Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom on breaking writer's block with travel

Oh those Heartless Bastards.

It seems like the Austin-based Heartless Bastards have made some drastic changes since the release of their debut album, Stairs and Elevators, shedding their punkish irreverence in favor of more candid Americana as illustrated in Arrow, their 2012 Jim Eno-produced release.

I caught up with frontperson Erika Wennerstrom before the band’s Great American Music Hall show this weekend, amid a van ride from Tucson to California to chat about her quartet’s ever-changing sound, her favorite SF food, Neil Young, and Arrow’s traveling backstory:
SFBG How do you think your sound has changed since you started playing under the Heartless Bastards moniker back in 2003, and what type of sound were you going for with 'Arrow'?
Erika Wennerstrom I really like to try different things – that’s what I enjoy about creating. I don’t try to recreate the same album. I’d like to think I’ve evolved as a songwriter, but I’m very much proud of songs I did on my first album. I’d also like to think that we don’t have one sound and that it’s not necessarily “going” in a specific direction. I have a lot of diverse influences, and I feel like our music is a little all over the place.

SFBG People call Heartless Bastards “garage rock” quite often, which seems kind of limiting and maybe even inaccurate. How do you feel about this characterization?
EW Yeah, I agree that it’s limiting. We recorded our first album really quickly and without a producer, so it kind of has a garage, rough around the edges feel. I’d say it’s still part of our sound, but it’s just one element and there are a lot of other elements. I’ve also gotten “country” a lot in the past several years between The Mountain and Arrow, and I get that but my country influences are more like Neil Young – artists that have a little bit of that country Americana sound but are very much rock’n’ roll artists as well.
SFBG Can you talk about the inspiration behind 'Arrow'?
EW I had a bit of writer’s block at the time and decided to take some road trips, which ended up shaping the album. I went to the East Coast and the Catskills and stopped through Ohio and Pennsylvania. I also spent time in West Texas and went out hiking in Big Bend. There’s a lot of imagery on the album from my stay in West Texas.
SFBG What’s it like living in West Texas?
EW A lot of it is desert. There’s yellow grass; it’s dry. I find it inspiring out there – all that open space. The songs on the album have a lot of space in them, which is reflective of the imagery out there. I think I tried to channel the desert in Arrow.
SFBG What was your songwriting process like?
EW I approached each song on Arrow individually and hoped they’d all ended up fitting together and flowing. Usually I try to focus on one song at a time or I never get anything done and just have 100 unfinished songs. The album starts out with “Marathon,” which was written for The Mountain, but we ran out of recording space. I thought it was appropriate to start Arrow where I left off.

SFBG Is there anything you’re particularly excited about doing while you’re here in San Francisco?
EW Eating some fresh seafood!
Heartless Bastards
With Johnny Fritz
Sat/30, 9pm, $23
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
(415) 885-0750