interview: brian roberts of ha ha tonka

ha ha tonka @ local 506

Tomorrow Ha Ha Tonka drops Lessons, their spectacular 4th LP follow-up to three previous spectacular LPs (there’ll be a review tomorrow morning!), and I’ve got some answers from Brian Roberts, guitarist and lead singer, on a variety of subjects — Maurice Sendak, making art, Brett’s mandolin, and the Pirates’ resurgence. Read more below, and thanks to Brian for answering and Damien from Girlie Action for setting this up.

There was a distinct line between Novel Sounds and Death of a Decade, a kind of sense that the latter grew organically out of the former, as you guys toured and aged and changed outlooks. How does Lessons grow from Decade? How is it different? Were there changes in your process of writing and recording?

Hopefully it sounds like we’re improving.  It’s always been a goal of ours, to continually make our next album better than the last.  With ‘Lessons,’ we really wanted to create our biggest sounding effort to date.  In the past, we’d been hesitant of doing things in the studio that we might not be able to recreate in a live setting.  This time around, we said to hell with it, and just did whatever sounded right for the song at the time.  Plus, we had some very talented people helping out.  Both of the producers for this album, Dan Molad & The Ryantist, are insanely gifted and ambitious sonic adventurers.  They really pushed us to reach beyond ourselves.

I am really sad about the lack of an alliterative title. That’s just a statement, but I thought you should know.

Yeah, we hated to break the streak.  We just felt that the title ‘Lessons’ encompassed the material on the album better than the other title we were considering–which, for the record, was alliterative.  It’s actually one of the song titles…hint – it’s not Pied Pipers.

You’ve said that this record is influenced by the work of Maurice Sendak. Can you elaborate? Is his work something that’s meaningful to you in a long term way?

Yes!  The genesis for this album actually stems from an NPR Fresh Air interview I listened to last year with Terry Gross & Maurice Sendak.  Here’s a link.

If you haven’t listened to this interview, I couldn’t recommend anything more.

After hearing it, I became terribly inspired.  Sendak’s thoughts on the creative process and being an artist really resonated with me.  I found his brutal honesty to be enviable.  The things he discusses throughout the interview are hard truths uttered in the softest of ways.  The “fragility, irrationality…the comedy of life….when it’s gone, it’s gone forever”….we wanted to try and capture those messages with these songs.  The phrase “live your life” could be considered cliche, but it seems so authentic when Sendak says it.  It’s the truth….the hard, soft truth. His ability to find the true beauty in life while facing both death and loss is endlessly inspiring.  It’s so evident that he loved life and truly grasped it’s immediacy.

One of the stand-out musical pieces of Ha Ha Tonka is the way that you’ve always used Brett’s mandolin both melodically and percussively, sometimes in the same song. It’s certainly present vibrantly on “Colorful Kids”. How central to your composition and orchestration is that sound? Is it something that you pursue consciously, or just something that happens because of the writing process?

Brett is one of those rare individuals that can pick up any instrument and play it.  Plus, he also happens to be a walking melody…they just flow out of him constantly and it’s almost always something cool and inspiring.  He’s the most gifted melodist I’ve ever been around and we’re lucky to have him on our side.

Tell me one thing about the new album that resonates for you; something we should know when we’re listening to it.

It’s the most personal record we’ve ever made.

What are you the most excited about regarding being on the road for most of the fall? What’s the worst part of a long tour?

Playing all the new songs live!  It’s always exhilarating to see how different songs resonant with different audiences for the first time.  The worst part about being on a long tour is that it, of course, means being away from loved ones back home, which is always difficult.

The Pirates may beat out your Cardinals to win the NL Central, and have secured their first winning season in nearly two decades. What’s up with that?

Well, you might want to check the standings because the Cards are still a game up in the Central and I’ve got a good feeling that we’ll close out both the Pirates and Reds to clinch the division.  With that being said, it’s good to see the Bucs being competitive again!

[Ed. note: when I sent Brian these questions, the Pirates were still tied for first. Timing and September losses are everything, says the Orioles fan who fell asleep in the 13th on Friday night during the Tampa game.]

You have a time machine and can use it to go back and see one show — one you missed (you weren’t alive, you just didn’t), one you want to relive. What show is it? 

I would like to go back and experience Lisztomania firsthand.

Thanks for your time!

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