who to watch
When plotting and planning for Fun Fun Fun Fest, I typically choose to park my alt-country-loving self at the Black Stage. It’s the one time a year that I fully rekindle my early love for punk and metal (and their accompanying angst). But I also like to see locally rooted bands on these larger festival stages. Though the space may not be intimate, watching local artists in the festival realm, playing on bills with larger-than-life legacies and sometimes their own modern influences, is an unmatched experienced.
Austin-based Heartless Bastards will play the Orange Stage of FFF Fest on Friday afternoon, the same fest that Passion Pit will play a few hours later and Slayer will rock on Sunday night. Rock followed by dance followed by metal: a signature example of FFF’s dynamic scheduling.
The band now calls Austin home, but the Heartless Bastards' story doesn’t start here. It begins with Erika Wennerstrom in Ohio, playing deep, gruff rock n’ roll influenced by a host of cross-genre artists. In 2008, after critical success with 2005’s Stairs and Elevators, Wennerstrom relocated to Austin, enlisting producer Mike McCarthy (known for his work with Spoon) for the 2009 album The Mountain. She also recruited some new musicians for a reincarnation of sorts of Heartless Bastards, including Austin native and guitarist Mark Nathan.
Led by sometimes sultry front woman Wennerstrom, Heartless Bastards’ sound is solid rock n’ roll. Her gravelly vocals fuel the fire for Heartless Bastards’ unique 4-piece sound: no tricky licks here, but you’ll find soulful, whining electric guitar along the way. It’s a blended form of rock that has played locally at Antone’s and the Continental Club, and will now make its way to Auditorium Shores later this week.
Occasionally messy, Heartless Bastards’ rock n’ roll borrows some pop elements (listen for catchy hooks in the “Early in the Morning” video above), but also calls on simple riffs reminiscent of the glory days of grunge. There’s a bluesy undertone to some tunes, too, which isn’t surprising given Wennerstrom’s nod to her early influences that include The Stones, Neil Young and Otis Redding (or the fact that Rolling Stone likened her vocals to "the swagger and spit of a young Robert Plant").
Even though she’s been in Texas for a few years now, Wennerstrom’s musical influences remain deeply rooted in her past. “I honestly feel mostly influenced by artists and bands I’ve heard for years,” Wennerstrom says. “I feel my roots have been sown.”
Wennerstrom, however, does cite some fellow Fun Fun Fun Fest bands as artists she’s been digging lately, namely Deerhunter (2010 fest alums) and Thee Oh Sees (who will hit the Black Stage Friday evening).
Heartless Bastards’ Friday afternoon set will lend a cleaner sound than you’ll hear from others on the FFF6 lineup (guaranteed cleaner than what’s going down on the Black Stage). Even as a 4-piece band with tendencies toward clean rock reverb, Heartless Bastards will bring a full, passionate set to the Orange Stage, one that reflects their own cross-section of diverse influences.
And Wennerstrom sees no challenge knowing that their rock n’ roll sound will be matched up against harder-hitting metal and pop-influenced dance beats. “I don’t really alter what we play,” she says. That’s where the beauty and discovery lie in this alternative festival that has grown up a lot since its inception in 2006.
"I think [the] FFF Fest audience is filled with fans of music," Wennerstrom says. "I think most people generally have a broad taste in music… if you’re constantly trying to please everybody you’ll find yourself very disappointed."