On "The Arrow Killed the Beast," the centerpiece of Heartless Bastards' fourth album, Arrow, tumbleweed peals of pedal steel tailspin toward distant tympanic thunder as a lonely acoustic guitar forges determinedly forward. The track is indicative of a new tone the band has adopted since frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom moved to Austin, Texas. She related the song to a friend's place in Marfa, Texas, that the band sometimes visits to get away.
"It's an old bunkhouse on a ranch that's been in his family a long time and he offers to let friends stay there," Wennerstrom said. "All that west Texas desert scenery and driving back and forth between Austin and Marfa, [the] mountains and desert imagery seeped in."
Certainly there's a feeling of majesty abutting wide-open expanse throughout the new album, which is a far cry from the sound of the band's first two records. Then again, Heartless Bastards is a much different band than the blusey, blustery, riff-rock power trio that got its start nearly a decade ago in Cincinnati, backed by Wennerstrom's grainy alto. But in 2008, as the band was getting ready to record its third album, Wennerstrom and bassist Mike Lamping ended a nine-year relationship.
"It was kind of hard to continue playing together after we split up, so I just decided to start over the whole band and I moved to Austin. I had family here and my management was here," said Wennerstrom.
When a few months of searching failed to turn up appropriate band members, she went into the studio by herself to record with producer Mike McCarthy.
"He was like, 'Just concentrate on finishing the songs for the album and I've got some people I think will work out great. If you don't feel there's chemistry, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,'" she said.
That's how 2009's The Mountain got its start. While in retrospect, listeners can hear antecedents in the band's prior two releases, The Mountain felt like a dramatic left turn. The rugged Midwestern bar band swagger gave way to more circumspect numbers--like the emotional, banjo-driven "Had To Go," in which Wennerstrom recounts leaving her home, or the ambling, Neil Young-ish country-rocker "Sway," in which Wennerstrom's vocals adopt a smoky jazz-blues shimmy reminiscent of Jolie Holland.
With The Mountain finished, Wennerstrom again started to look for new bandmates. And while it may seem that difficulty finding musicians in Austin is a bit like the difficulty finding actors in Los Angeles, it's apparent Wennerstrom was interested in the comfort of like-minded souls as much as anything. She recruited bassist Jesse Ebaugh, whose talent she noted in Cincinnati and who was willing to relocate after his own breakup. Drummer Dave Colvin was in the first incarnation of the Bastards and ran into Wennerstrom in Austin. The timing was perfect--he'd just finished up a degree in jazz studies a month earlier. The final piece was Mark Nathan, soundman for one of Heartless Bastards' first post-move tours, who was brought on basically sight unseen.
"We'd been hearing he was a really good guitarist from mutual friends, and we knew we wanted to add a guitarist," Wennerstrom recalled. "We ended up getting along with Mark really great and had a lot of similar tastes, which were very broad. ... We were like, 'Let's give it a try,' and he's been with us ever since."
Wennerstrom is excited about her new band, and that drove her approach to Arrow. The idea was to capture the band's live energy in the studio. The band spent a month on the road with the Drive-By Truckers to hone its songs and presentation before going in to record, and it apparently worked. The group laid down basic drum-bass-guitar tracks that were pretty convincing.
"Once we got into the studio and contemplated putting layers on things, we listened and were like, 'A lot of this doesn't need anything,'" she said. "We'd even done some layers here or there and we took them away."
This less-is-more approach also applies to the guitars, which often feature Wennerstrom on acoustic and Nathan on the only electric. It results in a more spacious sound--an idea Wennerstrom got from listening to T. Rex, Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" and Thin Lizzy's cover of the Irish traditional "Whiskey in the Jar." The acoustic-electric contrast gives the album a striking ambiance.
"Yeah, it really separates Mark's guitar sound and mine and adds a lot of space, but it's full at the same time," Wennerstrom said.
The album's tone is shaped by the breakup's aftermath. Songs like the aforementioned "The Arrow Killed the Beast," and the rootsy rocker "Parted Ways" are all about new directions, self-discovery and the process of putting the past behind you, which has taken Wennerstrom time.
"I thought through the time period of moving to Austin and all the touring on The Mountain, I started to sort of get myself back. I just think my outlook on so many things is different now," Wennerstrom said.
So it's not surprising Heartless Bastards has taken on a different guise, considering the new lineup and Wennerstrom's new outlook.
"I feel like I'm growing as a songwriter, and I'm feeling more comfortable branching out and trying new styles I've always been interested in," she said. "I'm more and more comfortable experimenting with different directions."
While she understands that the new sounds might be a challenge to old fans, she doesn't feel she can afford to pay attention to that.
"I find the response to the band just keeps getting more positive, but the fact is, you just can't please everybody," said Wennerstrom. "When you're creating something and presenting it to people, you have to be excited about it and feel good about it or how can you really expect other people to? So I just write songs that I like and hope people respond."[ Video is no longer available. ]