Bringing Ohio-bred talent to its various stages has been one of Bunbury’s hallmarks since it began in 2012. Since then, local bands such as Bad Veins, Guided by Voices, The National and many others have graced its lineup card.
One of the bands carrying on that tradition this year is Heartless Bastards - an Ohio-born outfit operating most recently out of Austin, Texas. After cutting their teeth playing in the southwest Ohio bar scene, they released their first album - Stairs and Elevators - to near-unanimous critical acclaim. Since then, they’ve rattled off three more full-lengths and logged countless miles in the name of touring.
Erika Wennerstrom - the band’s founding member - has a voice all her own. It’s a weathered, warped howl that sounds as though it’s traveled light years to meet you. It was showcased most recently on 2012’s Arrow, the band’s most recent and quite possibly best album.
Heartless Bastards will be playing the Warsteiner Stage on Friday, July 11th, and Erika was kind enough to answer a few questions for us prior to their arrival.
The band originated in Ohio, but since 2007 has been based in Austin, Texas. Do you identify more with one area than the other at this point?
I feel at home in Austin now, but I still identify very much with where I'm from.
Your debut Stairs and Elevators received high praise from critics and fans alike. Did you know it was at that level once you’d finished recording it, or was all the attention it received somewhat of a shock?
We had recorded it in a bit of a rush so the band and I worried about the release. The positive response was a surprise and relief.
Pretty much every LP you’ve put out has been critically-acclaimed and, in my opinion, better than the last. Which would you say is your favorite and why?
Thank you. Arrow is my favorite. I'm always trying to grow as a writer and to me Arrow feels like my most sold work. I also feel that we were able to capture the feel and all the tones we were looking for. I think it's the first time on a record I was able to achieve that. On the past records I always questioned things, but with Arrow I was able to walk away knowing I gave it everything I had.
Should we expect a new record in the near future? Have you started the writing process?
We're going to record in July right after Bunbury. I think the release will probably be in January.
On that topic, is there anything you’ve been listening to that may have an influence on any upcoming song writing efforts? I read somewhere that Arrow was influenced by the music of Ennio Morricone and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks he composed for Sergio Leone. Is there anything as of late that you’ve been fixated on?
“The Arrow Killed the Beast” was influenced by Morricone, but not the album as a whole. I always have a ton of influences one each record. Sometimes I'll have 4 artists influence one song in particular. On the new album some of the influences are The Byrds, Dungen, Kool and the Gang, Flaming Lips, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
You’ve found a way to work multiple instruments into your songs over the years – mandolins, banjos, strings, piano etc. Are there any new instruments you’re tinkering with that fans should be on the lookout for during upcoming shows?
It's still a work in progress. We're trying a lot of ideas, but I think it would a little early to say.
Not trying to blow smoke or anything, but “The Mountain” is one of the best opening tracks I’ve heard in the past ten years or so. Is there any deeper meaning or hidden slant to that song?
The Mountain is about greed. We all as people want to keep working toward things in our life, but I find a lot of successful companies are always trying to cut corners and jobs or send them overseas to increase profits. You end up with lead in children's toys made in China or with other negative issues. I'm from Dayton, Ohio which has been hit especially hard. On several miles of Main St. heading north the majority of buildings are boarded up. It's hard to see my home like that. At what cost do we eliminate jobs or send them to places completely unregulated? I know they need to answer to stock holders to some extent. It's a complicated system. I wrote it during the peak of the economic crisis. I'm happy to have read as of late a lot of companies are returning home.
Always wondered this, but where did the artwork for the cover of The Mountain come from? So much going on there it’s really hard to find any rhyme or reason behind it.
Michael Carney did the artwork. We wanted something really interesting and it certainly draws the eye in. Michael is brothers with Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. He's done all or most of their covers as well. I think he won a Grammy for the design layout on their last record or second to last.
Your voice is one of the definitive features of the band. It’s unique to say the least. Was there a moment you first realized your voice was something to reckon with?
I don't know. I've always wanted to sing, but I didn't really sing much growing up. Just to myself once in a while. I believed I could, but also second guessed myself a lot. I started trying to overcome fears as an adult. I think it's developed and become stronger over the years. I don't think there is any particular moment for me though. I think the older and more comfortable with myself I get the stronger I feel singing.
You’ve played Petty Fest a few times now. It’s unlike most concerts wherein it’s a group of well-known musicians gathering in different cities to celebrate the music of Tom Petty. How’d you get involved initially? Was it a love of all things Tom Petty that drew you in?
I've become a huge Tom Petty fan over the years. I had met Austin Skaggs one of the Best Fest creators at the Rolling Stone office several years ago and he invited me to play the event. It's a blast. There's a lot of camaraderie during the evening. Everybody is rooting for one another. It's been great to get to know a lot of the fellow artist on the bill, and I've toured over the years with quite a lot of them so it becomes a reunion of sorts as well.
You’ll be playing Cincinnati’s own Bunbury Music Festival this July. Are there any other bands on the lineup you guys are excited to see perform?
Flaming Lips, Cults, and J Roddy Walston and the Business are the first to come to mind.
What’s your favorite venue in the Cincinnati area to play and why?
The Southgate House. There's a lot of history. The band got a lot of its start there. I've always love the staff, too.
Sticking with the local questions, is there any place you absolutely have to visit when you come to the Queen City?
I love Camp Washington Chili and Melt. I also always love stopping by Northside Tavern and Arlin’s where I used to work.
Thank you for the interview. We look forward to returning home in July!
Oh, and you can register to win a pair of 3-day passes to Bunbury HERE!