Erika Wennerstrom is feeling zoned-out. Normally, the Heartless Bastards frontwoman seeks her escapism fix with hikes in West Texas’s Big Bend, but today she’s just returned from an Ayahuasca retreat in Peru – a centre for shamanic healing. “I’d heard it was meant to be really good for purging your soul of a lot of stuff,” she says, deep-voiced although less androgynous-soundings than her dulcet singing tones. “I tend to get restless working at home; I almost feel like I look for distractions to avoid writing!”
This didn’t prevent Black Keys man Patrick Carney from handing their demo to Fat Possum Records in 2004, which secured Heartless Bastards their first deal. Since then their countrified cocktail of Americana and classic rock has blossomed steadily – even if time to absorb it all is a little lacking. “Sometimes I forget to just stop, take stock and appreciate where I’m already at and the things I have experienced,” says Wennerstrom. “A sense of gratitude, I guess, which I think envelopes a lot of this new record.”
Restless Ones, the band’s latest album, was recorded over 10 days at El Paso’s Sonic Ranch, a vast complex surrounded by pecan orchards bordering the Rio Grande and Mexico. This idyllic setting gleams through the album’s rich shades and sun-kissed spin on garage rock’n’roll. It’s a warming graduation from the steely, Ennio Morricone atmosphere of 2012’s Arrow.
“We did Arrow, our last record, locally,” Wennerstrom says. “Being at a residential studio, the record is constantly there, which I think benefitted this album. It creates an overarching experience and vibe, everyone offering their thoughts in real time.”
Any downtime was spent cycling around the property, or watching the sun sink over the trees. “There were really amazing sunsets there,” she remembers. “It was huge, with rows and rows of these trees for miles. Our residence was a mile or so from the studio itself; I’d walk from the house we stayed in to the studio every day, then head back around sunset. And there were other bands recording in other studios there; one from Mexico, Whitey Morgan [Detroit country musician] was there… Everyone was rooting for each other.”
An aspiring singer from the age of three, Wennerstrom grew up in Dayton, Ohio in a house that was regularly filled with her parents’ jazz musician friends. “Just having people play music around the house inspired me,” she explains. “And my mum would take my brother and I see to some of those people play in some underground, subterranean jazz club in Dayton. I don’t feel like I was a major jazz fiend when I was three or four years old, but some of it must have sunk in.”
Music by artists including Thin Lizzy, Bob Dylan and local heroine Kim Deal helped shape her tastes from here. Her first band experience was playing bass in all-girl group Shesus (yes, as in Jesus with a ‘She’). They did, however, end up allowing one bloke into the fold, drummer Dave Colvin, with whom Wennerstrom broke away to form Heartless Bastards in 2003. More than a decade later, and now based in Texas, she remains the sole consistent member of the band.
“I’ve realised at this point in my life that I don’t know what else I’d do,” she admits. “So however far this band goes, whether we get bigger or stay the same, I’m pretty proud of what we’ve already done. I’m always gonna do it.”
Restless Ones is out on June 15 via Partisan Records.
FOR FANS OF: The Rolling Stones
“We draw from so much stuff…” Erika says. “But I’m gonna say the Rolling Stones, because they have so many eras with different sounds, but ultimately they always sound like the Stones. They’ve got anything from disco to a folk song to a blues song, and we have folk tunes and country, rock’n’roll and spaced-out psychedelic rock too.”