It Takes a Village
St. Louis is building an independent music scene that’s anything but independent.
UPDATE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Pokey LaFarge appeared on an episode of Boardwalk Empire. In fact, he recorded a song for the episode, but did not appear in it. ALIVE regrets this error.
It’s been said again and again that St. Louis has all of the pieces necessary for a thriving music scene—the talent, the recording studios, the venues, the fans—but it’s missing a certain synergy to pull it all together. These people, some of them musicians themselves, are working hard to change that.
Evan Sult and Paige Brubeck of Sleepy Kitty are more engrained in the local music and art scenes than most natives. The indie-rock duo met in Chicago and decided to make a home for their music and screen-printing businesses on Cherokee Street. When they’re not performing—dressed in their signature vintage style—they’re likely to be found covered in paint, screen-printing posters and album covers for other bands and local venues. Meanwhile, Sult also works as editor-in-chief of Eleven Magazine, covering the local music and art scenes from the inside out. The band’s biggest moment this year was being one of the few local groups asked to perform at LouFest in Forest Park for an audience of thousands. Now, they’re working on the release of their sophomore album, “The Projection Room,” including several songs inspired by film.
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three bring a decidedly old-timey feel to the St. Louis music scene, and are well on their way to becoming a national name. The band recently recorded a track with Jack White on his album “Blunderbuss,” and went on tour with him, performing on renowned stages like Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Ryman in Nashville. As if that weren’t enough excitement for the year, LaFarge also recorded a song used in a recent episode of the hit HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” singing alongside jazz greats Vince Giardano and his Nighthawks. In a show set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, it’s easy to imagine Pokey’s voice fitting right in. Who knows where he’s headed next, but we can be sure he’s doing the ‘Lou proud.
No matter how talented a band is, it’s tough to get noticed in a big way without some help. Collectives like these bring people together and work to give the St. Louis music scene a much-needed sense of identity.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Everything Tower Groove Records does is in the service of putting out records, but the group really operates more like an artists’ collective than a record label. After holding its first official meeting last May, the group has grown quickly, releasing its first compilation record this past April and growing its membership to include 30 bands—with plenty of concerts and parties along the way.
Right now, about 15-20 people are actively involved in the group by pooling their resources to support each other’s efforts. “Everyone does what they’re good at to help everyone else be successful,” says Jason Hutto, one of the group’s ringleaders. Strength in numbers helps provide the support that emerging groups need in order to stay together through the hurdles that defeat so many, like sufficient self-promotion and the need to constantly be putting out new work. It’s also about networking and building the community—knowing who to call when you’re putting a show together or need a new bass player, for instance.
Tower Groove’s next big project is the Singles Club: sign up for a year-long subscription, and each month you receive a 7-inch vinyl record (and digital download) featuring two local bands. The first band on each record is one featured in the original TGR compilation, and the second is someone from outside the collective; it’s a way of growing the family while also introducing TGR fans to new music. See the full lineup and join the club at towergrooverecords.com.
OUT OF THIS WORLD
While Tower Groove is all about building up the relationships that make a healthy music scene, FarFetched focuses on fostering experimentation—especially the fusion of music and art. Headed by hip-hop and visual artist Damon Davis and a few of his closest collaborators, the label launched in January. Since then, it has released a new project every month and hosted its first music festival, Brave New World. There are 15 acts currently on the label, some from as far away as Soviet Georgia and England, and others from right here in St. Louis.
Being part of a collective, Davis says, is all about staying inspired and exposing yourself to new things—gaining the courage to jump outside of what you like and are good at. “We’re trying to shake it up and take people out of their comfort zones, but first and foremost we want to make good music,” he says. In the next year, he’s working on putting together some projects using video and interactive experiences (apps and online games) that aim to “put fans in the driver’s seat,” so they’re able to do more than just passively listen to a track or go to a show. Keep tabs on what FarFetched has going on next, and check out the monthly podcast, “Bad Taste,” at wearefarfetched.net.
SOUNDS LIKE TEAM SPIRIT
FarFetched and Tower Groove are made up of musicians banding together to take their success into their own hands, but Liz Deichmann is the cheerleader egging them on. She’s not a musician herself, but her background in promotions and booking puts her in the perfect position to teach emerging artists a thing or two.
Through projects like the Secret Sound Society and the St. Louis Art Project, Deichmann helps artists put together unique musical experiences that showcase what makes St. Louis music special. The annual SLAP conference, for instance, hosts Current, a concert in which electronic musicians of various genres perform in a round-robin format—the bands set up in a circle with the audience in the middle, each performing for 10 minutes at a time. Secret Sound Society puts on “secret” shows promoted without any band names attached—perfect for groups who don’t yet have the name recognition needed to draw a crowd.
Last spring, Secret Sound Society teamed up with the Luminary Center for the Arts and The Firebird to offer a series of music education workshops to teach musicians about things like booking shows and navigating the digital age. “Other cities have built-in music industries— we don’t, which is fine, but it means that local musicians need these opportunities to learn and become more educated and self-sufficient,” Deichmann says.
Tower Groove Records
Tower Groove Records
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three