In anticipation of their upcoming gig in Santa Cruz, I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Roberts, the multi-talented musician who takes on the roles of writer, guitarist, and lead singer for the band. We delved into his thoughts and insights, getting an exclusive glimpse into his creative process and what lies ahead for the group.
VIBES: I think Santa Cruz needs the low down on the band’s name and how you guys got together.
ROBERTS: We all grew up in the same small town playing in various bands together throughout high school. We officially came together as Ha Ha Tonka in 2004, basically inspired by the beauty and ruggedness of Ha Ha Tonka State Park, which holds a special place in our hearts.
VIBES: Your vocal harmonies are crazy good. It feels like an additional instrument in the band. How does that evolve?
ROBERTS: We grew up with that in the Ozarks, just singing in church and choirs. As far as the harmonies, we’re all pretty big personalities. Everybody likes to talk, we love to sing and honestly it just came naturally. It comes from a place where we might as well make as much noise as we can and when four people are singing, it is just louder than one (laughs).
VIBES: I read somewhere that you have a fairly unique story regarding your first recording contract.
ROBERTS: Man, that is a real life magical rock and roll story. A good buddy of ours, Phil Kosch, was in a band that was kinda on the up and up. He was also a promoter who brought us to open for his band at the Metro in Chicago. The Metro is this historic venue, seats about 1100 and it was our biggest show ever. Huge opportunity. Phil also knew that we should be a Bloodshot Records band and he goes way above and beyond and gets the two owners of Bloodshot to come out and watch us open for his band. He did that just for us. He didn’t think his band could be on Bloodshot because they were a pop rock band. They loved it! Took us out to a bar next door after the show called The Gingerbread Man. I’ll never forget it. The night ended with our bass player arm wrestling the owner of Bloodshot for a record deal… he won, and the rest is history (laughs).
VIBES: Your music is, in the very best way, all over the place. Love songs, anthems, rock, a little folk and some indie influences. What is the process?
ROBERTS : In the end it’s just not something we force. It’s a mix of personal experiences, storytelling, and what’s going on in the world. We are just trying to connect and hope it resonates. It can start with a lyric or a chord progression. We never chose to sound a certain way. It was just like one of us would have said, ‘Oh, I’m into the new REM or Radiohead album.’ But at the same time we are listening to and being influenced by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and it all just goes into the blender and it comes out with what is now our sound.
VIBES: Ha Ha Tonka’s live performances are known for their energy and connection with the audience. I became a fan watching you guys kill it at the Fillmore in SF opening for the Old 97’s. What is the secret to the energy at your live shows?
ROBERTS: Our main goal is to convey to the audience that we are having a great time, which isn’t hard because we are (laughs). It is such a joy to play music and we are at an age now where that is combined with feeling blessed that we are still able to do this. We all know full well what it is like to commit to going to a live show; you have to get the babysitter, you’re probably going out for dinner, pay for the tickets, pay for parking. It is a huge ask to get people to come out for shows, so when they do we want them to cut loose and have a good time which means we are going to have a good time on stage.
VIBES: How has your music evolved over the years?
ROBERTS: Let me say it this way … most of our favorite albums are the ones that take chances. For us it comes down to creating music that excites us. As we progress, so does our music. That is the evolution. You can actually feel it when it is happening in the studio. Everyone kinda gets that look and that energy kicks in and it’s like, ‘This is going somewhere cool, let’s push it,’ and if we’re having fun making the music it will be fun to play it live for an audience.
VIBES: Excited to get back to Santa Cruz?
ROBERTS: We love California, man. Played tons of gigs here. We had a great time last year at Moe’s Alley. Such a cool club. The vibe and people were amazing. And, to be honest, it just turned out to be just a great Friday night for us.
VIBES: What can we expect from Ha Ha Tonka in the future?
ROBERTS: Well there’s a new album coming out, “Blood Red Moon,” and we will be playing a bunch of songs at Moe’s Alley. We are excited to tour and support this because it is the first album we completely self produced, which was an amazing experience. We produced the whole thing all on our own during the pandemic in our basements and home studios. We did record some of the big room sounds at Elemental Recordings in Kansas City, which is an incredible space. This is our record – start to finish – and it is a great moment for us. Sadly, Bloodshot Records went under during the pandemic so we are self releasing the album.
VIBES: Is it nerve racking self releasing an album for the first time?
ROBERTS : No. It is actually just an exciting time with how people are consuming music. They are buying vinyl again and just streaming the albums. This will be the first album in 20 years that will not come out on CD. Times have changed. I’m sitting in a car with no CD player.
VIBES: Why should the hard-working locals in Santa Cruz drop a cool $20 to come see Ha Ha Tonka at Moe’s on September 2nd?
ROBERTS: Take a chance. If you haven’t listened to our band live, come see it live. You know what? We’re guaranteeing a good time if you come out to the show. How’s that!