Brimming with confidence and creativity, Arrow sees Heartless Bastards pushing their distinctive sound forward with their most eclectic, energetic collection thus far. The album – the Austin, Texas-based band’s first release with Partisan Records – is marked as ever by singer/guitarist/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom’s remarkable voice, at turns primal and pleading, heartfelt and heroic. Songs like “Parted Ways” and the searing “Low Low Low” expertly capture the Bastards’ multi-dimensional rock in all its strength and spirit. Following upon the difficult introspection of 2009's acclaimed third album, The Mountain, Arrow stands as a powerhouse new beginning for Heartless Bastards.
“The Mountain was me going through some things after being in a relationship for nine years,” Wennerstrom says. ”This album is kind of like me being comfortable again.”
Arrow serves as the recorded debut of Heartless Bastards’ current iteration, their latest and greatest line-up since Wennerstrom first convened the band back in 2003. Drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebagh – both of whom played on the Bastards’ first-ever demo recordings – returned to the fold in order to play live behind The Mountain. Soon after embarking on tour, Wennerstrom decided to put more meat on the band’s raw bones by enlisting guitarist Mark Nathan, who had ostensibly come aboard to handle the live sound.
“I wanted to add another guitar,” Wennerstrom says, “so I asked Mark, ‘What do you think of joining the band?’ and he was into it. I’ve always planned on being a four-piece, but it just takes a while to find somebody that you feel you click with. I’d rather have it be stripped down than just have somebody there for the sake of having them there.”
The expanded line-up brought additional color and dynamism to the Heartless Bastards’ already colorfully dynamic rock ‘n’ roll. With their sound honed to a razor’s edge by night after night of playing live, Heartless Bastards were soon ready to record for posterity. But having spent so much of the past year on tour, Wennerstrom knew she needed some downtime in order to turn her musical ideas into fully-fledged songs. In Fall 2010, she embarked on the first of what would be several solo road trips designed to clear the cobwebs and help focus her songwriting. Wennerstrom visited friends and family in Ohio, hung out at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the Catskills, spent alone time in Arkansas, a lake cabin in the Allegheny Mountains and at a ranch in West Texas.
“It was really nice,” she says. ”I didn’t feel like I was getting much done, but I realized that a lot of that experience ended up being reflected in the songs. I didn’t get a lot of the writing done right then, on that trip, but I feel like getting out there really helped me later on.”
2011 saw Heartless Bastards hitting the highway once more, taking the opportunity to road-test Wennerstrom’s new songs on a bare-bones “acoustic” tour as well on a series of dates supporting Drive-By Truckers. The band set to work on Arrow just two short days after their return to Austin, a revved-up, well-oiled rock ‘n’ roll machine.
“We just went right in,” Wennerstrom says. ”There’s a definite sound that comes from a band that’s been on the road and I really feel like it’s translated on the album.”
The band spent the next month with producer Jim Eno at his Public Hi-Fi home studio. Eno – known far and wide as the drummer in Spoon – guided the Bastards through the recording process, helping them to infuse their myriad influences and ambitions into the songs.
“Jim was really great to work with,” Wennerstrom says. ”He asked me what kind of approach I wanted to take towards each song and we’d take it in that direction. It was like, what were you thinking for each song, as far as inspiration?”
Arrow showcases the depth and breath of the band’s indelible sound, with songs like “Got To Have Rock and Roll” and “Down In The Canyon” lighting upon spaghetti western film scores, Seventies soul, psychedelia, funk, blues, glam, and mudhole-stomping hard rock. Two years of nearly non-stop touring resulted in an astonishing musical telepathy among Heartless Bastards, with all four players intuitively able to craft Wennerstrom’s songs into maximum form.
“I’m so in synch with this band,” she says. ”Songs seem to go where I want them to go and it doesn’t take a whole lot of time. Even though I’m not very communicative, they know me well enough and get it.”
Kicking off with the widescreen vision of “Marathon,” the album is more wholly fleshed than anything in the Bastards’ prior oeuvre, while simultaneously securing the band in all their straight-on, unadorned majesty. Arrow is the glorious sound of a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll outfit in full flight, with little outside accompaniment bar conga player Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes’s performance on the evocative “Skin and Bone.”
“It’s a pretty stripped-down album in a lot of ways,” Wennerstrom says. “There’s really not a lot added to these tracks, they’re really mostly live takes. We talked about adding things, but when we listened back, we thought, ‘I don’t know if this really needs more.’”
With Arrow complete, Heartless Bastards are now itching to get back out there. Inveterate road warriors, the band is at their electrifying best while on stage, making deep connections with both their audience and their music.
“It can be hard at times,” Wennerstrom says, “but I love it. I love playing on stage. It’s that hour and a half, that time that we’re up there, that I love most. There’s a lot of sitting around, trying to find things to fill in the time, but then we finally start to play, it’s so worth it and rewarding.”
Arrow sees Heartless Bastards doing what all great bands do – furthering their artistic scope with each successive effort. With its impressive range and undeniable vigor, the album flies straight, honest and true, the finest distillation yet of this extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll band’s fiery, unforgettable sound.
“I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done,” Wennerstrom says. ”I feel like playing with these guys, us all being so connected, really helped make it so fully realized. I’m really, really happy with it.”