The buzz and overwhelmingly positive praise of Ha Ha Tonka's new album, Death Of A Decade has elevated the band to a higher tier of success among faithful fans, new listeners, and music critics alike.
It's an exciting time for Ha Ha Tonka, and judging from my conversation with Mr. Roberts, the band's vocalist and guitarist, the group is committed to pushing forward with their tireless work ethic to convert new listeners, as well as to reward their loyal fans who have followed them along the way. Here's a little piece of the latest chapter in the story of a band on the rise, told by the group's vocalist himself.
For readers that may be new to your work, can you briefly describe Ha Ha Tonka's previous work and the experiences leading up to beginning work on Death Of A Decade?
Brian Roberts: We started our band in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and signed to Bloodshot Records in 2007. We have released 2 albums on that label, Buckle in the Bible Belt (2007) and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South (2009). We've basically been on tour the entire time we've been signed. We've been fortunate enough to support several incredible acts such as the Old 97s, Murder by Death, Violent Femmes, SSLYBY, Langhorne Slim…just to name a few. We've also done several headlining tours.
What was the band’s songwriting process for the new album?
BR: As always, it was a very collaborative process. We seem to have edged our way into the modern world in that we all have MacBooks now and thus demoing songs has become much easier. We usually start out with a 60-90 sec rough acoustic demo and will bash that around in Lennon's basement for awhile until it takes shape. We tend to work on several songs at once so there's a bit of mixing and mashing that occurs between tunes. If an idea isn't resonating strongly within the group, we usually abandon it rather quickly.
During the songwriting process, were there any songs that pointed the direction of the new album?
BR: We knew from the beginning of the writing process that the mandolin was going to be featured prominently in several tunes. Songs such as "Usual Suspects" and "Made Example Of'" helped give us confidence that it was a sound worth exploring.
Can you describe the band's recording process of Death Of A Decade?
BR: We recorded in a 200 year old barn in New Paltz, NY with Kevin McMahon. We set out to make a colorful record with lots and lots of singing. We wanted to combine traditional Ozarkian instrumentation, gospel harmonies and all the barn creaks and noises with a bit of synthetic studio wizardry, which was supplied by The Ryantist at his hAUs Studio in Kansas City.
We did 2 week-long sessions in New Paltz, one in July when it was scorching hot and the barn had no A/C and the second the last week of September when the weather was absolutely perfect. Synthetic elements, additional percussion, and other tidbits were recorded at hAUs Studio in KC with co-producer, The Ryantist, over the course of the intervening months.
How did the mixing process contribute to the album’s sound?
BR: Personally, I feel that The Ryantist was our secret weapon this time around. Kevin worked us hard to get a very raw, live sound during the barn sessions and then The Ryantist went about weaving synthetic elements into the mix. The Ryantist kept us focused on exploring the more melodic elements in the songs to their fullest extent and we really couldn't have been more pleased with the results.
Now that the album is finished and out there, how do you think the band as progressed, or grown with “Death Of A Decade”, compared to the previous recordings?
BR: Without sounding too cocky, I think our sound has grown bigger and better. I also think our songwriting has become a bit sharper. Our goal has always been to continually improve and I think we've moved in the right direction with Death Of A Decade.
How do you see the new album in the band’s discography?
BR: While it's all a matter of opinion, I think it's the best album we've made. As I mentioned above, we continually want to improve.
Can you describe your impressions of the current music scene in the Ozarks?
BR: The Ozarks' music scene is a very vibrant one. Just in Springfield, MO alone you can find an incredible range of bands, from traditional Ozarkian bluegrass such as Big Smith aka "the best band in the Ozarks" to indie rockers like our good friends in Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. It's a great scene and we were fortunate to begin our band in it.
How has the history of the Ozarks, and the past musicians from the area influenced Ha Ha Tonka’s sound?
BR: I think the Ozarks permeate every aspect of the music we write and our sound in general. We've always tried to write about the people, places and things we know, while (hopefully) still making said things relatable to a wider audience. We couldn't be prouder to be from the Ozarks, or to sing and talk about the area while we're out and about on tour.
Who are your musical influences, both in general and specific to the Ozarks region?
BR: I'd consider the bands I mentioned above as big influences. Mark Biyleu of Big Smith took us under his wing when we started our band and I still look up to him as a musical mentor. Our buddies in SSLYBY are some of the smartest songwriters out there and we try to borrow as many tricks of their trade from as possible when they're not looking.
Who have you been listening to lately?
BR: J. Roddy Walston and the Business, SSLYBY, REM, Phoenix
What’s next for the band?
BR: We'll be touring heavily in support of Death Of A Decade for the foreseeable future. We're rested up and ready to go!