|They grew up in the the 80’s on a steady diet of Dwight Yoakam and gospel music, but somehow ended up making some of the most exciting music to come out of Missouri since Chuck Berry. With their only second album, Novel Sounds of the Nouvau South, these Bible Belt rockers throw in everything from country and jazz to indie-rock and gospel, making this one of the albums you shouldn’t miss out on this year. In this interview, Americana UK speaks to drummer Lennon Bone about Ha Ha Tonka’s music, learning to communicate and why the Midwest is all the rage these days.
Interview by Soren McGuire
There’s this saying that you spend your whole life making your first album and only a few months making your second. Was it like that with Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South? Any pressure there to get it on the streets as soon as possible?
For us, not really. We were in a lucky situation because we put our first album, Buckle in the Bible Belt, on our own and toured on it independently for quite a while – about a year - and then signed with Bloodshot which meant that we then toured on it for another two years. So we really had a lot of time to work on new songs. We made a pact in the band to just do what came natural to us instead of trying to push the progress and record a new album before we felt ready to do so.
You have definitely taken some new steps forward with this one. Did you all agree on how you wanted the album to sound?
We pretty much all look at music the same way. I think we have to have a similar outlook when it comes to work and we have to. We all know that it’s not going to happen if we don’t put in as much work in Ha Ha Tonka off the road as we do on the road. You know, promoting the album and that kinda stuff.
So what’s been the biggest change between the two albums?
Personally, I felt like communication has been the main evolution in the process. When we were writing and recording the first album, I was still fairly new in the band. I felt like – and this is my personal feeling – that if I said something, who was I going to piss off? I didn’t know how the others in the band were going to react. I didn’t know who was going to take my criticism in what way, cause writing songs is a four-way process. But this time, we had been at it for long enough, so we already knew where each other was coming from. So there was no stepping on each other’s toes or anything like that. We all just went full speed ahead in the writing process and tried to make the best album possible.
I have always found it really difficult labeling your music. What is it? Indie rock? Alt. country? Was that always the plan, to make music that will people like me frustrated with the fact that there isn’t really a box I can squeze you into?
I don’t know if it is or not. Honestly. I say that it’s really not a concern to us how you label it. The main concern would be if this is going to be listenable or not, is this the album we thought it would be? Are people going to enjoy listening to it? You know, those concerns. And besides, categories are categories. I mean, what is indie rock? It used to be a certain lifestyle for a band and now it’s become a certain music style and I don’t even know what that is. We just tried to forget the labels and make something we thought was cool.
Spin Magazine compared you with Kings of Leon. Any thoughs on that?
I thought about it but I don’t know what I think about it. I mean, if it helps us to gain exposure from some people who like Kings of Leon or if we for instance got on a Kings of Leon tour, I’d probably poop my pants. I don’t know if they’ve inspired us musically, but I think there’s always a need to compare one band with another band, and if we’re getting compared to Kings of Leon, hey, that’s fine with me.
Who are your inspirations?
My dad is a bassplayer so I always grew up listening to a lot of horn bands. I was a trumpet player when I was a kid, so I was into to all these old Chicago funk rock bands. That led me on to jazz and it’s only been within the last four or five years that I have started listening to a whole lot of pop. I try to keep some of those jazz influenzes when I play. Even it doesn’t translate into my playing, it’s about the little things here and there.
I can definitely hear that in your music. I’m no jazz expert, but it seems like some of the structures in your songs draw more inspiration from jazz than from rock. Your songs often take unexpected turns in their rhythm structures. Stuff like that, sounds and bits you didn’t see coming. Ha Ha Tonka’s not your average rock band, is it?
I actually appreciate you saying that. It is a conscious effort. There are so many things in rock music that are so over-killed now. I just get bored with it. Your average radio rock song is just verse-chorus-verse-chorus and that’s it. Even though we may have the same structure melodic-wise, we try to alter the texture of our music, whhether it’s the drums or switching the guitar. It feels different. Hopefully you’ll see the constant progression in the song as opposed to just the normal verse-chorus-verse and so on, but of course we try to keep some familiarity to the music. You want a hook there, don’t you?
You’re all from Missouri. That’s not the South, is it?
No, Missouris’s more the Bible Belt, the Midwest.
Ok. I think I saw you labelled as a Southern rock band somewhere. But how do you think being from the Midwest has influenced you as a band?
There are certain things that have influenced us as a whole. Brian, Luke and I all went to high school together, so we were all raised – in some way or form – in the church. So we try to translate some of the gospel harmonies in our music, cause that’s what we remember from our youth. Plus, we were also raised on a lot of 80’s and 90’s country, stuff like Alabama, Dwight Yoakam and these kind of country artists that our parents listened to at the time, so yes, that has also inspired us as a band. As far as being an actual Southern rock band, no, I don’t think we’d personally label us as that. But there are some flavours.
So is the Midwest the new hotbed for indie rock bands then?
Ha! I don’t know. I kinda hope so. The Midwest often goes unnoticed, but hopefully we’ll be in the mix of it. We have some great friends here who are having some really great succes right now. There’s a power pop band called Ludo, they’re all friends of ours, and they’re doing well, and so are Someone Still Loves You, Boris Jeltsin. Those guys and us started about the same time in Springfield, Missouri, so hopefully some of them will start to get noticed. There are definitely some great bands here in Missouri.
Ha Ha Tonka’s Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South is out now on Bloodshot Records. Listen at myspace.com/hahatonka