It started with one of those bar-top trivia games. The question: What was the name of Tom Petty’s backing band? Everyone knows it’s the Heartbreakers.
But one of the other choices was “Tom Petty and the Heartless Bastards.” Erika Wennerstrom knew a good band name when she saw it.
The Austin, Texas-based garage rockers return to Gabe’s in Iowa City on Saturday night on the heels of the release of their fourth album, “Arrow.” It’s the band’s third stop at the club, following shows in February 2007 and November 2008. These United States and Little Legend are the openers for the 9 p.m. show (doors open at 8).
“I’ve always found that sometimes as a band, it’s easier to get the energy of the music across live,” Wennerstrom says during a phone interview from her home in Austin. “On ‘Arrow,’ we really sort of strived to get that live sound. I feel like it’s the closest the band has gotten to what we are live.”
Heartless Bastards came out of the gate strong with 2005’s “Stairs and Elevators,” a dirty rocking set built on bluesy minimalism — guitar, bass, drums, a little bit of piano thrown in for good measure, all topped by Wennerstrom’s distinctive howl. The sound carried over to 2006’s “All This Time,” the title track of which got the band some exposure after its use in a first-season episode of NBC cult hit “Friday Night Lights” (the musicians also appeared in a fourth-season episode in which they were shown performing).
But after the second album and tour, Wennerstrom parted ways with drummer Kevin Vaughn and bassist Mike Lamping — who was her boyfriend of 10 years — and relocated to the Texas college town from her native Ohio to work with Mike McCarthy, the producer of alt-rockers Spoon.
“We went through a breakup,” Wennerstrom says of her relationship with Lamping. “That’s just hard to continue working together. So I just kind of moved to Austin and started over.”
Completing work on the third album, 2009’s “The Mountain,” Wennerstrom began putting together a new touring band, not realizing friend and drummer Dave Colvin, also of Dayton, Ohio, who had played on the band’s original demo tapes, was attending the University of Texas to get a master’s degree. After Colvin quickly accepted an invitation to join the band, Wennerstrom called the bassist on those same demos, fellow Ohioan Jesse Ebaugh, who promptly moved to Austin. The trio toured briefly after the release of “The Mountain,” but Wennerstrom knew the rhythmic layers of the new material required a fourth member, so she added Mark Nathan — who had toured as the band’s sound man — to the lineup as lead guitarist.
The music has evolved since the move to Austin; more acoustic, incorporating shades of countrified southern rock, and even twinges of bluegrass, to go with the signature rippers. Asked if the move to Austin contributed to some of the most noticeable stylistic changes, Wennerstrom turned the question around.
“As a writer, if you lived in a different place, do you feel like it’s influenced you to write a different way or do you feel like you’re the writer that you’ve always been and that it’s just part of our life?” she says. “When I write music, what I’m writing from is my life and my experiences, so I’m sure Austin is in my music somehow.”
In an attempt to lock down the live sound, the band embarked on a monthlong tour opening for Drive-By Truckers out west to test the material for “Arrow.” Two days after the tour ended, they hit the studio with everything fresh in their heads.
“When you’re working on new material and you’re sort of finding you way through it, it can be kind of easy to second-guess yourself,” she says. “But once you’ve been playing those songs night after night, it just feels very natural. You’re not thinking about it. It just happens.”
Wennerstrom, as the lead singer and guitarist, is the Bastards’ sole-credited songwriter. But she insists it’s a collaborative process. True, she get the ideas in her head, forms the song structure and takes them to the studio. But after explaining what direction she’d like to go and some inspirations for sound and recording, she adds, “I certainly didn’t write their parts. … Everybody finds their own creativity within that.”
“Even solo artists never write everything. It’s pretty rare … maybe Prince.”
It’s time to go back on the road. The band has some festivals lined up for the summer, but first things first.
“I’m so not a salesman,” Wennerstrom says. “What am I hoping? I hope people come out. We’re gonna play our hearts out and just hope that people dig it.”
— Sam Paxton