Rock and Roll has always been a male dominated genre. Many female acts have broken through and made a big impact, acts like Hole, The Donna's and The Lunachicks to name a few. Other acts have had male backing and female's fronting - Joan Jett, Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics, No Doubt and of course, Ohio's Heartless Bastards. The band, fronted by charismatic and hard rocking Erika Wennerstrom has been a critic favorite for years and have been winning over audiences left and right with every show. From opening for acts like Wolfmother and Gaslight Anthem to hitting the festival circuit to their own headlining club gigs, Heartless Bastards have been the road dogs of rock for years. Last year they released the critically acclaimed album, The Mountain and as the band preps to hit the road on the other side of the Atlantic in Europe this year, I had the opportunity to speak to The Bastards main woman, Erika Wennermore. Take a look at my interview with Erika as we discussed the formation of the band, touring and being a strong female on stage and in studio.
Just after the band started out, you had received some pretty high acclaim and help from The Black Keys. Propelling you into the spotlight and big stages, how bizarre was it to go from dive bars to big stages?
EW: Well honestly it wasn’t exactly overnight. We’ve been at it since 2003, and I would say we’re just now headlining some big stages. It’s been a very gradual process, which is fine by me. I feel it’s helped me maintain a grounded perspective about the whole thing. I’m very grateful for the success of this album, and the progress of the band since it’s release back in February.
Erika has been the only constant member of the band from its conception. Has the revolving door of Heartless Bastards changed your music?
EW: I’ve always written on my own. I feel most comfortable working the songs out before I present them to anybody. Nothing about the writing process has really changed.
Unlike most female fronted acts these days, you have a pair of cojones much like Joan Jett and Courtney Love. Is it hard making a way in a male dominated genre, even with a strong powerful woman?
EW: There may happen to be more male musicians out there in the rock and roll genre, but I don’t see this as some kind of glass ceiling effect. It’s just the way it is. Maybe more parents refer their little girls to play the flute, and clarinet in school instead of instruments like drums and guitar. I’ve never felt discriminated in any way because I was a female in this business. I don’t even see myself different, or special in anyway, and I think if I did, I’d be much more likely to ostracize myself from fellow male musicians. If you want to be treated equal don’t act like your special.
Your latest record, The Mountain, was released earlier this year. What does the title signify? Are your climbing a metaphorical mountain?
EW: The song The Mountain is about the greed of large companies that don’t seem to have limits on how much they want to increase profits despite some of the negative effects they have on their community. It’s been a domino effect of jobs being shipped over seas. The middle class is slowly being eliminated. It seems that if jobs keep leaving then nobody can afford to buy anything over here. The same companies that are trying to cut costs end up selling less products because less and less people have jobs here. They are ultimately destroying themselves. Then there a business’ like Walmart that will put a whole small town of independently owned shops out business. I could really go on for a while about this.
As far as The Mountain for an album title I just thought it sounded catchy, and I guess everything I’ve done has been sort of an uphill climb.
What was it like working with Spoon’s main producer, Mike McCarthy? Would you work with him again?
EW: I have been a big fan of McCarthy’s work, and was extremely flattered that he was interested in working with me. It was a big learning experience. As far as the question of would I work with him again is, sure, but for the next album I haven’t crossed that bridge yet.
From the get go, Heartless Bastards have been a critical favorite and you have always released solid and consecutively strong albums. Do you ever fear that this may slip and you may lose their attention?
EW: I am grateful for the positive response the band has received, but If I spent my time trying to write songs to please other people I would be miserable. I write songs that I’m into, and just hope people respond. I don’t think it’s good to measure your success on how many people buy your albums anyway. Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” was considered a commercial failure back when he put it out, and now with time, it has been considered one of his strongest works.
I have seen you perform twice. Once opening for Gaslight Anthem and then at Lollapalooza 2009. What I always found interested at your sets is your ability to engage strangers who have never herd of you before. Is it weird playing your music in front of fresh faces and ears that never listened before?
EW: I love playing in front of new people. When we headline we generally have the full support of our audience so it can be a bit challenging to get in front of an audience that have their arms crossed and are blank faced. That is just how it is when you open though. You have to remind yourself that a lot of the audience has never heard you before and they’re trying to figure out what to think of you. We win some over, and some we don’t.
What was it like being on the road with Gaslight Anthem? Was it a bit odd opening for guys in their mid-twenties with a less amount of records than your band?
EW: They’re a bit older than you think. We’re really not very far off in age. They’re in there late 20’s and early 30’s. Was it odd opening for a band with less records than us? Not really. That’s bound to happen sometimes. It’s not like I’m any less proud of the things I’ve done. It’s not healthy for me to sit around comparing my success and achievements to other bands and people. Also those guys were in bands for years before. Gaslight anthem may be a new band, but it’s not like they picked up their instruments 2 years ago.
You are currently on the road with Wolfmother. What have those shows been like? How is this experience?
EW: The Wolfmother tour has been great. They really put on a great show. We got along really well with them too. I think the audience was really receptive to us also. The opening band was The New No.2 which is Dhani Harrisons band. He’s George Harrison from the Beatles son. He recently helped develop The Beatles Rock Band game, and when I got home from tour I ended up playing it one night with friends and I thought of him a lot when I was playing it, and how amazing his fathers songs were.
What does 2010 hold for Heartless Bastards?
EW I think we have a European tour on the horizon. We are going to do a headline tour of the US in April and May, and are gonna work on finishing a follow up to The Mountian.
Video for "All this Time" (TOP) / Heartless Bastards Live on Fallon January 2010 (Below)
Thanks to Erika, special thanks to Nicole Orbe.