Almost exactly a year since the release of his latest album, Something in the Water, Pokey LaFarge and his band are hitting the road again before beginning work on their next LP. Tonight, Pokey will bring his unique sound—a blend of Americana styles, with elements of country-western, folk, ragtime, jazz, and more—to DC with a show at the Hamilton. Prior to the performance, Pokey was kind enough to chat with WGTB about everything from how the Midwest has shaped his musical identity to what it’s like playing with the band all across the globe.
Read on for the full interview, and if you’re in DC don’t miss Pokey’s show tonight at 7:30 at the Hamilton!
Sam: So to start off, I’ve got a couple questions about the new album—well, I guess it’s not new at this point, but the newest. It really has a wide pallet of sounds and is in a lot of ways a lot more complex than your past work. Was that a direction you always wanted to go in or did it sort of develop as you started to work on the album?
Pokey: Yeah, both those things. Obviously my producer, Jimmy, had some input on that…you kind of want to accept your weaknesses and enhance your strengths, really. I give a lot of freedom to the musicians I work with, for even some arrangement ideas or just to let them play. But also, some things I had in mind I wanted to work with going in. I would say the live show is now even that much more than that album. I think there’s even better quality, more depth, bigger vocal sound, even bigger horn sound, in the live show than there was in my previous live show, than on the record. I got a new horn section with me, singers and stuff too. So I’m very excited to bring it to DC.
I was just about to ask about the live show. So was it difficult to get into the groove with the new album? Did it take a while, or did it translate pretty well into the live show?
I don’t think it translated as well as I’d like it to, to be honest, last year. [Now] the horn section is doing really well, but more so doing a modern interpretation of that album, which of course is the only way you could do it—we’re not trying to rehash anything. Every night…I’m the kind of guy who tries to come up with something different every time I play it. Maybe more subtly than overtly. We’re trying to work towards the future more so than we are trying to play the old record. We’re trying to develop a sound with each other, get to know each other’s sounds, styles, because we’re about to get ready to record a new record.
My dad saw you guys play [the new record] a while ago in St. Louis and he said he noticed that the drums were a lot more of an element of the show, and I certainly heard that on the record. Why did you decide to implement a full kit and go for that fuller drum sound?
Just to get that texture, that color, that soul of the drums. Some songs have a little more of a backbeat, and drums can allow you to sit back in the pocket more…without drums, on certain tunes, we would kind of compensate by playing faster, not even really worry about the rhythm—it was almost like a performance art piece or something. We weren’t so worried about the groove. Drums can allow you to play songs you never would have been able to play before, and play some songs you’ve always played differently. It’s just a different color. It also changes the way I write too, in a good way.
As a St. Louis native, I’ve seen you a bunch in high school and stuff—big fan. So I just had a couple of questions about the St. Louis music scene. How do you think St. Louis helped add to your development as an artist?
Well, there’s a lot of great musicians there, a lot of dear friends, and big supporters there. The architecture, the sort of rhythm of the city. I think any songwriter—what makes a St. Louis band, what makes a New York band, what makes an LA band, what makes a New Orleans band, you can’t underestimate the rhythm of that city that people are subconsciously tapping into when they’re writing or playing. So that’s what makes me a Midwestern guy, that’s what makes me a Midwestern musician, that’s what makes me a Midwestern songwriter, because I’m tapping into, and even more consciously trying to tap into, to the rhythm of the city…But just try to kind of listen how it feels, and how things are moving. I think that’s the biggest thing…that’s the thing that makes maybe the biggest, deepest connection with the people of St. Louis that we have. Plus, we’ve been loyal to the city, the city’s been loyal to me, that’s been very influential for me. I’ve refined a certain sense of loyalty by staying and cultivating my career in St. Louis.
You brought up the Midwestern identity and how much that plays into you as an artist. I think that’s one thing that made me gravitate towards your music. As I moved away, I realized how much I missed the Midwest—
People like to talk shit about that, some people like to use negative words, like I’m a “nationalist” or something. But I’m a person that just accepts how I was born and how I was raised, and how it makes me different, and use it as a positive—not as a dividing thing—but just something that makes me authentically me. Quite the contrary, I’m actually very open and always very curious—the more I travel, the more curious I am to expose myself and accept different things from other cultures to try and make my life, my city, my country or what have you better.
That’s another thing I wanted to ask about. I’ve looked at your touring schedule and you’ve been to some incredible places, everywhere from India to Europe. Since you do have sort of an “Americana” sound, I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences touring internationally and how audiences connect to it when they might not be familiar with what you’re drawing from in the way an audience from say, St. Louis might be?
Well, not in the way St. Louis might be, no. But actually people in Canada, people in Australia, people in Europe especially, know a lot more about American music than a lot of Americans I know. They really, really dig something that’s authentically American, whatever that is. And I’d like to actually say they dig what’s positive about being American, you know what I mean? I could go on about whatever the hell that may be, but I think we could all make assumptions about what that is. And my music is a little more old world-y, so is Europe obviously—kind of a refined avant garde, artsy acoustic sound, and that’s something that [clicks] with the people in Europe greatly, actually more so than a lot of places in the states…
Speaking of those kind of Americana roots, I’ve heard you talk in interviews about what you draw from in terms of inspirations. Is there any modern stuff you look at, or are you pretty into trying to look at the Americana past and find cool elements you dig?
I grew up listening to a lot of older music, and I got really deep into that. But I feel like it was kind of a rabbit whole to a certain extent, and I kind of had to dig my way out. The last two years, I’ve really become more open-minded again like I was in my youth about a lot of today’s music. I actually listen to a lot of modern music—there’s a band I really dig out of California called The Growlers. My friends are probably tired of hearing me talk about them. I really like a couple records from Of Montreal, this one that came in 2012 called “Lousy with Sylvianbriar,” I’ve been really digging that record. Maybe not some of their more electronic stuff, but their Beatle-esque, Kinks-type of stuff I really dig. Saw a great, great band from California, glad I finally got to see them, called Shannon and the Clams.
What kind of stuff is it?
Shannon and the Clams, it’s weird man. It’s like the right balance between John Waters-type “crybaby kitsch” with like 80s punk rock.
That sounds right up my alley, I’ll have to check that out.
Yeah, it’s a cool stage show too, man. Really awesome. The list is endless. Langhorne Slim, Margo Price, so much stuff.
Another kind of broad, general question—you have a really cohesive aesthetic, which I dig. The sound, the lyrics, it just really fits together. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, that you have an “image,” like when people throw out the bullshit “retro” tag and that sort of stuff. Do you sometimes feel that people have certain expectations of you because of that, and do you find that constricting?
I’m sure that they do, but at the same time I don’t find it constrictive because I don’t know what those expectations are. So I feel kind of free. Like, people are always going to have expectations of me, but it’s freeing when you don’t know what those expectations are and you don’t care about what those may be. I feel like I have a lot of freedom, I feel I can go in any direction I want to as long as I stay true to myself, which is what I’ve always done for the most part. Just be me, make my music, which is influenced and based on the experiences of my life, which fortunately are very colorful and very exciting experiences, very memorable ones. Whatever I do is just gonna be authentically me, and whatever is authentically me has been somewhat appealing and made me successful to this point. So I have no reason to think that will change.
You mentioned a new record and looking ahead. I remember in a Riverfront Times piece when the latest record came out, you mentioned that on the next record, you’d like to get a little more social commentary in your lyrics and stuff. Do you still think that’s gonna be an element in your new record?
Absolutely. This is gonna be even more of a St. Louis record than I’ve ever done. I’m definitely digging deeper. I wrote a piece on Ferguson, I wrote a piece on some other things about the city, just touching on the violence, the lack of jobs, the urban decay, stuff like that. But a lot of things are subtle, a lot of things are between the lines. I think some people choose to read between those and discover it, other people it hits them. A lot of people miss it, and then there’s the people that talk me off as being some sort of “taking them back in time” novelty act—they come see my show, and I’m playing two covers, the rest are my tunes—I don’t think they exactly the things I’m trying to say. But I think with some of the new things on the record, yeah, it’s gonna be a little more direct.
Finally, more of a fun question—are you a Stag drinker or a Busch drinker?
Hmmm…I like ‘em both on a hot summer’s day. I like Stag probably more, ‘cause it’s more of an autonomous company, you know?
Pokey LaFarge plays at the Hamilton on Wednesday, April 6, along with The Cactus Blossoms. Doors at 6:30, show at 7:30. Tickets are $15-$23.50. Available online here.
Check out the video for “Something in the Water” here.