Interview: Heartless Bastards on Erika Wennerstrom's Huge Voice, Male Groupies, and Hookers in Flip-Flops
Erika Wennerstrom: "I want to sound like Nico and Lou Reed."
photo by Cambria Harkey Dave Colvin, Erika Wennerstrom, Jesse Ebaugh
Heartless Bastards are having an incredible year: a spot on The Late Show with David Letterman, great reviews for their latest record The Mountain, and an appearance on the PBS program Austin City Limits, not to mention the non-stop supporting gigs for Jenny Lewis, the Decemberists, and the Avett Brothers. Somehow in between all of this, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, drummer Dave Colvin, and the bombastically voiced Erika Wennerstrom--who in person is a sunny mix between citified cowgirl and Janice from the Electric Mayhem--found the time to record two country standards with Alex Moss of the Black Angels, available online digitally and as a seven-inch, under the name Sweet Tea. I've known the band for years--in December 2001, I recorded the Heartless Bastards demo at Ultrasuede Studio in Cincinnati--and spoke with them by phone yesterday. Tonight, they share a bill with thenewno2 and Wolfmother at Music Hall of Williamsburg.
You guys have been really busy this last year. Have you had any down time at all?
Erika: Not really. The most we've had off at one time is two weeks, and when we're home we're usually working on stuff. We did the Austin City Limits taping, press, stuff like that, so we've stayed pretty consistently busy.
How does that feel?
Erika: Good, yeah, I mean I'd rather be too busy than not busy at all, and it's all working toward something that I've always wanted to do and that I enjoy doing.
Jesse: We're all pretty well cut for touring. It's good to work; if you get to work, you get to eat. We're lucky to get work, and we manage the time a little bit, so we can have personal lives too. But we all know that the way to make a band [successful] is to tour. That's the only way you can make a band work. I'm really happy about it; I love being on the road.
Do you ever read any of your reviews on Amazon? My favorite is the guy who says your voice is a cross between Janis Joplin and Judy Garland.
Erika: Oh gosh, really? That's funny! I don't think I've read that, but I like that.
Whenever Heartless Bastards are mentioned, Erika's voice comes up. Where does your singing voice come from?
Erika: I've been influenced by so many different singers that sound so completely different, and I'm kind of trying to emulate them all. I like everybody from Joan Jett to The Who and Nico from the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed-I want to sound like Nico and Lou Reed. Another big influence for me is Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star, and then there's Iggy Pop, Ray Charles, and Billie Holliday. I feel like there's a good 40 or 50 singers and I'm influenced by them all. When I'm writing songs, I almost picture one of my favorite singers in my head, one of my forty or fifty favorites, and try to-if something about the song reminds me of them then I picture myself as them singing. I just, gosh, I shouldn't say that, that sounds bad. [Laughs.]
Don't worry, we'll edit this. We'll make you sound very, very cool. Speaking of which, any male groupies?
Any male groupies?
Erika: I don't know, I never look for 'em. I just... no. I don't know, I picture groupies as people trying to go backstage. I have plenty of male fans, but we don't have people trying to get backstage or anything like that. I don't know, maybe we do. Sometimes if I go out to the merch table someone will joke and be like, [in a dunce drawl] "Will you marry me?" But it's not like they're serious, they're just joking around. I wouldn't put that in any kind of groupie realm. [Laughs.]
What about the guys though? In all of your interviews I've read, nobody mentions how hot your band is.
Erika: Um, yeah, I don't know if they want me to answer you this way, but they're all just a group of guys that aren't looking for groupies. They don't really have an interest in some chick trying to show her giant boobs [laughs] backstage or something. Mark [Nathan, guitar] is married, Dave just got engaged, Jesse's been seeing somebody, so it's like, no. But I don't even know if I should talk about that, I don't know if it makes us look rock-and-roll or not. We all just drink hot tea backstage, we all take our vitamins.
Would you still be doing this if [Black Keys drummer] Patrick Carney hadn't walked into that bar in Akron and then sent your stuff to Fat Possum?
Erika: Yeah I think so, I think we would've continued to play. Something would've happened.
I've just always wanted to do this since I was like, I don't even know, three or four years old. I always wanted to sing and write music. There was a point when I was a young adult, late teens, and I had left high school, and I said, "Well this is always what I've wanted to do, I really need to start working on that." And then it took another good seven years before I began Heartless Bastards, but I had really kind of begun a lot of the process of working on that back then.
I've just had this feeling within me that I've always wanted to do it. What else am I going to do, you know? I have lots and lots of interests, but nothing that I feel as strong about as music. I almost feel like I need to do it, like I have to do it or something.
Jesse: Erika called me and asked if I wanted to join up, and I thought, "Erika's an exceptional singer, Dave's an exceptional drummer... hell yeah I'll do it!" What else am I going to do, sit around Covington [Kentucky] smoke crack, and fuck hookers in flip-flops? [laughs] Seriously though, I knew before I heard Erika's songs that I wanted to play in her band.
You guys have opened for a range of bands--there's a big stretch between The Avett Brothers and Wolfmother and the Decemberists. Would you rather open for a band with a similar sound, or something that's radically different?
Erika: We've been pretty different from every band that we've opened for this year. The closest would maybe be The Black Keys, but I still think we have a lot of different elements. As far as sound that fits, I think there's a certain fit that works even if your music isn't completely similar, and I think it works because most people have a pretty diverse taste in music. Somebody'll listen to A Tribe Called Quest and they'll also listen to Mastodon. I think that people just like good music.
The Sweet Tea single has been out for a while. Have you gotten a lot of feedback on that?
Erika: Yeah, at the shows out on tour people mention that they really like it, and they ask me if we're going to do more stuff, and yeah, I think eventually when we get some more time, we're going to do some more work with that project.
Jesse: It would be nice to find the time to do more. Alex Moss is super fun to work with, he's really creative, and we were able to just sort of pull it off really quickly and easily and it sounded really nice.
Any all-time favorite shows you've played?
Erika: Um, I don't know, we just play so many of them. It's not quite as hard as answering, "What's your favorite song," [but] there's just so many places that we've been playing that it all kind of becomes a blur sometimes. And then all of the sudden, I'm like, "Oh, I remember that night!" Of course, New York is one of my favorites. There's so much energy in the city, diversity, it's a really great cultural experience. I don't know, I probably sound like a dork saying that. [laughs] I think I can vouch for the whole band. We love New York.
I know you don't get much time to hang out here, but when you do, do you have any favorite spots you like to hit? Bars? Restaurants?
Erika: I've had some good times in bars, but I never know the names of any of them. A lot of 'em don't even have signs, you know what I mean? I usually end up following people to, like, a building. I could always use a good slice of New York pizza.
You moved to Austin from Cincinnati. Does Austin feel like home to you yet?
Erika: It definitely feels like home. I spent just about a year there before we started touring. It's just been two years now since I moved there. Yeah, it feels like home.
What's been the craziest rock-and-roll thing that's happened to you so far, and what's been the lamest?
You were crowdsurfing, or the audience?
Jesse: We're playing for younger kids on this tour, and they're crowdsurfing, which is pretty fun. But most of the really good stories that I could tell about really rockin' moments I wouldn't want to have printed. Really suspect, debaucherous things. Things I would never want my mother to know.
Dave: It's pretty cool to meet [son of George, thenewno2 member] Dhani Harrison. He's got a whole entourage, with Hare Krishnas that come out every other night and give us real flower leis and samosas.
Jesse: Roger Daltrey was supposed to show up last night, we had to put him on our guest list, but he never showed up.