The Heartless Bastards
Sometimes, fateful inspiration can arrive under the most seemingly mundane circumstances. For Erika Wennerstrom, this moment occurred a lifetime ago as she killed time playing video trivia at a bar.
Question: "What is the name of Tom Petty's backing band?"
Easy, but as she scanned the multiple-choice answers to the question and saw the phrase "The Heartless Bastards," Wennerstrom instantly knew that she had found the right name for her next band. And though that particular answer may have been false, there is no denying that the band whose name it inspired now is riding a wave of creative expression, critical serenade, and a boundless musical future.
The Heartless Bastards' story starts in Dayton, Ohio, where Wennerstrom spent her youth. Dayton may not make the short list of the country's recognized musical hotbeds, but a brief accounting of musicians with ties to the city is eye-opening, and includes everyone from 70s funk masters the Ohio Players, to Pixies' bassist Kim Deal and her other band, The Breeders (which also included her twin sister, Kelley, and another Dayton native, drummer Jim MacPherson), to indie heroes Guided By Voices.
The city more famous for peace treaties and Wright Brothers flights also has a well-established musical culture.
"Dayton is a rock 'n' roll town," explains Wennerstrom. "It's a blue collar city, and people who work hard and have a long week want to let loose on the weekend.”
As a songwriting teenager during a time when GBV and Brainiac were packing local bars and the three of the Breeders were still in town, Wennerstrom used to sneak into clubs to check out the scene.
"I would just see those people—my music heroes—hanging out at the bar like everyone else," she remembers. "I could see myself in them. It gave me inspiration to do my own thing."
Over the years, Wennerstrom developed a rich musical foundation, citing everyone from the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, the Stooges, and Janis Joplin to the likes of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Mazzy Star and De La Soul as influences. She eventually decided to move to nearby Cincinnati to start a band that would use the name she had been saving from the aforementioned trivia game, and in 2003, formed Heartless Bastards.
After doing the usual business of playing local shows, the trio set out the following year on a regional tour. One of the first gigs of the trip took them to a bar in Akron, where Black Keys' drummer Patrick Carney just happened to be one of only a handful of people in the audience. This chance encounter led Wennerstrom and THB to Fat Possum Records, with whom they released their debut, Stairs and Elevators, in early 2005.
Critics took immediate notice, emphasizing the band's bare-fisted power and the stellar combination of Wennerstrom's heart-stopping voice, which could be described as a combination of PJ Harvey and Robert Plant, and her honest, life-based songs.
As for the inevitable, though inaccurate, descriptions of the Heartless Bastards as a "blues-rock band," Wennerstrom explains: "It's easy to assume the comparison, because Fat Possum has been thought of as a blues label, but they also have bands that are just influenced by blues, like us."
The band’s second record, All This Time, was released during the summer of 2006 and has received even more widespread critical accolades than Stairs and Elevators, continuing the evolution of both the music and the audience.
The music has turned heads, ears, and put them on festival stages and starry bills with Wilco & Lucinda Williams to name a few. But, the band is still evolving with Wennerstrom’s sonic vision. After years with the same basic power trio lineup, Erika made both a life and artistic change. In 2007 she moved to Austin, Texas for a change of inspirational scenery, a new recording project, and queso.
In true ascetic discipline, she arrived in a new town, rented a meager apartment, and wrote for six months. It is during this period she imagined the new record with expansive instrumentation, challenging lyrical and musical spaces, and an uninterrupted vision. With the help of producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead), she assembled a group of musicians with whom she gave the songs life and uncovered yet another layer of Wennerstrom and the Heartless Bastards.
But in a serendipitous alignment of stars, the two new Bastards aren’t Texas ringers, but fellow Queen City brethren Dave Colvin on drums, and Jesse Ebaugh on bass, who actually played on the original demo that hooked Fat Possum. The reunion translates into magic live.
The CD, entitled “The Mountain”, delivers the powerful howl that fans expect from THB, but also weaves in adventure with mandolins, banjos, strings, and Erika’s transcendent voice.
“The Mountain” is due out in January 2009, and the core members of the Heartless Bastards, along with an assortment of other players, will begin touring in th
Stairs and Elevators - 2005
All This Time - 2006
The Mountain - Feb 3, 2009