Ha Ha Tonka stayed true to its Ozarks roots on its third album, “Death of a Decade,” recording the record in a 200-year-old barn.
“We did our first record in an old church and our second record in an old building in downtown St. Louis,” lead singer and guitarist Brian Roberts said. “We like to record in different places, because it gives a different vibe to the music and you get different sounds from different rooms. Some friends of ours recorded at this studio and they were just raving about it. It was something we wanted to try out, and luckily it was a great experience.”
The barn has been converted into a recording studio, but it still offered unique sounds and situations.
“There are no sound isolation booths in this barn,” Roberts said. “When you’re doing an acoustic guitar track, you’re just sitting at the kitchen table with a couple microphones set up all around in a huge 40-foot room. People are making sandwiches around you.”
The title “Death of a Decade” isn’t a reference to the end of any specific decade.
“It can mean a few different things,” Roberts said. “We discovered we always end up with an alliterative album title. We like to keep that going. The title song is about how every decade, there’s always a pop icon or political figure or someone meets an untimely end. It was JFK in the 60s, Elvis in the 70s, John Lennon in the 80s and Kurt Cobain in the 90s.”
Roberts said he is fascinated by the way the public reacts to these types of deaths.
“We kind of project ourselves onto these figures for better or worse,” he said. “When they die young, it seems to take them to another level in our collective opinions. We tried to explore that theme.”
The new album has received positive critical reception from publications such as Huffington Post and Spin. The Washington Post compared Ha Ha Tonka favorably to Mumford & Sons, saying it “tears at the heart of American roots music with every chord like Mumford only pretends to.”
“I like them as a band,” Roberts said. “With the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and Wilco, the fact that their records and songs can be on major FM stations is great. The fact that we get compared to bands like that is not bothering me one bit.”
One advantage Ha Ha Tonka has over Mumford and Sons is the band’s use of four-part harmonies.
“It’s time consuming sometimes, because it’s not easy to do,” Roberts said. “It’s something we enjoy, because it raises our energy level on stage and that is reciprocated by the audience. It’s something that we not only enjoy to do but it also helps the show.”
It’s no surprise they are able to harmonize so well considering Roberts has known drummer Lennon Bone and bassist Luke Long since grade school in Springfield, Mo. The band also includes Brett Anderson on keyboard and guitar. Roberts and Long attended Missouri State University together and formed the group Amsterband. They played local parties and bars and released two albums.
“Why does anybody want to start a band?” Roberts said. “We wanted to play parties and have a little bit of an adventure.”
Whether in Ha Ha Tonka or Amsterband, Roberts has always been heavily influenced by the Ozarks.
“It permeates every aspect of our band, our sound and who we are because that’s where we grew up,” Roberts said. “We can’t run away from that. We try to harness that and use it. The Ozarks are really underrated. Appalachia gets so much attention for its musical heritage, but the Ozarks can definitely hold its own.”
Ha Ha Tonka will bring its Ozarks sound to Toledo on Sept. 30 at Frankie’s Inner City along with Frank & Jesse and Jack & The Bear. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are available for $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Frankie’s is located at 308 Main St.
“This is our first time playing in Toledo,” Roberts said. “We’re just having a good time out here on the road. The tour has been wonderful.”