Ha Ha Tonka: Ozark Pride

By: Ryan Dembinsky

Ha Ha Tonka
So often in the fickle societies presiding over the realm of new music, the breakthrough of a band comes largely from the innovation of a new sound. Springfield Missouri's Ha Ha Tonka fall into this "new sound" camp, but there's more to their appeal than just being new. The band has experienced a rapid ascent in the indie rock world by crafting intellectual music with wiredrawn detail, incorporating numerous references that not only provide listeners with aural pleasure, but require active participation as they effortlessly lean on literary classics and paint a portrait of dust bowl toil.

On their latest studio effort, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South (released June 16 on Bloodshot Records), their second full-length under the name Ha Ha Tonka, the quartet takes inspiration from a broad range of scribes and screeds, and in large part from Harold Bell Wright's turn of the century novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, which forms a bit of a backbone for the record. The novel tells a tale steeped in Ozark Mountain folklore, rich with backwoods characters, like outlaws, ghosts, mountain men, and Southern belles, all of which embody the Ha Ha Tonka spirit - and hence, the "new sound."

"The Shepherd of the Hills is one inspiration behind the record. We didn't really set out to make a concept record based entirely off of that particular novel," lead singer Brian Roberts explains. "We drew from several sources, ranging from authors mentioned in the lyrics like Dostoevsky and Thoreau to The Grapes of Wrath, Joel Chandler Harris and even Mark Twain's essay 'The United States of Lyncherdom.' I feel that these all had an equal impact on the overall feel we were striving to achieve. However, The Shepherd of the Hills does come the closest to capturing the very essence of the Ozarks. It's a great read and one that I highly recommend."

How does this Ozark lore translate musically? Tonka's sound deviates from song to song, often containing chugging locomotive rhythms, finger-picked chord progressions, and multiple juxtaposed changes. To be clear, this music is no run-of-the-mill I-IV-V "Americana" schlock. In particular, lead guitarist, Brett Anderson excels in creating distinct, crop-dusting guitar riffs, opting for darker, more colorful melodies, which often form the bedrock of the material and almost always deviate from the obvious.

Ha Ha Tonka by Bristin
The band consists of a two guitar (or sometimes keys), bass, and drums lineup, but another rarefied differentiator is that all four members possess the ability to sing capably, providing four part harmonies on call, perhaps taking note from one of their musical heroes, R.E.M., and the cogent harmonies between Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills.

"I believe that any band, when starting out, strives to be the bands they idolize. You can't help but want to re-write the songs that you love," says Roberts. "If only we could re-write 'Nightswimming' or 'Losing my Religion' then I'd be completely satisfied."

Ha Ha Tonka also has a tendency to be compared to Kings of Leon - in fact to a bit of an absurd degree - but the band really emphasizes their use of Ozark backwoods influences over straight ahead rock.

"We are fans of the Kings of Leon and have heard those comparisons as well," acknowledges Roberts. "Hopefully, our sound comes closer to straddling the fence between indie rock and O Brother, Where Art Thou? than Kings of Leon's does. At any rate, I can think of worse bands to be compared to."

On the heels of 2007's Buckle in the Bible Belt, an album that made a number of "best of" lists and garnered hefty critical praise, a stellar follow-up in 2009's Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, which is racking up even more press and attention, Ha Ha Tonka feels the growth, but continues to trudge on with humility.

Ha Ha Tonka
"Glowing write-ups don't automatically mean you'll be shifting millions of records, selling out venues or contracting rabies from random chicks, but they do help a band at our level a lot," says Roberts. "A good review from a respected publication can definitely help you reach a larger audience."

Inevitably with Ha Ha Tonka, within moments of hearing the band, the question arises as to why the name? Despite the use of the iconic dump truck in the occasional piece of merch, the name also pays tribute to the Ozark Mountains, and specifically to Ha Ha Tonka State Park.

"Naming a band is usually a difficult process and it was no different in our case," says Roberts. "We eventually settled on Ha Ha Tonka due to the fact that we wanted something that represented our native Ozarks and hadn't been used by any other band."

The quirky name continues to pay off in full. In fact, the band actually formed eight years ago in 2001 under the name Amsterband. However, they subsequently changed names to Ha Ha Tonka in 2007 and it has been uphill from there. A story we all know too well, part of the reason for the change had to do with the fact that Amsterband pigeonholed them into the jam band scene, hence they opted to switch to a name that more embodied the Ozark sound.

Since then, the band has gone on to experience numerous highlights, from positive mentions in Rolling Stone and signing to Bloodshot Records to touring with notable acts like Ben Kweller and the Old 97's, but one in particular stands out to Roberts. "When we were asked to play Lollapalooza 2008, we couldn't believe we were lucky enough to share the bill with such acts as Radiohead and Wilco," he says. "It was a blast and the schwag was incredible."

Much like My Morning Jacket with Kentucky or Bright Eyes with Nebraska, Ha Ha Tonka's Missouri state pride disarms listeners and endears them to the Ozarks, its characters, and their stories. Now as Ha Ha Tonka spread their southern mountain sound, the rest of the country is along for the ride. And with such engaging tales and a relaxed down home vibe, one can't help but want to be a fly on the wall of the van as they roam the land. Well maybe just a fan in the crowd.

"A fly on the wall would probably just complain about the smell," quips Roberts.

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[Published on: 12/22/09]

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