I Could Be So Happy
Erika Wennerstrom, not just another Heartless Bastard
"Oh my God! I love your voice! She has the best voice!"
The words sail across the intersection of Red River and Seventh, as Erika Wennerstrom's walking one way and a really excited woman is walking the other way with a friend. Over the din of a late night Free Week crowd comes another declaration.
"I love Heartless Bastards!"
That particular intersection sees its share of catcalls, but the Heartless Bastards singer and guitarist takes this one in stride. On her revamped trio's third LP for Fat Possum, The Mountain, Wennerstrom's voice remains the glass of whiskey that helps their gritty medicine go down. It's also the album that will finally get them to the summit.
When we met up a month earlier on the Eastside for Bloody Marys at Rio Rita, the diminutive 31-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native was nursing a wounded foot and gearing up for a short winter tour of the Midwest. She speaks with the same husky Ohio inflection as my mom and Kim Deal. It's the kind of voice that inspires random compliments on the street of a town she's lived in for just a little more than a year.
"Awwmaaan," Wennerstrom drawls, reminiscing of the piano her mom gave her as a kid. "We never got it tuned, so it's still untuned to this day. And now I think some things sound fine when they're out of tune."
Growing up in Dayton, she absorbed her mom's Ray Charles and Otis Redding records, of which her deep baritone is reflective. She went the tried-and-true musical route, through a childhood pop phase, on to classic rock, and then punk. She was more into punk's intimacy than its rebelliousness.
"And believe me, I was a troublemaker," she adds.
You can hear it in her voice, low and throaty, like something crawling out of a Louisiana swamp but snapping like a rubber band when she hits the higher notes, almost gospel in tenor. It's round and steep, mountainesque, and when she belts it out, Janis Joplin sits up in her grave. While the voice is ancient, the Bastards' music is not. It's from the plains, flat, hard, unadorned, but born of a corn-fed indie womb that helped nurture it into the 21st century.
At 16, her dad sent her a guitar for Christmas, but it wasn't something she picked up right away. Fortunately, her rock education happened during the heyday of Dayton indie rock – the Breeders, Brainiac, Guided by Voices. After she dropped out of high school her senior year, she took up guitar again, briefly playing in the Dayton art rock band Shesus. At 21, she relocated to Cincinnati after meeting Mike Lamping.
"I was trying to find people to form a full band, and Mike and I would just end up arguing when we played together, so he said, 'Do it yourself,'" Wennerstrom recalls. "I got an eight-track and thought, 'Yeah, I'll just do it all myself.'
"Then I realized some of the songs really needed people."
She recorded a five-song demo in 2002 and passed it out at the bar where she worked in Cincinnati to anyone who looked like they might enjoy her working-class blues rock. Once it landed in a local jukebox, she focused on getting a live band together. Initially enlisted were drummer Dave Colvin, who played with Wennerstrom in Shesus, and bassist Adam McAllister, plus guitarist Mike Wienel. Scheduling and other commitments threw a monkey wrench into the lineup, so Lamping, who had been going to the shows, stepped in on bass.
As a threepiece, Wennerstrom, Lamping, and new recruit Kevin Vaughn on drums, the Bastards were the embodiment of an Ohio blue-collar band: Wennerstrom bartended, Lamping worked for his family's janitorial-supply company, and Vaughn delivered pizzas.
As fate would have it, Patrick Carney from the Black Keys happened to see them one night in 2004 when they played Akron, Ohio, to "two drunk rednecks and him." Carney recommended the Heartless Bastards to the label putting out his band's albums, Fat Possum. The label signed the threepiece, after which Wennerstrom and company trekked down to the Fat Possum studios in Oxford, Miss., to record their debut, 2005's Stairs and Elevators. A tour with the Drive-by Truckers followed.
Where Stairs and Elevators had the stomp and distorted spirit that smelled like Dayton – plus a cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Done Got Old" for good measure – 2006's All This Time was more layered, still guitar-driven but with more piano and a little more experimentation. The chorus of its beautiful opening song, "Into the Open," blows bangs off foreheads when Wennerstrom bellows, "I've got wind in my veins, and it's gettin' me home."
Home, it turns out, is relative. In late 2007, partially precipitated by the end of her 10-year relationship with Lamping, Wennerstrom packed up a minivan with as much as could fit and headed to Austin. Local booking and promotions concern C3 offered her a place to stay – and to represent her – but she had extended family in the area. She found an apartment, holed up, and began writing. The Mountain arcs around dissolution, healing, and starting over.
"There are good and bad parts," Wennerstrom says of being in a relationship with a bandmate. "We shared everything, but sometimes it's too much. When I get home from tour, I don't want to see anyone in the band for a while. When we began doing it full time, we saw each other all the time, lived together. You get in a band argument, and it becomes a bigger thing."
In 2008, she returned to the studio with local superproducer Mike McCarthy and a band he'd wrangled for her: former Trail of Dead drummer Doni Schroader and Billy White on bass, banjo, and occasionally guitar. It was a new experience for Wennerstrom to record alongside people she barely knew, and she admits working with McCarthy was daunting initially since she'd never worked with a producer.
"He said, 'Work on the album, and stop worrying about finding a band,'" she relates. "'Concentrate on the songs; the full picture comes later.'"
With McCarthy at the helm, The Mountain certainly sounds more polished than the Heartless Bastards' previous pair of LPs. Wennerstrom decided to incorporate more acoustic and bluegrass sounds as well, utilizing mandolin, fiddle, and banjo on "Had to Go." Ricky Ray Jackson of Lomita plays pedal steel on the title track. The first half of the album is all big, thick power chords, while the second half slows down and spaces out, but throughout there's a sense of self-awareness. On the acoustic "Be So Happy," Wennerstrom lays out a human dilemma with tongue firmly in cheek:
"I could be so happy, if I'd just quit being sad.
I could be so funny, if I'd just quit being a drag.
I could be so sweet, if I'd just quit being sour.
I could do all these things. I have the power."
"I've had struggles, but that's not where I intend to go with the titles," she explains. "All my albums are personal. I'm putting myself out there. I think that's why it takes me so long. I don't think I can write from a nonpersonal perspective. I tend to disguise a lot of the things I'm saying, because I'm guarding my feelings. I'd say The Mountain is a little less guarded."
As much as her ex forms the base, The Mountain isn't a breakup album.
"I do have dual meaning in a lot of songs," she points out. "'The Mountain' is actually about the downside of capitalism. I'm from Dayton and Cincinnati, so maybe it's more apparent there. Corporate America wants to take over, and you can't be mad at the guy who started T.G.I. Friday's. He's just trying to have a successful business. When you travel, you might not know the restaurant on the corner, but there's a Friday's, and it's not amazing, but you know what you're gonna get.
"People stick with what they know. Wal-Mart can wipe out a whole small town's business. It's something I've seen for a long time and been thinking about it for a long time, before last year. Everyone wants to be successful, keep going up the mountain, ya know?"
Climbing is one of the things that keeps the Heartless Bastards beating. As the new live band – original drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh, both of whom live in Austin now, plus Mark Nathan from Knife in the Water on second guitar – prepares for The Mountain's first major tour, Wennerstrom reflects on the subtle evolutionary shift in The Mountain, shrugging.
"I just try to sound like myself, because I don't know if anything sounds that different anymore."