Heartless Bastards' Erika Wennerstrom on Coffee Mugs, Valentines, & Jim Eno
Heartless Bastards are gearing up for the release of their fourth album, Arrow on February 14. It just so happens that Arrow is the band's strongest record to date. It features a more versatile mix of psych, glam, classic rock, porch blues, R&B, funk and spaghetti-western. Singer/guitarist/songwriter, Erika Wennerstrom's incredible, deep vocals -- at times plaintive, at others poignant -- sound more confident than ever before.
Now based in Austin, Texas, the band has toured extensively, at one point nearly nonstop for two years. Performing live so much has honed their tight sound and intensely dynamic live shows. Gimme Noise spoke with Erika Wennerstrom on the first day of their tour in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Gimme Noise: Tell us about how your music has changed over time.
Erika Wennerstrom: I feel like I'm learning how to make records more, and get the sounds I'm going for. Working with Jim Eno on this album really helped. He'd ask "what direction and influence do you want these specific songs to sound like?" I'd be like, "I'm inspired by T. Rex on "Got to Have Rock and Roll." On "Only For You," I wanted my voice to sound really close up and falsetto like Curtis Mayfield, going for a '70s R&B sound.
Describing these songs to the band and them having similar interests in music, has made it an nice, smooth process getting those sounds. Then, Jim Eno, was like "ok, you want to sound like T. Rex or '70s R&B... they would have close-miked drums. So we would put the drums in a vocal booth. Making albums has been a learning process for me in how to get those sounds. I learned that to try to go in different directions with the sound helps diversify the album sound and give each song more of its own identity.
I noticed your vocals take on a variety of styles.
EW: My vocals sound really different on a lot of the songs on the album. The psychedelic ones, like "Simple Feeling" for instance. Then on "Parted Ways," I was influenced by Thin Lizzy's cover of an Irish song, "Whiskey in the Jar."
There's even a Spaghetti Western vibe on "The Arrow and the Beast."
EW: I wanted that to sound like a cross between a Ennio Morricone sound, and the vocals sound of a Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra song, reverbed out, like they're singing from a mountaintop or a canyon.
And you have a stomp blues song in there.
EW: "Low, Low, Low" has a porch music vibe -- for that we just all sat in a circle and did that one live.
You're playing the First Avenue Mainstage for the first time on Friday. How do you feel about that?
EW: I'm very excited. I saw Lucinda Williams get married there. That was pretty neat. Just with all the history there. Prince... First Avenue is such a staple of Minneapolis. I'm very excited. I'm really looking to it. I really love Minneapolis. That's one of my favorite towns to play. It's a rock 'n' roll town. Snow doesn't hold people back. They come out to shows and support music. Its just always been a great place to play.
Tell me about your solo travels and how they helped evolve your songs. I notice a lot of things about places and space and there's some introspection in your songs.
EW: I get writer's block a lot. Melodically I hear these songs in my head and I'm thankful for them. But I can't honestly remember the last time I sat down and tried to create an idea. They just sort of pop into my head when I'm doing any number of random things. I tell myself, "if it's a good song I won't forget it." So I don't usually record them, I just remember them.
When it comes to writing lyrics to the songs, it's a very big challenge for me. I think its because I write from a very personal place and it takes a while for me to feel comfortable putting that part of myself out there for people to hear. So, its so hard to get myself to sit down, and let it out (Laughs). I'll find myself being distracted by anything to avoid sitting down and forcing those ideas out of me. So I thought, "Well, maybe I can go isolate myself for a month and try to focus, and get these words written."
So I went from Austin to Cincinnati -- it wasn't completely isolated, I visited friends and family in Ohio. Then I went to All Tomorrow's Parties up in Catskills. Jim Jarmusch was curating that one and I had friends in a couple bands who were playing so I thought that would be a good place to get inspired.
I decided to stay there for several more days, then I headed down to the Alleghenies and found this little run-down cabin on a lake. Then I also took a few different trips to West Texas, I have a friend whose family has a ranch there outside Martha, that has an old bunkhouse on it. I would stay there by myself for a week or so at a time. I think that added a lot of imagery to the album.
Something about the desert and the mesas make me think about the ancient ocean, like what it looks like on the bottom of an ocean now. So it references the ancient sea in "Simple Feeling," or driving out there it kicks up all this dust, so that's in "Parted Ways" and "The Arrow and the Beast" has a lot of imagery, like the warm color of amber. I felt like taking these trips really helped me find direction in how I wanted to write the lyrics and express what I was thinking in my mind.
I noticed "Marathon" and "Down in the Cabin" are longer and have a sort of similar vibe, these kind of epic songs. Was that intentional?
EW: Not really . . . I felt the flow of the songs worked well, and we did a month-long tour and then we recorded the album two days later. I liked how the songs flowed, so I decided to keep the same set for the album. "Marathon" was actually written for the last album and we ran out of time. So its like we started Arrow out, with where I left off on The Mountain. And, the references to home? I use that as an analogy, of feeling comfortable, at home, and with myself through changes, the everchanging directions in life. I constantly feel like I'm readjusting.
"Parted Ways" seems to me to have a sort of an exultation, kind of a powerful "I'm on the other side of this," thread running through... like a triumphant, "I'm here, stronger than ever..."
EW: This record is sort of about me feeling -- with life changing -- comfortable with myself and content and positive. "Parted Ways" . . . is about moving on. I was in a relationship for nine years. I think it took a while for me to readjust and find myself again and enjoy my own company and solitude. And to go out in the world on my own and feel confident and comfortable doing so.
I hear some Patti Smith or Grace Slick and old blues singers influences and more...
EW: Oh, sure! I've loved so many different kinds of music and so many artists, in some instances I feel like I'm trying to emulate like 50 different singers or more. I would definitely say I've had a lot of influence in my life from Patti Smith and Grace Slick, Chrissie Hynde. A lot of male vocalists, too, actually. I tend to gravitate toward lower pitched voices. Patti Smith and PJ Harvey have lower-sounding voices, and definitely old blues singers. Mahalia Jackson! I always loved her as a kid. We had this Christmas album with her singing religious songs on it. My influences are all over the place. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin. Then, as I got older, I got into classic rock -- Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. Another influence, I always liked Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star's voice. I'm a huge fan of hers.
Anything you'd like to add?
EW: I'm getting Heartless Bastards coffee mugs made, because I'm a big coffee drinker and I think more rock 'n' roll bands should have their emblems on coffee cups. I would totally collect them. (laughs). Yeah, I was thinking recently, "Nobody has rock 'n' roll coffee cups but I would totally drink out of some if they did." Then I got curious and I looked on My Morning Jacket's website. And they did have a coffee cup. So I'm wrong, somebody's got coffee cups.
And, you have a Valentine's Day card...
EW: It's for sale at independent record stores that are part of this coalition for recordstoreday.com, maybe they're online. It's a pretty funny. It says on the front, "I thought I was a heartless bastard. Then you open it up and it says, "Till I met you." I like the front, people don't see "until I met you" till they open it up. I thought that was pretty cute.
Heartless Bastards w/ special guests Hacienda at First Avenue Mainroom 18+ all 7th Street Entry tickets will be honored at the Mainroom show. 8 p.m. Friday, February 10, 2012
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