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interview + st. louis guide with pokey lafarge

by Grace Bonney

Today I’m thrilled to offer a special twist on our traditional Tuesday city guides. For years, I’ve wanted to offer a second (and third and fourth) take on a city from the perspective of one of its local talents. The book sidelined us with work for a bit, but we’re finally back on schedule and kicking off this special mini-city guide series with an interview and a local’s guide to St. Louis from one of my favorite musicians, Pokey Lafarge.

After seeing Pokey perform on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, I was hooked. His music and personal style blend into one seamless celebration of earlier eras, specifically the 1920s and 30s. Whenever I listen to his music, I melt into a smile; it’s the sort of toe-tapping, knee-slapping, head swaying sound that I’ll never tire of. And after posting a link to his concert and seeing the overwhelming support from St. Louis readers, I knew there were plenty more who would never tire of it either.

So today I’m honored to share an interview with Pokey and our resident music expert, Rachael Maddux, as well as Pokey’s guide to his favorite spots in St. Louis. Pokey was kind enough to visit and photograph these spaces, so I hope you’ll enjoy his tour through the city and his outline for his perfect 24 hours in St. Louis. Thank you again to Pokey, Rachael, Molly, John and Jesse for their help with this interview. (All photos above and below by Bill Streeter.) xo, grace

*Click here to check out Pokey’s tour schedule. Seeing him live is a must. He just added a date at Joe’s Pub in NYC (Oct. 22), which I will definitely be attending.

The interview and St. Louis mini-guide continue after the jump . . .

Pokey Lafarge’s Tiny Desk Concert at NPR

Design*Sponge: How did you come into playing music, and when did you first decide to pursue it as a career?

Pokey Lafarge: I had become ensconced in the old music from the age of 13. My grandfather bought me my first guitar at 15, but I didn’t really take that seriously at first. I got going on the mandolin. I left home at 17 for the west and started busking on the street. That’s when I decided to make it for the musician life.

Pokey at Off Broadway

D*S: You have a very distinct personal style that complements your sound — not only do you obviously draw influence from a lot of early country acts, but you also look like you could be a contemporary of Bill Monroe or Hank Williams. How did you develop your personal style?

PL: A lot of my musical heroes are also people that had a distinct personal style. It’s true that they are of the past, some from 80 years ago. I just loved the way some of those folks expressed themselves. Their wardrobe certainly has something to do with it. At the same time clothes back in the day were, more often that not, American made. They were made with better material as well. My favorite music is of the 1920’s and 30’s as are the clothes. I have suits and clothes from the 30’s. You can’t beat the way they were made. Shirts and suit coats from the 1950’s were to boxy. After the 50’s, I could really care less about the way clothes were made.

D*S: How important is it to you to have a defined visual aesthetic in addition to your musical aesthetic?

PL: Important to me in the sense that I’ve never put a restraint on the ways in which I choose to express myself. I feel better when I’m dressing sharp. It’s nice to look nice when you can look nice.

Hat shopping at Retro 101

D*S: How do you navigate sporting a very vintage-inspired style — in your music and your personal style — without coming off as kitschy or contrived?

PL: Oh, I don’t know. Make sure you buy the old stuff? Some people like to play dress up with the stuff, I think that is apparent. I choose to wear the old stuff cause it’s just flat out nicer. It looks better. However, it’s truly who I am, so it just feels natural to me. I guess, other than that, it comes off natural, as well. If it feels natural to you in the way that you dress, then all the better. I mean, I understand that people like to dress comfortably these days, but perhaps more of a balance would be nice. T-shirts, cargo shorts and flip flops aren’t exactly the nicest-looking things. But hey, those are today’s standards; meaning they’re set pretty low.

D*S: It’s hard for me to imagine you, say, using a computer or an iPhone, even driving a car other than an old Cadillac. How deep does your vintage fixation go?

PL: Well, I truly enjoy most things vintage, if you will, but I do use a computer. Hell, you can’t get away from that. My fixations are, to me, pretty simple, old cars, 78rpm records, hats, shoes, old instruments and my girlfriend, who is indeed vintage-clad herself.

D*S: Tell me about your bandmates. How did you connect with them? What role have they played in defining your sound and your style?

PL: We connected when I was living in North Carolina, busking on the street. I moved back to Kentucky and was playing solo for a living. Then, the bottom fell out in Kentucky, so I moved to St. Louis. That’s when I picked up the band. We’ve been on the road now for 3 years straight. I’d certainly say we’ve all influenced each other greatly. Can’t really avoid that with as much time as we spend together. I’d say musically we’ve been able to do great things while being somewhat limited with what we have, in respect to the fact that I like western swing and trad jazz the most. But we don’t have a lap steel or fiddle or horns or piano. So we take those influences and attempt to put them in the output of our instruments and voices.

D*S: You recently worked with Jack White, who has his own really distinct style, on a vinyl single. What was that experience like? Are there other artists you’d like to collaborate with or musical projects you’d like to tackle down the line?

PL: That’s an experience I’ll always remember, for it’s not everyday you record with a big star like that. I remember growing up and hearing his music and seeing him in magazines and on TV and then you’re recording with that person. Life is full of surprises like that. With that being said, he is a upstanding peron and a true gentleman. Of course, he is a great musical mind and producer, as well.

There are so many great musicians out there that I’d like to play with first off and foremost. That list would go forever. I think it would be a dream come true to work with Ry Cooder. There’s others, but that’s the first one that comes to mind.

D*S: Could you tell us what your ideal 24 hours in St. Louis would look like?

PL: I always prefer to have breakfast at home. But going out, I’d start at the Mud House on Cherokee Street for coffee and a pastry. Then, I’d head over to J. Gravity Strings in Soulard to play around on their old banjos and guitars and talk the guys’ ears off in the shop. Next, Blues City Deli for lunch and take my pick of the best sandwiches in the world. After that, I’d go to Retro 101 to say hi to Janet and John and perhaps buy a new tie. Then, I’d go for a walk with my gal in Tower Grove Park followed by a cocktail at The Royale, which isn’t too far away.

Pokey with Steve Smith, owner of The Royale

Pokey with Retro 101 owner, Janet Maevers

Downtown would be next, so I could go to Levine’s and pick up a new hat or a pair of shoes. Maybe then, stop in for a visit to the City Musuem. Then, Pappy’s BBQ is a must for dinner. Afterwards, I’d go to the Schlafly Bottleworks for amazing beer and great music from either Colonel Ford, Swing Deville, or Miss Jubilee. And finally, go over to Off Broadway, the best music venue in town.

D*S: If you were going to suggest your top 5 places to visit in St. Louis for a visiting fan, where would you send them?

PL: Well of course the arch and the riverfront but besides that . . .

  • Off Brodway. South side music venue
  • Schlafly Bottleworks. Great beer, food and music
  • Tower Grove Park. It’s quiet and has amazing landscaping with fountains and lots of shaded areas. Also has the Botanical Gardens.
  • Vintage Vinyl. One of the last independantly owned record stores in the country. It’s legendary.
  • Blues City Deli. Truly becoming one of St. Louis’ landmarks.

  • Blues City Deli

    Thanks again to Pokey for taking the time to speak with us! You can find more information (music, tour dates, blog) about Pokey at his website, Facebook, MySpace or Twitter.

    More photos of Pokey’s guided tour through St. Louis below . . .

    Checking out the goods at Curio Shoppe

    Vintage shopping at Retro 101

    Inside The Royale

    The bike rack outside of The Royale

    **For an extended guide to St. Louis, check out the full D*S guide to St. Louis**

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