Oh, those Heartless Bastards. For 12 years now, various incarnations of this great American rock ‘n’ roll band have been churning out soulful, bluesy, rootsy records. Though the line up has shifted during that time, the heart (and head) of the band, Erika Wennerstrom, has always stayed put. The Bastards’ last record, 2012’s Arrow, and their new one, Restless Ones, feature the same players — Jesse Ebaugh (bass), Dave Colvin (drums), and Mark Nathan (guitar). Whereas Arrow‘s aim stayed fairly true, Restless Ones lives up to its name, as well, exploring new sounds and different styles. In an era of cookie-cutter records made by assembly-line bands, the Heartless Bastards turn familiar into fresh.
Listening to this album is kind of a full-contact sport. You can’t really do it half-ass. On some cuts, it’s almost like you’re a jam band, but it’s all crammed into four-minute modules. Even the tunes that are rooted in four-on-the-floor blues-rock grooves go off into really fun, off-kilter rhythms and arrangements. Where do those elements emerge from? Are Dave’s jazz hands starting to show?
[Laughs] We just try to challenge ourselves and try to not repeat the things we’ve done and I think that, when I introduce a song to the band and we start working on it, we all just try to figure out ways to take it somewhere a little different which might, hopefully, be less predictable to people but still have our identity to it. In a sense, we’re just having fun being creative and challenging ourselves to try new things and go different places. In the end, that’s what makes it the most fun for us. Then we just hope that people respond to it. And hope for the best.
That sort of experimentation … is that the difference between having guys versus hiring guys? Because this is a pretty different record than you’ve made.
Yeah, these are the same guys as on Arrow. The Mountain was studio guys. I had moved to Austin and sort of started over, so I hadn’t found a band yet when I recorded The Mountain. That was the only time I’ve ever used session people. Sometimes we’ll even debate about things in this band. Creatively, somebody’s like, “I really think this should happen!”
Ultimately, I write the songs, so with certain things I really stick to my guns. But other things, I start to really think about it and the guys will really open my mind to it. Or one member, in particular, might be saying, “Hey, I think we should really try this.” I think that’s the special part of having a band. I want to have that open dialogue. It’s art, so … I guess there’s really no right or wrong when you’re talking about creativity, in some senses. But I feel like, if I just worked with session musicians, people might just do what I specifically want. And I want to be challenged. I want to have my mind opened.
It gives them some ownership and identity in creating the sound, as well.
Yeah, I agree. I think that makes it a collective effort and certainly more fun for everybody, as a whole. It becomes “ours.”
As usual, there are some classic influences lurking about, even while you push your sound ever-forward. Are you someone who is always listening to music, filing it away to reference later?
I kind of go through phases of listening to a lot of music. A lot of times, I don’t listen to music at all like when I’m in writing mode — at least when I’m by myself. If I’m around the house and wanting to create or I’m in writing mode, I feel like the silence in the room allows ideas and songs to enter my head … which isn’t going to happen if I’m listening to music all the time. But my favorite way to listen to music is amongst people. It’s a very social thing for me. If I have company, I love having music and being the DJ. Or, if I’m at a friend’s house, I love hearing what they have to present. And I see an absolute ton of live music. I actually feel like the live music is where a lot of new, fresh music is. Even if I see a classic artist like Robert Plant or Neil Young coming through Austin, I feel very inspired by the live show.
But, as far as a lot of classic rock … it’s just been something that’s really stuck with me for a long time now. I think different influences seep in here or there. On each album, it’s usually a different influence from something I’ve loved over the years because I’m trying — and even the band, as a whole is trying — new things. On the last album, there was T. Rex and Curtis Mayfield. On this one …
There are some Byrds on there, for sure.
There are definitely the Byrds for “Journey.” Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd was a big inspiration for “Wind Up Bird.” Each song has a collective. You know that song “Summer Madness” by Kool & the Gang?
That was a big influence for the vibe of “The Fool.”
That’s an instrumental song, but it was kind of taking that vibe and mixing it with a soul song.
Some of the bass lines definitely have some soul going on.
Yeah, it was definitely channeling some old ’70s and late ’60s R&B. Then we mixed it with that Kool & the Gang vibe. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Wild. Now, similarly, how does geography work its way in? How do Ohio and Texas play off each other in your writing — if that’s something you can parse out at all?
It definitely, in a sense, has something to do with my writing. For one thing, I grew up my whole life in Ohio. A lot of my musical influences, early shows I saw there, the first bands I played in — just those different parts of growing up in Ohio — that certainly has played a part in my inspirations. It’s definitely a strong part of where my influences, from a long time ago, come from.
Some of that, I don’t even know if I could specify. For instance, a huge influence on me was Mahalia Jackson. She had a song on a Christmas compilation when I was a kid. It’s a religious song — “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — and it’s a Christmas album, but I was listening to it year-round. Just that song, not the whole Christmas album. When I think about that, I think about growing up in my house, listening to that. That was in Ohio, but I don’t know about specifically associating Mahalia Jackson with Ohio … you know what I mean?
[Laughs] It just all kind of converged in you and comes out that way.
Yeah. And then, living in Austin, there’s so much live music that comes through here. I see a lot more live music than I did living in Ohio. A lot of the bands tour through there, too, but they’ll usually pick one city per tour. Like, “I’ll play Columbus this time and six months later we’ll go play Cleveland.” Austin gets everybody. It’s a must-stop place for tours. So, I definitely think that’s been a big influence.
As far as geography … I do these things where I get in my car because I can’t focus at home and I’m like, “Well, maybe if I just go somewhere and isolate myself then I can focus more and force some words out.” So I travel a bit here and there.
The Immediacy of the Moment: An Interview with the Heartless Bastards
You said in an interview that you “feel like [Arrow is] the closest I’ve gotten to where I was trying to go with ideas.” Is that still true or did you get there on this one, too?
Gosh. That’s an interesting question. I think, in a lot of ways, we got where we were trying to go. But, in so many ways … there was this part in writing this record and working on it and recording, there was this idea that so much of it was in the moment. Even struggling to finish lyrics right up to the last minute. We kind of knew where we were trying to go, but there was something that felt so immediately executed about it that, after taking a little bit of time away, it was almost like discovering the record for the first time or being able to sit back and be like, “Okay, this is what we created.”
Maybe for me, because of working on the lyrics right up through the recording process, I had that on my mind constantly. So we had done pre-production and knew where we were going with the sound. But, for lyrical content with myself, I have that so much on my mind that it was hard to look at everything as a whole. I don’t know how to explain that.
And, when I finished the lyrics, they were so immediate and I was kind of scared that I wasn’t going to feel good about them or identify with them later because I hadn’t taken the extra time to do that sort of self-analyzation thing. That’s kind of a nice aspect, too. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s the other thing I read. You were talking about the idea of the journey being the destination and that practice of trying to stay present and in the moment. Do you feel like that’s not something you can just grasp intellectually — you kind of have to live your way into and through that to learn it? That was my experience, at least.
Oh, definitely. In all honesty, I think that’s something … in a sense, we all know what can be good or healthy for us, good decisions we can make in our lives. But it’s the actual step that is the true challenge.
Yeah. You had to let go, to a certain extent, of what you wanted from the album and let it be what it needed to be.
Exactly. I think sometimes, even though we know these things, that we need to re-remind ourselves of them. It’s a repeated thing that can come up.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.