Music: Bastards of Young

Erika Wennerstrom does what she was born to do with Heartless Bastards

Jan 26, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Bud Lamping

The Heartless Bastards' — (L-R) Kevin Vaughn, Mike Lamping and Erika Wennerstrom — debut full-length, Stairs and Elevators, is being released by Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records.

Two years ago, Erika Wennerstrom was handing out copies of the Heartless Bastards' five-song demo at every local and out-of-town gig the quartet played in an effort to drum up interest in the band. Since then, Wennerstrom has succeeded in attracting that interest: The Cincinnati-based band signed with skronk Blues label Fat Possum Records last year and recorded their about-to-be-released debut full-length, Stairs and Elevators.

But the times they have been a-changing. The Bastards pared down to a trio with the departure of guitarist Mike Weinel, and drummer Dave Colvin also broke ranks, replaced by Kevin Vaughn. With that last lineup tweak, the Bastards were finally ready to commit their distinctive brand of Glam Blues to an official release.

Stairs and Elevators was a long time coming. Wennerstrom says in the band's bio that she's wanted to be "a songwriter and performer since I was born." That kind of predestined mindset has been a recurring theme in the Bastards' history, starting with the name. Eight years ago, Wennerstrom and boyfriend/bassist Mike Lamping were hanging at a bar in her native Dayton, playing a multiple choice video quiz. When asked to name Tom Petty's backing band, one of the incorrect choices was "the Heartless Bastards."

Wennerstrom filed the name for future reference.

"We just thought it was really funny, and it kind of stuck with us," says Wennerstrom. "I guess the name can be interpreted in a lot of ways. It's kind of like not taking ourselves seriously, but sometimes people take it more like we are taking ourselves seriously. It's something different for everybody, but that's what it is for us."

Just after she relocated to Cincinnati five years ago in search of a slightly more robust scene, Wennerstrom found an outlet for her musical creativity ... back in Dayton. She joined a budding version of Shesus and gigged with them for nearly two-and-a-half years; she played bass with the band on their 2003 debut, Loves You ... Loves You Not, which included "B-Side Radio," a track she co-wrote with them.

"I joined them right after I moved to Cincinnati, so I commuted for that," says Wennerstrom. "Before that, I played stuff on my own, and I would play music with bands, but we never ended up having shows and nothing ever came of it."

After splitting from Shesus and writing a handful of songs that she wanted to record, Wennerstrom headed for Ultrasuede Studio in 2002 with ex-Fairmount Girl Shannon McGee to lay down the demo. Backed by Colvin and Pearlene's Jesse Ebaugh and Rueben Glaser, Wennerstrom created a raw documentation of her version of the Blues.

"There's a lot of different things that I sometimes even try to sound like, and it never comes out that way, which is maybe a good thing," says Wennerstrom with a laugh. "I've gotten into Classic Rock lately. You hear it all the time, and you don't realize how good it is because you hear it all the time. It's classic for a reason. I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones; I don't think it necessarily comes across in our music. I think Guided by Voices has some influence on me, and the Breeders, being from Dayton and being around that when it was happening."

With the demo in hand, Wennerstrom realized the next logical step was to form a band. Christening the new group with her long-remembered bar quiz answer, she assembled a concrete lineup to perform her wonderfully twisted Blues/Rock compositions around town. Like most new band situations, the Bastards' early profile reflected a bit of uncertainty as personnel came and went; Lamping came in after a succession of bassists and Vaughn has been the drummer of record for well over a year now.

Months after securing the opening gig for the wildly successful Black Keys show at the Southgate House in February 2004 (which Wennerstrom counts as one of her favorite local shows), the Bastards played a sparsely attended gig in Akron on a Midwest/East Coast tour. Keys drummer Patrick Carney showed up to lend audience support, and Wennerstrom gave him a copy of the demo, which Carney, unbeknownst to Wennerstrom, passed along to Matthew Johnson at Fat Possum, the Black Keys' label. Johnson, whose interest had definitely been piqued, couldn't reach Wennerstrom by phone — the number on the demo had been long disconnected — and her Hotmail e-mail account had begun diverting all unknown e-mail to the trash folder. By sheer coincidence, Lamping happened to click on the trash and found Johnson's discarded e-mail.

After recording a spec version of "New Resolution" in New York at Fat Possum's behest, the Bastards signed with the label, then headed down to Money Shot Studios in Water Valley, Miss., last fall and recorded about half of Stairs and Elevators. They returned home and recorded the rest of the album with Steve Girton in Newport. Given the results of Stairs and Elevators, the Bastards seem prepared to make a whole lot of noise in the near future, which could include another wide scale tour opening for the similarly bent Drive-By Truckers.

Although the Heartless Bastards had five years of songs to choose from to create Stairs and Elevators, Wennerstrom says it wasn't particularly difficult to select the set list for the album. She's already come up with some new material since recording Stairs, but she notes that the process of writing and introducing new songs into the band's repertoire is long and careful.

"It actually takes me a long time to write songs," says Wennerstrom wistfully. "I'm definitely not Bob Pollard in that sense."

HEARTLESS BASTARDS ( perform Saturday at Dayton's Canal Street Tavern. Stairs and Elevators is scheduled for release Feb. 22.