HA HA TONKA
Photo by Jason Gonulsen; courtesy of Bloodshot Records
Roots indie rules
interview by Danny Martin
Those who were fortunate enough to catch Ha Ha Tonka's video for their single "Everything" this past summer got a glimpse of fun-loving life in the Ozarks, and what it's like to roll down Arkansas' Spring River serenaded by the region's premier band. Fresh off a tour with the Old 97's in support of their new album Heart Shaped Mountain, the band recently appeared on Conan O'Brien performing their newest single. "Race to the Bottom" is a high energy tune, whose suspenseful verses create the perfect tension before its choruses, which roll with the frenetic pace of a train coming down the tracks. The band, which records on Bloodshot Records and consists of lead singer Brian Roberts, guitarist/mandolinist Brett Anderson, bassist Luke Long, multi-instrumentalist James Cleare and drummer Mike Reilly, steadily move toward greater levels of success and an expanding fan base. I caught up recently with popular fan favorite Long.
PSF: You guys formed in 2005 in West Plains. Are you one of the founding members of the band?
Long: Yes, I am. Born and raised in West Plains.
PSF: Could you talk briefly about the genesis of the band?
Long: Yeah, I'll try to fold it into a little package here. Brian, the lead singer, and I have known each other since grade school. We both grew up and went to the same little rural school in West Plains, and were in high school and college together. We formed the band in college. Brian got a degree in German and spent some time at the German consulate in Leipzig, and met this drummer. And he decided to bring him back over and reform the band here. The drummer had overstayed his Visa and wasn't legal at the time, so he couldn't get a job and essentially had no income. So we were all living together and we just had him do housework, while B and I covered the rent with what we made delivering pizzas. Anyway, so then we got a gig as a bar band, and a couple years later after cuttin' our teeth, we started taking it more seriously. And the songs got a little better, and we got a little better. And we just kind of got hooked... we got hooked on the adrenaline.
PSF: And then you got signed?
Long: Yeah, so then we took out a $10,000 loan, bought a van, and made an album. And then that album got picked up by Bloodshot about a year later.
PSF: Nice. Classic American band story. Let's jump ahead and talk about your new album, Heart Shaped Mountain. To me, it sounds a little different from previous albums: a little bit heavier on guitar effects, a little more modern sound, maybe a little less mandolin. Is that an accurate description?
Long: Yeah, that's probably a symptom of the 2 new guys we brought in on this one. One of which is James, who has sort of a DeathStar of a pedal board, and likes to play around on that. So that's how a lot of those effects crept in there. I don't think it was a conscience effort to have less mandolin. And I think a lot of that is in the mixing because a lot of those songs are... well, there's quite a bit of mandolin in there.
PSF: OK. Just a different mix. That makes sense. Can you talk about some of the strongest songs on the album?
Long: Yeah, we had a couple singles: "Everything," we made a video of it where we're floating down the Spring river in northern Arkansas... it's dope! I ran into this guy at the local feed store, and he said, "I know this guy called DJ Super Moon who has a big raft and he has a bunch of submarine batteries and a PA and he just has bands play live, floating down the river." I said, "yes, let's do that!" So we made that into a video for "Everything." Also, "Race to the Bottom", another single we're pushing. Yeah, and we played that one on Conan.
PSF: Can you briefly describe your band's songwriting process? Do you have individual writers or is it more of a sort of true collaboration?
Long: I feel it's a true collaboration. B writes most all the lyrics. And then, it tends to work out where either he or Brett have a little scrimp-let of an idea and then we'll pass that around amongst ourselves... We'll be emailing, kind of wrapping our mind around it. And then when we get together, I feel like that's when the song takes a shape. We'll start fleshing it out and seeing what works. You can feel it in the room whenever something takes off or something changes or something makes a turn and all of a sudden feels good. It's not something that you really have to sell and explain amongst each other. But it's just a natural feeling of "that's a good mood; let's keep working that direction with it."
PSF: There's something that feels very American about your sound... maybe it's the rocking mandolin, maybe it's the lyrics, or a combination of many of your qualities. So when I describe your music to people, I sometimes say "alt country", sometimes "rock n roll."
Long: Yeah, I'd say it's "Indie Folk Rock."
PSF: Yeah, on your iTunes album, it says "Indie Pop".
Long: "Indie Pop"? Meh. No, I wouldn't describe it as "Pop," but we do have pop sensibilities. But I consider it more as "Indie Folk Rock."
PSF: What are your influences, both as a band and personally on bass?
Long: Personal influences on bass? No. I don't like fancy bass players. I mean, obviously some of those cats are just monsters. But I like songs. I don't like bass solos.
As far as the band patterning our sound after anyone... no, man. I think whenever we try to sound like somebody else we end up sounding like ourselves anyway.
PSF: Yeah. I think you guys have a unique sound.
Long: Yeah, I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse. You know, if we're kind of our own thing out there. But yeah, that's just what we sound like, I guess.
PSF: And that's kind of a good segue to my next question. I first saw you guys perform on PBS' "Sun Studio Sessions" a few years back, doing songs from your Death of a Decade album and I thought it was incredible. Then I saw you guys in concert a little while after, here in Lancaster, PA. And I was surprised there wasn't a bigger crowd.
Long: Mmm, hmm. That's the story of my life, bud.
PSF: So then, my question to follow that would be, do you seek greater fame? I mean for some bands commercial success isn't really a goal.
Long: No. We'd love to! I guess the longer that I'm in this, "making it" is like a moving goal. I mean, who doesn't want to be a little bit bigger? And we have been doing it for a long time, and we have a loyal fan base. But you know, we're not rock stars, and who doesn't want to be one? And it's fun, like you're just playing the lottery, always chasing the dream. We've had some successes but we're definitely not as big as a lot of bands out there. It's just... well, it is what it is. But you always want more.
PSF: Right. Are you at a level of success where you can kind of do this for a living, or do you have to supplement your income with other jobs?
Long: Right. Well, it's been back and forth over the years. Like right now. Yeah, we toured for three months and then we have about a month or two off. So everybody has their own load of gigs to do.
PSF: OK, so building on that... I watched your performance on Conan of "Race to the Bottom." When you do a show like that, do you see any kind of immediate boost in popularity or album sales? Kind of like with your "Sun Studio Sessions"?
Long: Right. I think we got our biggest bump from doing "No Reservations," with Anthony Bourdain. He came to the Ozarks and kind of tied in the band to his trip to West Plains. And that was a "for real," tangible jump. But all the stuff, like Conan, gives us a nice little bump. Every bit of exposure helps, it doesn't hurt anything. And it's cool for Mom to put on the old VHS and, you know... tape you on Conan. It's nice. (laughs)
PSF: How else do you guys get yourselves heard? Such as radio play or other kinds of promotions?
Long: Yeah, the label has radio people that work on that side of things, licensing for movies, television and whatnot. The management does their part as well. It's just kind of a shotgun effect... people just let it go in every direction and see what takes.
PSF: What else do you have planned? What's next on the agenda? Future TV appearances, etc.?
Long: Yeah, we're playing a festival out in Tennessee at the end of September. And then we do sort of a run through Missouri for Thanksgiving... it's kind of a tradition for us. And then in the wintertime, we're going to go back out west for a tour.
PSF: Any good stories from the road?
Long: Oh man, nothing I'd want my mother to hear. (laughs)
Also see the Ha Ha Tonka website
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