Heartless Bastards in Aspen
ASPEN – Erika Wennerstrom takes some pride in being multifaceted in her personality and her practices, and achieving a balance between elements. “I have a lot of sides to me. I’m all over the place,” she said. I balance things by doing different things all the time. I’ll eat a burger and fries, then hummus and tofu the next day.”Still, it’s hard to imagine Wennerstrom in certain guises. For example, you definitely don’t picture her in a frilly pink outfit, clutching dolls. Of course not – Wennerstrom is 32. But listen to the music she makes in Heartless Bastards, the Austin-based rock quartet that makes its Aspen debut Friday at Belly Up, and you don’t get the sense that Wennerstrom, even as a little girl, was a sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice sort of little girl.Heartless Bastards are generally described as a garage rock outfit, which pretty much nails it. Even though their latest album, “The Mountain,” released early in 2009, has its softer moments of acoustic sounds, including violin and mandolin, the overall tone is fuzzy and buzzing, with all of the grit allowed to show. It’s no mistake that the first sounds heard on the album are raw, crunching electric guitar chords.Wennerstrom is the one out in front of this sound. She is the band’s only singer and on “The Mountain,” the only songwriter as well. She is also the only constant member of Heartless Bastards, who have had much shuffling of personnel since forming in 2003. The current lineup includes drummer Dave Colvin, bassist and steel guitarist Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan, who, like Wennerstrom, plays guitar.”I like when recordings aren’t pristinely recorded,” Wennerstrom said from a tour stop in Boise, Idaho. “I think [“The Mountain”] is recorded well; it’s a style I like. But it doesn’t have that extra polished sound of a lot of modern albums.”Put aside recording techniques and instrumentation, and you are still left with the most garage-y element of Heartless Bastards: Wennerstrom’s voice. She sings from the gut, howling and deep and not overly concerned with prettiness. The very last thing you’d call it is chick rock.”I know exactly what you mean,” Wennerstrom said, in a speaking voice that is a bit slow, drawling and thoughtful. “I’m not sure what would be considered female rock. A lot of women sing folk-rock, or they sing in a higher pitched tone. But I’ve just never liked singers in a higher pitched tone. I like the lower register, even listening to other people. That’s more appealing to me.”Wennerstrom thinks her voice comes from trying to sound like a whole lot of different singers – including Joan Jett and Neil Young, Otis Redding, and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star – all at once.If there is a category in which you could squeeze Heartless Bastards, it might be called Buckeye rock. The band does, in fact, hail from Ohio; it was only two and a half years ago that Wennerstrom relocated to Texas. As it turns out, many of the reference points for Heartless Bastards are also from Ohio. Wennerstrom mentions as important influences the indie-rock band Guided by Voices, which shares a hometown of Dayton with Wennerstrom; and the Breeders, a girl-heavy band led by Dayton native Kim Deal, and which has often used Dayton as a home base. In our conversation, Wennerstrom never brought up the name of the Black Keys, who hail from Akron, in the far opposite corner of the state. But many others have commented on Heartless Bastards’ resemblance to the acclaimed blues-rock duo. And if you were looking for a comparison from the classic rock era, the most likely one is the Pretenders and their lead singer Chrissie Hynde, also from Akron.Wennerstrom grew up knowing from as early as she can remember that she wanted to be a musician. At 8, she got a piano and began teaching herself how to play. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she got a guitar, and not until 18 did she get serious about learning to play it. From the outset, the instruments were used to make up her own material. “I still don’t know how to play many songs on guitar other than my own,” she said.But at 16, she did begin paying attention to other people’s music, even if she wasn’t learning how to play it. After a childhood of listening mostly to mainstream music – “I’d like to say I was into super-hip stuff, but it was average pop music, basically whatever was on the radio,” she said – she got turned onto the outlying worlds of punk rock and indie labels. A key discovery was Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion, the New York trio that played a noisy style rooted in blues-rock that has much in common with Heartless Bastards.”I realized there was a lot of music out there that wasn’t on the radio,” Wennerstrom said, “and you had to seek it out. I’d find out about all-ages shows, sneak into the 18-plus shows, see live shows whenever I could.” Among the bands she saw repeatedly was the Amps, Kim Deal’s band that played Breeders music, but used Dayton musicians.The other place besides Ohio that has been a determining factor in the Heartless Bastards sound is the bar. Wennerstrom played bass and did a bit of singing in an all-girl punk-ish band, Shesus, that spent most of its existence in bars and clubs. She’s also done time as a bartender, and it was after a shift behind the bar that she got the name for her own band. Playing an electronic trivia game, she was asked what was the name of Tom Petty’s backing band. Among the wrong choices was the Heartless Bastards, which tickled Wennerstrom’s sense of humor.The band has risen quickly. Their debut album, 2005’s “Stairs and Elevators,” earned a four and a half-star review from Rolling Stone; more recently, they performed as part of the 35th anniversary show of Austin City Limits, the PBS series that originates in the band’s adopted hometown. But their existence is still largely in bars; the current tour features stops in every sort of bar there is: Denver’s Larimer Lounge, Philadelphia’s North Star Bar, Toledo’s Mickey Finn’s Pub, and Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, with a few theater appearances in the mix as well. Much of the tour, including Friday’s Aspen show, features the opening act Hacienda, a San Antonio roots-rock quartet whose albums, including the new “Big Red & Barbacoa,” were produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Like Heartless Bastards, Hacienda’s slightly retro style seems to have been born with the bar in mind.”I think all rock ‘n’ roll, in a sense, has that feel,” Wennerstrom said. “‘The Mountain’ definitely has elements of that. And I do my fair share of going out on the town.” Heartless Bastards is signed to Fat Possum, a Mississippi label whose signature acts – RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford – are associated with a gritty blues sound, played in dilapidated Southern juke joints. Wennerstrom is fairly certain that Heartless Bastards was the first female-led act on Fat Possum.”The Mountain,” Wennerstrom points out, demonstrates an effort to expand the band’s palette. “Could Be So Happy” is just voice and acoustic guitar, and there’s even a song, “So Quiet,” whose title is not an ironic statement – it’s a country-folk tune that sounds like it came out of 1930s Appalachia. But even when Heartless Bastards get quiet, it never comes out as soft, cuddly and feminine. “We’re definitely not quite the Lilith Fair sound,” Wennerstrom firstname.lastname@example.org
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