It says a lot about Erika Wennerstrom that her act’s name is not Erika Wennerstrom. They’re Heartless Bastards, as seen on late-night national TV. The quartet’s terrific album “Arrow,” produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno at his Public Hi-Fi studio, would have ended up on more year-end “Top Ten” lists except it came out in February 2012 and was not at the tops of minds.
Wennerstrom writes all the songs and sings them. Plus, the blonde is an exotic presence onstage, as photogenic as a young Annie Leibovitz. But Heartless Bastards are a band. “Erika brings the songs to the band, just as Britt (Spoon’s Daniels) does,” says Eno. “But everybody has input.”
Based in Austin for five years, when Wennerstrom moved here to start over after a painful romantic breakup, the Bastards are less an Austin band than one whose members live here (they’re playing Thursday at Antone’s). Oh, you’ll see Wennerstrom at gigs by other bands — she loves bands — but Heartless Bastards had a name before they moved here, releasing “Stairs and Elevators” (2005) and “All This Time” (2006) to critical raves while based in Cincinnati. The band was signed to Fat Possum after fellow Ohioan Patrick Carney of the Black Keys passed their demo tape along to the Keys’ label. “We played this gig in Akron in front of about five people,” Wennerstrom recalls, “and then Patrick Carney walked in.”
Carney got the band, whose only blues element was the husk of Wennerstrom’s wordsong. But Fat Possum was expanding its creative range from North Mississippi roadhouse stomp to forms that had blues in the rearview mirror.
Heartless Bastards took an introspective turn with their third album, “The Mountain,” which Wennerstrom wrote in the heart-ravaged aftermath of nine years with the band’s former guitarist Michael Weinel.
Managed by Austin’s C3 Presents, Heartless Bastards released their fourth album “Arrow” on Brooklyn-based Partisan Records, the home of Deer Tick. A trio for “The Mountain” tour, with the returns of drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh (who both played on the demo that got HB signed), the band is a four-piece once again, adding lead guitarist Mark Nathan for fills and thrills.
“I guess I always wanted the band to be a quartet,” says Wennerstrom, who’s not a bad guitar player. “Now I can concentrate on the singing.”
Although Heartless Bastards have not achieved success anywhere near the level of Black Keys or Jack White, they’ve slowly, organically, built their fanbase and continue to get exposure by their music being used in TV shows (“Friday Night Lights,” “Whitney.”) But Wennerstrom and company leap best when they land spots on talk shows such as “Conan” and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Google gets a workout — then YouTube a few days later — when Heartless Bastards make an appearance. Who is this band? The “Conan” taping in April was especially memorable, with Wennerstrom nailing all the melodic notes on “Parted Ways” as the band rocked behind her. If she wasn’t so good, she’d look like an actress (Chloe Sevigny?) fronting a side project.
Wennerstrom could be a solo star, no doubt. But the band format suits her just fine. And this sort of thing happens: After “Parted Ways” finished, host Conan O’Brien bounded on to the stage with genuine enthusiasm. “Thank you, Heartless Bastards,” he announced, then grinned. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”