Interview With Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards

by Jack Diablo
EU recently caught up with Erika Wennerstrom of the Cincinnati, Ohio band, Heartless Bastards. Now based out of Austin and featuring a new lineup, the band released a new album this February produced by Mike McCarthy, known for his work with Spoon. With close ties to label-mates and fellow Ohioans, the Black Keys, Heartless Bastards’ music is a bluesy blend of garage and country with a heaping helping of soul mixed in. Erika spoke with us about performing for PBS’s Austin City Limits, touring with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley fame, and her new life in Texas.

EU: Heartless Bastards recently did a performance for the 35th anniversary season of Austin City Limits. How did that experience differ from a regular tour gig?
Erika Wennerstrom: It was a great experience. We were all a little bit nervous because we’re such big fans of the show and we all have been for so long. It was something we were all very excited and a bit nervous but very honored to do. There’s cameras all around you, weaving in and out. It’s really it’s own thing, it’s definitely completely different from playing a live show.

EU: During that performance, you debuted a side project with Alex from the Black Angels, care to talk a little bit about that?
EW: We recently did a project called Sweet Tea. We did two songs. We thought it’d be fun to do a couple of country song covers. We did ‘If I Were A Carpenter,’ the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash version because they turned it into a duet. Before that it was sang by one person. And then we did a Ray Price song called ‘Crazy Arms’ which we actually turned into a duet because it’s originally sang by just one person. We’re releasing a 7″ here pretty soon. I guess the vinyl will probably be done in September but I think we’ll be releasing it digitally maybe within the next several weeks. Jesse in Heartless Bastards came in and did some stand-up bass and pedal steel and stuff and Dave came in and played drums on ‘If I Were A Carpenter.’ It’s just a project for fun and we thought it would be cool to invite Alex up and do something different.

EU: So is this something you plan on pursuing or just a one-time project?
EW: Well, we talked about doing some other songs, maybe even some originals. I’m not sure as far as touring and things like that but I think we’ll probably end up doing some other songs, maybe releasing a full length. It’s just something we did for fun but I think that we’ll probably do it again. We all had a good time doing it and everything and we’re really proud of how it turned out. I’m pretty positive we’ll do it again in the future, to what extent, I’m not sure.

EU:You recently relocated from Ohio to Austin. Austin is considered one of those meccas of culture and music, but why did you choose it over say Portland or L.A. or NYC?
EW: Well, I have family there and friends and my management was there. My manager really helped me through a breakup from a ten year relationship with Mike Lamping who played bass in Heartless Bastards. So that’s kinda why I moved. But also, Mike McCarthy lived there and we had been talking about working on the next album together so I was going to end up being there for a while anyway for the record. It just made the most sense of where to move. And it’s just an awesome town, it’s a really great city.

EU: Has living there changed or influenced your songwriting?
EW: I don’t think so, I mean maybe it will on the next album. I already had a lot of the melodies in my head before I got there and I kinda buckled down in an apartment and tried to really figure out what I wanted to say on the songs. It took me a long time to really complete them but the process started before I even moved there. Also, I feel like maybe I tried for different things on this album and have grown as an artist so I’d like to think that that would have happened wherever I lived. I hope [laughs].

EU: You are currently on tour with Jenny Lewis and then you’ll go right into some dates with the Decemberists. Is this kind of momentum a new thing for you or is it pretty standard?
EW: We toured with Lucinda Williams on the last album, which was huge. We played Radio City Music Hall and the old Ryman and the old Opry. So I feel like we’ve gotten to do some things in the past but I think these are great tours too… We’re all big fans of the music and we’ve met them all and get along really well. We’re three days into the Jenny Lewis tour and it’s just gone really well. Her fans are receptive to us and I think our fans are receptive to her. We’re a good music fit but we’re definitely different too and a lot of these tours we’re doing are with different bands. I think everybody listens to different kinds of music and that people (maybe not everybody) will be open to the fact that we are different in our own ways. This is by far the most touring I’ve ever done so as far as momentum, it’s definitely the busiest that Heartless Bastards has ever been and everything has been going really great. We have some things coming together in the fall we’re really excited about as well. We also just opened up for Wilco which is one of my favorite bands. Everything’s just going really good, yeah.

EU: Are there any immediate plans in the near future to headline a tour of your own?
EW: Possibly some dates in the fall and definitely after the first of the year, but we’re still figuring out the fall. Opening is really good to have new people discover your music and things and it’s just great to play with other bands. It’s kind of inspiring… But at some point we’re definitely going to get out and play some headlining shows of our own because then we can play our full set. If you always open then some of your fans probably get a little disappointed that your set is shorter. It’s good for us and the people that want to hear us talk and stuff. It’s good to do both and we certainly don’t intend to stick with one thing as far as opening all the time or always headlining.

EU: As a strong female lead in a rock band with heavy blues, soul and country influences, is becoming the next Janis Joplin or Lucinda Williams an ambition of yours or do you plan to always perform as part of a group?
EW: I mean, I’ve always written all the songs so whether I went by my name or the band, it’s my music. That’s just what it goes under so I don’t have any intention of going out under my name, Erika Wennerstrom. I don’t think it has that cool of a ring to it anyway [laughs]. I don’t know. I like being in a band, it’s like a family. I don’t know how to answer that other than, this has always been my project so going out under my own name wouldn’t be any different.