Ha Ha Tonka is a rock band from Missouri with a sound influenced by life in the Ozarks. We recently had guitarist and vocalist Brian Roberts on the phone for an interview, because we wanted to find out his thoughts on Bloodshot Records, the value of buying music, and getting through a personal run-in with cancer and the American healthcare system.
Here’s a transcript of our interview, along with the Soundcloud link below for your listening pleasure.
Who: Brian Roberts; interviewed by Kayla Liederbach
When: Thursday July 16th, 2015
How: via phone
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
K: So Brian, how do you like being part of Bloodshot Records and that family over there?
B: Well I’m glad you used the word family. That’s basically what it is. I mean really we’ve been with Bloodshot since we started doing this professionally, since 2007. So yeah, we love all those guys. They’re the smartest people in the industry and just a great label to be a part of. We’ve been really fortunate to grow our band with them as our main supporters.
K: Are there any other bands on their client list that you’re following pretty closely?
B: Yeah, the Banditos are really having a great year. They’ve had such great acts in the past, like you know some of our favorite records, and I think can speak collectively for the band too. Ryan Adams‘ Heartbreaker came out on Bloodshot, and I wore that album out listening to it so many times. Justin Townes Earle was on the label recently and put out a couple great records. Of course the Old 97’s earlier on. They’ve had so many good acts, I could just talk about them all day. Bobby Bare, Jr. There’s some phenomenal acts on Bloodshot.
K: Cool. Well you’re in good company. You know the music business is an interesting thing, it’s always changing. I was wondering what your thoughts are on some of the recent trends in the music business, including the infinite access to music that people have.
B: Well you know I don’t…obviously it would be great if people still bought records the way they did in the 90’s or anytime prior to that. I don’t hold out any hope that that will come back. So I am thankful that we are a touring band, and the touring side of things hasn’t changed. We generate most of our income from the touring side of what we do. When it comes to the debate over streaming services or digital downloads, or any of the Napster or post-Napster stuff that’s gone on, really that’s just technology. And I don’t know if the music industry was ready for the onslaught like some of the other digital industries were, whether that be gaming or movies or the film industry. I don’t know. I don’t really know how to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole. I love that people can go online and check out a band—check out our band—and not have to pay for it right away. But the problem I think comes into the fact that people then never pay for your music. Or rarely do. Or there’s probably a whole generation that doesn’t think that music costs anything. And I think Bloodshot’s tried to educate people, Nan Warshaw has spoke on it several times about how not buying a record from a band like the Banditos or the 97’s 25 years or 20 years ago would have meant they got less money for next time they want to make a record. Less tour support. They get less of everything.
K: Yeah I agree with some of the things you pointed out, especially I believe that maybe the next generation of music consumers doesn’t even expect to pay for music.
B: Right, what does that mean?
K: And obviously that’s not everyone, but it just seems like that’s kind of the trend. But like you said, it’s technology, and technology’s gonna change, so it’s interesting to see how bands adapt. I see that your band is pressing a live album, Live in St. Louis, on vinyl. Are you a vinyl enthusiast yourself?
B: Yes, we all love vinyl. That is one area of the industry where it’s kind of had a comeback. And maybe that’s where the “value portion” of purchasing an actual product comes into play. If you enjoy the experience of listening to an album on vinyl, which it is a better experience, you know, you’re getting something. I mean I’ve had that experience where you buy a record and you treasure it. You can have your records on display in your living room. Whereas when you buy a CD, I don’t know if I’ve ever treasured a CD. It’s just something that lays in the floorboard of your car, to protect the disc inside of it, and then you pop it in the CD player. So I think the fact that vinyl’s making a comeback kind of…doesn’t even it out obviously, because the numbers are skewed the other way, but it is making a comeback. And we’ve noticed that on the road people buy vinyl. People love that they can get the digital download card with it. So yeah, I’m a proponent of vinyl. Big fan.
K: And you can get it autographed!
B: And you can get it autographed, and it’s got the real artwork, and it’s got all the lyrics in it, you know that’s the value—you’re getting something that you value.
K: I’m with ya there. I like the Live in St. Louis concept, and you guys are from Missouri. So I was wondering how living there has influenced your sound as a band.
B: Well we’re from this area called the Ozarks, which is the southernmost part of Missouri, and I think that it just permeates our music completely in that it’s where we’re from, and where we grew up. We sing about people and places and things we know about from that area. And I think we at our heart have always wanted to be a rock band, but it definitely goes through this filter of the Ozarks.
K: What’s the Ozark filter like, more Americana?
B: It’s pretty dirty. I mean, it’s a dirty, whiskey-soaked, moonshine-laden filter.
K: I feel that. That’s awesome. Yeah you know the whiskey filter, it’s the midwest, we’ve got a lot of—maybe it’s the weather, I feel like we’ve got the blues here, and we’ve got some soul. I don’t know.
B: Well Madison, Wisconsin definitely has worse winters than southern Missouri. You guys have more to cry about.
K: True, absolutely, we’re pretty tough here. Well I was reading into the history of your band a bit, and something inspiring that I learned about you Brian is that you’re a cancer survivor. So I was wondering if you have any advice for people who are living with cancer right now based on your experience with it.
B: Well I kinda feel like a charlatan whenever the word “survivor” gets thrown around, because yes I did have cancer when I was in my early twenties, but I didn’t have to go through chemo or any of the terrible terrible things that real survivors have to go through. I just had a tumor removed, and was out of the hospital within a day, and then just had to have a checkup.
B: I don’t really feel like I can give advice to somebody who is battling it and having to go through all of the awful things that can come with the disease, other than just staying positive. Have a laugh and a drink with friends and family.
K: Absolutely. Your thoughts are so important to your health. And actually that’s really good to hear that you didn’t have these intense dealings with cancer, that you caught it early—I think that’s what everyone would hope to do if they experience that. Did you have any feedback about your experience with the American medical industry? I know that some people have their issues dealing with all those things.
B: Yeah, well you know, I’m gonna age myself a little bit, but this was like early 2000s, so I was still in college, and still on my parents’ health insurance, which was great. But then I did have an issue with the American healthcare system after I graduated college, and became a professional musician. And the band is our own business, so technically we were self-employed. Well since I was a cancer survivor, or had had cancer, it’s a pre-existing condition. So before Obamacare became law, I could not buy insurance. So if I want to give a cancer survivor story, it’s to tell the effect that Obamacare had at least on me, and that whenever they instituted the law, I could go out and buy a policy without being filtered through the pre-existing conditions. So that was amazing, and I’ve had insurance ever since Obamacare became law.
K: Wow, that’s amazing. It’s crazy how technicalities and kind of stupid things like that can prevent someone from getting the healthcare they need. So I’m happy to hear the recent developments have worked out in your favor. I’m happy to hear that your band is touring and everything like that, that you guys are having a good time. And you’re coming to Madison on August 8th, you mentioned this is your second time playing at Memorial Union Terrace. So what do you think of the beer and cheese and all the Wisconsin amenities that we have to offer?
S: This is gonna sound like I’m trying to play the crowd here, but I really love Wisconsin. Especially Madison. And I know maybe we’re just tourists when we’re coming through, but we do always stop at the first gas station and buy cheese curds, and the beer is amazing—especially I love the Germanic flavor, I think there’s even a Rathskeller there at the University that’s adjacent to the place we’re playing. I remember being very impressed by that. I lived in Germany for a year, so I developed a good taste for German beer, and I think Wisconsin is great on that tradition.
K: And yours is a free show which is fun, that’s one thing I love about Memorial Union Terrace. It’s free, but then you pay for beer, so it all evens out! So yeah, I look forward to seeing you guys here in Madison—any other upcoming plans for your band? Any new recordings in the works?
S: Yeah, we’re working on our next record, demo-ing, writing songs, and then hopefully we’ll have something coming out early in 2016.
K: Awesome, well that’s good to hear. Thanks so much for talking to me today, Brian, and good luck with everything you have coming up!
S: Alright, thanks a lot!
Albums by Ha Ha Tonka
File: mp3 version
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Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.