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Pokey LaFarge: 'The Best Music Is Yet to Come'


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LaFarge and his band. - PHOTO BY NATE BURRELL
  • LaFarge and his band.

Once upon a time, a group of young men named Adam Hoskins, Joey Glynn and Ryan Koenig were playing in and around St. Louis in a handful of emerging bands. Concurrent to their early efforts, a young man from Bloomington, Illinois, born as Andrew Heissler but self-dubbed Pokey LaFarge, was bouncing through a bohemian phase that saw him passing through a few towns of residence, including Asheville, North Carolina. There were moments of synchronicity, times when various groupings of the four were in the same place and these kindred souls began to coalesce. Once St. Louis became LaFarge's mailing address, good things began to happen.

As the dapper Koenig recalls, the band started as a duo, with LaFarge and Glynn coming together. At the time, Koenig's band with Glynn, the Vultures, had just broke up.

"I had a van and wanted to get out of town. With me joining up, the only expectation was to drive them in my van on their West Coast tour," he says. "The first night, the gig turned out to be more of a busking situation, and I started playing some tunes with them. I became part of the band organically, as the tour went on. 'That thing you did, can you do that again?'"

With Hoskins joining in, the group was coalescing. Then as now, lots of side projects existed, and the Glynn/Koenig duo eventually began to tour with Mat Wilson as the Rum Drum Ramblers. With multiple songwriters and projects pulling at their time, time was starting to get tight. "For a decent part of the next year," Koenig recalls, "we would kinda travel with whoever could make it. Sometimes it was all four of us, but usually there was a member down. When we did our first Pokey & the South City Three record, it was 'OK, now all of us are doing this.' There was a period in between, freeing ourselves up to work to make it happen. Upon making that record, we knew, 'Now we've recorded, so now have to be a band.'"

Koenig's part of a group that has grown a lot since — in membership, chemistry and ambition. Under the banner of its bandleader's name, the Pokey LaFarge touring experience now includes that core band, soon to reach its first decade together, as well as newer players. Three years ago, Matt Meyer became the band's first drummer. Horn players have shifted over the years, with Luc Klein and Ryan Weisheit now positioned at trumpet and sax, respectively. Live sound's provided by Justin Brown, now in his third touring season, augmented by new tour manager Todd Piotrowski, who doubles in the same role for the Violent Femmes. At times, the band has even been augmented by a touring photographer, Nate Burrell, whose work accompanies this piece.

It's a far climb, in most respects, from those early, couch-surfing days. But to Koenig, the arrival of LaFarge's new record this week and the touring that will accompany Manic Revelations is a natural continuation of everything that's come before.

"I think if we were the kind of band that would've had the money to hire publicity and booking and all of that before the first record, or if we were a big overnight band, then we would've had a definitive moment," Koenig says. "Since it's been a logical, slow progression, nothing's ever felt that much bigger or that much more of a turning point. A lot of people, depending on when they became a fan, or become aware of the band, often see something as the turning point. People in St. Louis might talk about when we started going on the road all the time, or being on the Letterman show, or working with the Old Crow Medicine Show guys. But for me, it's always seemed like a logical progression. I would say that when I was able to quit my day job and play music, I thought that was as successful as I could ever be — and everything else has just built on that."

And now band members have a different juggling act. Instead of balancing their day jobs and their work with LaFarge, now they're balancing their better-paid work with LaFarge with other collaborations.

"When I'm here," Koenig says, "all I want to do is travel. When gone, I want to be here. ... It's important to have people here holding down the fort. And having people on the road exposes people to the culture we have, in a first-hand kind of way. Whether that's us coming to them, or them coming to you. When bands are coming to town, I'm often putting them up, taking them to shows and bars. Then they go back and tell people they've had a good time here."

Koenig doesn't just live these words, he takes them to an extreme. As collaborators of the first order, he and Glynn and Meyer (in particular), help form a core of side projects around town, joining forces with folks including Valerie "Miss Jubilee" Kirchhoff, Ethan Leinwand, Nick Pence, Mat and Rachel Wilson, Joe Park, Kellie Everett and myriad others who mine early-to-mid-20th century music in multiple forms. As occasional-to-regular projects, Koenig alone counts himself a part of nearly a dozen groups: Skin and Bones, Southwest Watson Sweethearts, Jack Grelle, Sidney Street Shakers, the Bottlesnakes, Hooten Hallers, Lavender Country, the Scrubby Dutch Jug Band and the band with whom he and Glynn collaborated when Pokey's gig emerged, the Rum Drum Ramblers.

"Just about all of us have something else going on," he says. "For me, being involved in a lot of different things means that every time with this certain group of people is a singular experience and you don't know when the next time will be. That keeps all of the projects interesting."

Meyer, the group's drummer and a contender for world's happiest person, adds, "I think what's interesting about this band is that everyone is an artist in their own right, as much as being a part of the Pokey LaFarge band — through doing these outside shows and being able to express yourself, if it's Ryan as 'Lonesome Cowboy Ryan' or Adam starting a surf band. We all grew up on punk, blues, R&B, country, doo-wop, even modern pop of the '80s and '90s. On stage with the Pokey LaFarge band, you can sneak in a little of yourself and satisfy your needs, but it's when you're with Rum Drum or Sidney Street that you can really do your thing. That keeps you satisfied to give your all to everything that you're doing."

To LaFarge himself, this album shows that the diversity of influences and constant outside gigging has created a versatile, tight unit.

"They all have four or five different bands," LaFarge says with a hint of a laugh. "Cowboy Ryan's just finished a record. Adam's got a new band. Obviously, with being off the road for a few months, it's allowed them to keep staying busy. And it makes them better musicians when they come to play with me, all the different ideas they inject into their playing."