Heartless Bastards and Time’s Arrow
Sometimes what’s needed is a good pair of cowboy boots. That’s what Heartless Bastards founder Erika Wennerstrom is searching for when our conversation begins with her way winding through Austin highway traffic. It’s not a Sex and the City moment. Rather, she’s acquiring a pair that will be painted for a Wizard of Oz style video shoot for “Marathon,” off the group’s great new album, Arrow.
On the band’s fourth release the members display a maturity that carefully sculpts influences into sonic shapes that suit them. Gone is the rawness that permeated through the act’s previous three releases. “Got To Have Rock and Roll” and “Late in the Night” bear the marks of T.Rex, while “The Arrow Killed the Beast” weaves an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western flavor at the start and then gets down ‘n’ dirty ala Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Overall, the nuanced approach, textures and epic playing is the result of Wennerstrom’s extended road trips that inspired the album’s 10 tracks, Spoon drummer Jim Eno’s production advice and a series of pre-recording live dates that sharpened the material and bonded the current Bastards lineup.
JPG: With this interview I wanted to give readers some idea of what bands go through as far as making a record. I want to go through the timetable of an album’s creation from the writing and recording to the point where it’s completed and sent to the record company and then when it’s finally available…legally. So, when did you start writing the album? Let’s start there.
EW: Well, it was over a two-year period. I get melodies in my head. That’s the start of every song that I’ve ever done. A melody will pop into my head. I tend to get inspired or ideas will pop into my head on long drives or things like that. When we were touring for The Mountain, I kept on collecting these melodies in my head.
It’s really hard on tour to sit down and try and work out songs. But generally, I remember them. I don’t even usually record them. I tell myself it’s a good idea then I won’t forget it. Sometimes I forget it for like three or four months and then it will pop into my head. Like, ‘Oh, I remember you!’ So, when we got done with touring for The Mountain it was time for me to sit down and focus and get some words and finish the songs. That is no easy task for me. It takes me a long time to figure out what I want to say. I rewrite the same line in the song like 10 times and throw a lot of things out. Finally, I decided that in order to try to get more done and sit down and focus, I took some road trips to work on the album. I headed up through Cincinnati, visited some family and friends. Then I went up, toured All Tomorrow’s Parites. I had some friends playing in bands up there and stopped up there. Then, I stayed behind in the Catskills after the festival for several days. Made my way around a bit. I went down to the Allegheny Mountains. Stayed in Pennsylvania. Found a pretty cheap cabin.
JPG: This is all so you can clear your head.
EW: Yeah, try to focus. I feel like when I, sometimes, hit a wall trying to write songs, I’ll find anything to distract myself. It’s because a lot of the songs I take in a very personal direction and, maybe, they’re even emotional for me to write. That may be part of me focusing and sitting down ‘cause it’s not easy to put myself out there so much.
JPG: I’m curious about that aspect of it; the idea of the artist putting themselves out there. Do you think that that is something that an artist should do or do you think that you can’t help but do that?
EW: It’s the latter of what you said. It’s something that I can’t help but do. It’s a challenge. There’s plenty of songs that I’ve enjoyed that don’t do that by other artists. It’s not really like a right or wrong thing. Everybody has their own process and that’s fine. Cathartic, I guess.
JPG: My question to musicians when they write as a catharsis is how do you deal with repeating those words or bringing up those thoughts night after night on the road in front of people?
EW: In a sense the act of performing it is, once it’s set, it’s there in the expression has been made. To put an analogy to my songs, they’re like my kids. I carry ‘em around for months and months with me and in a sense my ideas are growing up. Then, there’s just a point where they’re grown and I have to let them out in the world. And then you hope that people respond to them and like them. Just like if you have a kid you would want them to have a successful life and be liked by their peers.
JPG: At the same time if you bring up memories night after night, does it empower you in some way — “I’m singing it now because I defeated it.” — or are you going to it and you getting sad because…?
EW: The hardest part is getting the song out there and expressing the emotion initially. Even if a song is, maybe, about going through a hard time or something like that, I almost find comfort in continuing to perform it.
JPG: That’s good that you do. I always wonder if I’d feel that same way or I would end up depressed as hell after playing because I dredged up all of this crap again.
EW: No, at least not for myself. When it comes live, a lot of times people are singing along and identifying with it. So, it’s like a great feeling.
JPG: Back to the writing and recording. You went on your trip and focused on ideas. That was the album’s start, at least two years ago. And last year, you were on your trip, trying to focus on the writing. So at what point did you go from working on the writing to actually getting together with the band to rehearse and then go into the studio?
EW: I went on a couple of road trips. I went up to West Texas and I’m just finishing up the first part, being on a friend’s ranch out there and tried to focus on writing songs. The funny thing is, I really didn’t get even half of what I wanted to get done or finished but doing the trip really helped with a lot of inspirations for the songs, like the shape of the songs, the imagery. Some of the songs and some of the words, I was actually finishing up last minute before I’d go in and record them in the studio. Most of the song would be there, maybe missing a line here and there but having a lot of trouble finishing the end details. Then, I bring ‘em in to the band as I finished ‘em and put them together and then we start working on it as a full band.
JPG: Around when was that?
EW: The process was a little bit spread out. I went on that road trip probably in the fall of 2010. Probably starting around that time we started taking on a lot of the ideas around that time. At the first of the year, and then we started, we had planned on working with (Spoon drummer) Jim Eno. As we were putting the songs together Jim started coming in and hearing them and he’d make some suggestions.
As far as putting the songs together, I felt that I’ve toured with this same band even though it’s the first time they’re on an album. We’ve all toured together for three years. I felt that we all know each other really well. I’ve known Dave Colvin (drums) and Jesse Ebaugh (bass) for 15 years now. The process felt very natural. We all have similar tastes in music, so they got where I was trying to head with songs. It was a pretty smooth process. Jim, he’d come to the practices and he had a suggestion, which we were all really into. We’re kind of, I guess, road dogs, really like getting out there and touring. And Jim was like, “You guys are really a live band and I want to capture that in the studio. Why don’t you go out on the road and do a tour and then come in the studio? I recommend coming in right away as soon as you get back.”
I was really into that idea. I feel like when you tour, as a band and as a unit, I can hear us grow tighter with each show. So, we did a tour opening up for the Drive-By Truckers in February to March of 2011. On that tour we played pretty much the whole new album in its entirety, which didn’t leave much room for old songs. I don’t know if our fans that came out were real happy but hopefully they’ll be glad later. And then we went into the studio like two days later. The studio process went really well.
JPG: How long did it take to record, mix and master?
EW: It was a spread out here and there. The whole process was over a month but we weren’t in there every day in the studio for a month. We probably recorded all the tracks in a week or so. We tried to do a lot of the stuff live, like on “Simple Feeling.” Even a lot of the lead guitar is live. On “Simple Feeling” guitarist Mark Nathan and Jim hooked up two different amps and set up different pedals through different amps. So, there’s a wall of noise sound on that song and all of that was live. On “Low, Low, Low” we all sat in a room, like a circle. Even the vocals on that song are live.
As far as myself, I ended up tracking my acoustics and vocals. I went back and re-tracked a lot of that because I find that it can really affect mixing because then my voice is in the acoustic mic and my acoustic’s in the vocal mic. For the sake of mixing, I wanted to go back and redo that stuff. For the electric songs, my parts are live, too.
JPG: As far as specific songs, “Only for You” seems to benefit from going in the studio quickly. The guitar solo sounds really fluid. That really struck me.
EW: That song in particular was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. I’m trying to sing like him. I’ve just always loved his voice. I don’t know if musically it sounds that much like him but it was inspired by ‘70s soul music. I was trying to imagine myself singing like Curtis Mayfield. I don’t know if I actually ended up.