“This job is not an easy job,” says Jesse Ebaugh, reflecting on the longevity and success of his Austin-based rock band Heartless Bastards.
The key, he says, is honesty.
“You‘re able to have your arguments and then resolve them. That is incredibly important,” he adds during a recent interview with opbmusic’s Matt Drenik.
Hard work and a little luck go a long way, too.
Shortly after forming in late 2003, Heartless Bastards set out on a regional tour from their then hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. They were scheduled to perform at a bar in nearby Akron, but got some pretty demoralizing news when they arrived at the building.
“We pulled up to the venue and (the manager) was like ‘You know, nobody’s here. I’ll just pay you. You don’t even to play or set up,’” recalls lead singer and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom.
Despite the payout offer, the band decided to perform to the near-empty room. They almost immediately regretted their decision.
“There was this kind of drunk redneck couple that (asked us ‘Can you play some Stones covers?’” Wennerstrom recalls with a laugh.
But halfway through their set, everything changed. Patrick Carney of the Black Keys walked in the room and stuck around until the end of their performance.
“I thought I recognized him from (playing a gig with the Black Keys) maybe a month before that,” says Wennerstrom. “And so after the show I said hello, we hung out and had some beers, and I passed him along (our) demo. And yeah, he recommended us to Fat Possum after that.”
That record label signed the group and eventually released their first three albums.
“Lazier bands would have missed the opportunity,” quips Ebaugh.
Jokes aside, he’s right. Heartless Bastards might have gotten a fortunate early break, but it couldn’t have happened to a more industrious band. Since then, they’ve earned their success the hard way—by touring endlessly and pummeling crowds into submission with their high-energy live shows.
A little over a decade since that gig in Akron, the band has also changed considerably. Never comfortable standing still for too long, Heartless Bastards have shifted between garage rock and Americana in recent years. Their latest album, out on Partisan Records, melds those sounds with a decidedly pysch-rock flavor. The resulting collection is an eclectic batch of songs appropriately named Restless Ones.
“The songs, I feel, on this album are so different from each other and didn’t know if they were going to work together,” says Wennerstrom.
But they do. And a large reason for that cohesion is her unique and powerful voice — a raw and emotional alto whose stage presence and well-crafted lyrics grab listeners and shake them to their core.
Surprisingly, Wennerstrom isn’t a natural performer or prolific writer.
“I’ve wanted to sing since I was 3 years old,” she says. “But I was always awkward and introverted…so I never sang. I just told everybody that I was going to be a singer.”
She got over that painful shyness after years of open mic performances and a stint as a bass player and vocalist with the Dayton, Ohio, rock band Shesus. Singing now comes easy, but she remains a meticulous lyricist. In fact, Wennerstrom often brings placeholder lyrics and gibberish rhyming patterns to recording sessions so that band can continue to work while she writes at her own pace. During the recording process for Restless Ones, Wennerstrom even tracked some final vocal parts as the band was mixing the album. Although it might sound nerve-wracking, she says the unusual arrangement actually forced her to relax a bit.
“It was such an immediate record lyrically,” Wennerstrom recalls. “I would sing the song and then we would literally mix it right then. It was all very immediate. It made me feel really vulnerable honestly. Because I didn’t have much time to really pick it apart. I’m usually such a self-editor. But there was something nice about just doing it in the moment and letting it go.”
Even after some time and distance, Wennerstrom says she doesn’t regret her lyrics on Restless Ones.
“I felt everything I wrote in that moment. I could have taken more time and poetically disguised [things],” she admits. “But it was what it was. I really felt it. There was no way listening back that I was going to regret that.”
Perhaps most important, she adds “It was honest.”
Heartless Bastards play at Wonder Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 28 in Portland, Oregon.