The Restless Spirit of the Heartless Bastards

The Austin-based quartet play with sounds from classic blues to Nancy Sinatra

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Nathan Presley

From left: Jesse Ebaugh, Dave Colvin, Erika Wennerstrom, and Mark Nathan

The Heartless Bastards recorded their first demo more than ten years ago, but you can still find it on the jukebox at the The Comet, a restaurant-dive-bar in Northside, Cincinnati. The demo CD had no title, but did include, as Erika Wennerstrom—the frontwoman and songwriter of the band—explained, a long paragraph scrawled across the front about how she’d wanted to sing since she was young.  It was those words got them signed to their first record label.

It sounds, at first, like an apocryphal background tale, but after sitting across from Wennerstrom, Jesse Ebaugh, Dave Colvin, and Mark Nathan for five minutes, I realize that there is something just as otherworldly about the quartet as this story. “We’re definitely a throwback,” Nathan, the band’s guitarist, tells me as he describes the their roots. Although this may be true, it’s almost impossible to define precisely the Heartless Bastards’ sound—their music seems to belong as much to rock as it does to soul and blues, but there’s even more to it than that. “I spent time on a ranch in Texas,” Wennerstrom says as she describes the band’s most recent album Arrow.  “I thought a lot about Ennio Morricone.” Later that night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I would hear Wennerstrom deliver a cover of  Junior Kimbrough’s blues classic, “Done Get Old.”

This atypically broad series of influenceswhich also includes Thin Lizzy and Nancy Sinatrais warmly welcomed by the band, and hardly surprising for a group that rose from the ashes of an all-girl band called Shesus—Wennerstrom, back then, was on bass, and Colvin, as women drummers were in rather short supply in Dayton, was recruited to complete the rhythm section.

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The Heartless Bastards also recorded their first album with Fat Possum, which, historically, is a blues record label. (Wennerstrom was one of, if not the first woman signed by Fat Possum).  During their performance after speaking with me, Wennerstrom paused before the third song of their set to tell her audience that the pre-show music had actually been a recording of her grandmother, whom she had never met, and who sang in the 1920’s. Their tastes are present but sometimes still latent—on their song “Only For You,” Wennerstrom toyed around with a Curtis Mayfield-like falsetto, and yet she made it sound still quintessentially Heartless Bastards.  Which is to say, a well written, but poignant melody arranged into a rock song.

It is perhaps also not surprising that the Heartless Bastards seem rather ambivalent about the idea of belonging to any one particular movement of contemporary music. They seem genuinely less preoccupied with fitting in than they are with writing and performing music they love—a fact they share with true candor. “We’re all like-minded in terms of our influences, and you have to take that and do what you do” Clovin tells me. “If you start to put that in context of what’s hip, then you become dishonest.”

Seeing the band perform it is immediately clear that Wennerstrom’s voice is one of the cornerstones of their success. It is tender even when it is severe, and she is unabashedly soulful even when she rocks, almost as though she were at once performing a slow country ballad and singing alongside Mark Bolan from T. Rex.  Her voice harmonizes and even thrives with what might otherwise be discord—she plays an acoustic guitar during her song “Got To have Rock And Roll.” This flexibility is exactly what put the band’s influences “all over the map,” as Wennerstrom put it, and makes it just as much fun to hear her sing their electric hit “All This Time” as it is to hear her deliver a cover of 60’s Stax singer Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter.”

Although Arrow was released in 2012, this year the Heartless Bastards have been keeping busy with several smaller tours—they are about to begin their second European tour—but more importantly, have scored Alex and Andrew Smith’s forthcoming film, Winter in The Blood. As unusual as it may seem today for a band to write an entire film score, the band was confronted with another obstacle: “The film hadn’t been completed, so we put it together from reading the book and the script,” Wennerstrom told me. (The Heartless Bastards seem particularly deft in a tight spots—Wennerstrom skillfully strummed her Les Paul with her thumb for the better part of a song after dropping her pick.  Jack White tore open his finger attempting a similar move).

As the band left the stage in Williamsburg that night, laid down their instruments, and vanished through a black door into a neon-lit corridor, it seemed uncertain at first whether they would return to the stage. It was a decidedly different scene than shows early in their career where once, Wennerstrom told me, they played “for a bar with five people and a drunk couple dancing up front.” They seem to enjoy playing on stage together as much as their fans enjoy listening. “We just do our thing,” she says almost unassumingly. “I hope we sound fresh. And I hope people love what we do.” It is a simple request, and one that the audience is eager to oblige.

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