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Thursday, 20 June 2013 13:01

'We gain so much more from helping each other instead of being competitive' An interview with Ha Ha Tonka's Lennon Bone

Lennon Bone of Ha Ha Tonka in the KDHX Studios Lennon Bone of Ha Ha Tonka in the KDHX Studios Jarred Gastreich
Written by Robin Wheeler
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"Nobody ever interviews the drummer," Ha Ha Tonka's Lennon Bone joked at the end of our conversation. Which is a shame because sometimes, when drummers are starting at the backside of the rest of the band, they're cultivating their own projects.

Even though Bone and his full-time band are preparing for the autumn release of their fourth album and touring this summer with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, he just released projects from three bands from his own Sharp County Records: funked-up rock from the Jinxed, catchy pop from Hidden Pictures and acoustic singer-songwriter harmonies from Watson and May.

On the day Sharp County released all three projects, shortly after Ha Ha Tonka's biggest European tour to date, Bone discussed what to expect from the band's next release, where he's going with Sharp County and the importance of musicians helping one another instead of fighting it out.

Ha Ha Tonka and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin will appear at KDHX-welcomed show at Off Broadway on Thursday, June 20.

Robin Wheeler: How was Europe?

Lennon Bone: It was amazing. It's really hard to sum it up. We've been touring for so long. This is our second European tour. The first one was great, but kind of a whirlwind. I think we did 23 shows in 24 days, and had to come back.

This time we were there a lot longer, a little over six weeks. We had a little more time to see things and experience stuff. On one hand it was the most fun we've ever had on tour, and on the other hand, for me personally, it was also the most separated from the world that I've felt in a long time, since I toured as a kid when I didn't have a cell phone. You get over there and all this stuff happens back home and then you completely lose touch because there's no coverage and hardly any internet, even though you'd think that would be something.

It's a surreal thing to come back home after that amount of time after so much foreign countryside and having your mind blown almost daily. It was pretty special. It's hard to not be excited, seeing something that's quite possibly the coolest scenery, or meeting the most interesting people. It's a pretty special deal. Now the next step is to go over there and hopefully grow the markets and make it work financially as well. It's getting closer. I think it's just a matter of time. Since we're on the ass-end of a release it's hard to expect a lot of press.

How were the reactions from the audiences?

They were great. There would be a lot of small but mighty crowds, and everybody seemed really into it, appreciative, and excited about it. And then we had a few shows that far exceeded expectations. I think we had seven or eight shows that were really great, a couple of sold out shows in Ireland. London turned out really great. A couple of shows in Germany were really good. Then other times when the crowds weren't as good, we'd still wind up meeting somebody or hanging out with somebody that made it a blast. Whatever it was lacking, something else in the evening would make up for it, so okay fine, we're in fucking Europe right now. This is awesome!

What were you playing? Did they get to hear much of the new stuff?

Yeah. We used it as a chance to look at a lot of the new songs, get them more polished, and figure out what needs to be done. We picked out the songs we thought to be be the strongest ones live so far, and we were able to figure out what's not really working with them yet, and what we need to work on to make them sound fuller.

I've heard that you've gone in a different direction on your upcoming album.

I don't think we expected to, necessarily. We wrote the songs and I think we went into the recording process pretty nervous, feeling like there were a lot of loose ends that needed to be tied up. We felt like there was just so much to be done, still. We picked two producers, one being the Ryanist from here in Kansas City. He produced and mixed the last record. The other guy, we ran across and became acquaintances and just a huge fan of his work, Dan Molad. He's from Brooklyn and plays in a band called Lucius who opened up a couple of shows for us. The more I dug into his catalog of production stuff, the more I was like, this guy's stuff has a feel that's really cool and I'd be interested, based on what Ryan did with the other record, to have another guy who's very hands-on in the recording process.

When we started pitching names, some big-name producers came up. Ultimately, we decided to go with somebody we felt would put the care into it and be as passionate about it as we were. He took the reigns on a lot of stuff and helped us reconstruct these songs in a way that we'd never thought of. He was really quick to pick up a guitar and say, "Let's change this note, add this note." It started to take on a completely different character. Not to mention that we were doing all the stuff at the studio in Omaha where they did all the Bright Eyes records and the Monsters of Folk. Just so many toys at our disposal. It was like being a kid. He'd not really worked on a big console like that before. We had all this gear out and were throwing things around, using a ton of different drums, instruments. There would be moments when we're all in the room, no one's manning the controls and we're just playing together and having a blast. All of that really kind of set into there being this arcing layer of sound. Each track having its own vibe. The record has a flow with a bunch of different vibes instead of just one solid sound throughout.

We've had comparisons to Credence and the Band, but I've never really felt it. But with this one there are moments where I get this sense of ... sometimes it feels like a Springsteen tune, or sometimes there's a Fleetwood Mac vibe. It's always us. It's just that we're drawing from those songs in different ways, and both of them somehow made our record with a twist on those old-feeling things. We'll see what everybody else thinks. It's easy to over-analyze it when you're part of steering the ship.

That's what a good producer does. He takes a band, keeps that core, and finds a way to progress.

This was the first time I've felt like we're all walking away completely happy and excited. That alone should say something. That's not to downplay any of our other producers. It's just the right time, right place, right people.

Speaking of producing ... The Jinxed! I sent [vocalist and lyricist] Bobby [Topaz] an email last night to tell him I was trying to sleep and I had both songs on a loop in my head, from listening to them once yesterday. And I don't mind. You've made an earworm, and it's good. How did this come about and what part did you play in it?

I should start by saying that I do everything I can to surround myself with people who I think are better than me at what they do so I can always be learning and trying to figure out what else I can be involved in. I think the one talent I somehow have that effects me more than anything else is just being social. I've been part of more things that I thought I could be, or even deserve to be sometimes, just because I'm not afraid anymore to ask if I can do something.

The Jinxed stuff is Jon Ulasien and Bo McCall from Antennas Up and Bobby. I've known them for so many years now. They were working on the songs and Jon played me one of them before Bobby cut the vocals for it. I said, dude this is really, really cool and I'm excited about it.

I'd started this little record label thing here in KC called Sharp County Records, and the idea is that I get to cultivate my friends' stuff if they want to, and make a database of music that I really enjoy. Hopefully there's no preconceived notion that I'm a label in the sense that I'm going to be able to promote you and do a lot of stuff. But I can try to help and the main thing is sometimes it just helps to be a part of the basic thing, even if that thing is pretty small. It's amazing what the perspective of people can be.

So they wanted to know if this was something I'd want to put out, and I said sure, but only if I can play something on it, because I wanted to [laughs]. They said sure, so I recorded some horns on one tracks, and they sent me more stuff.

As of today [June 4] it was released along with two other projects I've been part of -- a band called Hidden Pictures did a three-song thing. We've got almost a record's worth of stuff. I think he's going to release the rest of it later. It's also really good stuff, reminds me of early Ben Kweller. I'm playing drums on that. Another thing called Watson and May, which is a couple of singer-songwriters. One's a guy and one's a girl -- Doby Watson and [former "American Idol" finalist] Margo May. That one, I produced and mixed. For whatever reason it worked out that all these projects were released today.

I like the philosophy you have behind Sharp County -- more of an artistic community than a business model.

For awhile I was really gung-ho on it, but we've been out so much lately, and so many things are happening with the Tonka record that I have to adjust my views. Something about it is that people still want to be a part of it, and as the database grows, eventually down the line if I ever have any sort of money I can use that for promotions. I always felt that we gain so much more from helping each other instead of being competitive. I always hate when people are pissy about other peoples' success when they could be helping each other out.

I would never say that I'm running a label. I only call it a label because that's the only way I know how to categorize it. I don't want to over-glorify myself.

The Jinxed has such a classic vibe to it. It's really cool.

I happened to hear Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein" right before listening to "The Loon" yesterday and was like, wait a minute! This works. This flows. It's got that '70s flavor without sounding dated. I hadn't noticed before hearing it by "Frankenstein."

Totally! Jon recorded and mixed that. He's so talented. He's been around for a long time and he's been in bands since he was in his early teens. He's a jack of all trades. He's played on other projects I've worked on. He's really a talent.

What can we expect to see at the St. Louis Ha Ha Tonka show this month?

It's a co-headline [with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin], and I'm not sure who's playing last. Both of us have finished new records and are working on planning release dates and respective tours. We decided it would be cool to get together. We've toured together a couple of times, and started our bands together in Springfield. We've known them for so long, so we thought it would be fun to road test some of our new stuff. We thought it was important to do something in the States before the release to remind everybody that we're alive.

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