Poetic Memory: Ha Ha Tonka (List)

Photo credit: Todd Roeth

MP3: Ha Ha Tonka – “The Usual Suspects”
MP3: Ha Ha Tonka – “Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” (live)

Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka has hit the road in support of its new album, Death of a Decade. The band’s third album, Death of a Decade has received praise from seemingly all over: the Washington Post has called them “authentically scruffy” compared to “pretend”-ers like Mumford and Sons, NPR picked “Usual Suspects” as their Song of the Day, and the Austin Chronicle called Death “the birth of an important band.”

None of this praise is unwarranted, and anyone who’s followed this little band with a silly name over the years knows that Ha Ha Tonka has been harmonizin’, songifyin’, and pleasin’ crowds since its 2007 debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt.

The band (named after a Missouri state park, in case you were wondering) is undoubtedly influenced by the South — a detail that does not go unnoticed by many reviewers. But while the members of Ha Ha Tonka are unafraid to embrace their Ozark origins (see “12-Inch Three-Speed Oscillating,” a humorous ode to a lack of air conditioning, with bluegrass harmonies), they also know how to evoke the region’s widespread sense of desperation (“Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” is one of this writer’s favorite songs of the decade).

That’s why it’s always a pleasure to find out that Ha Ha Tonka is coming to town; this time, the band will be opening for Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin at the Soda Bar on Saturday, December 10.

In anticipation of the show, lead singer Brian Roberts sent us a thoughtful, illuminating list of influences. With topics ranging from band philosophy, to songwriting, to the importance of putting on a good show, it’s a must-read. Check it out below.

I’ve always felt that there is a very small degree of difference between listing my influences as a songwriter and from just outright saying these are people I try to steal from and not get caught. – Brian Roberts

Lyrics: I’m envious of almost every word Michael Stipe has ever written. I could say the same thing about Paul Simon. I love the imagery that both of these writers are able to create, and then the voices they were blessed with to utter their lines makes it magical.

Melodies: Melodically, Paul McCartney has to be at or near the top of the list. That guy has written so many hooks it’s mind-boggling to think about…”Dance Tonight” withstanding.

Concept Albums (sort of): I know this can be dicey, but some of my favorite records could easily play out as concept albums while not being listed as such. Bruce Springsteen always seems to have a knack for straddling this fence on his records, and the latest Arcade Fire album, “The Suburbs” did a superb job of drawing me back into my relatively isolated, adolescent world of the mid-90s without making me think of Chumbawamba. We did “Used to Wait” for everything! We try to apply this “loose concept” formula to our albums with varying degrees of success.

Bands (real ones): I believe in the “magic” of bands. Say what you will about them, but U2 springs immediately to mind as having this “magic.” How many bands do you know all the names of the members? How many bands split songwriting and finances equally? How many bands grew up together and would probably be lifelong friends no matter what? Coldplay seem to be following in their footsteps in this regard, as well as in many other aspects. I know it’s probably anti-indie of me to reveal this influence due to both groups’ enormous commercial success, but I truly believe that there is a magic that these types of bands possess that a lot of “bands” don’t have. It’s the gang mentality. While we have little to no commercial success, we did grow up together and would be friends whether this band existed or not…so we got that going for us.

Stage show: We’ve been fortunate to tour with a lot of great bands, and I’ll readily admit that we usually wind up “borrowing” a trick or two from their live show. Old 97s, Langhorne Slim…I’m a sucker for a high-energy performance. I’m also a sucker for the smoke and mirror element of good lights and smoke machines. Even if a performer’s a bit off musically, if they’re putting out the energy onstage it goes a long, long way. We always try to get the crowd going because it’s such a reciprocal relationship between performer and audience. The higher your energy, the more into it the crowd is, the more energy you have, and so on and so forth. Plus, basically at the end of the day, we’re all ripping off James Brown in this respect.

Ha Ha Tonka on tour
12/8/2011 – Hotel Utah – San Francisco, CA
12/9/2011 – The Bootleg Bar – Los Angeles, CA
12/10/2011 – Soda Bar – San Diego, CA
1/11/2012 – three20south – Breckenridge, CO
1/12/2012 – Belly Up – Aspen, CO
1/13/2012 – Agave – Avon, CO
1/15/2012 – Hodi’s Half Note – Fort Collins, CO
1/18/2012 – The Mill – Iowa City, IA
1/19/2012 – High Noon Saloon – Madison, WI
1/20/2012 – Lincoln Hall – Chicago, IL
1/21/2012 – 20th Century Theater – Cincinnati, OH
2/3/2012 – Uncle Slayton’s – Louisville, KY
2/4/2012 – Casa Cantina – Athens, OH
2/9/2012 – Paradise Rock Club – Boston, MA
2/10/2012 – The Bowery Ballroom – NYC, NY
2/12/2012 – The Haunt – Ithaca, NY
2/15/2012 – The State Theatre – State College, PA
2/16/2012 – Mr. Small’s Theater – Millvale, PA
2/17/2012 РWorld Caf̩ Live РPhiladelphia, PA
2/18/2012 – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC
2/19/2012 – The Jefferson Theater – Charlottesville, VA

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