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Heartless Bastards and Time’s Arrow

JPG: As far as inspirations, I was thinking the songs, “Got to Have Rock and Roll “ and “Late in the Night” are very influenced by T. Rex, Marc Bolan.

EW: “Got to Have Rock and Roll” definitely is. It’s weird. My initial inspiration for “Late in the Night” was actually the Stooges but I don’t think it sounds like a Stooges song. I don’t know why. I pictured myself singing like Iggy Pop even though I don’t think I do. (slight laugh) Usually, when I’m trying to go in a certain direction it doesn’t end up sounding like where I was heading. But that was my inspiration. I remember that was one of the few songs where I’d actually wrote the melody on my road trip ‘cause a lot of them I already had the melodies and I was trying to focus and finish them. That particular song I wrote my first day I left for the road trip in between getting pulled over twice. (laughs)

JPG: Oh! Not a good way to start things…I was listening to “Down in the Canyon” and thinking that if you would have gone an octave lower, it would almost have a Black Sabbath feel to it, especially at the beginning.

EW: Uh-huh. Yeah, yeah.

JPG: You can say I’m wrong. That’s fine.

EW: No, no, you’re right actually. I did think it had a Black Sabbathy melody. Another inspiration of that song was Neil Young. Maybe it was more like the middle part of the song.

JPG: I could see that. It starts Sabbath and then morphs into something more Neil Young. Also, “Down in the Canyon” evokes that Neil Young aesthetic down in Laurel Canyon. that sort of thinking. I know we’re getting away from the timeline of the album but the song “The Arrow That Killed the Beast.” It has that spaghetti western Ennio Morricone feel to it.

EW: Oh, definitely.

JPG: Can you elaborate on the track itself because lyrically it’s kind of the title track because of the word ‘arrow’ in the title. Also, the lines “The arrow that killed the beast that was burning inside of me,” is that a reflection of your trip at all and something personal, that the song presents a passing to the other side, a more positive side?

EW: Yeah. It’s meant to be a positive thing. Even though I finished some of those words on my trip, those two particular lines were with me for a year before I even finished that song. It was the birth of that that took a long time for me to form. Sometimes, I’ll get a certain line in my head and I know that I want that line in there and I put the rest of the song around it. I feel like that is…maybe, let me see, how do I put that into words? To me it’s like moving on in a positive way with something in my life, like the death of the beast signifies a new beginning.

JPG: I was reviewing the Bob Dylan tribute album, Chimes of Freedom and your song reminded me of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the idea of moving from one area in your life to new and better one, killing off one thing to move to another, more positive direction. Now you have something in common with Dylan.

EW: Gosh, I’m such a huge fan. I’ve seen him probably 12 times with my aunt. My aunt was a huge Dylan fan. I am now, too.

JPG: When did you start seeing him?

EW: Oh, probably when I was like 12. I’m 34, so 22 years ago.

JPG: The reason I ask is there was a period when in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when he zipped through shows and the vocals were muffled. Seemed like he got out of it around ’95.

EW: Charlie Sexton was playing with him. I would see all these concerts and he does a lot of production work through Jim Eno’s studio, so he came in a couple times and he lent us a couple of guitars to record the album. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s Bob Dylan’s guitarist and we’re borrowing his guitars.’ (laughs)

JPG: In terms of that process, you recorded the album in a month…

EW: Yeah. We might not have mastered right away. It got scheduled. It probably took another month to get it mastered.

JPG: So, you were completely done with it by May 2011?

EW: It was right around May. It was a little bit of a process, just more time wise more than anything. It wasn’t like a solid, we weren’t in there for a month. It took a while to get it all wrapped up.

JPG: So you’ve got this thing done but you have to wait a while to start promoting it, how do you deal with that?

EW: This has been wonderful time-wise. Well, I’ve never been able to do long lead press, but I want as many people to hear this album I can reach and I felt like that opens some doors for me. The other thing, a lot of the process was trying to finalize the record label because we were done with our contract with Fat Possum. We were just trying to get our deal situated and that took a lot of back and forth. That’s just a long process. So I don’t think we finalized contracts or anything with the deal until September.

JPG: Even if it was done by September that’s about five months, how do you deal with the wait?

EW: I’ve been working on a film soundtrack for a local Austin filmmaker. He is from Montana. He has a twin brother. They wrote the script together. He lived in Montana and Alex lived here. It’s based on a book called Winter in the Blood by James Welch. The author was friends with his family. They wrote this film and it’s very close to their heart. We’ve just been working on it.

It was an interesting challenge and process. They wanted it to be organic and they wanted to edit their film to the music instead of us writing music to their film edits. I read the book and I wrote songs that I thought seemed to fit the character. So, there hasn’t been much down time at all. I could see what you are saying. That’s an awful lot of time not to be busy.

JPG: I think people don’t realize that about bands. They hand an album in and it’s months later before people are going to hear the final result, barring leaks and illegal downloads and all that sort of thing.

EW: Yeah, I don’t like having a lot of down time with the band. You can get rusty. Plus, we all like to play. It’s what we do for a living and we’re grateful that we’re able to do it for a living. So, we try to keep active with it. We did some regional stuff, started going into some smaller towns we’ve never been into. We did a couple of shows in Marfa, Texas and El Paso.

JPG: Talking about going to other towns reminds me of this. I’m from Ohio and I see that most of the band including yourself was originally from Cincinnati and now you’re based in Austin, I wanted to know about the influence of location on you and Heartless Bastards.

EW: That’s interesting you say that. A lot of my inspiration has been so long term. Like T. Rex, I’ve been such a fan for a long time. My inspiration for “Parted Ways” is Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar” cover. That’s the old traditional. When I bartended in Cincinnati in Arlin’s (Bar & Restaurant) that song was on the jukebox. People played it all the time and I never got sick of it. When I started writing that melody, it dawned on me that something about it was reminiscent of that song in my head, and I just wanted to approach the recording of the song and the approach of how we played it in the same approach that Thin Lizzy recorded their song.

I’m also inspired when I hear new bands and music all the time, living in Austin but so much of my influences were formed even as a teenager, a child even, like Otis Redding and a lot of old R&B and soul like Wilson Pickett, and a lot of the Muscle Shoals stuff, Aretha Franklin. I still feel inspired by new things but sometimes it’s more…I could go see DEVO and feel inspired but I wouldn’t turn around and try and sound like them. It inspires me to go and write a song that’s something that sounds like me.

I’d like to think that I’d feel inspired and creative and that I’d probably have a similar sound no matter where I’d lived at this point.

JPG: At the same time, the sound on Arrow, it starts off mellow and simmering and ends loud. Was that a set idea or came about when you put the tracks together?

EW: When we did that tour — we did a couple of local Austin shows and that tour with Drive-By Truckers — I would write setlists. Opening, you only get 45 minutes or so. And I just started, when I write sets, I try to see what flows well together; certain songs don’t quite sound right back-to-back. Actually, the order to the album is almost identical to the tour end, because I felt like it flowed together nicely.

JPG: Yes it does. It does become a bit surprising when you go from something quieter to “Got to Have Rock and Roll,” that very very loud rock ‘n’ roll. Altogether, it’s less raw than you’re previous work as well but it’s not overproduced. It seems mature.

EW: Oh cool.

JPG: One last question. How are you able to use the Heartless Bastards name and James McMurtry still uses it for his backup band?

EW: We sort of co-exist, but honestly, James McMurtry, he had a career probably 10 years before I did. He came out with James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards Live in Aught-Three like one month before my record was about to be released or went to pressing or a couple of months, I don’t remember. But it was pretty close. He was always billed as James McMurtry but we played local shows in Cincinnati, whatever cities we could get to before we signed with Fat Possum Records under the name Heartless Bastards. I believe we had it earlier. It wasn’t something that was worth court, and I don’t think people mixed it up enough.

I’ve actually ran into Ronnie [Johnson], he plays bass with him and we joked about doing a show together. I think he lives in Marfa. I’ve gone there quite a bit since I moved here. We talked about it one night. We found some humor in it. It’s not any sort of negative thing at this point. We just co-exist.

One night, I was actually at the Continental Club when I first moved to town and my friend Lauren was like, “That’s James McMurtry next to you.” And I looked down and he’s drinking a Guinness and I am, too! We have the same band name and we’re drinking the same beer! And then I ran into him at this place called the Whip In, really nice, beer, wine carryout kind of place. He was walking out of there, too. We even shop at the same store.

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