As St Lucia drop their latest release today, we sit down with frontman, Jean-Philip Grobler.
St Lucia have been on our radars since 2013, when they released their debut LP, When the Night: a dreamy, 80’s synth parade of brilliantly produced and super atmospheric pop. Primarily the project of Jean-Philip Grobler, a South African born musician who now lives in Brooklyn, When the Night received rave reviews thanks to standout tracks like ‘September’ (which featured the kind of genius synth work that made Todd Terje such a dancefloor hero) and the eminently playable ‘Elevate’. Since then, Grobler and the rest of his band have put in lauded performances on Kimmel and Seth Meyers, as well as major festival plays including Lollapalooza, Governors Ball and even the main stage at Coachella.
Fast forward a few years and St Lucia are releasing their sophomore effort, Matter. We’ve already seen fantastic tracks from the record: ‘Dancing on Glass’ – a buoyant and triumphant number that walks the joyous line between corny and brilliant without falling the wrong way – and ‘Love Somebody’ which is probably the best Phil Collins-style song we’ve come across since, well, 1990. ‘Physical’, meanwhile, is set to make a big impact with its primal dance vibes and pulse-quickening vocals about, according to Grobler, “giving up control in a sexual situation and having an intimate experience that is purely carnal in nature.” The album was co-produced by Chris Zane (Passion Pit) and drops today, making now the perfect time to chat to Grobler about writing on the road, his biggest inspirations, and why even food poisoning won’t stop the music.
It’s been a couple of years since When The Night was released: What have you all been up to since then?
Touring. A lot. And working on what would become Matter.
How did this album making process differ from the last one?
The last album was made in more-or-less the perfect situation. I had my own studio 3 minutes walk from my apartment in Brooklyn and I would go there every day for at least a few hours and I had all of my instruments set up and ready to go. Any idea I would come up with I could immediately work on at the highest level. After When the Night was released, I lost my studio (because Williamsburg) and we started touring a lot. I soon realised that if I wanted to not take 5 years to make the next album I’d need to figure out a way to write on the road, and so I had to embrace writing on my laptop. As such, most of this album was written on planes and vans and buses traveling around the US or wherever in the world and with me singing my demo vocals secretly into my laptop microphone in some random public restroom in Nevada. Of course, we were very fortunate in the end to be able to record in a proper studio, but this was the first time for me where the demoing and recording process were two distinctly separate things.
Jean-Philip, you described this album as being ‘like the desert’. Does that refer to a kind of harsh minimalism in comparison to your previous stuff, or something else altogether?
Hahahaha. I’m not sure I could ever be a harsh minimalist, I’m far too much of a hopeless romantic for that. When we were recording the album, we definitely weren’t holding back in terms of the amount of layers and instruments we were recording. It just felt like when it came to mixing it in the end that we chose to throw a lot of the superfluous ‘filler’ layers away to reveal a sort-of leaner version of St. Lucia. It somehow felt right. There wasn’t a particular decision at any point where we were like ‘Think of Bauhaus!’. I believe in serving the songs, not serving some kind of made-up mission statement that in the end is to the detriment of the material. In the end, the songs just called for that kind of slightly less hazy and atmospheric treatment. The last album had so many layers of reverb and atmospherics going on and this album felt a bit like cleaning your apartment.
Who were your big influences for this record?
I know it seems convenient, but really David Bowie was a massive influence this time around. I’d never really been super into his music, but liked certain songs from a distance. At some point when we had a lot of time on the road I decided to go back and listen to different artists’ catalogs in order to understand them better. In doing this, I really developed a deep love and respect for what that man was able to achieve with his career, and of course for his music. His album Let’s Dance in particular was a huge influence. I know it’s not his most adored album, but something about Nile Rogers’ production just presented Bowie in such a slick new streamlined and early-80’s appropriate version of himself that I find irresistible. So, Bowie, but then also my old standby Fleetwood Mac, Kate Bush, Kanye, Prefab Sprout, Prince, Pink Floyd, Mew etc etc. Just a big combination of all these things that I listen to or have listened to. Mainly it’s the intent of an artists that influences me though, and it’s normally those artists that in some way subvert the public’s perception of them.
What was it like working with producer Chris Zane – did he affect the feel of the project?
Working with Chris was the first time I’d ever worked with someone else that closely or for that long a period of time, so there were definitely moments where I craved my space and to not have to work in Pro-Tools, or I’m sure where he was tired of doing 12 overdubs of acoustic guitars on yet another song. That being said, I chose to work with Chris because he really helped me to finish off When The Night, and so I thought that if I had him as a confidant from the beginning I might not run into the same problems I ran into while recording our first album. And I think it worked. The decision making process was a lot easier when I didn’t have to do it alone and there were a lot less question marks hanging over tracks when it came to mixing than there were last time around. One of the biggest differences between Chris and I is that he generally favours minimalist productions, whereas I’m more of a maximalist. I really need to get every single idea that’s in my head down and then I can discount that idea, but if I don’t actually hear it in context I’ll always wonder if it could’ve been better with it. Chris in many ways helped me temper that desire at times by saying ‘you know what, I think we don’t need that’, whereas before I would’ve just recorded everything out of fear of how I would feel if I didn’t do it.
‘Love Somebody’ is a little different to some of your recent output: talk to us about that track.
Love Somebody was very much influenced by all the great neo-soul that was coming out around the time that When the Night was released, like Frank Ocean and Miguel, but then also by some of the stuff I was listening to when I was a kid in the 90’s like Boyz II Men or Usher or whatever. I didn’t specifically go about writing an R&B song, this idea just popped into my head and immediately felt irresistibly direct and romantic. For a while I was toying with whether the production should be organic or more synthetic, and then the new D’Angelo record came out and it made me realise that the production needed to be as real and organic as possible. I also have this thing and I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing for our commercial potential as a band, but I’m very conscious of repeating myself or of the listener possibly getting bored at a moment in a song. So, I just felt like at the end of the second chorus it might be a good idea to change things up a little bit and so by complete accident I stumbled upon the idea of having the end be this kind of Earth Wind & Fire rock out section. I was literally just trying out what would become the bass line at the end and the idea popped into my head to do that.
Was there a moment in the past few years where you stopped and thought ‘we’ve made it’…or is that yet to come?
There have definitely been a few moments where I’ve stopped and thought ‘wow, it’s incredible that we’re getting to travel the world and do what we love’, and in general I’m pretty conscious of how amazing it is to be able to do what we do and have such first world problems when there are people suffering all over the world. But then I have moments when I look at what Kanye has achieved and what David Bowie did and I feel like I’m just getting started. I’m also not sure that the idea of ‘making it’ still exists today. Just look at some of the artists who had huge singles over the last few years with great albums to boot like Gotye, for example, and who could have released the greatest song of all time after Someone That I Used To Know and still nobody would have cared. That’s just the musical climate we live in, and so I’m not sure that anyone is ‘safe’ or has ‘made it’ anymore.
Do you have a favourite live moment/story?
Performing in South Africa for the first time for my whole family and all my friends that I grew up with on one hour of sleep and with Dustin (our drummer) and our tour manager and his wife having gotten food poisoning and threating to vom at any moment. We took the whole band on Safari for 5 days after so it was all worth it.
After this album, what will be the next step for you guys – time for a break or more touring?
Hopefully the making of vast amounts of music. I’m pretty sure that we’ll be touring for a long time, or I hope that we will be because I really enjoy it. I’d also really love to do some more writing/production work which I haven’t done for a long time and that’s and itch that’s been getting more and more itchy for a while now.
Which of all your songs are you most proud of and why?
Currently it’s a tie between The Winds of Change, Rescue Me and Home. I’m really proud of them because none of them are the obvious pop songs that got the label excited. They’re songs that made a lot of people scratch their heads for a long time but I had a vision for them and I fought for them and followed through and am incredibly proud of the results. It would be a lot more convenient for everyone, I think, if we only made songs like ‘Dancing on Glass’ or ‘Closer Than This’, but we have a restless exploratory side that somehow resists life ever being too easy and so I’m always the most proud of those songs that take a few more risks in some way because they are the scrappy underdogs.