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Interview with Ha Ha Tonka’s Lennon Bone

Missouri’s Southern Rock revivalists Ha Ha Tonka’s first release on Bloodshot Records, 2007’s Buckle In The Bible Belt, gave one the distinct feeling that the group is more than simply a Southern rock flavored band with an unusual name. This year’s Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are in fact far more then just another rock band named after a state park. Come to think of it, how many bands are there named after state parks?

Much has been made of the perfection and greatness of Kings Of Leon; they are said to be a return to rock in its truest, dirtiest form. A “buzz band” worthy of the hype thrust upon them. That’s all well and good but please, allows me to say this: forget Kings Of Leon…. Ha Ha Tonka is 2009’s version of The Band and I talked to their Levon Helm, one Lennon Bone.

I talked with Bone, Ha Ha Tonka drummer and vocalist, shortly after they finished unloading equipment for a show in Philadelphia. Apparently, they aren’t superstars enough to have cronies do the heavy lifting for them but within another year or so the whole rock universe will know the name Ha Ha Tonka, then Lennon will never have to lift a floor tom again.

The greatness of Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South is a moving slice of imagination and a refreshing take on Americana, a genre that can easily grow repetitive and tired. But the songs contained within Novel... are powerful enough to blow away mediocrity and make this Missouri boy proud to hail from the same Heartland soil as Ha Ha Tonka.

Hybrid Magazine:So Lennon, how long has Tonka been together?

Lennon Bone: We’ve been together five years this coming November.

HM: Five years and two really great albums.

LB: Well, thank you very much. That means a lot.

HM: I know how I would answer this but what is the best part about being from the Midwest?

LB: The best part about being from the Midwest? Man… well, after touring and stuff I think part of it is it’s more simplistic, we (the band members) all come from great families, everybody seems to be very down to earth. You know, in general there are just a lot of good people in the Midwest.

HM: Ok, let’s get down to it. There’s a lot of different musical styles on Novel. Like the song “Put My Feet To The Fire” sounds like Graceland-era Paul Simon

LB: You know, we’ve actually been hearing that a lot as a matter of fact.

HM: What music influenced you when you were growing up?

LB: Well as an individual, I always listened to stuff like that, like Graceland. Very rhythmic; I liked a lot of the Motown stuff, groovier, funkier types of things. Then as a band, we listen to a lot of different stuff, be it the Old 97s, Kings Of Leon, Coldplay. We really try to stay current as far as the new up and coming music that is coming out and you know, we like to think about what bands we would like to tour with. There’s a ton of different influences. Everybody like different things from Pixies to Starship. It’s all over the board.

HM: I was listening to 96.5 The Buzz (Kansas City’s “Alternative Rock” station) the other day when the Morning Show was interviewing you. Let me know if I heard this right but did you say you played with Thom Yorke, lead man for Radiohead?

LB: (laughs) Oh no we didn’t. I made that up….

HM: Well, the morning show people sounded like they were totally buying it and I was thinking “ Is this guy just jerking them around?”

LB: We were just playing around but oh man, it would be enormous if he wanted to play with us but I’m sure Radiohead doesn’t have the slightest clue who the hell we even are.

HM: Well, I know for a fact you’ve played at least one Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park. What’s it like playing a gig like that?

LB: Lollapalooza was probably the biggest highlight, as far as shows go, that we’ve ever had. If for nothing else, the status behind the event is enormous, so it feels… well, it makes you realize that you are much bigger than what you’re actually doing as far as the musical community that you have around you in the industry. As far as the crowd, a crowd is a crowd… you get to play in front of a lot of people and it’s obviously awesome but it’s about having a good time and feeding off their energy. We’ve had great times in front of 20 people and great times in front of a crowd like that. You should definitely go. It is an amazing experience; you have to be organized and decide who you want to see but once you get that figured out, it’s really cool.

HM: How is Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South different than Buckle In the Bible Belt?

LB: Ummm….. I really don’t know. We seem to be getting really mixed signals on how it is different. I feel like its more focused than Buckle, I think. I think we were able to spend a lot more time with it. With touring a lot behind Buckle, we learned a lot about each other and how to communicate so the writing process become more of an open forum and things just got cooler. We got to take the material in and demo it with a producer and hear his input on certain things. Overall though, I think there’s a lot of similarities but I think maybe it’s a bit of a fuller sound. We were able to put more time into it.

HM: Is the songwriting in Ha Ha Tonka more a collaborative effort or is it basically one guy bringing ideas in?

LB: yeah, it’s a very collaborative effort; usually, everything starts with a musical idea so that may be somebody coming in with just a few cords or a groove pattern and things get worked out until we feel like its where it needs to be. Yeah, its just whatever comes up that sorta sounds cool then we try to elaborate on it with everybody’s ideas. That’s what works for us. Brian (Roberts) does most of the lyrical work, well, Brett (Anderson) as well but you know, if you get too many cooks in the kitchen it can get kinda hectic musically.

HM: Speaking of lyrics, there a quite a few references to historical figures like The Pendergast Machine and General Sherman. Are there some history nuts in the your midst?

LB: yeah. I mean we’re all fascinated by the history of the South in general. Brian (Roberts) really took a lot of time to work those ideas into the lyrical content. I think it makes for very interesting stories.

HM: How did you get the attention of Bloodshot Records?

LB: Actually through a friend of ours that’s in a band named Treaty Of Paris. His name is Phil Kosch. He somehow had a connection with them and they were able to set up a showcase, wait… I think we sent them a demo actually. Apparently they seldom respond but in this case they did. We did a couple showcases for them and wound up signing with them after they saw us a few times. I don’t know how it all fits together but we definitely thank Phil for it, he’s absolutely responsible for making it happen.

HM: What’s the hopes for this record? Do you want to dominate the world?

LB: (laughs) No, well I mean our overall outlook is that obviously we’re going to tour hard on it and push it as much as we can. Really, we’re trying to take the slow and steady, not TOO slow, approach to building a sustainable career. It would be nice to be huge but I don’t think that’s ever anybody’s first thought. We just want to make a career out of it and have a good time and try to be creative in what we do.

HM: How does Missouri effect your music?

LB: Mostly because it's where we all grew up. All of us spent time in the church when we were kids and I think we learned a lot about harmony through singing in church and as we grew older we developed a interest in the roots of that style of country music. I think that really influences us be we try not to overkill it, ya know what I mean?

HM:How the tour so far and what’s the response been to the new record?

LB: Tour is going good; we had a show in Chicago and we were lucky enough to have it be our first sold out show which was great. We just met up with Via Audio to do some shows. It seems like we’re making progress which is both exciting and encouraging. As for the record, the reviews have been very kind and we’re ecstatic about what people seem to be saying, so it’s good. We’ve sorta been sitting on our hands waiting for all of this to happen; we’ve had a few friends that have heard it but overall, we didn’t have much feedback so it was becoming a bit nerve-racking wondering what people might think of the record. We’ll wait and see with audiences think.

Bone and his compatriots need not fear the quality or validity of Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South. The record is a superb slice of American music; it soars with the power of old-timey gospel greatness and has a dark intensity around it like Sherman must have had as he burned Atlanta to the ground. I can’t wait for them to return to the Show-Me State. When they do I’ll be in the audience. You should too…. Their Novel Sounds await.

-Danny R. Phillip

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