Every year at SXSW I go in with an agenda and rough plan mapped out: bands I won't miss, others I'd like to see, and a few I've heard of, but don't know much about. Once I hit the streets, though, plans are prone to fly out the window. The best bands and surprises are often found by following the buzz and this year was no different.
I'd already gotten off to an amazing start with a white hot show by Band of Skulls on Wednesday night, and Thursday evening was shaping up nicely after kicking off with Damn Quails, Fiawna Forte and an eclectic set by The Little Willies at Antone's. By the time 11pm rolled around, though, all other plans had taken flight: the buzz on the street was reaching fever pitch and couldn't be ignored. My decision had been made for me -- I was headed to Crossroads House to see what all the stir was over Heartless Bastards.
Although I was able to make it in the door, that was about as far as I could easily get: The club was shoulder to shoulder with more people packing in and few leaving. I found a spot just to the left of the stage, about ten feet back, and staked out my territory, determined to get the opportunity to make a sound judgment of my own. Once the band hit the stage, any doubts were vanquished: I'm not sure who these guys are, but they're certifiably badass.
After utilizing a photo pass to squeeze myself up front for a few songs, I was sold. Front woman Erika Wennerstrom is just about as powerful a force as I saw all weekend and her band was one of the tightest. For the record, I still don't get the regular comparisons to The Black Keys, as the group crosses far more into American and Southern Rock, although it still manages to keep a hungry, garage rock edge to its sound.
When I returned to Tulsa and realized that Heartless Bastards was scheduled to arrive for a show at Cain's Ballroom this Tuesday, April 17, I was quick to track down the band and get some perspective. What I found upon initial digging was that the band has evolved and changed lineups since its 2003 debut.
When I was fortunate enough to catch up with Wennerstrom by phone before the band headed out on its latest tour leg, then, I couldn't help but ask about how the band has developed and the singer's perspective moving forward.
First, however, I had to ask about the frequent comparisons to The Black Keys that constantly arise. Heartless Bastards originally formed in Cincinnati, OH, sharing regional sensibility with The Black Keys (from Akron), but this is more than a regional tie. When I mentioned that I didn't understand the frequent comparisons, Wennerstrom explained "I think it has more to do with the fact that (Black Keys drummer) Patrick Carney recommended us to Fat Possum, so we ended up on the same label."
Although both bands share regional ties and started on the same label, The Black Keys have gone in more garage and indie rock direction while Wennerstrom's writing led Heartless Bastards toward a more rustic, Americana feel, eventually relocation to Austin, TX.
When asking about her role as primary songwriter and leader of the group, Wennerstrom said "Yeah, I write the songs, but I really see us as a band."
"I never intended on changing band members," she shared. "During the first two records, though, I was in a relationship with someone in the band and after 9 years, we broke up, so I kind of had to move on."
That transition led Wennerstrom to relocate to Austin and record the third Heartless Bastards album, Mountain, with session musicians. When it came time to tour, however, she enlisted bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin who had been the band's original drummer. The group expanded to a four piece as Mark Nathan stepped in on guitar and the current band formation had found its identity.
When asked if the band changes have changed the writing process, Wennerstrom said that it didn't really change her approach. "I still start with a melody," she explained "then I find the key to sing it in, then the chords and rhythm and I start the arrangement. Then I bring it in to the band and we start putting it together. I tell them my inspiration and what direction I'd like it to go, but everyone contributes -- that's really how I've always written."
When discussing the new album, Arrow, and what sets it apart from the band's previous releases, Wennerstrom shared that "I'd like to think that as I songwriter, I'm evolving and becoming more comfortable with trying new things and experimenting."
With the latest album, Arrow, that includes an epic sweep that ranges from the Southwestern swing of opening track, "Marathon" to the heavy swagger of "Got To Have Rock and Roll" and the explosive frenzy of "Simple Feeling." Somehow, though, as engaging as the album is, the band takes everything up a level with its live show, making the songs even more engaging and mesmerizing.
Before wrapping up, I had to clarify one last question, asking about the origins of the band's name. Wennerstrom verified that the stories are true: "I bartended for years and would sometimes play the bar games when I got off," she said. "On this one particular day, I was playing a music trivia game and it asked what the name of Tom Petty's band was. Heartless Bastards was one of the wrong answers. I thought it was funny and always thought it would make a good band name."
"I always liked Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Chrissy Hynde and the Pretenders," Wennerstrom continued. "I guess I tend to like females who sing in a lower register like PJ Harvey and Joan Jett and even Janis Joplin. Anyway, it reminded me of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts -- kind of a cross between Tom Petty and Joan Jett, I guess."
With that in mind, The Heartless Bastards could hardly be a better moniker for Wennerstrom's group. By mixing the southern rock swagger and charm of Petty with Jett's forceful delivery and immediacy, The Heartless Bastards tread that middle ground well.
Heartless Bastards arrive at Cain's Ballroom this Tuesday night, April 17, with David Vandervelde opening the show. Tickets are only $17 in advance and give you an opportunity to check out the band that had Austin buzzing with its raucous mix of Rolling Stones and Drive-By Truckers combined with touches of Tom Petty and Joan Jett. As the latest album, Arrow, catches on, the buzz is guaranteed to spread.
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