Jean-Philip Grobler of St. Lucia (USA) talks new album, embracing uncool influences, performing in South Africa &more!

St. Lucia are on a roll. Since releasing two EPs in 2012, they’ve gone on to release an album (featuring one of the catchiest songs in recent years), play the iconic Coachella Festival and, most recently, appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

We caught up with frontman Jean-Philip Grobler to discuss the forthcoming St. Lucia album, going on tour, the process of making a music video, melancholy and more.

How would you describe the mood of your new album, Matter?

It’s funny, because up until now I haven’t really thought much about the overall mood of the album. I’m not actually sure that there’s an overarching ‘mood’. It’s not the sort of album where, if you play “Game 4 U” at a dinner party and then you play a random track from the album, it’s definitely going to suit the mood of the dinner party. There are songs that feel more celebratory or positive, and there are songs that have a more melancholy vibe; then there are love songs and anti-love songs. If there was perhaps an overarching theme, it would be one of dealing with the realities – and mainly ‘first world’ realities – of getting older and living far away from your family, and having relationships changing.

What track on Matter are you most excited for audiences to hear?

I’m really excited for people to hear the songs that weren’t chosen as singles. I’m really proud of all of the singles we’ve released so far, but our label and management really felt like releasing the ‘pop songs’ from the album first would be the best idea, and of course I see their logic. The only problem with that is that it can make people think that the whole album is just an album of pop songs, which is absolutely not the case with Matter.

I’m really excited for people to hear songs like “Home”, “Rescue Me” and “The Winds of Change”. But I’m probably most excited about “The Winds of Change”. It was actually the head of Columbia Records (Rob Stringer)’s favourite song from the album, but it takes too long to get to the chorus for it to be a single. For a while it was the front runner for the main single, and everyone was trying to convince me to shorten the intro, but I was so attached to the demo that changing anything about it felt wrong.

Did the writing and recording process for this album differ to that of your previous releases?

It differed a lot. With When the Night, I basically had the most ideal recording situation imaginable. I had my own little recording studio three minutes walk from my apartment that had all of my instruments set up, had an incredible view of Manhattan for inspiration: I basically watched the building of the new World Trade Center from start to finish, and didn’t have that much going on for myself, so I could basically work on my music all the time. Any idea I came up with, I could immediately go and work on it at the highest level; I was writing, demoing and recording proper all at the same time.

Around the time that When the Night came out, I lost that studio (they were turning the building into apartments) and we started touring a lot. I realised pretty quickly that I needed to find a way to embrace writing on the road. I turned my laptop into my mobile demoing rig, and started using all the long drives and flights to write. Most of the demos were literally just notes clicked into a grid in Logic Pro, not even played on a keyboard, and then me holding my laptop to my face to sing the demo vocals into the microphone in the parking lot of some sketchy gas station in Nebraska. Eventually, when I had enough songs, I went into the studio with Chris Zane and recorded everything ‘properly’ at his studio in New York. So, I guess the main difference is that this time was the first time that there was a separate demoing and recording phase, even though some parts of the demos definitely made it into the finished tracks.

The video for “Dancing on Glass” is so much fun. How did that concept – in particular, ‘Paper Problems’ – come about?

We did a call for video treatments and sent out a rough description of what the song was about and what we thought the video could be like. Noah Paul, brother of Nicky (who plays keyboards in St. Lucia) gave us by far the best treatment, and just absolutely got the idea of the song and how we wanted to do something that was visually striking, but didn’t take itself too seriously. Paper Problems was absolutely Noah’s idea, but his girlfriend Idil Tabanca came up with the visual concept and spent hours upon hours with her team folding and then gluing each paper square onto my shirt (each square took 15 minutes) and making that incredible backdrop.

There’s a nostalgic vibe to your music – for many people, the 80’s comes to mind. Is that a conscious decision?

I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious decision. The only ‘decision’ I ever really made with regards to the sound of St. Lucia is that I should embrace all of my influences, whether they’re in good taste or bad taste. For a long time I was just trying to be cool, but nothing that I did ended up being that ‘cool’ – not that it’s necessarily cool now either, but I realised that the worst thing you can do in the pursuit of cool is to pursue cool. So I just stopped thinking about the fact that ‘This song sounds a bit like Phil Collins and Phil Collins is uncool…’ I just embraced all of it. I went with how it made me feel, rather than whether the hard-to-please art critic at the back of my mind thought it was worthy. So, that’s why St. Lucia has these big pop songs, as well as progressive songs that of course still have a pop element. It’s a jumble of all of my influences, not just my cool ones, and a lot of my uncool influences come from the 80’s, but I love them like I might love an overly excitable dog if I had one.

You’ve said previously that your music has a sense of melancholy, even when it sounds upbeat. Why do you like to combine serious ideas with danceable music?

I just think music, and art in general, is more interesting if it juxtaposes seemingly disparate ideas or emotions. That’s what life is like. I feel like once you get past a certain age, it’s rare that you just feel pure ‘happiness’ or ‘sadness’ anymore. All emotions are tinged with a shade of some other emotion, but that gives life colour and makes it interesting. I don’t know if you saw the Pixar movie Inside Out – if you haven’t, I would highly recommend it. They had almost the perfect illustration of this idea, of how one shouldn’t try to hide sadness away in the back of your mind, but rather embrace it because it gives context and meaning to other emotions. Almost all of my favourite albums or films have elements of comedy and tragedy and joy and sadness in them. My favourite director, Hayao Miyazaki, does it all the time.

You’ve played some great venues and festivals over the years. What has been your most memorable tour experience?

Phew, there have been so many! That being said, I’d definitely say that playing in South Africa for the first time, and for my whole family and all of my friends that I grew up with, was incredibly memorable. That, despite the fact that we did the show on one hour of sleep – we had a 6am flight after a show that ended at 2:30am the night before – and our drummer Dustin and our tour manager and his wife came down with food poisoning during the flight. Dustin managed to pull it together enough for the show though, even though our sound guy told us that he was hitting half as hard as usual.

What are you up to next?

I’m just really excited, but of course a little nervous, to see how people react to our new album. We put so much work into it, and I can’t wait to get out into the world and play all the new songs for people. I’m also really excited to work on new music, but I really have a lot of writing to do before I figure out what the next ‘thing’ is gonna be. That being said, there are a lot of songs that I think are great that there wasn’t space for on this record that I would love to put somewhere – so I’ll be working on those, to find a home for them somewhere.

Matter will be released on January 29. To pre-order, visit St. Lucia’s website here.


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