Erika Wennerstrom’s stuff might be jammed into an apartment in Austin, Texas, but Cincinnati will always be home for her and The Heartless Bastards. It’s been nearly two years since she dismantled the original Bastards after her personal break-up with bassist Mike Lamping and relocated to Texas.
“I think it was a good move for me to leave town for a bit,” Wennerstrom says from her Austin digs. “My aunt and cousin live here and I’ve met some great friends here over the years touring and my management was here, and they helped me get settled. And (producer) Mike McCarthy was here, and I knew I was going to come here to record so it made sense if I was going to move somewhere that this would be it.”
The first thing Wennerstrom did was to find an apartment and sequester herself for six months, feverishly writing the songs that would ultimately comprise The Heartless Bastards’ most nuanced and best album, The Mountain. Although she was in new surroundings — namely one of the most potent music scenes in the country — the differences in the songs Wennerstrom was writing reflected a good deal more than her recent move.
“I was working on a lot of material before I moved, so I’m not going to say that my geographic location had anything to do with the sound,” she says. “We did the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival out in San Francisco the fall before, and I think that kind of inspired me to incorporate those kinds of instruments. And I’ve never worked with a producer before. You work on these songs and they’re close to you and it’s hard to put them in someone else’s hands to work on them with you. But Mike McCarthy was really great to work with.”
Released last February, The Mountain has been the Bastards’ breakthrough record. Reviews have been almost universally positive, sales have eclipsed the band’s first two releases combined and the resultant attention has led to some plum tour pairings, including with The Black Keys and Andrew Bird.
“It’s going really well,” says the soft-spoken Wennerstrom. “I think the bands that we’ve opened for have responded to the album, and hence brought us out to open for them.”
This won’t be the first time that Wennerstrom has been home with new Bastards Jesse Ebaugh and Dave Colvin; the trio (joined by Austin guitarist Mark Nathan) was back for a show at Covington’s Madison Theater in March. The Dayton native notes that she’ll always consider Cincinnati the band’s hometown and she’s gone to great lengths to prove it — after the band’s performance on The Late Show, David Letterman tagged them as being from Austin. Wennerstrom and Ebaugh were quick to correct him with a “We’re from Cincinnati.”
“I had a lot of problems with a lot of interviews when the album first came where people said we were from Austin,” Wennerstrom says with a laugh. “I don’t want people from Cincinnati to feel like I’m saying that, because I don’t have any desire to erase where I’m from. I’m really proud the band is from Cincinnati, I’m proud to be from Ohio and me personally from Dayton. It’s not like I’m going to replace that and say I’m from New York or Austin. I think it’s cool to be from Ohio.”
Although Wennerstrom has been touring relentlessly over the past two years, she’s spent enough time in Austin to appreciate the city’s numerous advantages.
“It amazes me how many people support music here,” she notes. “You’ll go to sold out shows on Monday (nights). I might have gone to that same show in another city and the room would be half full or 25 percent full. People come out in droves constantly. It’s a very youthful town. There are tons of parks and people are always jogging. Everybody is ber-healthy here.”
For Wennerstrom, though, the flip side of enjoying Austin is missing Cincinnati. Ask any Cincinnati expatriate what they miss most about the city and you’ll typically get an inventory of local institutions, eateries and customs that seem fairly similar, so Wennerstrom’s list may be a testament to her genuine nature.
“I miss my friends and family and the people that I’ve met over the years,” she says. “I like to go back and visit the Northside Tavern. And this summer might have been extra pleasant, but we had a couple of days off in Ohio in the middle of The Decemberists tour and it was so nice out. Austin is going through like the worst drought in 100 years. I did an outdoor show and it was 104 degrees that day during soundcheck; I knelt down to adjust my pedal and I almost fainted when I got back up. I had to go back to the green room and chug three bottles of water to be able to bear the soundcheck.
"I just realized how beautiful the summers really are in Ohio. There are some muggy days, but overall it’s really beautiful.”
The Mountain is not even eight months old, but Wennerstrom is contemplating material for the next Heartless Bastards outing. She has the songs and melodies fairly well worked out in her head, she’s just lacking one particular ingredient.
“It’s more about what I want to say and where I’m at now,” Wennerstrom says reflectively. “I don’t know what I want to say, or whether I have to say anything at all. Maybe I’ll write a song about having a good time, like The Rolling Stones do. There’s a lot to be said about writing a song about having a good time.”
THE HEARTLESS BASTARDS play the MidPoint Music Festival at 9:30 p.m. Friday at Grammer’s “Topic Design Tent.” Buy tickets, check out performance times and get MPMF details here.