Band of the Week: Ha Ha Tonka

Music Features Ha Ha Tonka
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Band of the Week: Ha Ha Tonka

Hometown: Springfield, Mo.
Fun Fact: The members of Ha Ha Tonka have invented their very own cocktail, which contains vodka, amaretto, sloe gin, Southern Comfort, peach schnapps and a little bit of orange juice.
Why It's Worth Watching: Ha Ha Tonka serves up complex heartland rock with both the bar-band ferocity of The Replacements and the subdued twang of R.E.M.
For Fans Of: The Hold Steady, Uncle Tupelo, The Replacements

Like many a band, Ha Ha Tonka started out as a couple of friends sharing a cheap apartment and the love of music. “I don’t think we were really that serious about music at the beginning, seeing as how we were full-time college students,” says Brian Roberts, who sings and plays guitar. “Plus, our songs were terrible and we weren’t that good live, so there really wasn’t that much to be serious about.” The group originally was called Amsterband, a name Roberts admits he and his bandmates chose hastily, “because we needed a name for a talent show we’d entered.” They took second place.

After a few line-up changes and graduation from Missouri State University, they gave themselves two years to devote to music. “We plotted our course, wrote some songs that we felt were interesting, and we’ve been on the road ever since,” Roberts says. They also changed their name. Sick of being mistaken for a jam band and feeling they’d gone as far as they could go, they dropped the Amsterband moniker and chose Ha Ha Tonka in honor of the state park in Camdenton, Missouri. “It really is a spectacular state park with a tragic story,” says Roberts, referring to Kansas City businessman Robert Snyder, who dreamed of building a castle on the grounds but died before its completion. “I think we were drawn to that, in addition to its odd name.”

During those first two years, the band—which now consists of Roberts, drummer Lennon Bone, bass player Luke Long, and Brett Anderson on guitar and piano—toured constantly and eventually signed with venerable label Bloodshot Records. “Bloodshot was always on our shortlist of labels that we hoped to work with,” Roberts says. “From everything that I’ve heard and experienced so far, I think they might be the most artist friendly label out there.” The band culled songs from its raucous live set—now greatly improved since the aforementioned meager beginnings—and recorded its debut, Buckle in the Bible Beltcomparisons to Kings of Leon and labelmates the Deadstring Brothers.

Roberts drew from personal experiences on Buckle's 10 songs, basing them on people the band members knew from their college days in Missouri. But none is more personal than “This is Not a Cure for the Common Cold,” which is based on Roberts’ experiences as a cancer survivor. The lyrics bitterly and intelligently lambaste U.S. health care (“it’s a circle system spitting pennies at the many medical maladies we’re faced with,” Roberts growls), but the music churns up a rowdy bar-band momentum thanks to Anderson’s barrelhouse piano, and one of the album’s best hooks. “I don’t think we’re offering any solutions to the problem in that song,” Roberts claims, “just commenting on how terrible it is to have the misfortune of being poor and sick in America.

“Personally, coming down with something of that sort at such a young age made me more determined to go after exactly what I wanted in life,” he continues. “I also think the experience helped us as a group and forced us to tackle tougher issues with our music and try to create something we could all be proud of, as opposed to just having a laugh and treating the band as a hobby.”

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