Just before heading out to the wilds of Oregon, Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards talked with QRO. In the conversation, Wennerstrom discussed bringing back the Heartless Bastards, her upcoming new Bastards record (finished just before everything shut down), new single “Revolution” (QRO review), her current life in Texas, doing livestreams, keeping them fresh, reading the comments, and much more…
QRO: How are you holding up, with everything that is going on?
Erika Wennerstrom: You know, honestly, I’m good right now. I think I just kind of have accepted this is like the reality I’m in, and I can’t really do anything personally about it. Other than my outlook, you know?
I’m just doing my best to try to look for silver linings. Yeah, I’m good.
QRO: Are you in Austin?
EW: I’m in Lockhart, which is pretty much Austin. I mean, it’s 26 miles away.
It’s kind of the last frontier. It’s this little town. It’s the only highway headed out of Austin that isn’t like massively developed.
I know that Tesla’s moving here. We feel that’ll just fill in the last frontier of open land.
QRO: I remember how hot it is in Austin in August…
It’s pretty hot right now. Although, you know, it usually just kind of informs what I do, this time of year.
When COVID wasn’t around, I would work more in the evening, and maybe go swim in one of the natural water sources, or be in the A.C., and just be more around in the evening.
But with COVID, I guess I’m just home indoors a lot. [laughs]
I think I just kind of have accepted this is like the reality I’m in, and I can’t really do anything personally about it. Other than my outlook, you know?
QRO: How are things in your area right now?
EW: I’m in my little bubble of my house, I don’t know.
I think a lot of people are still working from home, despite things opening up. Cause I noticed if I do run some errands in town – I still get my mail, once or twice a week, in Austin. The traffic isn’t bad, which I think speaks for people either being out of town, somewhere in the mountains, or the beach with their kids, getting away, or working from home. It seems like, despite things opening up, I think people work from home whenever it’s possible.
I was following the news pretty regularly, and I even checked this ‘world meter’ website, with coronavirus daily updates, for a while, and I just kinda got out of that habit. Cause there was just a point where I was like, ‘I think I can kind of predict what it’s gonna look like, in the next day or two.’ I had gotten in a habitual thing.
I like to be informed, but I’m trying to follow the news a little bit less. It’s just intense.
And most of it is really beyond, I mean, all of it maybe, is really beyond my control. I can go vote, when the time comes, or assess on how to vote. I can do what I can to avoid crowds, and not get ill with the virus. I don’t know…
I’m just sort of doing a mix of staying informed and stepping away, too.
I like to be informed, but I’m trying to follow the news a little bit less. It’s just intense.
I’m actually putting my stuff in storage, honestly, and I’m gonna go isolate in a couple of different spots. Because I feel like just being at home constantly, and it also being a little too hot to go and enjoy the outdoors lately, that it’s just been a little bit stifling for my creative side.
So, I’m renting a cabin from a friend-of-a-friend in Oregon, and I’m going to start a slow road trip out that way. I’m gonna check out a couple of really small mountain towns in New Mexico, and hike a little, and visit a friend in Missoula, and kind of eventually get up to Oregon. And I know the virus numbers are a lot lower up there, too.
A lot of my writing process is walking in nature; it’s kind of meditative for me. And it just sort of activates a different part of my brain. Just really, really looking forward to it.
I have movers coming on Saturday. [laughs]
I’ll probably move back to Austin, but I have enough spots that I have a range through the end of the year. I thought kind of constantly changing up my environment, like in a safe manner, would make me way more likely to write an album in this time, to use it productively. And then maybe, early next year, I’ll just find a new spot, back in Texas.
I don’t know. Who knows that the future holds?… [laughs]
QRO: After you last release was a solo record [2018’s Sweet Unknown – QRO review], why did you decide to ‘bring back’ the Heartless Bastards?
EW: I’ve had a couple of different line-ups of the band, but I did have the same team for I guess about eight years. I did the first six years with a different team, and then The Mountain album (QRO review), I had session musicians, and after I recorded, I found the team that I had for the last eight years or so.
We took a hiatus. We talked about it at the beginning of 2016, and then I went and I wrote the other album. I was thinking that we would probably reconvene, so I just put it under my name. Everybody’s kind of in a different place.
But it’s also, ultimately, I want to reach as many people as I can with these songs that I’m writing. Not to say I couldn’t continue to grow it under my personal name, but there’s just so much more reach. And I’ve worked for fifteen years on it.
And I didn’t feel like waiting around for everybody to be in the same timing, and same page, was fair to myself. And I’d written the songs in both projects; to be honest, the process isn’t really any different under either way. Other than having the same team to go and sort of work the songs out with and record them.
I very much value their playing, and if there’s like suggestions on the arrangement, and things like that.
I always love the idea of a team. They’re kind of like your family, you know?
But it’s just, I feel like I just put way too much hard work in to wait for everybody to be on the exact same page.
I always love the idea of a team. They’re kind of like your family, you know?
QRO: But has the return of the Heartless Bastards been halted, or at least slowed down, by the pandemic?
EW: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think the original plan was to release the album this fall, and do touring under that name.
And Jesse [Ebaugh], that was in the last line-up of Heartless Bastards, he did record on the album. But he’s working on his solo stuff.
I was putting together a new team of people, to tour live. I finished the album right before the pandemic hit. Even just solidifying the team, I have started to do that now. I’ve got people line-up to rehearse.
But initially, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know when it’s gonna be safe to tour.’ It’s like asking somebody if they’re interested in working with me a year-and-a-half from now, you know?… [laughs]
I decided to just, shit, sit on it, and work on myself, and things around the house… [laughs]
QRO: Is the new album done?
EW: Yes. I finished it March 1st, and then came back from Los Angeles March 5th.
And then my introverted self is like, ‘Oh, I’ll pop back out in the world, once I’m home a week or so.’ And then, by that following weekend, when I was getting ready to pop back out in the world, I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna go out…’
It took another week or so for things to really shut down, but I was just reading the news, and I was like, ‘Well…’ [laughs]
When I was getting ready to pop back out in the world, I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna go out…’
QRO: At least you were able to finish it before everything shut down. I know some artists who were 90% done, but can’t finish that last bit…
EW: I guess everybody has taken different levels of precaution, but I’ve noticed quite a few musicians starting to sort of…
I think, if you isolate amongst like a little tribe of people, it’s really no different from living in a family, if you’re all staying home. So, I’ve noticed quite a few artists, starting to do things like that.
And I actually have some of the musicians meeting me in Oregon, when I get out there in September, to start working on the live stuff, and maybe writing more as well.
QRO: Do you know when the record is going to come out? Or are you just still…
EW: I think we’re still figuring stuff out, yeah.
Stream Heartless Bastards’ new song “Revolution”:
QRO: Was the plan always to release “Revolution” as the first single, or did you pick that because of everything that’s going on right now?
EW: You know, it was always a little bit of a plan, but I was very open to it not being adamant it was the first song.
I wrote that song three years ago. It was one of the first songs I wrote in the fall of 2017, after I finished my solo album.
I mean, in a sense, the song “Revolution” is kinda more about a revolution in thought. And I think that relates to racism, and all kinds of things – essentially how somebody looks at the world, you know? But I guess there are different kinds of revolutions.
I think with Trump being in office, it inspired certainly some of my album. But it’s not so much just about him, it’s just about society in general.
Like, I don’t think the planet can sustain the way that things are going, and our society, and capitalism. I’m not saying that we should have a completely different system – I don’t know; I don’t have the answers. But I just know that the environment that sustains our life can’t handle our continued path. And so, I just have concerns, and frustrations with that. And just really commercialism in general.
And not to get real political in this, but I think just like how the stockmarket is doing and 401Ks aren’t really a concern of mine. It’s just like, how is humanity, how is the planet, how are we all doing? We’re all connected.
It’s more a conversation on maybe mute. It’s a conversation that should be present. Which it is; I think it’s been a little bit lost with corona and everything going on – which is fair… [laughs]
QRO: Have you been working on new material since finishing the record, and since the pandemic started?
EW: Not really. I’ve had one song that I have been working on, which I’ve made pretty good progress on.
I would imagine I would be extremely creative in this time, but I think just being in my house so much, by myself, it’s just kind of, I feel like, interacting with other people. I write a lot when I go hiking & travel, but I’ve just kind of been in the same mode every day.
So, that’s why I’m really looking forward to a new environment soon.
Heartless Bastards playing “Late In the Night” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on February 24th, 2012:
See also them playing “Simple Feeling”.
QRO: I saw your livestream last Friday. How do you feel about doing things like that?
EW: I think it’s kind of just making the most of the situation, you know?
It’s not my favorite way to connect with people, that’s for sure. [laughs] But just making the most of the situation.
It’s been a real learning process. God, there’s so many complicated issues with streaming…
I actually did this benefit for a friend of my brother’s growing up. I have this Patreon page which I do some streams on as well, but I utilize YouTube for that, and I didn’t realize that I couldn’t get it to work because it was stuck on YouTube in the software.
It’s just lots of things that I never would have imagined. I guess we’ve all been in a new learning situation and process with this.
QRO: You did seem to have some trouble with the technology – you called yourself a “Luddite” at one point…
EW: I mean, I guess a “Luddite” is when they refuse or don’t want to use or embrace new technologies, right? It’s not that I don’t want to; I just find myself to be a little bit more challenged by things like this, with technology and streaming and such.
And the thing about these is, they’re live… [laughs]
When I first started, we were having issues. The first two or three times I did a stream, I think I went on like twenty or thirty minutes late, each time… [laughs]
God, there’s so many complicated issues with streaming…
QRO: And I’m sure everyone who’s watched the livestreams wants to know: Do you read the comments on the livestreams?
EW: Oh yeah, yeah, I do.
I’ve done Instagram streams, and even if you save those, I don’t think the comments save. Sometimes, if I don’t see the comment right when it happens, there’s no way for me to look back and see it. Which is unfortunate. I mean, it’s nice to be able to look back.
QRO: How do you keep the livestreams fresh, once you’ve done a few?
EW: Well, numerous ways.
For one, the whole sound, in itself, has been a big learning process. I would like to think it continues to get better.
I guess I can’t say what people viewing appreciate or look for; I don’t know. But I try to keep them different. I’ve never done the same set twice. If I count my new album and the solo album, I have seven albums worth of material. So, I try to keep it fresh.
On the Patreon, I do two shows a month, and I’ve done a couple of songs twice, in three months or something.
And the other thing is like, I’ve been trying to get creative with background. I bought this photographer background stand. If you saw the show the other day, I had this sort of green, leafy imagery. And the show I did before that, I had this sort of fake stage curtain, [laughs] like I was on a theatrical stage with the big red velvet curtain, you know, but it was really just the background that I clipped on the thing.
And I also did this one where I got these white curtains and a bunch of waterfall Christmas lights, and I thought that was my favorite, but I thought it might get boring, if I just kept it every time. I thought it kind of looked like the stars or something… [laughs]
So, I don’t know. I just try to do little touches, to keep it interesting.
And when I got out into Oregon, [others] will be joining me. So then, maybe we’ll start redoing some songs that people have heard in the older streams, but now, all of a sudden, I’ll have accompaniment, so it’ll still be a completely different show.
I’ve never done the same [livestream] set twice.
QRO: I was wondering how you would do it out in Oregon. Is there still wi-fi out there, or cell service?
EW: You know, it’s really funny, but the particular place I’m staying, they did a pilot program with Google fiber up there, and they really went in last week. Only twenty houses on that whole mountain, maybe, it happens to be one of the places I’m staying at.
So, there’s definitely not going to be any issues with streaming… [laughs]
QRO: Are there new songs that you’d like to do on a livestream, but are intentionally ‘holding back’ until closer to the record’s release?
EW: I mean, there are definitely some.
Some of the reasons, they have been very difficult to present with myself and an acoustic guitar.
I have one song that I like to say takes you on a little bit of an odyssey. Kind of this rock n’ roll intro vocal melody and everything, but then it goes into an instrumental session, which is the majority of the song. What I like to say is a ‘sandwich,’ it comes back around. It’s back to the beginning; it all kind of makes sense together. But I don’t know how I would do a song like that, in a stream by myself, you know? So, there are things like that.
I also have a song that has kind of like orchestral instruments. I added symphony, and I got a string quartet to do layers; it’s kind of orchestral. And that’s another one. And I just put it together in the studio. I actually didn’t even use a full band for that.
I also have to figure out some of these, how best to present them live and stuff.
What I enjoy is being able to still connect with people in some way.
QRO: Do doing these livestreams at least somewhat ‘scratch the itch’ of not being able to tour?
EW: I mean, it does a little bit of scratching, you know?… [laughs]
What I enjoy is being able to still connect with people in some way, and, at a time where it is challenged – I feel productive [laughs] when I play a show; I get to connect with people in some way.
One of the best parts about playing live is actually that energy. That sort of energy exchange that you have.
You can play the same songs every night. Maybe it’s a different set order or something. But sometimes, you can play the same songs every night, and it does not feel monotonous, because there’s always going to be a little bit of a different energy. You’re in a different room, there’s different people, the band members are in a different mindset or mood. There’s just so many different factors that keeps it really fresh, all the time.
QRO: During this time, have you picked up and/or accelerated any bad habits? Like I went a long time without shaving…
EW: Nothing off the top of my head.
Because, essentially, is that a bad habit? Like, is it? I mean, if you go an extra-long time without shaving, is there actually anything wrong with that, you know what I mean?
I feel like this time, we have to kind of give ourselves a break. Maybe that is like, amongst difficult things, the silver lining: where you can just not worry about shaving, you know what I mean? [laughs]
I could find something, certainly, to guilt myself about, because that is never that hard for me. Because I was starting to try and think about what that would be, but I’m not sure if I want to go there… [laughs]
Heartless Bastards playing “Sway” live at Terminal 5 in New York, NY on February 7th, 2009:
See also them playing “Nothing Seems the Same”.