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Feature Thu Apr 30 2009
I like my rock music a bit rough around the edges. Give me gritty guitars, give me a foot stomping beat, and add in some smooth vocals and I'm over the moon. So it's no surprise I thoroughly enjoyed Ha Ha Tonka the first time I saw the band and checked out their debut album Buckle in the Bible Belt on Bloodshot Records. The quartet from Missouri make rock music with an alt country twang, and their lyrics possess a slice of Americana storytelling at it's finest. I was fortunate enough sit down with lead singer Brian Roberts and talk about recording, touring, and being on an independent label. And get ready as the boys headed back up to Chicago this weekend to bring along their earnest and soulful brand of rock 'n' roll.
Gapers Block: Are you excited to be getting out on tour again after being cooped up in the studio all winter?
Brian Roberts: Yes, we are really looking forward to it. We did a short little run of dates in March in Missouri with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yelstin, and we did a few shows down at SXSW. I think we're all really exited to get back out on the road.
GB: How was recording the new album in comparison to recording your Bloodshot debut, Buckle in the Bible Belt? Was it what you expected, or were there changes and surprises once you got in the studio?
BR: There was a lot of similarity because we worked with the same producer. The whole process was just a blast. We got to try more stuff, play around with songs in different ways, so it was a really enjoyable experience. Anytime you're in a situation like that, you have that feeling like you're taking a test though, so you have that hanging over your head. Overall though, we had a great time.
GB: You guys are on a great Chicago label (Bloodshot Records). What are some of the benefits of being on a smaller independent label, and what are some of the struggles?
BR: There are many benefits, because you have national distribution, a publicist, and people that are excited about your band that are talking to the press. We have so many more outlets to get our music to the public. With indie labels in today's music market, I'd say it's the best way to go, unless you're someone like Radiohead who can do it on their own or already had the benefit of a label. I think the indies have a leg up on the majors because they react more quickly to the changes and how people are buying music. And Bloodshot is renowned for their ability to work their artist and get the music out there.
GB: Where do you see the music industry heading in general from an artist perspective?
BR: I think it's harder to sell records, numbers prove that. I think people really want to have a physical product. I like to hold something in my hands. I think things like vinyl records are going to make even more of a comeback. Like you'll go out and buy a new release on vinyl, and it will come with a download card, so you can get it all on your iPod, but still have the physical album. And the album cover is a much better template for artwork as well. So I kind of see it going that way, and I think it's a great time to be an artist on an indie label.
GB: Buckle in the Bible Belt was more a live album, especially because it was recorded in such a short period of time. Do you think Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South has turned out more a studio album?
BR: I don't know. Anytime you listen to your own music, it's really tough to step back from it because you were there when all the little stuff happened, and you can visualize it happening in the studio, so it still feels like a live sounding record. I think it sounds like a live record, but with a much more fleshed out sound. We did more multiple instrumentations. I think consciously we weren't afraid that we'd have to able to replicate everything onstage every night. So we did play around and take more liberties in the studio with all the toys that a studio provides you, but I don't think we ran wild with it.
GB: Your heading out on a small tour now, but what are the plans for the band this summer?
BR: We will be touring heavily. We're doing this short two-week run here in the Midwest, coming off the release of our 7-inch of "Walking on the Devil's Backbone," which is released only on vinyl and that's really neat. Then in June we'll be doing upper Midwest through the East coast, then we'll start the west coast in July, and then we're going to be on the road pretty much non-stop until the end of the year.
GB: You guys were on the road a lot last year also. Given the average reader that has never been in a touring band, what are some of the pros and cons of being on tour?
BR: A pro would definitely be the travel. You get to see all these places, but that's also a con, because you see all these places, but you don't really get to experience them. You drive through, go to the venue, do the sound check, play, party until the wee hours, then get up and go to the next town. Drive-by sightseeing; that's what touring is like.
GB: Every time I've seen you guys live, you always look like your having the most fun on stage. How do you guys keep from getting into a rut when performing on stage all the time?
BR: Drugs. (laughs)
GB: Lots of heroin, right?
BR: Seriously though, it is just fun. We really are having fun. There are so many more things you could be doing that wouldn't be as fun. I mean all four of us worked at Dominos right after we graduated college, so you know, anytime we take the stage, I think that has to be somewhere in the back of our minds. We could be delivering pizzas. Not that there is anything wrong with that, I actually loved delivering pizzas.
Bonus Really Quick Contest: Be the first to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
with the subject line "Ha Ha!" and you'll win a pair of tickets to their upcoming show Saturday, May 2 at Subterranean, a copy of their 7" single and a free copy of their debut CD Buckle in the Bible Belt all courtesy of local label Bloodshot Records. Note: You must be 17+ to win. Update! We have a winner! Congrats to Charlie!