On 2009’s The Mountain, Heartless Bastards went to Austin and dipped a toe in the alt-country pool. With Lucinda Williams experiencing wedded bliss, bandleader Erika Wennerstrom could step into the role of alt-country’s rough-edged leading lady. Heartless Bastards went another direction on their new album Arrow, however; the record, recorded in the Austin studio of Spoon drummer Jim Eno, continues the band’s exploration, but its most important facet is that it’s a straightforward rock record that owes more to Phil Lynott and Marc Bolan than Uncle Tupelo. Most everything else, including the release date, is coincidental.
You’re releasing an album called Arrow on Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure I see the symbolism.
It’s actually a total coincidence. I had already planned on naming the album Arrow, but with our band name being Heartless Bastards people at the label thought it would be a funny thing to release the album on Valentine’s Day. I said it was even funnier, because I was going to name the album Arrow. I told them at the time that I hoped people wouldn’t think I’m naming my album in some sort of stunt, but I don’t know that people will remember it by the time March, or even February 20th rolls around.
You don’t have any personal vendettas against Valentine’s Day, then?
I could go really either way. I don’t know. Do you love Valentine’s Day? Are you a big fan of it?
It’s kind of a made-up holiday. I like the ones where you get to eat.
Yeah, I’ve never been a fan of purple teddy bears and satin heart pillows and things like that. I don’t have anything for it or against it, really.
So this Arrow / Valentine’s Day thing isn’t some sort of secret code. I’m a little disappointed.
It was our label that saw humor in putting out a Heartless Bastards record on Valentine’s Day. The name thing is coincidental.
If it’s not a Valentine Day da Vinci code, where did the name come from?
I love all of my songs equally in a lot of ways, but “The Arrow and the Beast” is special to me. I really love singing that song, and I guess I’d have to say it’s one of my favorites on the album. It’s just a shortened version, which sounded better as an album title.
Did you decide on that early on, or did you name the album after it was completed?
I kicked around some other ideas, and the whole title of the song did cross my mind, but it still just seemed too long. A friend of mine suggested Arrow, and it was something that I had already been thinking about. I immediately saw an image of a buffalo with an arrow piercing it, and I knew that it was right.
The cover and the title sound like something Neil Young and Crazy Horse would have done. Anything happening there?
I hadn’t thought about it, but our publicist also asked me if I was inspired by them. I am a huge Neil Young fan, but I think have to say that this is another coincidence.
Darn. Another song that stands out on the record is the first single, “Parted Ways.” It could have been just a really sad song, but you imbue it with a tentative strength.
As far as it being the single, the band really doesn’t pick that kind of thing. That particular song shows me in a happier place. After I wrote The Mountain I went through the break-up of a nine-year relationship. I think that the theme of this song, and a few of the other songs on the album, is finding a place of strength and being more comfortable with myself. I’m feeling independent and more content with myself. Is that enough? I’m not very articulate.
What would you have picked for the single?
I don’t want to say that we wouldn’t have picked that one; it’s more that our label and our management are saying that they would like “Parted Ways” to be the song, and I also felt like it would it be okay. I don’t want to say that we didn’t have any input; it was more that it was fine with us that they wanted that song. I think there any number of songs that would have worked. It’s really hard to predict what people are going to like anyway. I felt that “Parted Ways” was one that was more friendly for radio, and that’s what they saw. We agreed with that and that was our single.
A lot of the strength of that song comes from the instrumentation. Where do you start with your writing?
I get melodies in my head, and I carry them around with me for a while. I don’t record most of them. If a melody is any good, it will keep coming back to me and be in my head all the time. That’s how my process always works. I’ll carry these ideas around sometimes for a year. When we aren’t touring as much, I try to sit down and focus to finish the song. A lot of times the hardest part is finding the words that match my melodies. They need to convey meaning, but also work together musically. You can say things a lot of different ways in a song, but some words are just going to fit better musically than others. I try to put it all together and then bring it in to the band. I explain to them where I’m trying to go with the song. I feel like we have similar tastes, and that’s worked well. When I say I want to head somewhere, everybody is into that and gets it, and then we all try to get there together. “Parted Ways” in particular is inspired by Thin Lizzy’s cover of “Whiskey in the Jar.”
Love. That. Song.
Yeah, me too. I used to bartend in Cincinnati and it got played on the jukebox all the time. I fell in love with it, and I never, ever got tired of hearing it. When I started working on the melody for “Parted Ways,” something about it reminded me of that song. The band was into that idea. I love how Thin Lizzy and T. Rex used the acoustic guitar in an electric song. You’re able to get that percussive effect and the warm tone of the acoustic. I guess it’s more percussive on “Parted Ways” and tonal on “Gotta Have Rock and Roll.” It’s generally a quick process, because we’re able to work together really well.
Does the line-up of the band affect your approach to writing?
No. I don’t even know where my song ideas actually come from. I can’t remember the last time that I sat down and wrote a song on purpose. I don’t write for who I’m playing with; I just try to get the idea down. I have found, though, that this was the closest that I’ve been able to get to what I’ve been envisioning. I feel like I’m on the same page with my band so much, that the process has just worked. Even though this is the first record, they are on, we’ve been touring together for four and a half years. I moved to Austin and recorded The Mountain with Mike McCarthy, and I needed to find a live band. Dave (Colvin), our drummer, happened to be living in Austin, and he was actually the original drummer on a demo that I did for Heartless Bastards in 2003. I asked Jesse (Ebaugh) if he was willing to move to Austin and join the band, and I just caught him at a good time. I’ve known those guys for years, and then we met Mark when he did sound on the tour before The Mountain. We were a three piece at that point, but I’d heard from a lot of people that he was a great guitarist. I just knew that was going to work out, so we asked him to come on board. I feel like I’m drifting off the question. Is this a Q and A?
We can deviate from the script a little.
Well, our producer Jim (Eno, of Spoon) suggested that we tour on the album before we went in the studio. I feel like we’re definitely a live band, and that was a way to get that energy on the album. We toured with the Drive-By Truckers in February and March and went in and cut the album two days later. All of the tracking and vocals are all live, even on something like “Simple Feeling.” On “Low, Low, Low,” we all stood in a circle and played the whole thing live.
How many takes are we talking on these songs?
It’s a little vague at this point, but I would say between three and six.
That’s not bad at all.
We might have done a couple more, even, but I feel like after you warm up to a song there’s a certain point where it begins to lose its energy. After being on the road, a lot of the songs went really quickly.
Was there a song that was hard to get your head around on this record?
As far as the recording process?
It seems like there’s always one difficult song on every album. It’s the hardest one to finish.
Gosh. Maybe “Marathon,” just because that was the first track we recorded in the studio. The first one is pretty tough. Actually, now that I think about it, we actually cut “Marathon” and “Parted Ways” before we went out on the tour. It’s all coming back to me. We were between labels, and it just seemed to take a while to get things sorted out. It will have been about a year at the time the album comes out. “Arrow Killed the Beast” was also a challenge, because it’s not a traditional drum kit. Jesse, myself, and Mark tracked on that song with Jesse on the upright bass. We added the percussion later. It’s such a different process, because we’re used to the drum carrying the time. I don’t know if we used a click track or not, but that’s not quite as appealing to the ear.
You mentioned changing labels. This is your first record for Partisan. What precipitated the change?
I don’t know that I would say anything really; it just seemed like at this point in the band’s career it was the right move. There wasn’t a big fallout with Fat Possum. Partisan was just really enthusiastic about Heartless Bastards, and they do such a great job pushing their bands. They did a great job with Deer Tick, who I love. I feel like we’re be able to move forward together in our careers. It sounds cheesy saying that, when people admit that they really want to be good at what they do.
I can change it in edits. Don’t worry.
For some reason I feel weird saying career, even though it is my career. I’m actually really thankful to be able to live off what I do and what I love to do. It’s a pretty special thing. We’re not gigantic, but I’m pretty proud of where we’ve gotten. I think I drifted on that one too.