POSTED ON JUNE 1, 2011:
Ha Ha Tonka's roots set it apart from its indie rock peers
It's becoming increasingly difficult to separate styles and classify music these days. Not that it's a bad thing, but it can be hard to explain to someone what your latest find or favorite band sound like when the blur the lines and mix genres.
Take Springfield, Missouri-based Ha Ha Tonka, for instance: is it bluegrass, Americana, indie rock, southern rock or folk? In all honesty, it's an almost bizarre mixture of all of the above. Regardless of where the band falls in an audiophile's genre index, it continues to win over fans with a unique sound and tireless work ethic.
Guitarist and lead singer Brian Roberts said the band originally formed roughly six years ago and worked its way through various names and formations throughout college. After finishing college, the members decided to get serious with the band and settled into the moniker Ha Ha Tonka, taken from the name of a state park in southwestern Missouri. After signing a record deal in 2007, Bloodshot Records re-released the band's independently produced album, Buckle in the Bible Belt, and the band's following started to spread as it toured heavily to support the album effort.
Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South garnered the band more critical praised when it was released in 2009, but it was truly the continued roadwork that contributed to the group's continued success. Even with a hard-to-describe sound, or perhaps because of it, the band continued to turn heard and catch ears as it toured tirelessly behind the record.
"Our drummer said it sounds like a mix of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and indie rock, and that's probably the best description I've heard," Roberts said. "We've just been very fortunate that audiences have really liked it.
Roberts equates the band's growing popularity to its nonstop commitment to roadwork.
"We did a lot of support work for Murder By Death and Meat Puppets last year," he said. "Then when we get to play our own shows, we can really see how much the band has grown.
"Along the way, we've had a lot of highlights," he added, mentioning appearances at Lollapalooza and ACL (Austin City Limits) festivals, amongst others. "Looking back, those shows really helped us leap up, not just in exposure and audience, but in our live show."
As popular as the band has become as a live act, it's albums have gradually garnered more and more critical praise, especially its latest, Death of a Decade. When reflecting on the theory that most bands excel in either the studio or touring, but rarely both, Roberts said the Ha Ha Tonka musicians generally fall on the live side.
"This record really filled that gap," he said. "We initially record in an old barn in upstate New York and then in another in Kansas City to add the ear candy.
"We went in with a game plan that we wanted to record that way," he continued. "It took longer, but I think it was worth it."
After recording the groundwork in New York, the tracks were handed over to Kansas City's The Ryantist, who mixed the record and added additional effects and production to songs, creating an intermingling of organic tracks and modern, synthetic layers. It's just that dichotomy that Ha Ha Tonka has become known for: a mix of traditional elements and modern sensitivity and production.
"We credit a lot of that to being from the Ozarks," Roberts said about the band's unique sound. "We're just trying to be a rock band, but that's how it comes out."
In comparing the Ozark region to the Appalachians, he continued: "It hangs over whatever music we make and seeps into whatever we do. We don't think about it, but it's been a bonus I guess, because it makes us stand out."
When Ha Ha Tonka finally returns to Tulsa with a show at Mercury Lounge this Friday night, June 3, it should truly be a show to look forward to. After making a few stops at Cain's Ballroom as an opening act, the band's last few tours have passed through Oklahoma City, so Roberts and his band members are excited to return to Tulsa, especially for a headlining gig. Add in the fact that we'll be getting the band fresh off a show at Wakarusa the night before and it promises to be a special night.
In my experience, catching a band either going into or coming off of a festival show, usually results in an expansive and enthusiastic set and the group takes an opportunity to stretch out with a longer set. When mentioning this to Roberts, he admitted that festival sets are usually shorter, but he tries to keep in mind that 60-70 percent of the audience may not know Ha Ha Tonka. Instead it's often mostly people waiting to see another band.
"We know that it's a great opportunity and we need to win over a new audience, so it's typically a shorter show that hits people in the face with a high energy show to get their attention," Roberts said. "That said, we try to have a high energy show every show."
With three albums worth of material in hand, including a strong new disc in Death of a Decade, I'll be counting on the band stretching it out even longer when Ha Ha Tonka arrives in Tulsa this Friday night.
The new material is a dynamic blend rock backbone, Americana instrumentation and intense delivery and lyrics. That makes for a great recipe when the band arrives at Mercury Lounge, which is once again making a name for itself by booking bands that cross genres and put an exciting new spin on roots rock.
Cover is only $5 at the door, and one of Tulsa's best songwriters, John Moreland, is opening the show, so you'll want to arrive early. Ha Ha Tonka's songwriting and explosive live show are a perfect fit for Mercury Lounge, so it's sure to be packed out.
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