Friday, June 9, 2017

Interview: Matt Chrystal Talks to Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka

Photo: Jason Gonulsen

Life on Heart-Shaped Mountain

by Matt Chrystal

Ha Ha Tonka just released their fifth album, Heart-Shaped Mountain, which offers up tight rocking numbers and showcases their stunning five part harmonies as well as their evolution as both songwriters and storytellers.

In case you were wondering, the band's name is a reference to the state park in their home state of Missouri. Ha Ha Tonka may call the Ozarks their home; but, according to Brian Roberts, who pulls triple duty as writer, guitarist and singer, the band are currently living in "Heart-Shaped Mountain World" as they tour the county in support of the album.

I recently spoke with Brian about what it's like living in the world of Heart-Shaped Mountain; and, despite a major hiccup in the recording process (a hardware crash deleted the original recordings), things seem to be going pretty well for the group of friends who have been writing, recording and touring together for the last ten years. Actually, from the sound of it, things are only getting better.

CoolMattyC:  Ha Ha Tonka just released the album, Heart-Shaped Mountain. You guys are no strangers to shaking things up with each of your respective releases. Your debut album, Buckle in the Bible Belt, was basically recorded live, the second album, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, took on a slightly darker tone, Death of a Decade was recorded in a barn; and, by 2013's Lessons, you had a developed a layered studio approach to recording. Can you talk about the recording process for Heart-Shaped Mountain which many have referred to as your "grown-up album" or your "love album?"

Brian Roberts: That's the most succinct way I think have ever heard our albums described! That was actually pretty amazing.

Anyways, with this album we had a goal in mind to make a rocknroll record that was like 30 minutes long with about ten songs and we held pretty true to that. We worked with Jason Macintyre, who had produced two of our other records, Buckle in the Bible Belt and Novel Sounds. So we went back to Missouri and recorded in St. Louis and just wanted to make a nice tight rock album. Our last record, Lessons, was something that we are all really proud of; but it is a pretty in-depth and long album and we wanted our follow-up to be tighter and more direct.

CMC: I heard that the band had recorded what was to be the Heart-Shaped Mountain album and then lost all the files due to a hardware crash. What was the story there?

BR: We had strange set of circumstances where we did a week's worth of recording and then had a massive hardware crash and lost everything. We were able to listen to the reference files but we could not go in and work on any of the sessions. So we used those mp3s as a guidepost but had to do everything over from scratch.

It turned out to be very liberating, and I feel it made the album so much better because we had to do that. A few of the songs really took off after that because we had some very honest discussions about where they should go, and we had a chance to take them there. I am sure many bands listen to one of their finished albums later on and would change some things because of what they learned afterwards, and we were actually lucky enough to be given that chance through what we initially called an unfortunate set of circumstances. The way we all reacted -- and I mean the band, our producer, management and the label -- was just like, "Ok, well, let's just go back in there and do it!"

CMC: All band members get equal writing credits but you write the bulk of the lyrics. Does it make it difficult writing with four to five part harmonies in mind? And does it all come together naturally or do you have to delegate parts to each member, specifying what you had in mind?

BR: We are really fortunate that it comes together pretty naturally. We do not try to force it. Everybody just really enjoys singing; and, as we are making and recording the songs, I think each person just finds their own parts very naturally. We definitely work on the harmonies. I am not saying we are natural talents, but it comes together organically through the process as the song develops. I do not think we ever sit down and say, "Ok now these are the parts we need to do."

CMC: In doing some research for this interview, I watched several YouTube video interviews that the band has had over the years. It was interesting to see the members mature from hungover jokesters at Lollapalooza in 2008 to artists holding round-table like discussions by the time Lessons came out in 2013. Throughout each video, no matter what the year, it was very apparent and obvious as to how much fun everyone has together. Have you noticed anything that has changed over the last decade of playing together? Stayed the same?

BR: I would be terrified to watch our interviews from 2008. We were a bunch of jackasses being silly.

I think where we have changed is that we have definitely matured as songwriters. One of our goals as a band is to get better. We are wise enough now to know that maybe we won't be the biggest band in the world, but that does not mean that we can't keep improving.

We have been able to take things seriously but also be able to maintain a sense of self-awareness about that so we are not being assholes about it all the time. We still have a good time. We still love doing this. It's a crazy thing being in a rocknroll band. It's like living in a Peter Pan world. Sure we have matured but we have been able to keep ourselves young by being enthusiastic about being in a band together. There's not a lot of guys in their mid-thirties who get to jump around on a stage and tour around the world. We still get a kick out of all this and are just tickled that we are still able to do this.

CMC: Heart-Shaped Mountain has often been referenced as the album where Ha Ha Tonka show how much you all have all matured; but let's be honest here, doesn't the fact that some members have wives and children at home translate to more reason to party while out on the road?

BR: I can't speak for everybody, but I will say that as a group we have learned how to pick our moments more and don't put ourselves in situations where we are hungover for a radio interview that we have to travel five hours to get to. We pick our moments to party but we still party. I would be lying if I said that we don't. I think we are smart partiers now, if that makes any sense.

Photo: Jason Gonulsen

CMC: Ha Ha Tonka will be making their late night television debut on Conan on June 22. What are your feelings about that?

BR: We are just excited. We are all huge Conan fans. This is something that has been on our wish list. We are getting to make our TV debut on Conan, and it just feels right. It's really just one redhead helping out a band with a couple redheads in it. It feels really good and we are pumped. It's also nice that all of our friends and family that have supported us for the last ten years can have a reason to brag about us and tell their friends to watch us on Conan.

CMC: Speaking of redheads… If we can get serious for a moment… do your flowing long locks and burly beard give you Sampson-like powers when it comes to writing, rehearsing and performing?

BR: It has not, but it has given me an awesome doppleganger. There is a guy on Game of Thrones (Tormund Giantsbane played by Kristofer Hivju) that has a similar look, and I have had people come up to me thinking that I was him. I have been reveling in that. It is not all the time, but it's a lot of fun when people do a double-take or come over to me and think I'm him.

Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju)

CMC: There's much attention given to the fact that Ha Ha Tonka consists of friends from the Ozarks of Missouri. But, after ten years of relentless touring, you have seen many places and aspects of the country. Do you still get stars in your eyes and excited when coming to places such as New York City?

BR: I know this will sound cliché and cheesy, but it really is such a thrill to go to any city, especially New York City. Driving into New York never gets old. We look forward to getting to go places where people are coming out to watch us. It means a lot that people will come out to see our shows.

Whether it's Cleveland or NYC or wherever, it's just a thrill for us that people come out to get rowdy with us. We want to give them all a good show. We are really focused on our live show and bringing this album to life. We are in Heart-Shaped Mountain World and it feels good to be there.

CMC: The band has been known to make political references and statements on albums and in conversation, so I am wondering what your thoughts are on the current political climate in America and what are your hopes for the future?

BR: It's a pretty crazy time. I am from a very conservative area, and I have friends and family who are very conservative. I also have friends and family who are very liberal. I know I sound like a politician here, but there's a commonality among us that we are all Americans and our differences do not have to divide us.

I do have a real problem with people who do not accept facts. There's this whole thing with the Trump Administration and alternative facts. You can be on the conservative side or you can be liberal side, but you cannot question scientific facts and proven facts. I do not know why anyone would want to argue that something made-up and imaginary can be real and that real facts can be debated. I think a starting point for everyone coming together would just be to agree that facts are facts!

Heart-Shaped Mountain is available now on Bloodshot Records.

Ha Ha Tonka will perform at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on June 11 and on Conan on June 22.

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