The quartet of college buddies has been ripping up the countryside since 2005 with their brand of bluesy Southern rock, crisscrossing the country at festivals and even barbecuing for Anthony Bourdain on an episode featuring Ozark cuisine. Their latest record, "Death of a Decade," is a mandolin-inflected assortment of spooky stories ("Jesusita," "Dead Man's Hand") and two-steppin' numbers ("Usual Suspects") that feature the band's trademark tight barbershop harmonies and reflect the evolution of their style as a harbinger of the sounds of the "nouveau south."
I caught up with Brett Anderson -- a multi-instrumentalist who lends his guitar, vocals and burgeoning mandolin talents to Ha Ha Tonka -- as the band was headed to Milwaukee for the fifth show of their summer tour.
Ha Ha Tonka arrives in St. Louis on Friday, June 8 for a show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room for Twangfest 16.
Annah Bender: I hope this doesn't sound creepy, but I'm looking at a picture of you right now, you and your band, and I think I know you. I graduated from Missouri State in 2004, and I'm friends with all the guys from Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and Jody Bilyeu of Big Smith was my advisor in my bachelor's program. So I don't know if our paths have crossed in some ways before, but you just look really familiar to me!
Brett Anderson: What is your degree in?
In English, yeah, ok. I was definitely there at school at that time, and I'm friends with all those guys as well, so, yeah.
Well I just thought that was funny.
Maybe if I saw a picture of you, we could put two and two together…
Well, I'm planning on coming to the show at Twangfest, in a week or so, so maybe then we'll meet each other and figure this out.
So I am listening to "Death of a Decade" right now and I see that it's a departure from previous stuff like "Buckle in the Bible Belt" -- which is an awesome title, I really like that name -- but "Buckle in the Bible Belt" just seems a lot more story-based, and even the sound seems more southern rock 'n' roll. And this is total speculation on my part, but I imagine that you all are in very different places in your lives now than when you recorded "Buckle in the Bible Belt," so I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of your sound and songwriting.
Yeah, absolutely. With the first record, we were all very, very broke, we had just graduated college and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, and we were just kinda playing shows on weekends. Maybe it wasn't such a bad place, but I think you can hear a lot of that stuff if you listen to our second record, "Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South." And so with "Death of a Decade" it was our time to shine, we felt like, you know, with what we've become. We introduced a new instrument which I think kinda took it in a different direction, which was the mandolin which I started playing a couple years ago. I think that really kinda changed the sound a little bit.
You are correct in the fact that "Death of a Decade" is not nearly as much storytelling, not as much as "Novel" or "Buckle in the Bible Belt," but since then, we wanted to make everything more relatable in a way. I think, musically, the accessibility is a lot more there than in previous records.
It seems like with "Death of a Decade" I get the sense that it's more personal, whereas with "Buckle in the Bible Belt" it's like a story about something else that happened, like Missouri folklore or whatever, and stuff on the new record is coming straight from y'all's experience.
Speaking of songwriting, I notice that all of your original material, everything you do, all the songs are always credited to the entire band. I'm wondering if you could describe how your songwriting process works and how you share ideas and come together and hash out a product that you all feel like you have equal parts creating.
It's kind of a interesting process, and it can be daunting at times. Basically what happens is one or two of us will come up with a piece of music, whether it be like 30 seconds or just a melody or chords or a verse or whatever it might be, and then record and show it to everyone in the band and then people will just kind of play around with some ideas on their own time.
And then usually when we get about six or seven of those ideas is when we really star, when we get together and start trying to figure out songs, structure, melody, harmonies, things of that nature. And then after about however many rehearsals it takes -- quite a few -- we get to the point where we kinda feel like the song is pretty much done, and then that's when we'll go to the studio and start recording. And once we're in the studio it'll change a little bit as well, and then other things like that. So yeah it takes a little bit of time for us to work on stuff. In fact we're actually working on a record right now -- hopefully we'll have that one out by next summer.
Hearing you describe your songwriting process is something that fascinates me as an appreciator rather than a participant in the music scene, just how people can come together with all these different perspectives and personalities and tastes and different talents, and then create something that sounds pretty if it's done right. So I was wondering how you all do this now that you, I believe, since you all live in different cities?
That is mostly true, yeah. Me and [drummer] Lennon [Bone] live in Kansas City, Missouri -- well, he lives on the Kansas side and I live on the Missouri side. [Bassist] Luke [Long] is back in his hometown of West Plains, Missouri, and Brian [Roberts, lead vocals and guitar] lives in Santa Barbara, California.
So we definitely are all in separate places but it doesn't really affect us because, you know, we tour so much so that when we do come together we're together, you know, from that time -- and we always try to get together before the tour so we have time to rehearse, and then try to have a little time afterwards to rehearse as well. So it really works out perfectly living in different places because we spent so much time together in our earlier years that we're probably sick of each other.
Probably enough for a lifetime. [Both laugh.]
So I know that you are touring with Murder by Death, who I love; unfortunately you all aren't playing in St. Louis together. However, you both kind of have these dark lyrics, that seem kinda whiskey-soaked and are about the devil and other haunting themes so I wonder just like how you all get along on the road. I know you've toured with Murder by Death before and so I was just wondering if y'all are friends and who's more badass?
Yeah! [laughs] Well, the thing about that, we toured with Murder by Death a few years ago, for the first time and honestly we clicked right away because they're such an amazing band to tour with. They have really got their stuff figured out. They have been in it about four or five years longer than we have and they really understand how it works. You know, how it is to be a touring band that's not trying to be majorly successful, but you know, doing it in a way so that you can make a living. And they really just taught us a lot of secrets and tricks of the trade of being a touring band. We really got to know all of them really well.
Actually on that tour, two years ago, with them, our van broke down about halfway through the tour. So we bought another van, and then it broke down the next day. So this is all in mid-tour, you know, so we were basically screwed. And you know there was nothing we could do so "well we're just gonna have to drop off the tour because we can't get anywhere and we don't have any money" -- what can you do?
So instead of accepting that they basically said, "You guys are more than welcome to ride in our van and stay in our hotel rooms." And so they let us ride with them for the remainder of the tour, which was very, very sweet and amazing. So, yes, they are very good friends of ours, and yes we absolutely love their music. And I think they really liked ours. They are going to take us on the road again this summer, which we're really very, very excited for.
You show off your wicked mandolin skills on the new record, kinda taking the sound in a different direction, and so I was just wondering how you learned how to play. Did you teach yourself? Is it an easy switch from guitar?
It was kind of a random thing, because we were playing South by Southwest a few years ago and we were at an after party and there was a bunch of bluegrass instruments there. There was a guitar and mandolin, and a couple of my friends picked up those instruments and then [one] just kind of showed me a couple chords on mandolin. And basically all it is is upside down guitar, pretty much, so he just told me to think of it that way and I did. I don't consider myself an experienced mandolin player by any means, but I do love playing it now and I've gotten deeper and deeper into it for a few years. It's been a great instrument and I think it's a cool addition too.
You provide backup vocals on a lot of the songs, but you actually do have a track on the new record where you are the lead singer, "Dead Man's Hand." I was wondering if you had any future plans to edge into lead vocalist territory?
I try to do that at least once on every record. I had one on "Buckle in the Bible Belt," and then two on "Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South" …. It seems to be pretty well received by people, which is good, and you know I think I struggle with writing a full song by myself. So that's kind of why I'm always going to the band with things like that so they can help me kind of flesh it out. So, yeah, I definitely think there will be more of that in the future.
How's the tour going?
It's going great actually; it's been amazing. We're actually just at the very beginning, we're only about four shows in and we still have a month left, so it's going good. So basically we're still at the early part of the tour.
Best of luck to you then, and I hope your van doesn't break down at any point.
88.1 KDHX welcomes Ha Ha Tonka to Twangfest 16 on Friday, June 8 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.