Rolling through the Texas scrub in what could be the backdrop to one of her woe-begotten shit-kicking tunes, Erika Wennerstrom explains over a spotty cell-phone connection that she knew she had to play music at a time when most kids are just starting to read and write.
“I've wanted to do this forever, since I was like 3 or 4,” she says.
The Bastards crawled out of a small scene in Dayton, Ohio, where they snagged their moniker from a bar trivia game. While on a regional tour, they had a chance encounter with Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney that eventually led to a deal with Fat Possum Records. Minus a few original band mates, the band released its third and most notable album four years later. “The Mountain” is sorrow amplified — a juggernaut of slide guitars, banjos, and crashing cymbals that only gives way when Wennerstrom's gut-wrenching wail fires up, evoking people as varied as Grace Slick and Janis Joplin.
“People have said a female Robert Plant, which I'm totally flattered by since I love Led Zeppelin,” Wennerstrom says. “I've also gotten Joey Ramone, which was a surprise, but I love him too.” And then there's the inexplicable one. “Gwen Stefani,” she adds, laughing. “Her music is completely different, and I'm not saying that at all negatively. There is a place in this world for pop, but I really don't think our voices sound alike. Pretty shocked by that comparison.”
Her fierce vocals are in stark contrast to her Austin-transplant-meets-Fargo drawl. Offstage, she speaks with a politeness that makes it hard to believe her band's name sits well with her and confirms that reports of her painful shyness are fairly true. “Some days I'm more shy than others, depends on the situation. I still have trouble talking to the audience between songs,” she says. “But, since I've wanted to do this forever, I just get up a lot of courage to go out there and start singing. I wasn't gonna allow myself to let shyness get in the way. I needed to get past that, at least as far as performing goes. Now, I'm trying to get better about speaking to the audience, though I don't feel like it's an imperative thing,” she adds.
Currently the band is on the road with Jenny Lewis, and Wennerstrom is told they were hand-picked by the reigning indie princess for the opening slot. “We love her music, so we're really flattered,” she says. You can expect to hear cuts from “The Mountain” and older songs out in furious force, with a hint of the unexpected. “I'm always wanting to improve a song whether it's finished or not, so I'm always playing variations live. Like all forms of art, music is always a work in progress. I feel like the more we play the material, the stronger it gets.” S
The Heartless Bastards open for Jenny Lewis at the National on Friday, July 3, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $18. Call 612-1900 or visit www.thenationalva.com.