Heartless Bastards Interview.
Heartless Bastards were formed in Ohio in 2003 by lead singer and songwriter Erika Wennerstrom and have been playing in various iterations ever since. The band have received wide attention in the US and are a familiar site playing on talk shows such the Late Show with David Letterman. Now based in Austin, Texas, they released their fifth album, Restless Ones, in June 2015. I caught up with Erika, drummer Dave Colvin, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, and guitarist Mark Nathan backstage at London’s The Borderline shortly before they played a sell-out gig.
The band appears to have been fairly settled since 2009 after the lineup went through a few changes when you started out, is there a reason behind that?
Erika Wennerstrom: I don’t know, anyone can edit Wikipedia, it might look like we’ve had hundreds of lineups – there was a guy who played in the band for two weeks, maybe a month – but for the most part the earlier group was my ex-boyfriend Mike Lamping and Kevin Vaughn on drums. But when I moved Texas, that’s when I started this current iteration.
So you’re all now based in Austin, Texas?
Dave Colvin: The band is based in Austin, but we live in different places. I live in Pittsburgh.
When you need to record or rehearse do you all have to jump on a plane and head to Texas?
Erika Wennerstrom: I think earlier on that would have been impossible for a new group, but at this point, being established in the States, I think it’s a lot more doable. When we work on new material, Dave comes to town for a week or so at a time and we write and maybe do a few shows and then he heads back to Pittsburgh. Once we start touring we don’t need to practise because we’re playing the songs every single night.
Jesse Ebaugh: I feel like we’re really lucky to be able to do this full-time and to be in a group where everybody takes it seriously enough, you know. Everybody looks at it as work, it’s also creative work, it’s also thrilling to be involved in a creative project. To have had to work so hard and for so long, to get to be able to do it this way, it’s thrill.
How does the songwriting process work in the band?
Erika Wennerstrom: I’ll start the song; I’ll have a melody and kind of an idea for a feel and then I’ll work it out a bit. Then I’ll bring in the band and we’ll work it out. We always tweak things, there are bridges and arrangements, everybody helps, but it all starts with the melody I get in my head.
You worked with Grammy Award-winning producer John on Restless Ones, how did he fit in with the band? Do you work the same with all producers?
Dave Colvin: They’re all different, some guys take more charge; John did once the recording process started and we asked for a little bit of his input on things for reassurance and he came down and sat in on a couple of rehearsals. But some producers will be like: “I need to hear all the songs, I’d like to give you my full input” … It just depends on the guy and the personality and whether you think you need it.
Mark Nathan: I think the pre-production time we had with Congleton was good, it was effective, it helped us. I think this album and the songs were a lot more concise than they had been in the past and I think that’s a good thing. Having an extra ear on it really helped.
Erika Wennerstrom: There were some suggestions he made here and there that shortened a segment. There might have been different lyrics, but musically a part would be the same length first and second verse and he was like: “You know, there’s no new element of surprise” … He would make some editing suggestions and I think for a lot of those we agreed with. Sometimes he would suggest something and we wouldn’t always go with it, but it would put the idea out there that something should change, then we would come up with something that worked.
I read you were taking Restless Ones in a different direction, do you agree with that? You’ve always been known as a rock‘n’roll band, would you still say that’s true?
Mark Nathan: I feel like it’s a continuation of a trajectory.
Erika Wennerstrom: We like to try and experiment with different influences and sounds. We never want to make the same album twice or write songs because we feel like people are expecting something specific from us, which we have to give them. We enjoy exploring different sounds, but it’s not a conscious thing like “this is going to be a techo album!” … “Different direction” can sounds very drastic, but we were just exploring different influences, but they kind of end up falling not that far from where we left off, [turns to the band] would you all agree?
Mark Nathan: I don’t feel that this record is much of a departure from what we’ve done in the past, it’s just a little bit different and some new things crept in.
Jesse Ebaugh: It’s also fun to listen to the arc of a band learning song craft, too, and listening to the primary songwriter learning song craft.
Do you all have the same musical influences, texting each other when you’ve heard something you like?
Dave Colvin: There’s an overlap. A Venn diagram. That should be on our website so you can see where we overlap!
You recorded the album in Texas at Sonic Ranch, the world’s largest residential recording studio complex, what was that like? It sounds like a giant, crazy hostel for bands from all over the world?
Mark Nathan: That’s pretty much it. It’s a pecan ranch and very successful, one of the largest in the world, the man who owns it is a real music fan and recording enthusiast, so he started out with just one studio and he gradually added more. Then he started adding lodging and everything like that as he went along, you could probably put three bands up there at once. There were one or two bands there when we were there who would come and go.
They were working on Whitey Morgan’s record when we were there, so we got to meet his manager and his producer who was a guy called Ryan Hewitt, so it’s nice when those kind of things happen. So we met his manager and became friends and found out he lived in Austin and now we bump into him now and again.
Erika Wennerstrom: We ended up opening for Bob Seger, who he also manages. It was an arena tour, which was an experience. We’re all fans of Grand Funk Railroad, too, and Don Brewer [Grand Funk Railroad’s drummer] was the drummer for Seger.
I heard that the opening track of Restless Ones, Wind Up Bird, was inspired by the Haruki Murakami novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, what was it about that book that influenced the song?
Erika Wennerstrom: Actually the song itself isn’t as much inspired by the book, I just was reading the book around the time I was writing a song and when I was singing it, it just popped into my head, “like a wind up bird”, so I sort of used it as an inspiration for lyrics, even though the subject matter of the book isn’t part of the song.
You’ve been playing a few festivals in the US, but not too many in the UK, how come?
Erika Wennerstrom: We did End Of The Road and All Tomorrow’s Parties here. The Breeders are from my home town and they curated that one and so invited us.
So if you were curating your own festival, who would you put on? They can be dead or alive?
Mark Nathan: If it could be anyone I’d say the Velvet Underground
Jesse Ebaugh: I’d say Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath and The Stooges. The Stooges circa ’71 ’72.
Mark Nathan: Oh, I’m in!
Dave Colvin: I know it’s played out, but I’d say Led Zeppelin.
Erika Wennerstrom: Is Mazzy Star too much of a contrast? And T-Rex!
Will you be playing all the new album tonight or a bit of the back catalogue?
Jesse Ebaugh: It’s all new stuff, then we’ll play a bit of Arrow.
Thanks for the chat, good luck with the show.
Interview with Heartless Bastards by Craig Scott Sept 2015. Photography and Portraits by Simon Reed.