The Springfield, Missouri-based alt-country rock group Ha Ha Tonka isn’t a conceptual revelation. The late ’80s and early ’90 first saw college-radio dudes dabbling in Americana. The result? A flood of alt-country acts like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and The Jayhawks. The formula has proven sticky, as groups like The Avett Brothers and Kings Of Leon continue to get indie famous via that same aesthetic.
Ha Ha Tonka has been around under various guises since 2002, but the band is really starting to gain traction now. The boys aren’t stylistically reinventing the wheel, but their execution is solid, and their most recent LP—Death Of A Decade—is getting plenty of press. The group isn’t directly cut from the alt-country cloth either; their old-timey tinges of the Ozarks keep things interesting. In an indie-verse war between empty attempts to mimic Kraftwerk (bleepy-bloopy bands) and half-baked stabs at capturing early Wilco (neo alt-country), the latter wins out most times.
The A.V. Club chatted with frontman Brian Roberts before Ha Ha Tonka's appearance Oct. 6 at Kung Fu Necktie about his rural upbringing, increasing popularity, and—of course—gutting hogs.
The A.V. Club: You’re an indie band that’s not from Brooklyn, but rather from the Ozarks. What was it like growing up?
Brian Roberts: The Ozarks are a lot like Brooklyn. [Laughs.] I loved it.
AVC: People picture off-the-grid backwoods—was it like that?
BR: It was a little bit like that. We had a big farm; we were hog farmers.
AVC: Really? Have you killed a hog?
BR: Have I killed a hog? I have killed more hogs—I mean, for various reasons—always [for] good reasons. But yes, I have killed hogs.
AVC: Not passing any judgment—this isn’t a PETA sabotage interview here.
BR: I wasn’t sure if you were asking how much blood’s on my hands. When you have a large hog operation, ya know, with each litter, sometimes there’ll be one or two pigs born deformed or almost stillborn. You just finish ’em off right away there. How did we get off on this?
[Roughly another minute of hog-talk transpires.]
AVC: What was your first experience with music?
BR: My mother plays piano, my dad plays guitar; there’s a strong church background. However, in our church—a pretty fundamentalist church called the Church Of Christ—they didn’t allow instrumentation in the services; all the singing was a cappella.
AVC: The church didn’t allow music?
BR: It’s a [doctrinal] thing; it somehow gets in the way of your praising God. We are not a Christian band, by any stretch of the word.
AVC: What about your parents’ records and the records you first started to discover on your own?
BR: My parents were children of the ’60s and ’70s—lots of Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, Creedence, Eagles, and ’70s rock. We were also in the rural Ozarks; there’s tons of country music. So if you name any pop-country song from about 1975 to 1995, I can sing you the verses and the chorus.
AVC: When did you get into indie music?
BR: R.E.M. was the first band I got way into. I’m a disciple of Michael Stipe; I think he’s the best lyricist of this past generation. If we could ever write a song like “Nightswimming,” we could call it quits.
AVC: Without being painfully modest, why do you think you guys are starting to get noticed?
BR: Well, I’m going to be painfully modest and just say it’s to due to good fortune, a good label, and being on good tours with a lot of nice bands—Murder By Death, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and Langhorne Slim. It’s felt very organic. Is that too modest?
AVC: It would have been better if you’d said, “We rule; all these other buzz-bands are stylized hype,” or something like that.
BR: I’ll give you one negative—and I’ll say this unabashedly—it’s because we have the best-looking bass player in rock ’n’ roll.
AVC: Really? Is that reciprocated on the road in ways you’d imagine it would be?
BR: I don’t think that’s an appropriate interview question for me to answer. [Laughs.]
AVC: Where do you guys fit in the modern indie sphere?
BR: I really don’t know. It feels like there’s a genre being carved out by bands like Dawes and Mumford & Sons. The ones [who] are at the forefront of this latest movement of the Americana/indie/pop-rock melting pot are The Avett Brothers; they’re incredible.
AVC: When thinking of the alt-country godfathers—Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown—they can sort of be heard in you. But your band’s rootsy element sounds older, more from-the-hills.
BR: Bluegrass is everywhere in the Ozarks—old folk songs, too. I think that just kind of seeps in. Even if we’re using original rock instrumentation, we still try to put a twist on it—putting those four-part harmonies and older melodies in place.
AVC: What about Anthony Bourdain?
BR: They did a show on the Ozkarks. Anthony Bourdain spent a week down there, and one day he spent with us, in our hometown of West Plains. We grilled out, drank, shot guns, played cards, played songs—just had a great day. It made it on the show; it was a great experience and great exposure.
AVC: Is he as cool as he comes off on TV?
BR: He is just as cool—if not cooler. Really, really nice guy—he hung out with us for like 10 hours.
AVC: What’s one thing the press has written about you that you’ve really thought worked? Also, what’s another thing you’ve read that seems off base?
BR: That’s a tricky question coming from the press. I don’t know if there’s anything they get wrong. If anything, maybe they focus on the distant past. It’s so hard in the music world to get our name out there, so when they talk about previous incarnations of our band, it can become confusing. Any attention we get from the press is a plus; it’s a very crowded field out there.
AVC: You get a lot of Replacements comparisons. What’s your take on that?
BR: I’m flattered by that. I don’t hear it myself, but we try to never shy away from comparisons. A lot of people say Kings Of Leon, Mumford & Sons; I’ve heard Tom Petty comparisons on this record. It baffles me, but I’m a huge Tom Petty fan. I’ll take it.