Straight shootin’ with the Heartless Bastards

“Some people call what I create alt-country,” says Heartless Bastards front woman Erika Wennerstrom. “I don’t think I’d label us exactly that,” she adds. The singer, whose strapping vocals could peel back paint on a wall, seems frustrated by labels but too polite to damn them outright. A lot of garagey, blues bands get too polished off after a few records, losing the scruff that once made them appealing, including fellow Ohioans The Black Keys. On their fourth album, Arrow (Partisan), the Bastards are as raw and raucous as ever. These consistent purveyors of rib-rattling, roots rock credit the miles behind them and a moderate amount of whiskey with keeping their hearts in the music.

The Hook: Your last album, The Mountain, got a lot of critical praise. Did you set out to top it with Arrow?
Erika Wennerstrom: Music is what you are feeling at the moment and some people would argue that our first album was our best, so you don’t tend to thing of things that way. I’m most proud of Arrow because it feels closest to what I’ve been trying to do all along. I have finally figured out how to get down on a record what I hear in my head.

The Hook: All of your albums have a real sense of honesty and experience about them. Have you considered something out of character, say a rock opera?
Erika Wennerstrom: I’ve certainly considered things that might be out of character for the Heartless Bastards, but never a rock opera. That wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I’ve never been a big fan of musicals. Maybe it’s just because they all just sound super-happy. I like up-beat songs, but when they sound happy, not so much. (laughs)

The Hook:You’ve considered playing a different style of music though, right?
Erika Wennerstrom:I love jazz music. Dave [Colvin] who is in the band has a Masters in jazz studies, so yes I’ve contemplated the idea of doing something totally different.

The Hook: There are a lot of wide open spaces mentioned on this album. Would you say it was fueled by relentless touring?
Erika Wennerstrom: It was actually the time off the road that inspired it. I took several road trips between tours and isolated myself to focus and write. A ranch outside the Davis Mountains near Marfa, Texas inspired a lot of the imagery on the album. Movement and traveling is definitely a vibe throughout these songs.

The Hook: On “Parted Ways,” you sing about needing whiskey to ease your mind. Are you guys big drinkers on the road?
Erika Wennerstrom:We definitely like our whiskey, but there’s a point when you are out on the road you could seriously burn out or have some serious health issues if you do that too much. We keep it at bay.

The Hook: Speaking of bad habits, you've admitted that the band's name comes from a touchscreen quiz game that listed The Heartless Bastards as the possible name of Tom Petty's backup band. Are you still one of the glowing faces we see at the end of a bar?
Erika Wennerstrom:Not lately. No. (laughs)

The Hook:Have you ever had the chance to share that story with Tom Petty?
Erika Wennerstrom: Oh, gosh. It would be amazing to meet Tom Petty, but I haven’t had that opportunity. Maybe one of these days.
The Heartless Bastards play Wednesday, February 29 at the Southern. It's an all-ages show with tickets $14. 9pm show with doors open at 8pm and the Fling opening.

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