Ha Ha Tonka Returns to St. Louis for Annual Thanksgiving Show, Recording New Album at Sawhorse Studios

click to enlarge Ha Ha Tonka will perform at Off Broadway on Friday, November 27. - Jason Gonulsen
Jason Gonulsen
Ha Ha Tonka will perform at Off Broadway on Friday, November 27.

The week of Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for happy homecomings, chummy reunions and boozy recollections. That has proved doubly true for the roots-rock quintet Ha Ha Tonka; the band, originally based out of West Plains, Missouri, and now spread throughout the country, has reunited in St. Louis for its annual Thanksgiving concert at Off Broadway, taking place Friday night. But off-stage, the group has reunited with its longtime friend and engineer Jason McEntire, whose Sawhorse Studios has been hosting sessions for Ha Ha Tonka’s upcoming fifth album. The band recorded its first two LPs with McEntire — 2007’s debut Buckle on the Bible Belt and the 2009 follow-up Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South.

Tonight’s show at Off Broadway will also serve as a release party for the band’s first official live release, the ten-inch vinyl record Live in STL at Off Broadway. As the title suggests, the recording stems from last year’s Thanksgiving show, which was the band’s final gig with founding drummer Lennon Bone, who left the band last year to focus on fatherhood. McEntire had his hands in that recording as well, lugging his rig to Off Broadway and multi-tracking the show. According to McEntire, it was at the venue’s bar, “wrung out on whiskey,” that the negotiations took place for this upcoming album, which will be released on Bloodshot Records in 2016.

On a sunny, brisk Sunday afternoon last week, I dropped by the south city-based Sawhorse Studios while the band was listening to reference tracks — and, more importantly, checking its fantasy football standings. Brian Roberts, the band’s lead singer, lyricist and acoustic guitarist, has hidden only a little of his boyish good looks beneath a bushy red beard, and proves as affable and self-effacing in the studio’s control room as on stage. Guitarist Brett Anderson, in glasses and more manageable facial hair, sits to his left. As their band-mates filter in and take roost on a nearby couch — bassist Luke Long, multi-instrumentalist James Cleare and new addition Mike Reilly on drums — Roberts looks forward to the upcoming St. Louis gig, the band’s fifth Thanksgiving show.

“The Thanksgiving shows are always a treat for us. Brett’s from Kansas City, we’re back in Missouri — the Kansas City / St. Louis / Chicago shows are always a fun weekend of shows to party with our friends,” says Roberts.

When asked about the new album and its progress, Anderson explains how the band members write songs and plan recordings from different parts of the country.

“Technology, man!” says Anderson emphatically. “GarageBand on iPhone. I don’t know if you’ve messed around with that but that thing’s pretty bad-ass. We just do little snippets on there and pass around little demo ideas and then when we get together we try to work stuff out.

“Usually we write songs during soundcheck or meet up in Kansas City,” continues Anderson. “For this record, we’ve been writing most of the record in the studio. We had some ideas but most of it has been written right here.”

Roberts holds up his iPhone to second Anderson’s point. “Honestly, this little device just blows my mind continually. For this record, I’ve done 156 Voice Memo ideas, and then of those, 30 might make it to a scratch thing in GarageBand, and of those maybe fifteen will get circulated in 90-second ideas. And then we build and deconstruct and reconstruct and tear it apart and put it back together.”

Both Anderson and Roberts proclaim their desire to create a loud, rock & roll-centered record, something they knew McEntire could help them deliver on. “He’s as good as it gets. We can him 'Magic Man' because his fingers are doing all this stuff, and the next thing you know, the track is done,” says Anderson.

McEntire demures slightly but credits the process for directing the new album’s sound. “It’s all about sticking you dudes in a room and you sweat it out until it’s good,” he says. “You never have to worry if the record button is getting hit.”

“I would say this record will have more continual-take pieces of music than any of our previous releases,” says Roberts. “We’ve done more jams — there are at least two instances already where the third or fourth time we’ve played it in its entirety will be the eventual track. It feels like there’s an energy there that we’re excited about.”

McEntire fires up a version of a song he’s jokingly titled “Think Piece Number 2.” It’s animated by a squalling, rangy lead guitar and underpinned by a swampy rockabilly groove. Anderson’s melodic lead carries much of the song, and Roberts’ vocals — which, at this point in the song’s development, are limited to the phrase “I’m gonna climb a heart-shaped mountain” but delivered with sweaty glint — come in halfway through the track.

“Hopefully there will be a few more lyrics,” laughs Roberts. “There will more traditional songs on the album, but this is a good example of one take — everybody playing in that room.”

“A lot of it is like that; when we all were talking about it, we wanted to make a rocking album,” McEntire says. “Not looking for mistakes, but accepting a lot of the playing and the moment of recording it.”

The band has embraced McEntire’s encouragement to stretch out and improvise. As the session begins to wind down, Anderson inspects the intonation on his Gibson electric mandolin — the same instrument that drives their 2011 track, “Usual Suspects,” a cut that brought the group some national acclaim thanks to a fortuitous MLB sync during the World Series. As I exit Sawhorse’s control room, Cleare is bent over an upright piano, attaching thumbtacks to the instrument’s felt hammers to create a percussive, honky-tonk effect. Earlier in the sessions, a road case filled with maracas and tambourines served as an oversized bass drum.

Speaking of Cleare, who joined around the time of 2013’s Lessons, and new addition Reilly, Roberts speaks to the chemistry the band has developed on stage and carried into the studio. “It’s been great; both those guys are super, super smart, incredible musicians and this week has just been a dream,” says Roberts. “We’ve all clicked and had some of the most fun we’ve had in a studio environment.”

Ha Ha Tonka

8 p.m. Friday, November 27. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $15. 314-773-3363.

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