As far as songwriters go, Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka has it pretty good. He lives on the beach in southern California. When he wants to write, he heads to the water. And if the sand doesn’t inspire him, he turns around and heads up to the mountains, where he writes on a point overlooking the water. For Roberts and his three bandmates, the mountains are familiar territory: they are all from the Ozark Mountains, so it’s no wonder he finds them a good place to write. While the Ozarks may not be known for their indie band scene, Roberts is quick to point out that they were the home of his favorite author, Mark Twain.
On their website, the band describe themselves at “foot stompin’ indie rock,” though their stock response to those who ask about their sound is that they are “a cross between Brother, Where Art Thou and indie rock.” Three of them grew up together, and they met the fourth in college. I first saw Ha Ha Tonka at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, where they opened for Murder By Death. What struck me immediately was their four-part harmonies, not something you hear every day in the rock world. Make no mistake: this is a band with stunningly beautiful vocals. And that's no hyperbole.
Roberts and I recently talked on the phone, where he talked about his writing process and voracious appetite for books. A German major in college, he keeps current by reading German books on tour. He carries his “grail diary” everywhere so that he is always able to write an idea or a line. And he talks about how his high school AP English teacher, Mrs. Bowden, taught him everything he knows about writing.
Read my interview with Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka after the video.
What were your career aspirations in college?
I majored in German and international relations, and I worked for the State Department over in Leipzig, Germany. I guess I always envisioned that’s what I would be doing. I never envisioned myself doing this professionally, to be honest.
Did you do a lot of writing in college?
My mother is a fourth grade teacher, so as a kid I was reading at a young age. I was always very interested in writing and creating works, not necessarily songs or novels, but definitely short stories and the like. I still dabble in that, but I don’t think I’m good enough to put anything out.
Who are your literary inspirations?
Mark Twain, without a doubt. He is a fellow Missourian. I love everything by him. Even part of my interest in German stems from an essay he wrote called “The Awful German “Language,” which is just hilarious.
How about your favorite English class in college?
The best English class I took was actually my AP English class my senior year, taught by Mrs. Bowden. That completely prepared me for college writing.
What did she do?
Well, she was tough. We had to write, and we had to write a lot. She had a very unorthodox grading system, and she really pushed us.
How much time do you have to read for pleasure now?
I don’t read that much on the road. I’ll take three or four books on tour and then barely crack them. On the road there’s all this constant movement, and I can’t read in a vehicle because I’ll get sick. When you get to the venue, you check email, do a couple of business things online, soundcheck, then do the show. I do most of my reading at home.
I always try to keep a German book going to keep my language skills honed. Right now I am reading Am kuerzeren Ende der Sonnenallee by Thomas Brussig. I am also really into WWII stories now for some reason. And I always try to keep a Ken Follett book going. I love his work. I just read Night Over Water.
Take me through your writing process. do you have a regular routine?
I have no set routine, but I always have my brown journal—I call it my grail diary, from Indiana Jones—with me. I take it everywhere. If I have what I think to be a clever idea, I’ll jot it down immediately so that I don't lose it. These ideas accrue, and I always have these melodies that spring into my head. It’s like playing mix and match—matching up a line or a word or a phrase in my journal to a melody I also have.
So you wait until the inspiration strikes?
I do try to set aside time to write. My wife is working on her PhD at UCSB and is always reading and writing. There is always lots of quiet time in our house. We don’t even have a TV.
She probably has a much different routine than you have. She can’t wait for inspiration. She has to set aside time to write.
Yeah, and that probably inspires me. I’ll think, “I've got to be doing something productive, too. I just can’t sit around watching Cardinals highlights all afternoon on the computer. I’d better start working!”
Do you set goals as far how much you are going to write, once you start writing?
I really don’t. I work better with deadlines in the studio. Deadlines can sharpen your focus and make you get over that hump. However, right now we don’t have a deadline, so we are just rehearsing for a couple of weeks this month on new material, then we may be going into the studio in July. We are not going to turn in an album to our label until the end of the year, so right now I just feel we have all the time in the world and I can be as creative as possible. If something does strike me, I’ll work hours on end on the idea. I think I just try to react whenever I get inspired. That sounds so phony, doesn't it? Laughs.
Is it harder for you when you don’t have a deadline?
Yes and no. When it comes to writing songs for an album, we might write fifteen or twenty, but only ten are going to make the album. So once I reach a certain number of songs, I start to retrace my steps and review the stuff that we’ve written to make sure that we have ten great songs that match the mood on the record. It’s not like what I remember from college when I had to write a paper—I would procrastinate, but that three day span of crazed writing would sharpen my focus
Any quirky parts to your writing process? And what do you do when you get writer’s block?
I love having my grail diary and a blue pen, and I love making lists. When I get writer’s block, I’ll read. I’ll try to read something completely different so that I can open my mind.
I love historical work. I love fiction. Here’s an example. A while ago I was having trouble coming up with anything, so we went to Borders, where we spend lots of our time here in Goleta. This is going to sound silly, but I love dates and years, so if I saw 1888, for example, that would really interest me, and I would want to know what happened then. So I saw this book 1421 and bought it. It blew my mind. I had no idea that part of history happened. The Chinese actually discovered the New World and Columbus doesn’t mean anything anymore! So that opened a whole different part of my mind.
How does your physical environment affect your writing process?
Well, a lot of our songs relate to the Ozarks. It’s kind of a quirky place where we are from, northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Its very mountainous and rural and we mention a lot of place names like the Devil’s backbone, a trail back where my grandparents used to live. We try to tie in people, places and things from the Ozarks.
Along with that, how does the physical space you inhabit affect your process when you write?
I live in a pretty good writing environment now. I am spoiled. Whenever we get off tour, I’ll come home and my wife is working on her stuff and I’ll be working on my stuff. We live on the beach, so I’ll just hop on my bike and ride down to the water. The ocean has a certain effect on my mind, but if that’s not working and I want another effect, I’ll head up to the mountains behind us. There is a lookout point where the Native Americans made all these ancient paintings in a cave. That will put me in a different mood, but often it’s just having a quiet space and a pen and a good cup of coffee, though.
What are the inspirations for some of your songs?
We have this song called “Cure for the Common Cold” that is based off my experience when I had cancer in college. I was really lucky in the sense that it did not spread, and I was still covered under my parents’ health insurance. However, once I graduated and turned 25, I could no longer be covered under their plan. Now I am a self-employed musician, and who is going to cover a cancer survivor? There was is no way to get affordable coverage. The premiums start at around $1800 a month. So now I am in this waiting game to see what it will be like with the passage of the recent health care legislation.
How do you know when a song is done?
My part of the writing is just one quarter of the process. It then has to go through this thrasher that is Ha Ha Tonka in our rehearsal place. Often a melody will be sent from Brett if we are separated after a tour. I’ll be working on a lyric, and we’ll put them together. Then we’ll take that idea to the band at our rehearsal space in Kansas City and we’ll rip it apart, put it back together, maybe tie it to another song. And then at some point it’s either good enough or not good enough, but there comes a moment when we are like, “Ok, this is good. It’s changing the temperature of the room”. And it’s weird—you just know it.
But before you send it to those guys, when do you know that what you are going to send them is done?
I try not to be too hard on the initial idea because a lot of times I've just got a couple of verses and a part of a chorus. For example. I'll just be playing it on an acoustic guitar in the strict sense of the word “demo.” It can still become so many different things, so i usually don't sent it to them as a complete idea. Instead, it’s just part of an idea. All of our emails and demos are just that: “Here’s an idea. What do you think of this?” Then we’ll just kick it around.
What’s your revision process like?
For me it’s all about the cadence. I want the lyric to have its own rhythm, so usually it gets to a point where the right line just sticks out—I like the way the words sound and the meaning they express. A lot of times when we are demoing songs I'll just leave the verse blank that I am still not certain about on the demo, so that whenever I am listening back on my own time there wont be any lyric there at all. This way, I can continually work on that verse and fill it in later. i guess that's a way I revise a song so that I don’t get to a point where I say I am done with a verse. Instead, I’ll just leave it blank until I really do have something I am happy with.
Do you do anything where you look at a line and say, “I don’t like that word, or that word order”?
I have been doing that a lot more recently. I think in the past I was too wordy and trying to be too clever with song titles. With this record, i am trying to be more direct and more obvious.
How conscious are you of audience? You cover a topic, the Ozarks, that most people aren't familiar with. When you play New York City, for example, most people probably haven’t been there.
No they haven't, but I try to make the reference general enough so that if you are from Pennsylvania, for example, hopefully you’ll be able to share that same emotion.
You can draw from such rich subject matter.
That's very true. Country and bluegrass have traditionally drawn from Appalachia and the South, but the Ozarks are just as interesting.
What are some recurring themes in your writing?
Religious overtones, definitely. I grew up in a very religious family. Three of us did. There are always those sounds playing in the background. Like with our four part harmonies—the church I grew up in doesn’t allow instrumentation. So all we did was sing. Having four part harmonies makes the music sound better.
What songwriters influence you?
Paul Simon and Michael Stipe. Paul Simon is best conversationalist/lyricist I’ve ever heard.
Do you exercise? If you do, how does that affect your creative process?
When I am home, I like to bike every day. And when we are on tour, I try to walk. When I am writing, I love the afternoon bike ride because it clears my head. It’s a good way to activate the brain.
For more information and to listen to more Ha Ha Tonka: