Ha Ha Tonka: On “Lessons” and life on the road

The folksy indie rock band is as adept with powerful electric guitar riffs as with pensive bluegrass-tinged harmonies. Earlier this week, they took a moment to chat about life on the road and the inspiration behind their new album, “Lessons.”

07/22/2014 update: Scroll down for photos from Ha Ha Tonka’s July 20, 2014 show in D.C.

Hey Washington — Ha Ha Tonka is playing this Sunday, July 20, at Rock & Roll Hotel (tickets here). When they’re not making music, these guys listen to NPR. Now what’s more D.C. than that? You have to check ’em out.

HHT_Lessons_Promo_2_0Ha Ha Tonka’s “Lessons” is a beautifully-crafted reflection on middle age and middle America, on ambition and regret. With evocative harmonies, a dynamic mix of electric and acoustic instrumentation, and lyrics that are smart, honest, and accessible, this is music that is as rousing as it is revelatory.

The Missouri band’s sound can be likened to early Wilco, the Avett Brothers, Old 97s, and Kings of Leon — but the comparisons don’t quite do Ha Ha Tonka justice. The band (named after a Missouri state park) takes driving guitar riffs, bright mandolin, saloon piano, thumping bass and drum, and four-part harmonies, and transmutes these elements into something quite addictive. Lead singer Brian Roberts has a voice that lends itself equally well to raw, anthemic rock and forlorn, confessional ballads. If you appreciate nuanced storytelling through the medium of a Southern rock song, “Lessons” should be on your summer playlist (CDs & vinyl here, digital download here).

Earlier this week, the band answered some questions by e-mail about life on the road and the inspiration behind their latest record.

Ha Ha Tonka performs at Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, DC on July 20, 2014.
Ha Ha Tonka performs at Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, DC on July 20, 2014.

Q. What was your earliest music memory — do music prodigies start out banging pots and pans on the kitchen floor like the rest of us, or did you go straight to strumming chords?

Brett Anderson (keys, guitar, vocals): Mostly pots and pans at first. Then a conscious effort to play something later. I started playing guitar when I was 13. It devirginized me as a musician.

Q. What was the first record you owned? If you were to name a handful of albums that captured your attention, say at ages 10, 15, 20, and 25 — what would those be?

Brett: I owned a tape of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Played it till it wouldn’t play no more. 10 — Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 15 to 25 — everything Pixies.


Q. If I were to take a peek at your smartphone right now, what would be in your music library, and which songs are on heavy rotation?

Lennon Bone (drums, vocals): My music list has been wild lately. I’ve been trying to get into the new St. Vincent because I’ve been a big fan for a while… but I’ve not been loving it as much as I hoped. HOWEVER. I do dig the new tUnE-yArDs a lot! Also listening a lot to our friends in Lucius and the awesome David Bazan. Guilty pleasure? Haim.  : )

Q. Tell me about life as a touring band. Do you play pranks on each other? Who chooses the music you listen to as you drive around the country?

Luke Long (bass,vocals): Well, it’s like watching the world go by from your front porch, if your front porch is a van window. Definitely a jovial atmosphere where we give each other loads of shit. Our speakers mostly pump out NPR shows. Science Friday, All Things Considered, Radio Lab and Fresh Air. Helps to broaden our horizons from the front porch view.

Q. Do you have any pre-show rituals or rites?

Luke: Ummmm…. Drink.

Q. What’s the craziest thing a fan has ever said or done?

Lennon: We’ve been pretty lucky to have fairly tame fans. We had a gal cook us Indian food the other day. If that’s wild, then I’m in. Let’s get crazy.


Q. When it comes to the hard stuff, I’m partial to bourbon, but I’ve read that you guys like tequila. So — blanco, reposado, or anejo?

Brett : Huge fan of blanco as a whole. Yes, we like tequila. A lot.

Q. Throughout “Lessons,” I get the sense that there’s been a lot of ruminating about the experiences, mistakes that we accumulate as we get older. Were there particular events that inspired songs like “Dead to the World”?

Brian Roberts (lead vocals, guitar): Yes, Lessons is largely inspired by an interview I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air with Maurice Sendak [the illustrator and children’s book writer]. His views on life are endlessly inspiring. If you haven’t listened to this interview, I couldn’t recommend anything more.

Q. Which Game of Thrones character would you be? (If you don’t watch the show and don’t make life choices based on Buzzfeed quizzes, you can ignore this one.)

Brian: Ha! Buzzfeed told me I’d be Arya. I’m cool with that.

[Note: Buzzfeed says I’d be Arya too! Also, I wake up to Morning Edition and look forward to Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! every weekend. Basically, my love for this band was just meant to be.]


*  *  *

I’ve tried to kick so many habits that I hold / But they hold on to me even when I let go of them. / I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again. — “Lessons”

In the album’s title track, we glimpse the thoughts of a man who has reckoned with his demons but can’t outrun his own shadow. The introduction creates a sense of foreboding, as a lone guitar pierces the silence. It’s joined by the heartbeat of percussion, faint but steady. As the song steadily crescendos and it feels almost as if our narrator is unraveling, the harmonies weave through, carrying us onward. This is a song borne of weariness and defiance. The vocals, strong and sandpaper rough, backed by the wail of electric guitar, draws us in — it is as if the act of listening enables us to share the burden of past mistakes and accept our all-too-human selves. So let’s listen.


Ha Ha Tonka’s upcoming tour dates are here and below.

July 23 — Asheville, NC
July 24 — Johnson City, TN
July 25 — Louisville, KY
July 26 — Lexington, KY
October 11 — Conroe, TX
October 16 — Springfield, MO
October 18 — Ozark, KS

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Author: Vivian Wang

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: lithophyte.photo [at] gmail [dot] com.

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