The Heartless Bastards were one of the most successful bands to come out of the Southwestern Ohio music scene nearly a decade ago. Signed to the respected Fat Possum label, the band’s albums created a national buzz, with praiseful write-ups and coverage from Rolling Stone, Village Voice and NPR, appearances at festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and tours with heavyweights like Drive-By Truckers.
That early success soon led to bigger and better things.
During their journey, The Heartless Bastards have experienced a few personnel changes and a record label switch, as well as a major relocation from Cincinnati to Austin, Tex., all of which occurred within a few years.
The one constant has been the original songs, guitar playing and vocals of Erika Wennerstrom. The current lineup has been the same since the relocation, with fellow Ohioans — bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer and Dave Colvin — making up the anchoring rhythm section. Ebaugh and Colvin actually predated the rhythm section on the first two Bastards’ albums, having assisted Wennerstrom on demos before the group even officially formed. After settling into Austin, the band added a second guitarist, Mark Nathan, a Delaware native who was doing freelance engineer and session work in Austin.
The Heartless Bastards are currently winding down promo duties for their fourth full-length, Arrow, the band’s debut for Partisan Records, which was released last year on Valentine’s Day.
“We wanted to make sure we stopped in Cincinnati before we wrapped up touring for the album, Arrow,” Wennerstrom said recently from her current home in Austin. “So that will be nice. My family lives in Columbus now and I’ll get to see them. We’re doing a little bit of a West Coast run in March and then doing a little run in Europe, and then I think we’ll just start working on a new album.”
When it comes to writing new material for the next album, Wennerstrom says she collects new ideas in her mind long before bringing the music to life on paper or with her guitar
“I usually get melodies in my head and then I kind of store them up, because a lot of times when I think of them, I’m in the middle of a tour somewhere and I’m not really able to work on them,” she says. “I’ve saved them and during the course of the year, with touring and all, I think I probably have an (album’s) worth of songs. Now I’m in the process of working them out and figuring out what I want to say within the song. I usually just remember the melodies, but I do record them now on my iPhone because there is a voice memo app.
“I try and tell myself that if it is a good idea, I’ll remember it. And I usually do remember them. Half of the time, I don’t have to go back and listen to the recordings. But I do (record them) as a precaution.”
The Heartless Bastards have been based in Austin for about five years now. It is a town long known for its exciting music scene, clubs and festivals, including the ever-growing South By Southwest fest/industry conference. It’s an oversaturated market, but Wennerstrom sees it as a plus that The Heartless Bastards were already an established brand before heading south.
“There are a ton of musicians down here,” she says. “I think there is something like 40,000 active musicians here, so there is a lot of music. Sometimes I find that it is easy for bands to get lost in the shuffle and it is not always a place I’d specifically recommend for a band to move to, to get more visibility or recognition. The Heartless Bastards were already through our second album before I moved here. I moved here because I have some family down here.
“But, that being said, it is a great town. I think it is really progressive and it supports independent businesses a lot. I can’t imagine going to a chain restaurant down here. There are so many people in their twenties, thirties and forties starting new businesses all of the time and people support them.”
Still, it is always good to come back to where it all began. There will be the special vibe behind this weekend’s two nights of shows at Newport’s Southgate House Revival.
“It’s always great,” Wennerstrom says about playing in the Queen City. “I have friends and family that come out, and everyone has always been supportive of the band in Cincinnati. I’ve always looked at Cincinnati as the home of the band or where the band started. The roots of the band are there, so it is great to come back.”
Wennerstrom says one of the reasons the band always enjoys performing in Greater Cincinnati is the still fervent core of local fans, many of whom are as familiar with the first two Bastards albums, Stairs and Elevators and All This Time, as they are the more recent releases. While most of the time on tour, the Bastards’ setlist is heavy on material from Arrow and 2009’s The Mountain (the first to feature the current Bastards lineup), she says she enjoys being able to be more retrospective in their song choices when they come back to their old stomping grounds.
“It is great to come back to a place where people are really wanting to hear songs from all of the albums,” Wennerstrom says. “Some of our success in other cities happened later, so they are much more familiar with just the last couple of albums.”
THE HEARTLESS BASTARDS perform Jan. 25 and 26 at Newport's Southgate House Revival with Dead Confederate. Ticket info here.