Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka on Barbecue and History's Greatest Songwriter



Frank Hill
Missouri's Ha Ha Tonka is another one of those quality alt-country groups that always seems to grow away from the genre. Led by the talented Brian Roberts, the band has evolved into an indie-rock act that loves mining traditionally alt-country subject matter (religion, racism and rural settings), but does so with unusually interesting musical backdrops.

In anticipation of Ha Ha Tonka's upcoming show next Friday, November 29, at Plush, Roberts was kind enough to talk with us about his preference for hometown barbecue and his love for the Old 97's.

Were there different members involved in the band's first incarnation, Amsterband?

No, it was the same guys playing music in college. It wasn't that serious of an enterprise. We didn't put that info on the Wikipedia page. I think it was my old college roommate who wrote that. That is just Internet lore.

Actually, I saw that on another site.

Are you serious? Oh, jeez. I think our parents and maybe my brother saw us. Anyone who says they saw us better have some pictures to back it up.

You named the band after a state park. Are people curious about the name?

Yes, that's one of the reasons why we like the name so much. Whenever we are touring around the world and people ask us about our strange band name, we get to talk about the area where we are from, the Ozarks. We get to talk about this amazing state park. It's a place we always went to as kids. It's just an amazing place.

You were almost immediately labeled alt-country, but you have grown out of that genre. Now, you are always listed as an indie-rock band.

We've always wanted to improve. That has been a conscious thing. You always want to become better musicians and better performers. We never set out to be in any particular genre. We're really just a rock band from the Ozarks. That is what it is. We don't strive to have a song sound alt-country. We don't even know what that means. Is Wilco an alt-country or Americana band? Or are they just a rock band? What is My Morning Jacket? I don't know what those classifications mean anymore.

Hard to believe the band has been around for a decade.

When you said decade, it sounded so long. It's gone by in a flash, but that was a very deceptive decade. We started the band in college and we didn't really get serious about it until we got signed to Bloodshot in 2007 and put out our first record. A decade just makes us sound old, doesn't it?

The band formed in Springfield. Do all of you guys still live in Missouri?

Two band members live in Kansas City, Missouri, and a couple of us have moved out of the state. I live in California, and our bass player lives in New York.

Does that make it difficult to practice?

Well, not really. We are on the road so much, probably about nine months out of the year. We schedule rehearsal time, and we meet up in Kansas City. That is where we keep our gear. We will schedule rehearsal time before or after the tour.

Who has the best barbecue in the country?

I have to side with Missouri and the Kansas City boys. I think Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City definitely has the best brisket, and I think the majority of people would agree. There's good barbecue in Texas. I won't denigrate Texas barbecue, but I think Oklahoma Joe's has the best brisket sandwich I've ever eaten. Sounds like they are a sponsor.

We would love that. We definitely need it.

Is Bloodshot the perfect label for the band?

I think it has definitely been good to us. I don't know about perfect. You always want to have responsible minds behind you. The good thing about Bloodshot is they know how to handle bands. They broke the Old 97's. They've really been good to us. It probably is the perfect label for us.

You write about many Southern stereotypes such as the religiousness of the Bible Belt. Are you spiritual?

Spiritual would be a fair term to use.

You seem cynical when it comes to organized religion.

Well, I don't want to step on anybody's toes. You should follow whatever faith you choose to follow. It's not my place to dictate other people's lives.

Your songs seem very influenced by literature. Are you an avid reader?

Yes, I do enjoy reading. I get inspiration from many different areas, whether it is books, film or television.

Your most recent album, Lessons, has gotten some interesting reviews. You added strings to the mix.

We used a different producer. I think we wanted to make the biggest-sounding record that we could. In the past, we focused more on having anything that we put on a record being able to be performed on stage. This time, we put a little more ear candy in there.

There was one critic that claimed it was easy to lump your band in with the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. You'd probably take the sales figures of those bands.

[Laughs] Yes, I definitely would. I don't see much similarity there. But that goes back to what we were talking about before. I am as guilty as the next person when you try to classify a band. You might want to go check out a band, so someone tells you that they sound like this, this or this. For a lot of people, Mumford and Sons are as big as it gets. That is an easy reference point.

A lot of folks have compared you guys to Whiskeytown. Is that also an easy reference point?

That is a fair reference point.

Another reviewer described your sound as Paul Simon-like. When you first started, could you ever imagine being compared to Paul Simon?

If I can ever find that in print, I would definitely cut that out and post it on my wall. Paul Simon, in my opinion, is the greatest storytelling songwriter of all time. I am very flattered by that.

Your songwriting succeeds at balancing humor with seriousness. Is that a delicate line to walk?

It is, but most of my favorite acts, people that I admire or idolize, they straddle that line. Whether it is favorite musicians or favorite authors, there is a real tug and pull that makes it interesting. At the end of the day, it is all about making it interesting.


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