“Who Said We’re Sane?” An Interview with Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards

Last week I had the opportunity to correspond via email with Erika Wennerstrom, chief songwriter and singer for Heartless Bastards, on the cusp of her band’s nationwide fall tour.  Heartless Bastards’ music falls aptly into the 21st century “Americana flood,” a genre movement that blurs the line between folk and rock, but it’s Wennerstrom’s piercingly soulful croon that makes them unique. While the band currently resides in Austin, TX, their 2003 beginnings are rooted in the Midwest, Southwest Ohio specifically, making them a source of pride for a fellow Ohio native like me. In our interview, Wennerstrom reacts to other changes that occurred more recently; the band’s move to alt-country-heavy Partisan Records, the official addition of lead guitarist Mark Nathan, and the release of 2012′s Arrow, a record born from personal reflection on the fringe of society. We also discuss the band’s connection with Spoon, which is really mere coincidence, and whether she’s open to a collaboration with Britt Daniel in the future.

Enter here to win tickets to Heartless Bastards’ show at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville on Nov. 2nd!

Listen to “Parted Ways” off 2012′s Arrow below.

The Silver Tongue: There have been quite a few changes since The Mountain, including the addition of guitarist Mark Nathan. Are there any songs or specific moments that you feel were unattainable as a trio? The solo on “Only For You” comes to mind.

Erika Wennerstrom: Yes, but I felt that way about our previous album as well. There are a lot of 4 piece elements on the album The Mountain, like the pedal steel guitar on the song “The Mountain” and the baritone guitar lead on “Out at Sea.” Mark joined the band right after the last album was recorded because there were already a lot of 4 piece elements coming into the band’s sound, and I wanted that to be present in our live show.

TST: Does his presence change the way a song is conceived? Do you “write for 4” now? 

EW:  Yeah it does.  I think I use to keep instrumental sections a bit shorter.

TST: Your band recently switched from Mississippi’s Fat Possum to Brooklyn’s Partisan Records, the label that’s home to the likes of Deer Tick and Diamond Rugs. From a listener’s perspective it makes all the sense in the world, but what triggered the move? Is it a matter of aligning yourself with a label that values your brand of Americana/folk rock or were there other motives? 

EW:  I just did what I thought was the best decision for the band at the time.

TST: What do you feel are the most important factors when choosing a label? Do you think that your view on this is common or unique within the “indie” rock scene?

EW: Enthusiasm should be number one. A great team of people to promote the record is really important too: publicist, radio person, etc. The deal itself is of course very important. There are so many ways to do one these days ; it really depends on what type you are looking for. As far as whether my views are common or unique, I have no idea. I can’t really recall ever talking to fellow artists about the specifics of my deal or theirs, or why I chose the label I did.

I think for a new band sometimes your best option is your only option. Be cautious, but taking a leap of faith is sometimes the best thing.

TST: During the production of The Mountain, you used Spoon’s producer Mike McCarthy. On Arrow, Spoon’s drummer Jim Eno produced. What is the attachment to Spoon? Are they considered a major influence or is this just a product of the Austin connection? Has the band ever done or considered any collaboration with Britt Daniel? 

EW: The whole Spoon link is really just a coincidence. I’m a fan of Spoon, but I was also a fan of McCarthy’s work on And You Will Know Us ……’s album Source Tags and Codes. I thought he got really great tones.  After I moved to Austin, I met Jim Eno through mutual friends. The whole band got along with Jim really well. He’d come out to our shows here and there and expressed interest in working on the new album. He came to some practices and listened and made some suggestions. We liked working with him right off the bat. As far as collaboration with Britt Daniel, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve only met him a few times. He seems to be into collaborations these days with his new band Divine Fits though. You never know. Maybe one of these days.

TST: Reportedly Eno was integral in encouraging you guys to road test the new songs when you opened for Drive By Truckers. How did that shape the recording process? Do you think the preemptive fleshing out of songs live will be a staple part of the process for future records?

EW: I think it helped us to work parts out over time rather than on the spot in the studio. Sure I’d like to continue to do that.

TST: It seems much of the band’s inspiration comes from the road. I’ve read that you don’t mind the travel because it’s all worth it once you get to play for those 90 minutes on stage. Can you describe a typical day on the road for the band? What does each member do individually to keep their sanity when not playing or sleeping? 

EW: Who said we’re sane?

TST: Does any of the actual writing take place on the road?

EW:  I work on ideas in my head a bit, but mainly save them up for when I get home.

TST: With respect to Arrow, I’ve read that much of your inspiration came from your solo travels in the nooks and crannies of West Texas and in the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains. Do you foresee these kinds of isolationist trips to be integral in gathering material in the future? Do you think you’ll need to drop out and disconnect to find your muse for the next record?

EW: I’m not sure yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if I take off on a few trips though.

TST: Do you foresee any solo records in your future?

EW: Maybe…

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