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March 6, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
WHERE: Austin, Texas
WHEN: March 7–16
A handful of Missouri bands will visit Austin, Texas this week and join the throng of musicians hankering for hit-making attention at this year’s South by Southwest festival. Typically shortened to SXSW, this event attracts 300,000 people and has become a stomping ground for up-and-coming musicians and older groups looking to kick back and party.
“It’s like a spring break for bands,” says Brian Roberts, frontman for the Kansas City-based rock group Ha Ha Tonka. “It’s always fun to catch up with people and interact with the fans.”
Vox checked in with three diverse Missouri-based bands on the SXSW bill. Mime Game and Radkey are two other Missouri bands who will be performing at the festival. Their styles range from folksy Americana to hard-edged rock.
Ha Ha Tonka
The band originated in Springfield and now calls Kansas City home, but in a way, they never left the Ozarks. Just listen to the twangy backwoods guitars and grizzled electric stomp on “Arabella,” a standout track from its latest album Lessons.
“I think that influences us in a way we can’t really describe,” says frontman and lead guitarist Brian Roberts. “We’re a rock band that happens to be from the Ozarks, so there’s definitely some Americana roots in our music.”
The group, named after a state park in the Lake of the Ozarks area, delicately shades bluegrass and folk influences onto the established rock format. Ha Ha Tonka is a SXSW staple, participating in the festival for the sixth time this year. The festival offers a communal atmosphere that the members have learned to properly enjoy. “Everyone is usually coming through and has crazy schedules down there, but whenever your paths do cross, there’s always free alcohol,” Roberts says.
Before traveling to Austin, the band plans to collect its Missouri mojo at its March 7 concert at The Blue Note.
The Beautiful Bodies
Self-described as “Black Flag meets Michael Jackson,” the Kansas City band sets its eyes on making a substantive splash in its first official showcase at SXSW. The festival is just a stop in The Beautiful Bodies’ rapid forward momentum. The band will then return to Los Angeles, a location befitting the rollicking, West Coast punk that informs so much of its work, to finish recording its debut album.
“I grew up listening to a lot of punk rock music, and our singer grew up listening to stuff like Michael Jackson and more pop,” guitarist Thomas Becker says. “So we’ve managed to kind of take the two and smash them together and make our sound.”
The members of The Beautiful Bodies came together through their own form of smashing as they gravitated toward each other from other bands. The group’s unified goal was to become successful, full-time musicians, but the members have eccentric backgrounds. Becker himself is a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer and former member of seminal emo band The Get Up Kids. Now his focus is on his ever-growing commitment toward The Beautiful Bodies.
“The band was an informal side project, but we decided we were going to make this a real project where we were going to tour, hopefully quit our day jobs and become musicians,” Becker says.
The group appears to be on its way in more ways than one. With a new album coming down the pipeline and fresh exposure from SXSW, the band will probably rock out in Columbia soon enough.
“For sure we’ll be out there,” confirms Becker.
The Ben Miller Band
“We call it Ozark Stomp,” says vocalist and guitarist Ben Miller about his eponymous band’s sound.
Inventive and wily, the Joplin group is ceaselessly creative. The rock trio heavily accentuates a Missourian force. The single-string washtub replaces the traditional bass, and the trombone or mandolin often replaces percussion instruments. The band’s sound looks like the strong and murky water converging at the Mississippi delta, it’s quite a blend, Miller says of their sound.
“It stems from that melting pot of America,” he says. “It’s sort of an amalgam of all these different impulses smashed together in a lot of beautiful ways.” The group’s wide range of styles, from Appalachian folk to Southern blues, has garnered a larger profile. The trio recently toured Europe and opened for ZZ Top. But the band remains a touring mainstay in Missouri with a recent concert at The Blue Note.
“Missouri’s our home base,” Miller says. “We get up there as often as possible.”