stronger and more interesting. Mark has been a member of the band since the release of The Mountain. There were a lot of four-piece elements on that record so when it came time for its release I knew I wanted to add a fourth member. I had four-piece elements on All This Time also, but played stripped-down versions on the road, but I didn’t want to try to pull The Mountain off as a three-piece live. Arrow is the first album all the band members have been on. Since we have been touring solidly now for three years, I think it has come together to be our strongest.

Do you think you’ll be a four-piece for good? Do you miss being a power trio?
I don’t foresee becoming a three-piece again. I’m definitely happy right now.

Have you noticed a difference in the way you sing or perform now that there’s another layer of guitar? I always thought that you with a guitar was the most visceral part of Heartless Bastards, and the most compelling.
I always get the vocal melody in my head first when I’m inspired to write a song. The music has always been created around the vocal so I don’t feel I’ve altered my singing style in anyway to accompany an additional guitarist.

I did tone down and belt out a little less after my first album though. When I wrote Stairs and Elevators, it hadn’t occurred to me how difficult it would be to sing live night after night. I had a lot of problems with losing my voice. I feel lucky I never got nodes on my vocal chords.

What’s your favorite festival to play?
Pickathon is by far the band’s favorite. It’s a small festival outside Portland on a farm. They cap it at 5,000 and everybody camps. Most bands play two sets throughout the weekend, so if you miss a set you can usually get to see everybody at some point.

What’s your least favorite?
I have one, but I don’t want to be a hater. I give a lot of credit and props to anybody that puts a festival on. The unorganized ones can be frustrating, but it’s a lot of work and it can take years to get the kinks worked out.

—Lilledeshan Bose