Get to know Heartless Bastards singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom.
She’s no household name yet. But hers is among of the most distinctive, affecting voices in rock, a throaty, vibrato-tinted wail that adds loads of soul to her band’s rootsy garage-rock vibe.
And this looks like a breakthrough year for the Bastards. The up-and-coming trio – also drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh – has been able to take “The Mountain,” its critically acclaimed third album, to the masses with a little help from “Late Night with David Letterman” and opening slots for the Avett Brothers and Wolfmother.
The Wolfmother gig brings Heartless Bastards to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre on Friday, a good excuse to chat with Wennerstrom about her band’s rising profile, influences and how MegaTouch trivia has shaped her art. No, really.
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Where did the name come from?
I used to bartend at this bar in Dayton (Ohio) called the Tumbleweed. I would get off work sometimes and I would play the trivia quiz games and stuff. I did music trivia, and one of the questions was “What’s Tom Petty’s backing band?” And Tom Petty & the Heartless Bastards was one of the wrong answers. I just thought it was really funny.
Then six months later, in 2001, I did the open mike night. And some friends were, like, “What should we call ourselves?” What about the Heartless Bastards?
Your vocals are very distinct. Was there anyone you patterned yourself after as you were learning to use your voice?
There are so many of ’em. I’d say, like, Patti Smith, Joan Jett. I love the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop. Mazzy Star was a huge influence. It’s like Hope Sandoval doesn’t sound anything like Joan Jett, and I’m, like, trying to sound like both of them.
I’ve been influenced by so many different people and I like to say that through trying to sound like them all I’ve kind of found my own voice.
Is there anything special you have to do to take care of your voice when you’re on the road?
Well, yeah, actually. Years ago when I first started touring heavily my voice would go into shock. … It was a real struggle. Like every once in a while there would be a show where my voice would clip out constantly, and it was really rough.
I just learned it’s really important for me to try and take care of myself. … It’s kind of hard when you first start touring (and) you wind up in a bar every night. It took me a while to learn just ’cause you’re in a bar and maybe you get free drinks that night ’cause you’re playing doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it all the time. Also, I think sleep’s really important.
At some point you relocated to Austin. And from what I’ve read that hinged on your breakup with (former band mate) Mike Lamping. Tell me about that transition.
Well, we split up toward the end of touring and stuff on the second album. We tried to make it work, but it’s very, very hard. We went out for just about 10 years, so it was very hard to try to continue to work together and everything.
I thought maybe starting over somewhere new would make the transition in my life easier. I had some friends and family in Austin, and my management was there. And I had already made the decision before to work with (producer) Mike McCarthy (of Spoon) on the next album, and he happens to live in Austin. So there were just so many reasons to move there.
That scenario is reflected in “Out at Sea” when you sing about moving to “the city of light.” How autobiographical are your lyrics?
My lyrics are very, very personal. They always are. Sometimes they can be misunderstood as something. Like “Hold Your Head” high is actually about a situation I went through with somebody. But it was more their situation. But certain things that they said to me as I was a kind of helping them through it (inspired) the lyrics.
My favorite song on the album is the title track, where the lyrics are a little more abstract. What was the catalyst?
“The Mountain,” it’s about greed and about how capitalism has gone a little far. …
I guess we’re in this global economy and I guess it’s kind of hard to turn back. But I just think there’s something important about trying to have an individual community and things that are unique, like independent restaurants and businesses and things.
There were some things that were going on at the time when I wrote it that kind of upset me and kind of inspired me for that song.
Do you feel it’s been a breakthrough year for the band, and has there been anything surprising?
Yeah, it’s been a really great year for us and we’ve had a lot of really great opportunities. We got on Letterman, and the Breeders invited us to (British rock festival) All Tomorrow’s Parties. And I’m from Dayton, Ohio, which is where the Deal sisters (Kim and Kelley of the Breeders) are from. (They’re) not only heroes but hometown heroes. It’s been a really great year.
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