Sunday, December 28, 2014

INTERVIEW: Ha Ha Tonka (November 2013)


Thank whatever fictional God you pray to for Spotify. While Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke may not be signing up for a Premium account any time soon, over the last couple of years the streaming service has proven itself utterly indispensable in helping to uncover acts which would likely have never crossed the radar otherwise.

Nowhere has this been more the case for me than with Ha Ha Tonka, a four-piece indie-folk act from Missouri whose 2011 album Death of a Decade popped up on Spotify Radio one morning and promptly began a great musical love affair. Part of the esteemed Bloodshot Records stable in Chicago, the band’s melding of up-tempo college rock with Out of Time-era R.E.M. (perhaps best evidenced on the songs Made Example Of and Jesusita, which I challenge anyone not to be roused by) hit the spot immediately, and quickly a turntable mainstay for months afterward.

As fate would have it, the band were performing in London the very week that my physical copy of the album arrived - so taken was I with their obvious delight at playing to a crowd 150-strong in a small club (not least their spirited run through Ram Jam’s Black Betty in the encore) that I promptly gave them a hug afterwards... and then proceeded to accidentally rob them when the singer from their support act kept the cash for one of their albums when I was buying the support’s EP. (It’s fine, I explained myself on Facebook afterwards and they forgave me.)

At the time, the band were plotting their most accomplished LP to date in the form of Lessons - one of my Top 3 albums of last year, and a grandiose epic of galloping widescreen sweep. Lead singer Brian Roberts and I exchanged Q&As via email last winter while the band were still trekking across North America.

Hi there, Ha Ha Tonka. Now, I’m personally of the impression that you’re just about the best band in the entire world right now. How do you feel about that?

HA! Well, that’s definitely a matter of opinion and would probably be hotly debated by just about every single person you talked to, but having said that, yeah, I feel pretty good about your statement. 

Sound-wise, Lessons has a real range, depth and vision which marks a major leap forward from your previous records - how far were the producers [Dan Molad and Ryan Whitehouse] involved in helping to craft the songs and shape the album as a whole?

Dan and Ryan are two of the best musical minds we’ve ever encountered and they really challenged us to push the songs we brought into the studio. They created a carefree creative environment that was a lot of fun to operate inside of. Yes, drugs and alcohol might also have been involved! 

Before going into the studio, did you have the intention of having many of the tracks blend together? Was the album conceived and written as ‘one piece’ so to speak, or did this effect emerge gradually during the recording process?

We really wanted to make an ‘album’ type of album, if that makes any sense.  The term “concept album” gets tossed around too loosely, because I believe that most good albums have a certain feel throughout their respective playlists without completely being ‘Tommy’.  We wanted this record to be sonically diverse while still having enough threads to make it sound cohesive.   

There are all sorts of disarming or ear-catching moments throughout the album, but Arabella is particularly interesting when it evolves from a soft acoustic track into a swaggering T-Rex glam-rock stomp. It’s indicative of the feel of the record as a whole - particularly compared with Death of a Decade, which seemed almost short and sharp by comparison. Did you purposely set out to ‘stretch your legs’ this time around, musically-speaking?

Yes.  Both Dan and Ryan stressed the repetition of hooks and drum beats...and some of the moodier pieces we really wanted to let breathe and expand a bit. I think it’s the longest record we've ever made, actually.  

It’s a very evocative and cinematic record from a sonic perspective - the way Rewrite Our Lives thunders along like a wagon-train means that it packs a mighty wallop! You also reference literary and historical figures in several of the songs - how influenced are you by books, history and films in your creative process?

A lot. It sounds terribly cliché to say it, but you really never know where inspiration is going to come from.  It could come from a book, a movie or a certain landscape scene... I remember driving across Spain last year and there’s a spot where all the trees looked like tombstones from a distance... I think that will be a song one day.  

Can you tell us more about the Maurice Sendak and Terry Gross NPR interview which you mention in the liner-notes as initially inspiring the album?

It’s really one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Sendak’s views on living life to the fullest, facing death and how he makes his art is endlessly inspiring.  I really just recommend folks listening to it on their own.

Hailing from the American heartland, you can really hear the dust swirling in your music - how far do you knowingly absorb or draw on traditional forms of music from the region?

I feel that our home region (the Ozarks) permeate almost everything we do.  However, it’s never been a conscious decision to a make our band’s sound a certain way.  I think we’ve always just wanted to be a rock band and it comes out sounding the way it does, for better or worse.

Following on from that, do you feel quite ‘cut adrift’ in relation to the contemporary music scene? It seems like - certainly from this side of the pond - you don’t necessarily fit into any particular geographical ‘scene’ per se. Is that the case?

I think that is the case, but most of my favorite bands really don’t fit into any scene so I kind of like that we don’t either. It’s not great in the commercial sense, but it is very liberating artistically.  

There seems to be a very definite sense in your lyrics - in previous songs like Made Example Of, but particularly on this album - of time being finite: Dead to the World, Colorful Kids and Rewrite Our Lives all address the notion of opportunities running out with every second. Without wanting to retread old ground, do you feel this is a conscious result of your experience with cancer?

It probably has something to do with that experience.  Having cancer in your early 20s makes you realize quickly that you're not invincible and that you will die... it’s just that you want to believe that you’ll “eventually” die.  It hits home whenever you know that that could be sooner as opposed to later. In short, I think it affected me in ways that I’m still figuring out, but I’m really happy I’ve got time to figure them out.  

I notice on your website that you’ve made yourselves available to hire out as a wedding band of choice! How did that idea come about, and have you had many take-ups from fans on this front?

It was really more of a joke than anything because we’d probably be an absolutely terrible wedding band.  A couple of people have been talking to us about actually doing it, but we’re trying to talk them out of it... 

Finally, what are your five favourite songs of yours as a band? Which are the five you think best sum yourselves up, or the five that you’d best like to be remembered for?

This is a toughie, because it’s like having to pick your favorite pet.  You’d feel bad leaving out your cat, wouldn’t you?  It’d be so easy to pick your dog, but I’m a cat man at heart... therefore I’m dodging it and avoiding the selection altogether.


Lessons is available now on Bloodshot Records.

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