Interview: Pokey LaFarge
Since his debut in 2006, St Louis born Pokey LaFarge has released seven studio albums. His newest, Manic Revelations is the follow up to 2015’s critically acclaimed Something’s in the Water. Ahead of his tour, we caught up with Pokey who told us more about the album’s themes, ideas and recording.
LtW: You begin your tour in June. What can people expect from the shows?
PLF: We’re pretty tight on the new songs. The band is hot and we’re raring to go! We’re feeling good about the songs and we’re all just happy playing music together like brothers. It’s just going to be a big wall of sound.
LtW: How do things work with your band in the studio? Do you lead things?
PLF: I’m definitely the leader of the band – I write all the material, save for maybe a collaboration here and there with some of the other guys. But I try and look at it like everybody doesn’t have to come to me for every single decision. So much as I like everybody to be able to propose their opinions, I like everyone to feel like we’re all on the same page together creating and conducting and experimenting – everybody’s putting in their two cents. I’m not a stubborn leader, put it that way. I will fight for an idea if I feel like I need to, but I’m definitely willing to admit when I’m wrong.
LtW: The album feels like a marked change from your earlier work. Can you tell us more about the process of writing and recording it?
PLF: I made a conscious effort to make a record that was more fitting of the times in which we live in – I don’t necessarily mean that from a musical standpoint, I mean more an extension of the response that I have, or the world has to me, or that my band or my friends or just the world has with each other. It seems like it’s moving at a million miles a minute and things are changing every day.
I don’t try and force anything usually. If you have to force and overthink what you’re creating, then you need to just put it down and come back to it and the issues come out naturally. That’s what happened with a lot of these songs – they just kind of came out of nowhere. It’s hard to explain individual songs because they just write themselves, you know?
LtW: Did you consciously make this an observational album?
For me, I’m not a protest singer, and rarely do I want to [be] too literal in a song, even more rarely do I want to bash somebody over the head with my opinion. This is art, it’s our job maybe to be a little bit more political sometimes, but it should just be a job that’s whatever you want it to be. I tend to be a little more open to interpretation or subversive and create a world like a museum where people can come in and examine and come up with maybe five or ten different interpretations.
LtW: Social media is a theme on your album. What effect do you think it having on society?
PLF: I certainly love modern technology in a lot of its forms, I’d say. I think social media is something that we need to get ahold of to a certain extent, because it is, in my opinion, affecting relationships – I think it affects the way couples talk to each other, you know, they’re sitting at dinner time, eating dinner, both on their phones, which is supposed to be a special time, you know? You go about your day, or, you know, you hang out with friends and family and it’s like [a] trigger, you just have to go on the phone.
LtW: So where did music all begin for you?
PLF: I’d like to think it began with birth. To a certain extent, I was born to perform and I was born to create. Ever since I could remember I was putting on performances for my family, or singing, or dancing around and making noise like banging on things.
I think I started later maybe because I didn’t have incredible exposure to it at an early age – my family weren’t necessarily musical people, so I had to kind of discover it on my own with the help of certain friends.
When I get an interest in something my curiosity finds this interest in something, and sometimes you don’t even know what it is, but it causes you to be curious, right? You’re curious because you’ve been open-minded. You’re just out there exposing yourself to different things, searching, and that hasn’t stopped for me for 25 years. It’s constantly learning, reading within music, travelling, experiencing life to its fullest – this is the well that you draw your inspiration from.
LtW: You talked about how Tom Waits and Roy Orbison have inspired you recently. Can you tell us more about this?
PLF: With regards to Tom Waits, gosh, I don’t know, I’ve been listening to him for 20 years. I think the first album I got [of] Tom Waits’ was Bone Machine [imitates a song from the album] that’s the best I can do [laughs]!
I heard his name in a magazine – I was reading Rolling Stone and there was some actor who was saying that—you know, they were asking him what he did in between shots, and the guy said, ‘I just listen to music, maybe read a little bit’, and he mentioned that the musician he listened to the most was Tom Waits, and I was like, ‘Who the hell’s that?’
So again, being curious, I was always looking up names – this is also really well before the internet was a thing – so I would write down names and I’d go look them up. So the first Tom Waits album I ever listened to was a CD from the library. I looked it up on the Dewey Decimal System and I’d just go and get piles of CDs and records and cassettes and bring them home. That was the beginning, listening to Tom Waits, and it just blew my frickin’ mind – blew it right open.
But in terms of Roy Orbison, you see Roy Orbison and you hear about Roy Orbison your whole life over here. He’s just sort of a legend, he’s such an iconic-looking figure. I really didn’t start to fall in love with him until maybe three years ago – I had to come back to it. I heard all these deep cuts of his, and it wasn’t Pretty Woman, it wasn’t Crying, it was some deep cuts. So I’ve kind of been listening to him pretty heavily since then, actually.
LtW: When did you start to record music?
PLF: I think I was living in Louisville, Kentucky. I had all these songs, I was 20 or 21. I had all these songs, I [was] just sitting around…I hadn’t started playing live at this point yet, and I didn’t really know how to do it – I didn’t really know how to go about it recording-wise, but I had a friend [who helped]. I guess I was touching on why I even wanted to record in the first place, and when you’re a musician and you listen to recordings, you yourself want to make recordings – it’s just what happens, right? I think at that point I’d made up my mind that I was going to pursue this full-time.
So I needed a record. My buddy brought over a reel-to-reel machine of his. He told me ‘I got a reel-to-reel machine [from] my grandpa’ and we just recorded. I have that CD—he ended up taking the reel-to-reel recording, putting it digitally on a computer and putting it on a CD for me. I never did anything with it. At least I can say that the first time I recorded was on a reel-to-reel.
There’s a lot of people that record with tape – there’s some Top 40 bands that are still recording on tape because the producer likes working that way. You can go down the whole wormhole of digital vs analogue but I support both. They each definitely have an essential place in the music business so they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
LtW: Why do you think your style of music has stood the test of time?
PLF: If you look at it, it’s the same thing with movies, it’s the same thing with fashion, it’s the same thing with music. But if you go a little bit further, it’s the same thing with cocktails, it’s the same thing with food – all these things never really died. Like the ‘60s folk revival, and then the ‘80s-style clothing was pretty much built straight off the ‘30s and ‘40s and stuff like that. But now, I mean, it seems like everybody is hip to early 20th century or even older.
The world’s kind of becoming a little homogenous, right? You’ll find a hipster coffee shop that sells all-organic food [in] pretty much every single town in the world you go to. A lot of them look the same and the people dress the same, have the same beards, they’re wearing the denim.
Music is…I would just say quality in general, in my personal opinion, I’ve said this for years, I think that music is timeless. It has an attachment to a certain time and place, but if it is quality, and it is relatable and can be useful in today’s time, then those—the time and place sort of falls away and the people who take a hold of it mould it for today and put their own definition in and have their own spin on it – it takes on a whole new meaning. That’s what you’re seeing, but that’s the thing that people don’t realise. They’re always asking me, ‘What’s with all this retro style that you do?’, and I was like, ‘Man, it’s everywhere, absolutely everywhere’.
Go to your coffee shop, go to your brewery, go to your restaurant, you know what I mean? Go to a big department store like H&M, go to American Eagle – all that clothing is ripped off from something early 20th century most likely. We’re constantly taking style from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and now kids are starting to dress like they’re from the ‘90s, but that’s because as I’ve gotten older I have realised that things definitely go on 30-year cycles. It really does, man, and I never believed it until I got to be in my 30s myself and see it, like, ‘This shit I was wearing when I was a kid and I hated that, why are people wearing that?’
LtW: Are you planning any more collaborations like the one you did with Jack White?
PLF: I certainly hope to, you know, Jack’s taking a lot of time off the road, you know, he’s not likely to be on the road anytime soon, he’s still making music and stuff like that – Jack’s so talented he’s got a bunch of different things that he does, you know, besides music. With him specifically I’d love to, you know, I’m already writing for a new record.
But I’m not really looking to make maybe a full-length record, I am more interested in releasing maybe a few songs at a time, maybe more of an EP every six months or something like that. I just would like to chart the progression of my music a little bit better for my fans as opposed to, like, writing, recording, releasing a record and then sitting on it for two years and touring it. That cycle has kind of become a little boring to me.
So as I start to hopefully be in the studio and put out recordings even more frequently, hopefully that’ll give the opportunity of some more collaborations.
Manic Revelations is out now.