Founded in Ohio nearly a decade ago, Heartless Bastards are a bare-bones rock 'n roll band built around the powerful voice and songwriting skills of singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. Though the lineup has changed over the years, their sound remains in a sweet spot: Wennerstrom's gnarled vocals airing striking melodies amid bruising, blues-derived guitar rock. As you might expect of an outfit that's toured with Drive-By Truckers and a guitarist who played with Lucinda Williams, the Bastards' sound bears a decidedly rootsy influence -- especially on their latest album, Arrow.
As the new songs demonstrate, Heartless Bastards are still making rock that feels vital and important -- even if influences like Thin Lizzy, T-Rex, and the Rolling Stones don't have the patina of newness. So, after our recent conversation with Wennerstrom, let us offer five things you should know about the Heartless Bastards before this Thursday, April 5, when they play the Fillmore.
1. They were introduced to their first label by Patrick Carney of the Black Keys -- back when the Black Keys were still, you know, an "indie" band.
Both the Black Keys and the Heartless Bastards were originally based in Ohio. Keys drummer Carney passed the Bastards' demo to his label Fat Possum, which released the Bastards' acclaimed debut album, and which prompted many to compare the sound of the two bands. But about four years ago, Wennerstrom relocated to Austin. "When we see [the Black Keys] it's friendly, but we're never in regular contact with each other to begin with," she says.
2. The name isn't meant to be antagonistic.
One night, after her bar-tending shift had ended, Wennerstrom played a trivia game in the bar. One of the questions was, "What's the name of Tom Petty's backing band?" "Heartless Bastards" was an incorrect choice. "I thought it was really funny," Wennerstrom remembers, "and I was also a big fan of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and I thought [we] kind of had a sound reminiscent to that.
3. But the name still confuses people.
"People don't know if the name is expressed towards other people, like... I'm a woman saying that towards men or something," Wennerstrom laughs. "Or sometimes maybe people think we're a metal band. With the name, people aren't sure what to think."
4. The band's latest album, Arrow, features far more acoustic guitars than previous albums have -- but the acoustic guitars still rock.
"I play acoustic on seven of 10 songs, which, for the previous albums, I might play it on one song here or there," Wennerstrom explains. I was listening to 'Street Fighting Man' by the Rolling Stones, which I think is one of their most rocking songs, and that acoustic guitar is just right up front there." T-Rex's sound was also an influence on Arrow: "They incorporate an acoustic guitar sound into a rocking sort of musical setting."
5. Wennerstrom has played the Fillmore six times, but the Heartless Bastards have never headlined. This Thursday, April 5, will change that.
"It feels really good to go back and headline," she says. "There's just not that many musical venues in the states that have been around that long, that have that history."