Formed back in 2003, the garage rock band Heartless Bastards emerged from the ashes of the Dayton-based garage rock act Shesus. With a little help from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, a fan of the band who passed their demo on to the folks at the Fat Possum label, the group inked a record deal within a year or two of forming and toured and recorded relentlessly up until last year.
Last year, however, band members decided to take a break. With the Bastards on hiatus, singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom started to work on a solo album.
That disc, Sweet Unknown
, just came out earlier this year, and Wennerstrom comes to town in the wake of its release for the first time next week when she performs with Jivviden and John Kalman at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 21, at the Beachland Ballroom
“We’d been touring a lot for years, and I think the band wanted a break,” says Wennerstrom via phone from her Austin home. “It’s funny. I had been really struggling with my creative process when it came time to writing the last Heartless Bastards album. When the band wanted a break, my creativity flowed, and I wrote the quickest record I’ve ever written. I think there was some internal pressure there.”
A trip to the Amazon helped inspire some of the songs on the highly introspective album. Though she took the trip a couple of months before the last Heartless Bastards album came out, she says the insights stuck with her as she wrote tracks for Sweet Unknown
“I went to the Amazon and did the [spiritual medicine] Ayahuasca,” she says. “You step outside of yourself when you do that. You’re watching yourself from another perspective. I also think big changes cause introspection and that might have been inevitable. Taking the hiatus made me think about what do next. Those types of things bring self-evaluation.”
She recruited friends such as My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan and Heartless Bastards’ Jesse Ebaugh to play on the disc along with a “a various cast of guitar players.” The main rhythm tracking and some of the leads were done by David Pulkingham, who's played with Patty Griffin, Alejandro Escovedo and Robert Plant. Lauren Gurgiolo, who was in Okkervil River, did a couple of tracks on the album too.
“I had a lot of people contribute to the album,” says Wennerstrom. “I felt like the more the merrier. I picked people who played certain styles in a way that I had seen them play and knew I wanted for a particular song. My theory was that it would be easy because I’d be asking them to just be themselves. If you have one player, some things are in their wheelhouse, but you have to have them step outside of that box for other things, and it can be challenging.”
With its feedback-drenched guitars and Wennerstrom’s husky vocals, “Extraordinary Love” has a massive sound that makes it sound more something by a British shoe-gazer act than an American garage rock band. Wennerstrom says the inspiration for the song came from a hike in Big Bend National Park in West Texas that she took right as the Heartless Bastards went on hiatus.
“In my head, I was thinking of Pink Floyd and the way they do harmonies,” she says of the song. “I think they’re in fifths or thirds. I’m not a technical theory person when it comes to music. It’s very much just finding my way. I heard the harmonies in my head and had the feel of it. Choruses take it up a notch in a song, but I looked at that song like a breath of fresh air on the album. There’s tension, and then you get to the chorus, and it lets it breathe. That song is like a reminder to take a moment to stop and breathe.”
The somber “Gravity” makes for a good closing tune and brings the album to a fitting close on another introspective note. Wennerstrom says it was actually one of the first songs she wrote for the disc.
“It’s funny I ended with it,” she says. “I had been going through physical therapy issues throughout the last several years of touring. They had to do with the weight of my Les Paul guitar. I play an acoustic pretty hard too. I think my arms grip it firmly. For my size, I’m standing there in a bit of a contorted stance for a couple of hours a night. I was trying to get better but when you put yourself in this repetitive behavior, it’s hard to get better. There was a point when I was going through therapy for two and a half years so something. I didn’t know if I would get better. I think that song is about all of that therapy and about being in the moment and choosing in that moment to have gratitude.”
Wennerstrom says she’s not certain whether her next album will be a solo album or a Heartless Bastards album.
“I have had a couple of lineups of the band, and when it comes to where I go next, I haven’t figured it out,” she says. “It would be nice to have the same team with it. When you tour with someone for a long time, it’s like family. I also recognize [the Heartless Bastards] are something I was working at for a long time and have more name recognition. When I put together the next body of work, I’ll figure out in that moment what makes sense. It’s all amicable [with the Heartless Bastards]. At the end of the day, it’s always been my baby and my project, and when the time comes I’ll have to figure out what’s best for me.”
Erika Wennerstrom, Jivviden, John Kalman, 8 p.m. Friday, June 21, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd, 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15, beachlandballroom.com.
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