Photo by: Cambria Harkey
I kind of write [the songs] as I go but I do think that working on them through a period of my life there ends up being a theme. I really think a lot of it is about making changes in my life, maybe in a scary way, but also in a positive way as well - moving to this new place I'm unfamiliar with and just learning how to live alone again after ten years in a long term relationship.
Gathering in a North Austin studio, where the sound effects for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were recorded, the main crew on board for The Mountain sessions were anchored by Billy White. "Billy is a real interesting dude," Wennerstrom says. "He used to play with the guy in Dokken, and then he got obsessed with flamenco guitar and he moved to Spain. He kind of mastered flamenco touring with gypsies for years, and then he moved to Mexico." White played bass, guitar and banjo alongside drummer Donny Schroeder, who has toured with Trail of Dead. Other contributors included Ricky Ray Jackson (Brothers and Sisters), who played the pedal steel on "The Mountain," and violinist Zy O. Lyn. Swamp and garage rock boil throughout, but the folk flourishes and rootsy strokes, like gutty banjo and swirling fiddle, bring a homespun feeling into The Mountain.
|Heartless Bastards by Cambria Harkey|
Wennerstrom's inspiration for this direction came, not solely from living in Austin - known for its Americana musical scenery - but rather from playing at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October of 2007.
"I remember we'd be walking back to the stage and there'd be a bluegrass band playing and I loved how it sounded. I thought at some point it would be nice to incorporate that sound. When I write stuff, I don't really say, 'I'm going to write this song and it's going to have banjo and it's going to have violin'. A melody will come to me and I'll start working it out, and as I was writing it, I was like, 'You know, this would be great for this song.' But I think that being influenced by the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass [festival] came into me a little subconsciously."
Tracks such as "So Quiet" and "I Had to Go" reflect that Hardly Strictly mood. On the latter, the acoustic guitar is strummed forcibly as Wennerstrom sings, "Oh there was silence/ Thinly veiled as peace/ Then, oh, the lightning struck/ Then it started a fire." A banjo comes plunking from underneath, while O. Lyn's violin begins to moan, turning into a twisting solo, drawing the piece out to breathe. Wennerstrom describes that song's campfire-like session: "That was really neat when we recorded it, because we did it all live. We were all in the same room, sitting in this circle, and I did all the vocals live so it kind of felt real old school."
Coming Back Again
With recording done, it came time to assemble a band and Wennerstrom called on two old friends. Dave Colvin, who played on the original five-song Heartless Bastards demo, came on board to play drums. "I was trying to think of who to have and I remembered my friend Dave. We were in Shesus together and I always thought he was a great drummer. He's a jazz drummer mainly, [and] he had moved to Austin, coincidently. He was at UT in their master's program. We always got along well and played well together, and I was like, 'What am I thinking? I need to ask Dave!'"
|Heartless Bastards by Cambria Harkey|
A similar scenario played itself out with Jesse Ebaugh (who also contributed to that initial demo). "Jesse had been in Pearlene, and we used to play together with him in Shesus a lot. And I always thought he was a really great bass player. I had never asked him originally to be in [Heartless Bastards] because he was really active in Pearlene, but they weren't playing out as much, so I thought, 'I'm going to ask him. What's the worst he could do, say no?' And he said, 'You couldn't have caught me at a better time.' I talked to him maybe mid-July and I flew up to Cincinnati and visited some family and friends in Dayton and Cincinnati. Then, we rented a minivan, put as much of his equipment and stuff that we could fit, and we came down here. We had two weeks to practice until our first show."
Having two buddies in her band makes the experience of hitting the black top and riding the ebb and flow of touring easier.
"Oh, it's great! I love the idea that I'm playing with people I've known forever. It's easier when you get in a little 15-passenger van and you end up going on a tour for five weeks, and you're in that van 5-12 hours a day," Wennerstrom says. "They're both easy going and we get along well. Sometimes when you just start playing with someone and you're in this confined space, it can really bring out some moodiness. We're older, too. Everybody has a bad day but it's so easy to just blow off stuff, you know whatever, [chalk it up to] that person needs to eat, their blood sugar is low or something [laughs]. The fact we all know each other, even if anyone is having a moment, it is what it is and then it's done with."
It's now been over a year since she settled down in Austin, and the city has started to feel like home to Wennerstrom. Although the influences and sounds of Cincinnati clubs and Dayton dives will always float in the Bastards' blood, Texas' black sheep metropolis has embraced the band as their own. A week after our conversation, I was at Antone's, getting down at Bush's Retirement Party on inauguration night. Surrounded by suit-and-tie Democratic Party revelers, hollering-drunk political hotheads and folks sporting their body weight in Obama flair (thank God no Acme giant magnets were in sight), at first glance, Heartless Bastards seemed like an offbeat choice to headline this party. But the grins on their faces as they took the stage said more than any rant or good riddance cry of "Thank God that's over!" ever could. Offering hard-rocking purity and the occasional "What a happy night!," the Bastards washed us in deliriously loud musical catharsis, with Wennerstrom's voice ripping Antone's a new one. Later that evening, as I was exiting Antone's into the Obama era, the words from "Hold Your Head High" lingered in my head:
I've made a lot of choices
Most have not been wise
But I have some really good friends
I've been fortunate enough to find
They get me through the lonely days
When I want to stay inside myself
Get me out of my shell
Out into the world
I am coming back
I am coming back again.
Heartless Bastards are on tour now, dates available here.
Heartless Bastards "The Mountain" at ACL 2008
JamBase | Texas
Go See Live Music!