Used with Erika Wennerstrom
They say dynamite comes in small packages.
If that’s true, then Erika Wennerstrom should have “TNT” stenciled across her chest.
The lead singer and guitarist of Heartless Bastards, the fantastic new garage rock trio on Fat Possum Records, is modest offstage in a Midwestern kinda way. Yet when the petite, blonde Ohio native strolls onto the darkened stage at The Independent in San Francisco and the band tears into “New Resolution” off their 2005 release, Stairs and Elevators, a Beast is unleashed.
Amidst bassist Mike Lampling and drummer Kevin Vaughn’s thundering rhythm section, Wennerstrom’s simple, driving guitar lines and ferociously raw, slightly androgynous vocals sound like a more rockin’ Patti Smith fronting an old Ramones B-side. It’s no surprise then, as we walk into Amoeba Music, to hear that Wennerstrom is currently reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.’
“It’s all about the early punk and underground music scene from the early 80s through the 90s,” Wennerstrom says. “It’s got Black Flag, Husker Du, Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr. and all those great early punk bands in it, and it talks all about the bands that made up that scene and then connects them to folks like Sonic Youth and Nirvana from the early 90s. Growing up, I was a big fan of punk music and listened to a lot of local punk bands back in Ohio, so I think that music has influenced our band and the sound of the record a lot.”
Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion is one of those bands from the early 90s that tried to pick up the punk rock mantle where Mike Watt, D. Boon and George Hurley left off. While she wasn’t a big fan of the Blues Explosion material, Wennerstrom cites Boss Hog’s Girl Positive Plus, an EP featuring a collaboration between Spencer and wife Cristina Martinez, as an early influence.
“When I was in high school, somebody told me about Boss Hog,” she says. “I’m not a big fan of all their albums, but Girl Positive Plus is a cool record I really like. That particular EP is just a really good punk rock record, with some brass instruments on a few of the tracks that makes it sound a little ska.”
From the punk rock of the 80s and 90s to the psychedelic prog rock of 2005, Wennerstrom is a big fan of The Mars Volta. The Volta seems to be on everyone’s “Best of” list for this year, and for good reason their albums challenge the listener while their live shows are awe-inspiring.
“The Mars Volta was the band I really wanted to see when we went to Bonnaroo this summer,” Wennerstrom admits. “I really liked At the Drive-In, the band those guys were in before Mars Volta – for some reason it reminded me a lot of Rage Against the Machine. Unfortunately, we played in Indianapolis the night they played at the festival, so we didn’t get a chance to see them play. Their set was the late-night set from like one to six in the morning, so I was trying to figure out if we could finish our show and still make it in time. But it was like a five-hour drive, so we didn’t make it.”
A number of rock writers in reviewing _Stairs and Elevators_or Heartless Bastards’ live shows have likened Wennerstrom’s vocals to that of a young Robert Plant. While not as bluesy as Plant’s voice was in its prime, Wennerstrom’s voice does share that same stark, haunting feeling perfected by the Zeppelin frontman.
“I’ve gotten more excited about Led Zeppelin over the last few years. I actually didn’t listen to Zeppelin much when I was growing up, cause classic rock was on the radio some much that I just grew sick of it,” she says. “The same thing with the Stones. It’s on the radio every day so you kind of get numb to it. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is an amazing album that’s really stood up over the years. Bowie’s just the coolest. Ziggy Stardust is probably my favorite album of his, but he’s done great stuff all throughout his career. All his albums are really different and yet they all sound like Bowie. I guess that’s why he’s one of the best ever you know when it’s his music.”
The signing of Heartless Bastards by the Oxford, Mississippi-based Fat Possum label is just another one of those stories in rock music that you chalk up to Fate. The band was on a mini-tour through the Midwest and hung out with Patrick Carney, drummer of The Black Keys, after a sparsely attended show in Carney’s hometown of Akron, Ohio.
“I should probably say at this point that I never check the Junk Mail on our Hotmail account, cause I figured the computer just knew if it were junk mail or not,” Wennerstrom says with a smirk and quick laugh. “Come to think of it, I’ve probably missed a lot of important emails over the years. Anyway, we got back from that tour and weeks went by. Finally, Mike ended up checking the email randomly, called me and asked why I didn’t tell him that Fat Possum had emailed us. I had no idea they’d sent us an email, but apparently they’d emailed several times after Patrick told them about seeing us. So we got in touch with them and two weeks later, Matthew Johnson, who’s the head of the label, called and asked us to come to New York. We literally had four hours of sleep, drove up to New York and ran through our set in the studio in about an hour in front of Matthew. A week later, we were signed.”
Erika’s Picks Boss Hogg, Girl Positive Plus (EP) David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust Michael Jackson, Thriller The Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium