The Heartless Bastards play the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Aug. 14.
Erika Wennerstrom doesn’t mind explaining her band’s name. As frontwoman for the Heartless Bastards, she’s heard plenty of misconceptions about her band, including that it’s a death metal group and a man-hating rock band. But behind the oft-misunderstood moniker lies an American rock outfit that takes on themes of love, life and heartache with heartland style and a bluesy, alt-country flair. And the name? It was an incorrect answer to the trivia question “What’s the name of Tom Petty’s band?”
“I thought [the name] was really funny when I was younger,” Wennerstrom says from her home in Austin. “But I like when it’s explained now. Over the years people have thought any number of things about the band, but they didn’t quite know what to think of the name.”
Formed in Ohio in 2003, the Heartless Bastards has always been Wennerstrom and whoever she’s playing with, including friends, longtime bandmates and even studio musicians. With four albums to its name, the band has been a morphing entity, slowly coming into its own. Its latest release, titled Arrow, reveals a confident, self-aware Wennerstrom coming to terms with her own changing life.
In 2010, having broken up with her longtime boyfriend and bandmate Mike Lamping, Wennerstrom moved from Ohio to Austin to make a fresh start. Bandless but with a lot of emotional material to work with, she started writing songs. She put together the music for an album but hadn’t written any of the lyrics. Needing to give shape to her ideas and emotions, she hit the road, taking several solo road trips, including jaunts to the Catskills, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and a friend’s ranch in West Texas.
The solitude and introspective nature of the trips is reflected throughout Arrow, and Wennerstrom says the imagery of West Texas ended up being an inspiration for the album. Drawing from the band’s diverse musical influences, including classic country, ’70s rock, R&B, indie rock and the blues, Arrow remains true to the Heartless Bastards’ sound with a raw, garage-rock spirit, catchy melodic hooks and lyrics that are emotional without sounding like diary entries. She paints with a wide swath, filling her songs with relatable tales of parting ways, being alone and finding new romance, all without revealing too many of the sordid details.
“Keeping the lyrics a little bit vague allows me to save something for myself,” Wennerstrom says. “I'm writing from a personal place, but when I listen to music I like to be able to find my own meaning and relate to what I’m hearing, so I tend to write that way.”
The current Heartless Bastards lineup features Wennerstrom on guitar and vocals, Mark Nathan on guitar, Dave Colvin on drums and Jesse Ebaugh on bass. After years of revolving band members, this lineup has struck a balance that Wennerstrom is “really happy” with.
The band is tight, the album’s getting solid reviews and the tour dates are piling up. So what’s next for the Heartless Bastards? Another batch of songs, of course. But Wennerstrom’s not rushing it. Melodies, she says, come easily to her, but the lyrics tend to take their time.
“I probably have all the melodies for the new album, but I haven’t sat down and written a single word,” she says. I’m sort of putting it all out there and sometimes it takes me a while getting comfortable expressing that.”
Tuesday, Aug. 14 at 8pm
Rio Theatre; $15.75