By Ryan Meehan
Coming straight out of Springfield, MO, Ha Ha Tonka specialize in disarming and effortless anthems that owe as much to high and lonesome Ozarks mountain music as chugging college rock. The band released its Bloodshot debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt, to much acclaim in 2007, gaining praise from glossies like PASTE and Spin, and taste-making radio stations like KEXP. At year’s end, Popmatters Magazine named Buckle in the Bible Belt one of the best albums of 2007. The band followed up with LP Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South in 2009, which was also showered with thumbs up from critics and fans alike. 2011 brought the authentic-meets-modern Death of a Decade, recorded in a 200-year-old barn, yet again revered by press (including the likes of NPR and Washington Post) and audiences everywhere. The group’s relentless touring has seen them play Lollapalooza, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, CMJ while touring nationally as a headlining act, as well as supporting many great bands such as Old 97s, Murder By Death, Langhorne Slim, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Meat Puppets and more. In 2011, Ha Ha Tonka was a guest on The Travel Channel’s flagship show, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” Check them out, grillin’ and chillin’ with AB his own bad self. Ha Ha Tonka? What the hell could that name possibly mean? It’s a nod to the boys’ Ozark pride. It’s the name of a state park in southwestern Missouri, full of natural bridges, sandstone cliffs, caves and a castle. That’s right, a castle. Some crackpot rich guy built himself a Scottish style castle around 1900. It burned down, but the ruins are still an attraction. Thus, Ha Ha Tonka want you all to know there is more to their home stomping grounds than Branson, walnut bowl outlet stores and Jesse James’ hideout. We are pleasantly delighted to have lead singer Brian Roberts is our guest today in 5 questions.
RM: How did the formation of Ha Ha Tonka come to fruition? Was it a struggle to be able to locate other musicians in the Ozarks who had the same unique interests?
BR: 3 of us, Lennon, Luke & myself, are all from the same hometown – West Plains, MO, although we didn’t form the band until we were all located in Springfield, MO and attending Missouri State University. We met our guitar player, Brett, in Springfield and it all just sort of came together. I don’t really remember it being a struggle as we were all relatively like-minded and ambitious, although there were some low moments when all 4 of us were working shifts at a local Domino’s Pizza to support “the dream” of playing in a rock band. In hindsight, even that was still a pretty good time.
RM: How did your experience with cancer influence the music that you currently create with the band? What’s the biggest misconception that people have about cancer and the whole recovery process?
BR: I think it influenced me in ways that I can’t even begin to express and continues to do so. When you’re young and you’re told you have cancer, it immediately shifts your perspective. You no longer feel invincible. Time seems finite. It definitely influenced my decision to make music for a living. I remember thinking to myself, I’d better go after what I really want in life because everything could change in a moment. I think the biggest misconception people have with cancer is that it could never happen to them.
RM: What’s the biggest difference between your approach to making records now as opposed to when you made “Buckle in the Bible Belt” back in 2007?
BR: The iPhone. Seriously. Instead of having to try and remember melody ideas and waiting to get home to bust out the Tascam 4-track tape recorder, you can now just sing it directly into your Voice Memos, download it into GarageBand on your MacBook Pro and then work on refining it and improving it. It’s amazing how far technology has come just in the past 5 years. It’s really made writing music a lot easier….or at least there’s been a significant drop in the amount of forgotten melody ideas.
RM: My favorite track on the new record has to be “Colorful Kids” because of such of the wide range of sounds on that cut. The high string melody has almost a far Eastern feel to it, and in the middle of the song I can almost sense a reggae vibe. Do you sometimes think that when people label you “Alt-country” or “Americana” that it doesn’t do the band justice when it comes to the range that you possess? Or are those kind of bullshit terms that journalists such as myself use to classify music that doesn’t really desire to be classified in the first place?
BR: I’m really glad you dig that tune! It was one of the songs we struggled the most with to get right on the album…hopefully we came close to doing it justice. Are labels bullshit? Sort of, but I guess they are just a necessary evil in this industry. It doesn’t really bother me to be labeled as either of those terms. I still see Wilco labeled as Americana, or My Morning Jacket tagged as a jam band, but those types of labels are really just for ease of use and to increase word counts. I really don’t give it a second thought anymore. If I like a band’s sound, I never look at how someone’s describing them with words.
RM: What to you is the most personal song on the record and which song do you think is going to be your favorite to perform?
BR: The title track would be the most personal to me. I would venture to guess, that whatever song is getting the biggest crowd response will be my favorite to perform live. It sounds cliché to say it, but the show really is all about the audience. If they’re digging a song and singing it back at us at the top of their lungs, then that tune will be my favorite.
RM: You’re starting a tour in Cincinnati on September the 26th which features Samantha Crain on select dates, and will be stopping through Iowa City on October 22nd. What are you most looking forward to about getting back on the road? Conversely, what part of the touring process do you find to be insufferable, if any?
BR: I love traveling and seeing new places. It’s really quite addictive….just waking up and knowing you’ve got to hit the road to get to the next city. Conversely, being on the road means being away from loved ones back home and not getting to share the adventure with them, which is always bittersweet.
RM: What’s up next for Ha Ha Tonka in the remainder of 2013 and heading into 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
BR: Obviously, the biggest thing for us this Fall is the release of ‘Lessons’ and the North American tour. We’ll be heading back over to Europe in 2014, which we’re all very excited about.
Official Website: http://www.hahatonkamusic.com/
Ha Ha Tonka on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hahatonka
Ha Ha Tonka on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hahatonka
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