Brian Roberts, Ha Ha Tonka

This is not an album review site, since I do that for the Washington Post.  I try to maintain some sense of objectivity when I write these short pieces before my interviews.  But for this, my second interview with Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka, I am suspending that practice to say that Ha Ha Tonka is one of the best bands making music now.  Their new album,Death of a Decade (Bloodshot Records), only futher reinforces my opinion.  It's beautiful, it's soulful, it's energetic.  And the four-part harmonies from these guys from the Ozark mountain region are mesmerizing. Predictably, the reviews for Death of a Decade are overwhelmingly positive.   Their music has been described as indie, roots, alt-country, bluegrass, southern rock, among other label.  It's hard to pin down, but that's probably why they are so good: it's got all those influences.

So read my new interview with Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka after the video. You'll learn about how baseball, Kenny Loggins, and his parents all played a role in shaping Death of a Decade. Oh, and I should point out that the band is offering a really cool "Writing Process" package of Death of a Decade that Roberts told me was actually influenced by this site; it's got early demos of the songs, notes from the studio, and handwritten lyrics.  If you're interested in the songwriting process, the handwritten studio notes provide a unique look at how the songs on the album emerged and the choices Roberts and the band made to get to the final product.

I couldn't help but notice that one of the Death of a Decade pre-order packages was called Writer's Process.  I'm flattered!  What did you learn from going back and looking at all of your studio notes and lyric sheets?

When I look back on the writing process of Death of a Decade, it's the most refined and organized that we've even been. I'm not terribly organized to begin with, and the first two records were a bit more chaotic.  But there was more structure with this process.  Looking over the studio notes, some of the things I was obviously worried about were pretty comical. What was really concerning me in the recording process probably didn't matter that much.

When you say that the process was more structured this time around, what do you mean?

We all have Macbooks now, and I have an iPhone.  So to go about demoing a song is much easier than when we just had a four track tape recorder.  Whenever I have an idea now, I sing it into my iPhone, upload it to my Macbook, and there's the idea for the song.  I keep those compiled, so when I'm back home in Santa Barbara, I'll make 60 to 90 second demos on the Macbook, with just an acoustic guitar and my voice, then email them to the other guys in the band.  Then, when we come together to rehearse new material, we're much farther along and have a much better head start than we used to.

You haven't given up on the grail diary, have you?

Oh no!  I still have the grail diary.  That's for the lyrics and lists. I am a psychotic list maker, as you know from our last interview.  I'm always making lists.  I still fill that thing up.  If I lost the grail diary, I would be very upset.

The last time we talked, it was June 2010 and you weren't really working under any deadline pressure.  You said that you work much better under deadlines, so did that make the writing process easier for Death of a Decade?

Yes.  We had some hard deadlines.  Our first studio session was in July, then we worked on those with our co-producer from Kansas City.  At the end of September was our last recording session, so between then it was a pretty serious pace.  It felt highly energized.

Would you call yourself a disciplined writer overall?

Overall, I'm an undisciplined writer, but it can also be said that I'm prepared to be undisciplined.  I'm always trying to have ideas available, even if they are terrible.  So when you are really pressed for ideas, it's nice to have all of them ready, even if they aren't that good.  I can still take parts of them.  And those bad ideas can be good for stimulating good ideas.  I like to hear stories about people who work like that.  Brian Eno has a deck of cards called the Oblique Strategy Cards, and it's just random stuff he created.  When he gets writer's block, he pulls out a card with a completely random idea that, taken out of context, might be a non-sequitur.

You have to be prepared to write shitty things, because even they will make you a better writer.

Exactly.  Ninety-nine percent of everything I've written is so embarrassingly bad, but knowing that you'll write bad stuff and being ok with it will help you plow through the writing process.

What was the easiest song and the hardest song to write on this album?

Well, I do want to stress that our songwriting is a collaborative process and that we all work on this together.  There are four strong opinions.  For me, the easiest melody was "Hide it Well."  It just happened.  I came up with the lyrical line, and I was sitting around with Brett and within thirty minutes, it all happened. But that's really rare.

The hardest one was "Problem Solver."  It was hard because we have never done something that radio friendly.  Whenever we were working on it, we'd sit around and wonder, "Man, is this turning into a Kenny Loggins song? It could possibly be a Kenny Loggins song."

But let's be clear.  The old Loggins and Messina is awesome stuff.

Definitely.  The 70s and very early 80s Kenny Loggins stuff was gold! It doesn't get any better than that. But we were struggling to make it our sound.  We wanted this album to be more accessible and hit a wider audience.  We wanted our sound to be bigger and better, and with that song in particular, we knew we had to be careful that we didn't fall off the Kenny Loggins precipice.

A novelist once told me that you have to make sure you finish the hardest part of whatever it is you are writing, because that hardest part will be the best part.  Is that true? Or do you think that if something is a real struggle, it's best to set aside since it probably won't be that good?

We tend to abandon ideas so quickly in this band, and I think it helps us in the long run because it produces stronger material.  There's an amazing honesty in our group. If someone were a fly on the wall in our rehearsal, they'd be shocked.  I mean, we don't insult each other, but we are very direct.  We tell each other if something isn't working.  When it comes to handling the harder moments, we didn't really worry since we had so much material.  Even with "Problem Solver" or some of the other tunes that were harder to nail down, there was always the sense that we had a strong body of work to be excited about.  That took a little bit of the pressure.

Many songwriters have told me how much motion plays a role in their creative process. You're in the van now, so does motion improve your creativity?

Absolutely.  I love to drive and think.  I keep my little notebook next to me all the time. You're not doing anything, so there's little mental requirement.  But there's a constantly changing stimulus in the scenery around you, and there's also just a magical element about it.  You're moving but sitting still.

What have you learned about your own writing process from your bandmates?

They build me up, because most of the time I think my ideas are so terrible that they don't deserve to see the light of day. If anything, while we are direct and honest, we make sure to be encouraging when there are good ideas.

What's your preferred emotional space to write from?

Maybe at the end of the tour, when I go through my notebook and find a page or two of song ideas.  I'll match it up with the melodies on my Macbook.  It's more like the end of the beginning of the process. I try not to write too much on tour;  instead, I use it as a time to refill the creative tank.  The tour is a time to write down all those ideas.

Are there any places you like to go or things you like to do so that you get inspired?

This sounds a bit crazy, but I get a lot of inspiration from baseball parks.  I love the history of an old ballpark, and I think the game is beautiful to watch.  I try to hit as many ballparks as possible when we are on tour.  The elements of baseball are such that you're in a big crowd, so there's a communal feeling, yet it's a solitary game.  The lines are so clean, and there's so much tradition and structure. Baseball is like a modern day version of the play I am trying to write with songs: taking the historical and putting a modern spin on it.  Like taking an old folk legend and putting a modern twist on it and a more modern appeal. That's baseball in a nutshell.  Except for the blasphemy of the DH rule!

What's the easiest part and the hardest part of the writing process for you?

I always have a lot of ideas, but I think I need to get better at taking those ideas and melodies to the nth degree.  That's where the other members of the band come in. Brett is so good at making slight alterations to a melody so that it demands a repeat listen.  He'll change it ever so slightly so that you aren't listening to the same thing throughout the song. That's a real gift in songwriting.

Where do titles come in your creative process?

On the last album, "Walking on the Devil's Backbone" was a title I always wanted to use.  It's a trail near where my grandparents used to live, called the Devil's Backbone.  My grandfather used to always say, "Hey, let's go walk on the Devil's Backbone." I always wanted to build a song around it.  

But on this record I took my dad's practice of taking whatever the most repeated phrase was in a song.  I'd play him the demos, and whatever he called it became the song title.  If my dad said the catch phrase, that was the title of the song.

As an enormous Mark Twain fan, you must have loved writing the song about him on the new album "The Humorist."

I loved writing it, but at the same time it was a lot of pressure because I didn't want to mess it up. That was a song that my mother loved.  She's a hugh Twain aficionado, and when I played it for her she told me I nailed it.

On Death of a Decade, were there parts of the process that differed or matured from the process of the first two albums?

We certainly had more time with this one.  And working with two producers, Kevin McMahon at the Barn in New Paltz, New York and  The Ryantist in Kansas City made for an interesting dynamic.  Having another strong opinion to tell us not to run away from certain ideas was a huge help. 

How important is it for you to start and finish a song in the same emotional moment?

It is much better to have distance.  It makes for a more honest and polished take on whatever it is you are writing about.

And since you read so much, I have to ask what you've been reading lately.

Speaking of Twain, I just reread A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  I've also been reading a lot of time travel novels, like The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke. And I recently finished a fantastic book about Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card called Pastswatch.