Alt-Country Rockers the Heartless Bastards and the Old 97's Share a Blue-Collar Ethos

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click to enlarge It's all a blur for the Old 97's. - ATO Records
ATO Records
It's all a blur for the Old 97's.
The Heartless Bastards and the Old 97’s, two high-energy alt-country acts that defy stereotypes about the genre, have teamed up for a string of East Coast, Midwest and Canada dates throughout May with opener BJ Barham (of American Aquarium). The 'Bastards have built their reputation around Erika Wennerstrom's "powerhouse vocals that electrify a crowd." And the Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller tends to sing until he’s hoarse. The two bands play the Beachland Ballroom next week, and we spoke to Wennerstrom and Miller in separate phone interviews.

click to enlarge Heartless Bastards: A Texas band from Ohio. - Courtney Chavanell
Courtney Chavanell
Heartless Bastards: A Texas band from Ohio.
The press release announcing the co-headlining tour says the two bands have “crossed paths” over the years. When would you have first encountered one another?
I’ve been hearing about these guys for a long time. We have a bunch of friends in common in Austin, and I know that Erika is an Ohio girl and I married an Ohio girl, so I have all sorts of Cleveland ties. The clips of the band performing that I’ve seen on the Internet were so vital and exciting. They’re such a fun rock band. So many times, I feel like the genre we get lumped into — Americana or whatever it is — doesn’t give people the sense that they’re coming to see a big loud exciting rock show. In the case of our bands, that’s really the case. You’ll see a sweaty rock band jump around and really bring it all night long. I thought that to put us on the bill together will be perfect. We share a common dilemma. Both of us are tough as opening bands. Anybody that brings us in to be their opener will have to follow a big loud sweaty set. They have to bring energy that matches or exceeds what we bring. Neither of us will have that problem. Whoever plays first won’t have to play a quiet set to accommodate the headliner.
Wennerstrom: The first time I met Rhett was on a solo date in Cincinnati at the Tall Stacks Festival. We met then and that was in like 2006. The Heartless Bastards relocated to Texas and it’s been ten years so we’re both really Texas bands. We have done shows with bands we both like, but we’ve not done shows together. We have mutual appreciation for one another.

At what point did you begin to talk about doing a tour together?
Erika and I talked about how great it would be to play together. We did some recording sessions for [the Old 97’s album] Most Messed Up. She recorded a duet on this John Prine song called “In Spite of Ourselves.” I keep trying to get it released and I keep running into a problem of mechanical royalties or something. I wanted to put it out for free in advance of the tour but I can’t do that because we don’t own the publishing rights. I loved working with her. I loved her excitement level about music and work ethic. I was looking for an excuse for to tour with her band for a long time. When our management got with their management and realized we could make this work, I was very excited.
Wennerstrom: I think the idea for this tour just came up sometime in the fall of last year we started talking about it. It was something where we reached out and were both into the idea. It was just a matter of finding a good time period and getting the routing worked out.

The two bands play very different styles of music. Do you have some fans in common?
I think so. We’ll find out. We haven’t done a lot of co-headlining stuff. We did some stuff with Drive-By Truckers and figured out there was some overlap but lots of people who are fans separately. It will be interesting to see how much overlap there is and how much we can make fans out of their fans and vice versa.
Wennerstrom: Yeah. Each night there are people in the audience that I know are not familiar with us. I know some are seeing us for the first time. Genre-wise, there are some common areas. It’s a great fit and a great way for us to grow our fanbase.

Which band’s fans are rowdier?
They’re younger so they have that on us. I don’t know. Our fanbase is pretty crazy, so we’ll see.
Wennerstrom: I don’t know in all honesty.

Both bands seem to take a DIY approach to touring and recording. Is that accurate?
Yeah. I think that’s a necessity in the modern music industry. There used to be a record label that lorded over you and told you what a record should be and when it’s dead. I’m so glad that that’s over. Both our bands have benefited from that. There was a time when the artists people had access to were dictated by the industry. That’s gone. You have to earn the right for people’s ears. I think we’re there. Both bands have put together catalogs that speak for themselves.
Wennerstrom: I don’t know if we do DIY recording. I don’t know if Old 97’s do either. They tend to work with producers and real studios. But we’re both hard working bands. We keep doing what we do because we love it and in that sense we have a DIY approach. I didn’t realize they’ve been together for 22 years. Usually, after that amount of time, something happens [and a band member has to leave]. I was impressed with that.

Do you think Texas and Ohio have anything remotely in common?
I do. I know both states really well by virtue of being a seventh generation Texan and now having married into Ohio. They’re both regarded as being conservative states but there’s a liberal streak that runs through the people. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is a sense of humor. My friends from Ohio are some of the funniest in the people I know. The same holds for people from Texas — they’re renegade people with this willingness to embrace the dark side a little bit.
Wennerstrom: Yeah. I think so. I think Texas has a very blue-collar sort of work ethic with bands and Ohio very much does. Growing up in Dayton, it’s an industrial town and I feel like Ohio bands like Guided by Voices and the Black Keys have that work ethic. They just work and work. The Black Keys exploded so much and it’s great to see, but I think they would be working as hard as they do even if that hadn’t happened.

You might be due for a new studio release. Anything happening on that front?
Funny you should ask. We’re in the middle of mixing the final songs today. It probably won’t come out for a while, ironically because of the election. [The record label] ATO has a Drive-By Truckers record coming out in September so we’re trying to figure out when to put it out. The idea of putting it out right on top of the election is not super exciting for any of us. We’re working with a producer named Vance Powell. He’s great. He mixed my recent solo album. He won a Grammy for the Chris Stapleton album. He’s a rock n roll guy. He likes guitars. He and our guitarist worked relaly well together. It will pick up sonically where the last one left off. It has one foot in the garage world but the pedal steel on it is also more pronounced. Thematically and lyrically, it’s a different record. It’s the next step after Most Messed Up. It’s maybe like the day after.
Wennerstrom: I’m writing a lot right now but we have been on the road so much that everyone wants a break. It’s one of the last tours for our last album, Restless Ones, and I’m just writing and want to see what happens next. I might do a solo album under a different name or maybe I’ll put them on the next Heartless Bastards record. I’m not sure yet. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other at the moment.

Do you have a favorite Cleveland memory?
I had a solo gig at the Music Box, which is a great room, and there and there was a sweet little girl who got up on stage and sang “Firefly,” a duet I do. She was so brave. It’s such a rare thing. It’s so dangerous to pull a stranger up on the stage particularly when it’s a little kid but she totally nailed it.
Wennerstrom: Oh gosh, the Beachland is a staple. I’m so happy that it’s still there after all these years. The Beachland and the Grog – I love them both. I remember my first time playing in Cleveland with my old band Shesus. We opened for the Breeders there. That was a great experience and Kim Deal is a big hero to me. I just got a lot of respect and love for what she does. That was my first time and for some reason I remember Chris, a Cleveland guy I know, getting chased by security and hit with mace. I think he was really drunk. I don’t think they were overly aggressive. It was necessary. For some reason, that stands out.

Old 97’s, Heartless Bastards, BJ Barham (of American Aquarium), 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 18, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $26,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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