Music Hall of Williamsburg
Heartless Bastards, Old 97's

Heartless Bastards

Old 97's

BJ Barham (of American Aquarium)

Tue, May 10, 2016

Doors: 7:00 pm / Show: 8:00 pm

Music Hall of Williamsburg

Brooklyn, NY

$30

This event is 18 and over

Heartless Bastards
Heartless Bastards
Heartless Bastards have spent the past decade in motion, boldly pushing their unique brand of rock ‘n’ roll into new shapes over four acclaimed albums and nearly non-stop roadwork. Now, with RESTLESS ONES, the band sets out once again, blazing a path to a place of shifting moods, seasoned songcraft, and unbridled spontaneity. Heartless Bastards’ fifth studio recording and follow-up to 2012’s breakthrough ARROW, the album finds singer/songwriter Erika Wennerstrom exploring as-yet-unvisited avenues of sound and sensation, her bravery and ambition readily apparent in the emotional timbre and the sheer physicality of her songs. “Wind Up Bird” and “Into The Light” are straightforward yet stunningly sophisticated, shot through with layered guitars, atmospheric harmonies, hints of synth, and a powerhouse rhythm section adept at both subtle swing and heavy horsepower. Wennerstrom’s spellbinding vocals are of course front and center, her one-of-a-kind voice as primal, cathartic, and indefinable as ever.

“We took a lot of chances,” Wennerstrom says, “taking the sounds in different directions in order to grow. I don't ever want to make the same album twice.”

Now based in Austin, the band’s current incarnation – that is, guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh, and drummer Dave Colvin – united in 2009, touring Heartless Bastards’ acclaimed third album, THE MOUNTAIN, before hitting the studio to record ARROW.

ARROW proved popular success, earning Heartless Bastards’ top album and track sales to date, fueled by multi-format rock radio airplay across the land, high-profile placements on a wide range of highly rated network programming, rave reviews in the likes of Rolling Stone, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and show-stopping performances on such TV shows as NBC’s Friday Night Lights, CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman, TBS’ Conan, and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! The band celebrated with furious roadwork, including sold out headline tours and memorable appearances at such famed festivals as Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Lollapalooza, Pickathon, Hangout Music Festival, Summerfest, Wakarusa Music Festival, Firefly Music Festival, and Austin’s own ACL Music Festival and Fun Fun Fun Fest.

Having spent the better part of two years on tour, summer 2014 saw Heartless Bastards humming on all cylinders and ready to commence work on their next record. Wennerstrom began honing in on the myriad ideas she had accumulated, developing melodies and arrangements though not yet committing lyrics to paper. She experimented with vowel and consonant noises, toying with untested sounds and instrumentation.

GRAMMY® Award-winning producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Swans) was tasked with corralling Heartless Bastards’ collective energy. The band made significant inroads during pre-production sessions, tightening songs and structures but still leaving things open to chance.

“John came down to Austin and sat in with us for a couple of days,” says Nathan. “That was really great – it was important to get an outside ear and it helped make the process more concise. I’ve never seen anybody get sounds as good and as quickly as he does.”

“These songs are about what’s happening now,” Colvin says, “about not looking too far ahead or back. John is a real decisive person, which is great for us as players. He helped us to capture the moment and not worry about it.”

RESTLESS ONES was tracked in August 2014 during a 10-day session at El Paso’s renowned Sonic Ranch. Located on 2,300 acres of pecan orchards bordering the Rio Grande and Mexico, the studio – the largest residential recording complex in the world – provided the perfect setting, miles away from all real world responsibilities and thus able to fully invest themselves in the act of creation.

“When you record in the city you all live in, it’s easy for people to just come in and out of the studio,” Wennerstrom says, “so vocals and guitar parts and overdubs are often recorded without anyone else hearing them. Recording at Sonic Ranch was a way for everyone in the band to experience the creative process and to be able to offer opinions in real time.”

The band put their back into the project as one, living together, dining together, always alert to their mission. The communal nature and concentrated schedule of the Sonic Ranch sessions proved an intense but inspirational combination.

“There was no break from the process,” says Nathan. “In some ways, it made the good things better and the bad things worse, but looking back, it was a different experience and I’m glad we did it.”

“Sonic Ranch attracts talent from all over the Americas,” Ebaugh says. “We met people from Chile, Argentina, Mexico City. It helps you contextualize your own work to be shoulder to shoulder with other artists from backgrounds so different from your own. It makes you think twice as hard about what you are saying, about your life, and your background artistically.”

The sessions were marked by Heartless Bastards’ openness to the unfamiliar, allowing previously untapped influences – from The Byrds and Syd Barrett to the Faces and the Flaming Lips – to take root in their own distinctive blues-powered rock ‘n’ roll. “Wind Up Bird” is given texture and psychedelic lift via a visit from keyboardist John Baggott (Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters, Portishead, Massive Attack), while the album-closing “Tristessa” was born of Wennerstrom’s home experiments with guitar loops but then grown by the band into a deeply devotional drone.

“We started with sketches and ideas of directions,” Ebaugh says, “but allowed the process of discovery to guide the finalization. It allowed us to think about the songs more globally and really flesh them out.”

“There were some happy accidents,” Colvin says. “Things that were completely organic, that could’ve only happened in that moment. Things are still shifting, nothing’s set in stone.”

Where some tracks were built from the ground up, others were completely upended. First recorded for the soundtrack to 2013’s acclaimed Winter In The Blood, “Hi-Line” was broken down and retooled from front porch folk to Fleetwood Mac-inspired country pop unlike anything in Heartless Bastards’ prior canon.

“‘Eastern Wind’ provided a bit of a road map for the record,” she says. “It’s a song of wanderlust. Writing words is always a real challenge for me, so I end up taking off in my car and roaming around by myself looking for inspiration. I think in doing that I’m taking myself out of my comfort zone. I turn my world upside down over and over and start anew.”

Further insight came from such literary touchstones as Haruki Murakami (“Wind Up Bird”), Jack Kerouac (“Tristessa”), and the late photojournalist/artist/activist Dan Eldon, whose Be Here Now philosophy is at the very heart of RESTLESS ONES.

“I love the idea of ‘The Journey Is The Destination,’” she says, referencing Eldon’s most famous work. “Not looking too far ahead and really focusing on the present. I've tended to look so forward that I forget to stop and smell the roses. The process of working towards the things you want in your life is more important than the goal itself.”

“As always, Erika’s lyrical honesty informs the behavior of the whole project,” says Ebaugh. “There comes a time in an artist's trajectory when you realize that your entire life experience is expressed through the work, so you better be able to relax and let the work reflect the experience that is yours.”

RESTLESS ONES was finished in the fall with two mixing sessions at Congleton’s Elmwood Recording in Dallas. Heartless Bastards’ next challenge is bringing the album’s studio-crafted songs to the stage. “It’ll be fun to chuck it all at the wall and let the collective experience of band/audience dictate the conversation of the music,” Ebaugh says. “That's the mission ultimately: rock ‘n’ roll communion.”

Rich with purpose, passion, and commanding musicianship, RESTLESS ONES captures an idiosyncratic band exploring their craft and soul in an effort to reach a place that’s both true and transcendent. Heartless Bastards continue to drive their monumental music ever forward, towards hidden vistas and horizons still unseen.

February 2015
Old 97's
Old 97's
"Rock and roll's been very very good to me," Rhett Miller sings on "Longer Than You've Been Alive," an epic six-minute stream-of-consciousness meditation on his life in music. It's a rare moment of pulling back the curtain, on both the excesses and tedium of the world of a touring musician, and it's the perfect way to open the Old 97's new album, 'Most Messed Up.'

"I wrote that song very quickly and didn’t rewrite one word of it," Miller explains. "It's sort of a thesis statement not just for this record, but for my life's work."

To say that rock and roll has been good to the Old 97's (guitarist/vocalist Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples) would be an understatement. The band emerged from Dallas twenty years ago at the forefront of a musical movement blending rootsy, country-influenced songwriting with punk rock energy and delivery. The New York Times has described their major label debut, 'Too Far To Care,' as "a cornerstone of the 'alternative country' movement…[that] leaned more toward the Clash than the Carter Family." They've released a slew of records since then, garnering praise from NPR and Billboard to SPIN and Rolling Stone, who hailed the band as "four Texans raised on the Beatles and Johnny Cash in equal measures, whose shiny melodies, and fatalistic character studies, do their forefathers proud." The band performed on television from Letterman to Austin City Limits and had their music appear in countless film and TV soundtracks (they appeared as themselves in the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston movie 'The Break Up'). Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter that he put the band on a continuous loop on his iPod while writing the show's final scene.

'Most Messed Up' finds the Old 97's at their raucous, boozy best, all swagger and heart. Titles like "Wasted," "Intervention," "Wheels Off," "Let's Get Drunk And Get It On," and "Most Messed Up" hint at the kind of narrators Miller likes to inhabit, men who possess an appetite for indulgence and won't let a few bad decisions get in the way of a good story.

"A few people in my life said, 'You can't sing 'Let's get drunk and get it on,'" Miller remembers. "I said, 'What do you mean? I've been singing that sentiment for 20 years! I was just never so straightforward about it.'"

It was a trip to Music City that inspired Miller to throw away his inhibitions as songwriter and cut right to the heart of things.

"For me, this record really started in Nashville on a co-write session with John McElroy," he says. "I really admired his wheels off approach to songwriting, And I liked the idea he had for how he thought I should interact with my audience. He said, 'I think your fans want you to walk up to the mic and say fuck.' It was liberating." It reminded me that I don’t have to be too serious or too sincere or heartfelt. I just have to have fun and be honest. I felt like I kind of had free reign to go ahead and write these songs that were bawdier and more adult-themed."

The magic in Miller's songwriting lies in the depth that he lends his characters. Upon closer inspection, the hard partying and endless pursuit of a good time often reveals itself to be a band-aid covering up deeper wounds and emotional scars.

"There's a lot of darkness hidden in this record," he explains. "One of the big Old 97's tricks is when we write about something kind of dark and depressing, it works best when it's a fun sounding song. So it's not until the third or fourth listen that you realize the narrator of this song is a complete disaster."

If that description calls to mind The Replacements, it's no coincidence. Miller is a fan of the Minneapolis cult heroes, and now counts Tommy Stinson among his own friends and fans. Best known as bassist for the Mats and more recently Guns 'n' Roses, Stinson joined the Old 97's in the studio in Austin, Texas, to lay down electric guitar on ## tracks, elevating the sense of reckless musical abandon to new heights and lending the album an air of the Rolling Stones' double-guitar attack. It's a collaboration Miller never would have even imagined in 1994 when the band released their debut.

"We didn’t think we'd last until the year 1997," Miller laughs. "We thought the name would get a little weird when it became 1997, but we decided none of our bands had ever lasted that long, so let's not even worry about it. But as it all started to unfold, we realized we could maybe make a living doing this, and we were all really conscious of wanting to be a career band. It was way more important to us to maintain a really high level of quality, at the expense, perhaps, of having hit singles or fitting in with the trends of the time, and I'm glad we did that."

Twenty years on, it's safe to say rock and roll has indeed been very, very good to the Old 97's.
BJ Barham (of American Aquarium)
BJ Barham (of American Aquarium)
BJ Barham has spent the last decade traveling the world with his band, American Aquarium.
Venue Information:
Music Hall of Williamsburg
66 North 6th St
Brooklyn, NY, 11249
http://www.musichallofwilliamsburg.com/