I am practically allergic to the high temperatures of summer and will do anything and everything within my power to avoid spending time in it, lest I collapse in a pile of heat exhaustion. That is, until I have to put my hatred for the heat aside in order to spend an afternoon in a very non-airconditioned artist studio space in the Lemp Brewery on a 97 degree June day in order to hang out with one of my favorite, new-to-me bands, Ha Ha Tonka during its taping of two songs for St. Louis' Show Me Shows.
Good music, it turns out, is like a balm against heat exhaustion, and I am able to shrug off the discomfort in a way I'd never be able to otherwise. The dust, the dirt and the stifling heat seem a small price to pay to spend the day with these fine fellows and enjoy some of their new musical offerings.
In case you are, like me, newish to the band, Ha Ha Tonka is named after Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Missouri. Situated on the Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks, Ha Ha Tonka is much admired for its rugged beauty. Bluffs, caves, sinkholes and "laughing waters" (the English translation for the park's Native American name) make up the landscape of the park as well as a beautiful synonym for the highs and lows, flowing beauty and ruggedness of the namesake band's music.
The members of Ha Ha Tonka mostly grew up in the Ozarks but are now based out of Kansas City. Mo. After they load in some equipment, we fiddle with the old casement style windows in the studio space, trying to get them to stay open so that we can have some sort of air flow. Then we chat a bit about the rivalry between K.C. and St. Louis and all of our commonalities as well; such as beautiful old architecture, preservation efforts, a love for BBQ and being safe havens for humanism and liberalism in what can seem to be a sea of a state, struck with red tide. Misconceptions about Missouri abound and that comes up again a bit later when I ask them about their experience growing up in the Ozarks.
Keyboardist, guitarist and vocalist Brett Anderson shares, "I think the Ozarks has a different feel than the northern part of Missouri, in particular. It's it's own culture; a bit like Appalachia in that respect. It's set apart. It's kind of rugged terrain, the people are proud and proud to be Ozarkian which is something we've always tried to incorporate into our music."
When I ask if there's a general misunderstanding about the people from that area, Anderson responds, "Yeah, I think. You know the term 'hillbilly' gets tossed around. I heard an interview with Bill Clinton who is from Hope, Arkansas and he said, 'the smartest guy you ever want to meet might be the guy pumping your gas.' Just because life led him in a different direction, he might have a higher IQ than you have so you should never say, 'Oh, that guy is just a hillbilly.' just because he's pumping gas and doing that for a living and look down on him for that reason. People have a false picture of what the Ozarks is at times, I think because of that and they shouldn't."
While their home environment has always figured prominently upon the music they've made, this time around, with the new LP "Lessons," there is another strong influence that comes into play: a series of interviews between children's artist and illustrator Maurice Sendak and Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air. Sendak, who passed away in May of 2012, was a guest on the program several times, including an appearance just eight months before he died. That final interview will make anyone's heart, even the grinchiest of grinches, swell three sizes and nearly burst apart with love for the man and for life in general. In those interviews which are compiled at npr.org, Sendak is candid and wide open with his feelings about his life and the inevitable end of it, his views on faith and religion, his experiences as a gay man, depression, therapy and the artwork and stories he so lovingly crafted for children. It is a treasure trove of inspiration.
I ask the band to tell me a bit about the extent to which that interview influenced them and why. Anderson begins, "I would say [the interview] permeates throughout; lyrical content, feel of the record, the narrative arc. I mean it's not a concept album based off that interview but it definitely infused the stuff we were writing with an emotion."
Lennon Bone, drummer and vocalist, nods in agreement and adds, "We have a new song "Staring at the End of Our Lives" and there's that whole sense of looking back on what you've done and just being glad you've done it and had that opportunity and that you have people there to support you and have been throughout your life. I mean, we're very lucky to do all this just the way we do and see the things we get to see. I think that message helps me to not take it as much for granted."
Guitarist Brian Roberts chimes in, "His views on being an artist, being carefree and letting art pour out of you."
This reminds me of Sendak speaking in the interviews about how at the end of his life he'd become selfish about his art, making things just to please himself. so I ask the band, "Do you feel like when you are crafting a song that it's more personal and for yourself or do you always have someone else in mind when writing?"
Anderson shares, "I think at the start of the process it's always completely selfish and it's just all for you and it's something you wanna keep close to your chest and it kind of grows from there. So you start out with that initial impulse, very selfish about the little nugget you are creating. Then it changes a bit because you want to make it accessible. You want people to relate to it in some way. If it's too defined to where it's just some obscure, personal thing it might not be completely relatable so you try to find something that can still capture that emotion and be relatable."
Ha Ha Tonka succeeds in that quest with this particular song they perform for the taping, "Lessons," the title track of the band's newest LP. It's something nearly everyone can relate to and understand. We all have issues that rear their ugly heads at us time and again. Eventually we must learn, "when to say when."