Whether it’s Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Henry David Thoreau, several literary greats have been honored with nods in Ha Ha Tonka’s twangy folk-rock music. On the Kansas City, Mo.-based band’s new LP, Lessons (Bloodshot), released in September, beloved children’s author Maurice Sendak is never mentioned by name, but a startlingly powerful interview he did with NPR’s Terry Gross in September 2011—eight months before his death—heavily influenced the record’s subject matter.
“I know it sounds like an NPR commercial, like the ‘driveway moment,’ but it really was like that,” says vocalist/guitarist Brian Roberts. “You could just not stop listening to it. And you want to cry, you want to laugh—it was just achingly beautiful. And so a lot of the themes that play out throughout the album are inspired by that interview.”
In the Fresh Air interview, the 83-year-old Sendak, in failing health, spoke frankly about his creative process, his personal relationships and mortality. “I have nothing now but praise for my life,” he said. “I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”
Turning 30 is a far cry from turning 80, but it’s nevertheless a time of taking assessment of one’s life, the future and the choices that landed you where you are now, an idea explored in-depth on Lessons. “We’re all now 30 or in our early 30s, and I think at that point, you recognize your personality traits, both positive and negative,” Roberts says. “Sometimes you can become frustrated with yourself and that you know you’re the cause of some problems in your life just because of the way you behave.”
The musical translation of such tension is created through multiple noisy, fractured layers of guitar and vocals and drummer Lennon Bone’s signature tight rhythms on the slow-building track “Lessons”—especially telling is how the lyrics “I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again” play throughout the song on an almost constant loop. Adulthood, with all its soul-crushing repetitiveness and normalcy, is the subject of “Colorful Kids,” an upbeat but wistful rocker—with Brett Anderson’s mandolin floating over all—that soberly bids farewell to youth with the lyrics “even the colorful kids eventually will fade into the black & white.”
Lessons shows a more fuller-bodied side of the usually minimal Ha Ha Tonka, especially in the stronger presence of strings; this go-around, the band set aside their habit of recording only material “that we could re-create live,” Roberts says. Instead, they would “jam on the song for maybe an hour to 90 minutes and probably have 20 takes, maybe more,” he says. “I think we really wanted to try and make [the songs] as big and layered as possible on the album.”
Comparing Ha Ha Tonka’s—whose namesake is a state park in the Ozark Mountains—previous album, 2011’s Death of a Decade, to Lessons reveals that the band’s sound is still rooted in woodsy Americana, but is setting out into unexplored territory, much like the four musicians themselves. Ha Ha Tonka’s Southern pride has always been a defining characteristic of their music, especially on early albums Buckle in the Bible Belt and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. Now that bassist Lucas Long lives in New York and Roberts has relocated to sunny Santa Barbara, Calif., their sound has inevitably shifted, though the relationship the band has with their home state hasn’t weakened.
“I do find that having some separation makes you even more proud, or you feel more attached to the area, having just left it, because you’re looking back on it fondly,” Roberts says.
HA HA TONKA
1199 Beck St.
Friday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m.
$10 in advance, $12 day of show