Heartless Bastards, the band centred around the songwriting and vocal talents of Erika Wennerstrom, have been recording and touring for more than ten years now (they were signed to Fat Possum records back in 2004 after a demo was passed on by Patrick Carney of the Black Keys), but have only come to TMO’s attention with the release of their third album Arrow, an impressively expansive piece of raw american sound which paints soundscapes for Wennerstrom’s distinctively gritty voice to populate with wanderers and outcasts.
We got in touch with Wennerstrom for an email interview to discuss her songwriting, Ennio Morricone, and TMO favourites Thin Lizzy.
I never think about the 3 minute radio song average when I’m writing. Imagine Stairway to Heaven or Neil Young’s Harvest Moon as a 3 minute song.
Can you tell us a little bit about the writing/recording of Arrow? How did it differ from the previous albums?
I took some road trips on my own to the Eastern US and to the Western Texas desert. I needed to try to clear my mind and focus on writing the album. The trips really helped influence the subject matter of the album. There’s a lot of travelling, open space, and soul searching. For the recording of the album Jim Eno [Drummer with Spoon, and respected producer] suggested we do a tour with the songs to give them more of a live sound. We went in the studio fresh off the road, two days after tour ended. I’ve been touring with this band for several years now, but we came together after the last album was recorded. It was the first time after several years of working with each other that we were on an album together. There was a lot of enthusiasm during the making of this record.
I love the title Arrow for the album. How did you decide on that, and more generally how do you decide on album titles? Are they important, or just something that needs to be done in order to package it up and get it out there?
Oh sure, I think it’s important to some extent. The Arrow Killed the Beast was one of my favorite songs to sing and it felt different than anything I’d done in the past. The song symbolizes an end to some things in my life and then on to new beginnings. I thought shortening the title to Arrow would have a nice ring to it.
One thing I noticed listening to the album was that there are a number of longer songs on it. Is that a bit of a musical shift?
No, I have a tendency to write long songs. I always have. I think it’s because I’m a huge fan of classic rock, and most of those bands have long songs. I never think about the 3 minute radio song average when I’m writing. Imagine “Stairway to Heaven” or Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” as a 3 minute song.
What’s the worst piece of musical advice you have ever received?
If it’s that bad I usually don’t take it. I don’t really look back and think of where I’d be if I didn’t take certain suggestions. Whether they’re right or wrong, it all comes down to trusting my own insticts.
How much, if at all, do you think about entertaining your audience when writing songs?
I don’t really think about it. I think if your into what you’re writing, and feel that the song is good, people will be entertained by that. At times I do think about our live performance and ways to make it stronger, but it’s not something in the writing process that would occur to me.
It sounds like there’s a bit of a Morricone influence on tracks like The Arrow Killed the Beast? Is that fair, and if so what is it about Morricone that you like?
Yes, definitely. I’d really gotten into his Sergio Leone “Spaghetti Western” soundtracks at the time I was writing Arrow. I was also influenced by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra duets. I went for the vocal effect of those two singing over an Ennio Morricone soundscape.
If there was one thing you could change about your music/songwriting, what would it be?
I think we always have room to grow, but I don’t think I could pinpoint exaclty what would make me a better song writer. It’s a process and I don’t think I would change anything I’ve already done. Not because I think it’s perfect, but why look back?
I read somewhere that, in particular for the song Parted Ways, and more generally for the album, you were influenced by Thin Lizzy. Can you tell us a bit more (we’re big Lizzy fans at TMO!)?
I use to work at a bar and the Thin Lizzy cover of Whiskey In the Jar was played on the juke box all the time. I never got tired of hearing it. When the melody came into my head for Parted Ways, something about it made me think of that song. I knew instantly that I wanted to approach the sound that same way.
Chris Isaak once said ‘if you have to be miserable to write great songs, you should go drive a truck’, do you think he’s right?
Oh to each his own. I definitly have my moments of struggle when I write, but being miserable is not something I strive for.
If you could climb into the brain of anyone, living or dead for a day, whose would it be and how would you use it?
How about Lee Harvey Oswald? Then I could find out if there truly was a conspriacy to kill Kennedy. That would put an end to the common question.