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Bloodshot Briefing: How Ha Ha Tonka Feels

By Matt Harness

Ha Ha Tonka releases its second album, Novel Sounds of the Noveau South, on Tuesday on Bloodshot Records, so we here at the Bloodshot Briefing desk caught up with lead singer and guitarist Brian Roberts, who lives in Santa Barbara, by phone from Kansas City, where he and the boys were getting ready to hit the road.


Beachwood Music: Buckle in the Bible Belt went over huge; some publications ranked in the top 20 for 2007. How is this album different, if not better, from your debut?

Brian Roberts: I don't know if it's that different, maybe more polished, maybe a slightly bigger sound, a bit more expansive.

We tie in some of the same themes as the first one but to the greater South. The first track is a thesis statement for the record, basically about empowering the individual. People have an inherent goodness.

Whether we succeed or not is up to the listener.

Beachwood Music: What music influenced you on this record?

Brian Roberts: REM's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Tom Petty's Wildflowers. The sound is between those two. But we always have an undercurrent of bluegrass.

Beachwood Music: What did you listen to growing up? Who shaped your sound?

Brian Roberts: Of course, when you are younger you listen to what your parents did, the Beatles, Eagles, those 70s bands. But in the late 80s, early 90s, it was country, anything country. Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn. If I had to pick a song, it would be John Michael Montgomery's "Grundy County Auction."

Beachwood Music: The band is four friends. How are songwriting duties divided? Any tensions?

Brian Roberts: It's a collective effort. Somebody brings an idea in, and we work it over. We then give up on it and rediscover it. We give up on it again and then rediscover it. Songs go through this big transformation.

Beachwood Music: You guys always play a tribute song to one of your mentors, "Big Smith's 12-inch, 3-speed Oscillating Fan," at your shows. Any other covers you favor?

Brian Roberts: "Black Betty" by the Ram Jam from the 1970s. Last time in Chicago we played Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How it Feels." We used a trombone and mouth harp.

Beachwood Music: How does Ha Ha Tonka choose which cover songs to play live?

Brian Roberts: I think most bands start out as semi-cover bands anyway. You learn how to play and perform certain songs over the years and then you work them into your own performances.

Beachwood Music: How about set lists? Do you sketch one up before each show, kind of like a football team going over its game plan? Or do you wing it on stage?

Brian Roberts: Well, touring with one album our shows were pretty much the same. Plus, the places we play and where we generally play in the lineup only allows us to play 12 or 13 songs.

It's more interesting now with more songs to choose from, so it can be different every night.

Beachwood Music: I can't be the only music fan who blurts out his favorites songs at shows for the band to play. How do requests go over on stage?

Brian Roberts: It's pretty influential, more than you think. It's very flattering for them to want to hear a song that we do, and we are more than willing to oblige.

Beachwood Music: End of the night. One karaoke song to take the crowd home.

Brian Roberts: Jon Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer." It's the biggest chorus song. The verse is so big it can be a chorus, and the pre-chorus can be a chorus. The chorus is like a super-chorus.


Bloodshot Briefing has three pairs of tickets to give away to Ha Ha Tonka's album-release show on Monday at Schubas. Be the first, third or fifth e-mailer! Here's a taste of what you might see.


Bloodshot Briefing appears in this space every Friday. Matt welcomes your comments.


Posted on June 12, 2009

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