20 Questions

Ha Ha Tonka

by Evan Sawdey

30 March 2011

In 2007, PopMatters named Ha Ha Tonka's Buckle in the Bible Belt one of our Albums of the Year. Now, prior to the release of new album Death of a Decade, the band reveal some surprising things, like that time they made hand-farts at B.B. King's club ...
Photo: Calvin Engel 

Problem Solvers

Ha Ha Tonka have been on a bit of a ride as of late—one that started well before they were named Ha Ha Tonka.

The group’s initial incarnation was called Amsterband, and hailing from Springfield, Missouri, Luke Long and Brian Roberts began playing their own unique take on Americana, fusing traditional barn-burner numbers with a distinctly modern, rock-friendly vibe that made them definitely stand out in the scene, never fully being “alt-country” nor country-tinged rock—they band straddled (and continue to straddle) that fence to this day.  Eventually changing their name to Ha Ha Tonka following their signing to Bloodshot Records in 2007 (their home to this day), the group suddenly began working with a larger promotional backing, and suddenly, people began to catch on, this site even naming Buckle in the Bible Belt one of our best albums of that year.

Now, the band has returned with Death of a Decade, an album that further refines their sound, turning them into true Midwest troubadours with a vein of authenticity that simply cannot be touched.  Shortly before the album’s release, Lennon Bone—label-owner and the band’s drummer since 2004—took time to answer PopMatters’ famed 20 Questions, discussing why he’ll never watch Marley & Me, why the band made fart sounds at B.B. King’s club, and what makes Steve Reich one of his favorite musicians of all time ...


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?  

I probably haven’t cried, like really cried because of a book or movie since Old Yeller or Where The Red Fern Grows. Basically anything where a mans dog dies, I’m bound to be cut to the core. I never watched Marley & Me for that exact reason. 
2. The fictional character most like you?
This question is sort of like asking you what kind of music you play. So, much like I did the first time someone asked me to describe that question, I turned to others for advice. Here are the answers I received: 
“I don’t know if this applies, and it took me forever to make the connection, but you are the white Wyatt Cenac ...” “Paddington Bear.” “Tough one.  I’d proffer either Chavez from Young Guns (when you’re clean shaven) or Woodrow from Lonesome Dove (when bearded).”
None had a good reason why. 

3. The greatest album, ever?
There is absolutely no way that I could answer this question realistically. Which I’m assuming you all are fine with. If you’re not, you’ll get over it. My favorite albums change depending on where I’m at in my life… so forgive me for copping out here.

However, If I could somehow combine the following albums into one “super album”, and I heard the outcome as something remotely close to what I imagine it could be, I might die instantly. This “super album” would include elements from the following :  Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Jaco Pastorius’ Jaco Pastorius, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Radiohead’s Kid A, and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

All of these albums completely changed the way I think about music or songwriting when I listened to them for the first time, and all of them have been very influential for me throughout my lifetime since I first heard them. Imagine if we mashed these all together? It would either be complete brilliance, or a complete disaster. I’m fine with either, as they all stand on their own as amazing pieces of work.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I’ve never been a big sci-fi fan, but I suppose I would go with Star Wars. The music, number one, is great. Fighting battles to those themes must be the best. The characters are much more entertaining to me, although they were able to keep Star Trek going on television for who knows how many years now, if you count the Next Generation. So, maybe I’m missing out on something there. 
5. Your ideal brain food?
This is going to sound terrible, but my ideal brain food as of recent has become YouTube. Not in the sense of what YouTube is, necessarily, but what it contains. It’s so easy to get lost in the nonsense that’s there. So much random shit that can completely suck you in for hours upon hours, and yet on the other hand, there’s so much inspiration to be found in video form! At my fingertips I have an archive of thousands upon thousands of musical performances and pieces that I would have never been able to find without it all being stored in one space! It’s mind boggling. I’ve discovered so many new artists and re-discovered so many of my favorites musically, as well as historically. It’s awesome. 
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Not to be cliché here, but I’m very proud of this band. When we started touring I was so naive to the industry. All I knew was that I loved playing music, and I wanted to tour the country doing it. I quickly learned how brutal it can all be, so that idea grew into wanting to do it successfully, since playing to nobody wasn’t terribly fun. People didn’t just come out because we came to their town. Go figure. I began to realize what it was to be a part of a working business, and how rewarding it can be when the business you have is writing music and traveling the country with some of your favorite guys to perform it in front of people. I’ve seen a lot of bands break up, and I’ve seen us somehow completely avoid those issues. We’ve made it work for over six years now, and that in and of itself is a huge feat, given that we’re just now starting to see some sort of “success” with our business. 

I’m realistic. I know very well that this probably won’t last forever, but I already know that when it’s all said and done I will have had the opportunity to have done things with my life that many people have never had the luxury of doing. I’ve learned what hard work is, and what it means to live on the road. I’ve learned how to make relationships work when you’re together and you’re apart. I feel extremely proud of the accomplishments we’ve had, knowing that even where we’re at now, with so much room to grow, we’ve made it farther than a lot of bands and musicians do.   

7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I want to be remembered for being a good musician ... but also as someone who worked very hard to be good at what he did. Will I ever be the best technical musician? Absolutely not. I’m mediocre at best when it comes to the instruments I play, but my hope is that I’m finding my “sound” ... that when people hear Ha Ha Tonka, or other things that I’m involved in, there’s no question that the style is unique to my approach. I fear this will be a life-long pursuit, but I’m prepared for the long haul. 

I also want to be remembered as a doer. So many people talk about the shit that they want to do with their life. I want to do the shit I talk about in my life, even if that means it’s horrible, I don’t care. I’ve tried, and I’ve pushed myself somewhere that I never thought I could go, and I’ve learned something from the experience that I can take back to the things that I am good at. I want to make people think about music differently. I want to make myself think about music differently. To what degree? I’m not sure. But I suppose even if it’s on a small scale, I will feel some pride as I realize that I’ve accomplished these things. 

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The ones that have changed people’s minds. The ones that have made an upset with what they did before people actually started to look beyond what they were used to and paid attention. Some of my favorite stories are ones about new pieces of art or music that were viewed as so appalling that it made the artist famous once people came around. There’s a story about Steve Reich premiering one of his pieces at Carnegie Hall, and by the end of it people were booing and hissing at his work. The conductor of the orchestra that was performing the piece looked at him and said “This is great! This is the best thing that could have happened! Tomorrow, everyone will be talking about this, and people will be finding your stuff for themselves to see what everyone is so pissed off about!”  It wasn’t long before he became one of the most influential minimalist composers of all time. 

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature? 

Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”. This style of composition as of late has become an obsession of mine, (as you might be able to tell from previous answers—I apologize) and this piece specifically completely changed my perspective on how music seems to work in your head. There’s such simplistic movement from one phrase to the next, and so many repetitive patterns, but I find that I’m completely enthralled for nearly the full duration of the piece. It’s all very simple ideas, but amazing to me how the musicians have to work together and pay such close attention to each other every time the piece is performed. It would be so easy to get lost. If I can create music like that in my lifetime, I would feel like I had completed a lifelong goal. Not music “like” that piece necessarily, but music that changes the way people think about what they listen to. 

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I can play songs with my hands in a way that imitates a flatulent. Hand farts, basically. Not impressed? We once had the guts to have a hand fart solo during a performance at B.B. King’s club in NYC. We were the opening act. Needless to say, it didn’t go over very well. If you’re not impressed by the feat, at least be impressed by the bravery. We tried. We failed. We never did it again. Now I only showcase it for short amounts of time at parties. It goes over much better with a bunch of drunk people. 

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
My mom and dad both told me to do what I loved. What I realized about that statement is that it’s not nearly as easy as it seems. To do what I love takes a lot more work than people give credit for. When you get a promotion at your day job and tell your friends, they congratulate you and take you out for beers or whatever. “Man, you must be working so hard to get that promotion! That’s fantastic!” When you draw more than 50 people at an out of town venue for the first time, your friends aren’t necessarily as impressed. “Oh, that’s cute ... you’re still doing that band thing. Can you get me on the guest list next time you guys are in town?” The equivalent of a “promotion” in the music industry is very vague, and it’s terribly tough to see what kind of headway you’re making from inside the machine, so you have to have faith that things are moving forward, and keep creating in a way that helps you continue to love what it is that you’re doing. You have to have a balance ... and when you do, it’s the most rewarding feeling anybody could ask for.  
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The best thing I’ve ever bought was my MacBook. Honestly, I hardly go a day without it, and it’s my main tool for writing, recording and creating music. I’m not sure what I’d do without the little guy. 

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
This is tough, because I can only afford Levis ... or Old Navy. Or thrift store shit. I have found that I love wearing a suit when I can. If I could afford Armani, or even just a few good looking suits, I would probably wear those as often as possible. Armani, if you’re reading this and are looking to take on some sponsorships, call me. 
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
1. President Obama. This man has changed history. We were fortunate enough to be in Chicago at Grant Park when he won the election, and I’ve never in my life felt an energy like that night. There was something about it, and I would be curious to hear his side of the story. I always feel like the leaders of our country never get to be real in public settings, so a one on one conversation with this man is in order. 

2. John Lennon. My namesake, and one of the greatest song writers that ever lived. He also seemed to be one of the more straight forward people that you might come across. I think I’d be as much into just shooting this shit with him as I would be talking about music specifically.  

3. Glenn Kotche of Wilco. One of my heroes as a drummer. Such a dedicated man to his craft, and such an amazing talent. But, he seems like the kind of guy that’s not all raw talent. Like he had to work really hard to get where he’s at, and he’s still working hard to be better at what he does. I relate to that. I was fortunate enough to meet Glenn when we played Lollapalooza in ‘08. It was very brief, but he was very kind. I’d love to pick this guy’s brain. 

4. David King of The Bad Plus. My all time favorite drummer. This guy is incredible. He’s not a technique buff, but he’s still technical as hell, and completely has his own style. I met him once in Minneapolis and got to tell him he’s my hero. That was a pretty big deal for me, but I’d have a hay day sitting down and talking shop with this dude. All about approach, and creative exercise ... Obama might be fighting for time with Dave if I had the opportunity. Ha. 

That might be about it. I wouldn’t want too many people. When I’m at a place to mingle, I hate big crowds ... so a small intimate gathering of the right crew would be ideal. 
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I honestly don’t think I would like to live in a different time. What we have available to us is so unique, and I really feel like we’re witnessing some big changes in an industry that has been suffering in a lot of ways. Fiscally, artistically, etc. It was all becoming so dry and predictable, and it seems people have started to do something about it. It’s becoming more about the bands again, and we each have an opportunity to get creative in the way we approach what we do from the entire perspective. So, I love where I’m at. 
But if I had to choose, I would probably pick NYC when the art and music scene was coming up from nothing, and people could afford to live in the center of it all on peanuts, and had the freedom to create and inspire each other.  

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation, for sure. I’ve been getting more into meditation recently as well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from consistent at this practice, but when I am it’s a huge stress reliever. I got a couple of guided meditation discs from Rocky Votolato when we went on the road with him last year, and they’ve played a really big hand in helping me get my shit together. I love it. 
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
Coffee is my biggest essential. I start every single day with it. I’m no doubt, an addict. I’ve become sort of a snob about it too, so if someone has some Folgers lying around, you can just about guarantee that I’m not going to drink it if I can keep from it. I live in Kansas City, and we have two amazing coffee companies here; the Roasterie, and Parisi. My wife and I do our best to support our local shops when I’m not on the road. On the road, I’m a Starbucks-a-holic all the way. Go ahead. Bash me for supporting big business ... but when you’re going from city to city without any real idea what the best options are, you can’t gamble on having a bad cup of coffee. Trust me, I do my fair share of going “local” in my actual hometown ... so ease up.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Kansas City. I seriously love where I live. I didn’t always ... it probably took me about 3 years to start to realize that I could actually be a part of helping KC grow. It’s big enough that there’s stuff to do, things to see, and places to go, but it’s small enough that it’s still sort of intimate. It’s definitely a Midwest type town. There’s a lot of talent here, and I’ve been working hard to become a bigger part of the scene and help build a better community so that we can put KC on the map as far as music goes. 

I’m also extremely lucky to travel for a living ... so I get my fair share of sight seeing in.   

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Oh man, this is tough. I honestly want to say that I appreciate what he’s doing. That he’s trying. People say stuff to him all day every day so I’m not sure me saying something to him about the major issues is going to make a difference. I know we need better health care, and that the country is dealing with some serious issues, but so does he. It takes more than just him to make a change, and I think people forget that. 
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

We’re getting ready to release the new album Death of a Decade on April 5th via Bloodshot Records ... so I’m prepping for tour again. Pulling the flannels back out. Getting super excited about people hearing the album and us jumping on the road to play the tunes live. We’re going to get to do some amazing stuff this year as far as festivals and things go, and we’ll be touring with some incredible bands. We’ve got an episode of No Reservations that we filmed in the Ozarks that airs in April as well. The 11th, I think. All very cool and very exciting stuff. I think this year is going to be a blast for us. 

I also just started a little record label in Kansas City called Sharp County Records. I’ve sort of modeled the idea after more community based organizations than your typical “label”. The label part is secondary to the act of building up the scene in our city. We of course are releasing music, but at this stage we’re getting our feet wet with all of that, and are developing plans to create more opportunities for networking and music business education in the area. We have an industry-based podcast that you can hear online, and we’re working on setting up industry panels in the city, etc. etc. You can check it out at sharpcountyrecords.com, and check the band out at hahatonkamusic.com. 

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