By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
“It’s such an interesting place. You really get the feeling that people are bandying together to rebuild and revive this city.”
As usual, Jean-Philip Grobler is in awe of his surroundings.
On this particular Thursday afternoon, Grobler finds himself in Detroit, where he’s in possession of some extra time to enjoy its sights and sounds. It’s a rare off-day for his band, St. Lucia.
Such downtime has not been plentiful over the past year. For thirteen months, St. Lucia has toured relentlessly, criss-crossing the United States four times and traveling to three continents. The haul has been long and grueling, but Grobler remains upbeat and effusive. He’s the kind of person who can see the beauty in anything – even the rundown Motor City. He mentions a local bike and watch company, Shinolas, that he loves. He has a favorite coffee shop – Great Lakes Coffee – and St. Lucia always makes an effort to visit it. “There are lots of derelict buildings here,” he observes, more generally. “But it’s neat to see that people are taking pride in making this a great place again.”
Grobler comes off like someone who talks about everything with a certain enthusiasm and sincerity. It’s a verve translates to his music too: St. Lucia’s 2013 debut, When The Night, is a celebration of 80s synths and dance beats, heavy on the glassy sounds and drum machines associated with acts like Genesis, Lionel Richie, and perhaps even Graceland-era Paul Simon. (It’s probably not a coincidence – Grobler was born and raised in South Africa).
With Grobler’s appreciation for a catchy melody and an infectious beat, St. Lucia have been enjoying critical acclaim, but he’s not taking anything for granted. When The Night might have captured lightning in a bottle, but the band is determined to keep improving with each release.
St. Lucia plays New York City’s Terminal 5 on November 19 (with HAERTS) and November 22 (with The Knocks), before visiting Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club on November 25 and 26. All shows except November 19 are sold out. When The Night is out now on Neon Gold/Columbia Records.
It’s been a little over thirteen months since When the Night came out. How would you describe the past year?
Man, it’s kind of an overused term, but I would struggle to find a better word than “whirlwind.”
This is the fourth time we’ve been around the whole of the United States in the last year. We have literally driven cross-country four times. We’ve been to Australia, to South Africa, to Europe. I’ve been writing a lot of new material. We’ve played loads of festivals – it’s been travel, travel, travel, travel, almost non-stop. But we’re fortunate that we really enjoy travel. Patty [Beranek], the keyboardist in the band, is my wife, and we are really lucky we can do this together, and we love really trying to explore each new place we’re in.
This is our third bus tour, and the cool thing about being on a bus is that it enables us to sleep through the drive, and wake up in wherever your destination is, and enjoy the day. We’ve been on some pretty amazing hikes, and have gone to some of our favorite cities like New Orleans, Vancouver, and LA. I mean, it’s really cool to be able to explore places and have a bit of an opinion of the places you’re in.
What have been highlights for you? Has any one place stood out to you in a way that made you say “I can’t believe this is my life – this is amazing!”
I feel like whenever we go to a place for the first time, there’s that element of surprise of what it has to offer. If you put a bit of time into exploring, every city has something cool. One of the big surprises on this tour was Flagstaff, Arizona, which I had actually never even heard of before. It was such a cool town with a lot of great food, and the town itself is incredibly beautiful with all these great buildings. It’s in the more sort of “alpine” part of Arizona – it’s high altitude, and has a lot of pine trees, and it’s about 40 minutes from Sedona National Park, so we went hiking there.
There’s another town called San Luis Obispo in California, about halfway between LA and San Francisco. We had a show there as well, and that was super cool. We spent half a day at the beach. The food was great.
It’s hard to pick one, because we’re always really surprised by each place we go.
What’s your songwriting process like? Has it changed since you’ve been on tour?
I always try to be as intuitive as possible in my writing process. Normally, what happens is that I’ll be doing something totally unrelated to music – walking down the street, or at the gym, or something random – and an idea will pop into my head, and come with some form of rhythm and chord changes and melody, and maybe even some lyrics, and I’ll record it on my Voice Memos app on my iPhone. The songwriting process goes hand in hand with the production and arrangement for me, and when I get to my laptop, I’ll find a voice memo that speaks to me in that moment, and I’ll just start laying down the idea.
For the first album, I put it all together in my small and unglamorous studio in Williamsburg. I had all of my instruments with me. I wasn’t limited in any way while I was making that stuff.
Everything I’ve done for this upcoming second album has been limited by being on the road, but I realize that I’ve just got to embrace that. There are benefits, for sure, and there are things that kind of suck, but I just have to do it. I’ve basically done everything on my laptop up to whatever level I can do it, which is still a pretty demo-y level, and when I actually do get the chance to go into the studio after this tour, we’ll really get to develop the songs and the arrangements. So, it’s been quite different this time around, and I’m looking forward to actually having time in the studio.
There’s actually a name for that cognitive process – for when your best ideas come to you when you’re doing something totally unrelated, but obviously right now I can’t think of it because I’m engaged in this. I think it’s named after thinking in the shower or something.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s almost like when you lose something, and you’re like, “Where the fuck is that thing?” And you’re looking, looking, but then you give up, and see it when you’re not looking for it, out of your peripheral vision. To me, it’s that kind of idea: Not trying, but allowing things to come to you, and always worrying yourself with doing other things, and that’s when the inspiration really comes.
You posted an enthusiastic photo with the new Pink Floyd record. Is that a band you grew up listening to? What sort of music did you gravitate towards when you were growing up in South Africa?
Pink Floyd were always around, but I never really connected with them until I was in my early twenties. My bridge to Pink Floyd was probably Radiohead, because I was so into OK Computer and all the Radiohead albums. At one point, I heard one of my schoolteachers listening to Dark Side of the Moon, and I thought it was fucking awesome. I went out and bought it, and was blown away by the album. Even though I had always heard of it, and my parents had the record, it was just something I never gravitated towards as a teenager. But I haven’t had a chance to listen the new record yet/ I’m waiting for a moment when I have a couple of hours to dedicate to it.
When I was growing up in South Africa in the early 80s, the music that I was used to hearing was Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. Because it was still Apartheid in South Africa at the time, we were only getting the poppiest stuff from the UK and the States. You know, if anything was too subversive, they would ban it. They were trying to keep everybody in the most docile state possible, I guess. [Laughs].
After that, my parents went to one of the shopping malls in Johannesburg at Christmas time, and asked their waiter at a restaurant what they should get me for Christmas because I loved music, and he recommended OK Computer. I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking, “What the fuck is this?” It was musical gibberish to me, in a way. I really wanted to return it to the shop, but it was the Christmas weekend and everything was closed, so I was forced to live with this album for the weekend. I think on my fourth or fifth listen, I started hearing the beauty in the music, and hearing little bits revealing themselves. Soon, I was obsessed with it, and that opened up this whole new world of music for me. I realized that music could have this cerebral, deeper quality to it that’s not just instant pleasure.
I’ve had all these different periods of my life where I’ve listened to different kinds of music. In 2007/2008, I had this other project called Kites, and it was very much influenced by alt-rock and indie rock from that time, and bands like Mew and M83. I think I was almost trying too hard to be like those bands, and not being myself enough. There was a part of myself that I wasn’t revealing in the music, and so I did some soul searching and returned to the music of my youth – the “guilty pleasures” like Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, and Fleetwood Mac. Listening back to that music felt really refreshing to me. And not just that but, you know, obviously a lot of African music I had grown up with too. All of that naturally started filtering into the music I was making, and everything felt a lot more effortless. It became a marriage between the guilty pleasure music that I enjoyed as a child and as a teenager, along with some of the more left field music I’m into.
You produced the HAERTS records, and they’ll be on tour with you, alongside the Knocks. Is there a sense of camaraderie within the Neon Gold/Columbia roster?
I feel like a lot of the bands know each other, and everyone is friendly, but there are certain bands that we are closer to.
The reason we’re friends with HAERTS is because we started working together before anybody was even remotely interested in them. Nini [Fabi] and Ben [Gebert] had this purely folk project they were working on called Nini and Ben, and they were looking to do something different, because they’d been working with a few bigger producers and they weren’t that happy with the results – they thought it was too pop. We started working together at a very early stage and became very close through that.
With The Knocks, they basically discovered us. Thet discovered what I was doing in the studio at the time through our old drummer Nick Brown. Those bonds were created early on, and they’re really special, because it was before all these other people became involved.
What do you think of the utility of social music streaming services like Spotify, SoundCloud or Hype Machine? Do you use any yourself?
I definitely use Spotify. It’s the only social media music app thing that I use. I don’t know if you’ve been following the whole debate between Taylor Swift and Spotify. There was a response from one of the main Spotify people about how their revenues are actually increasing. For me, it’s a bit of both [sides]. I haven’t fully made up my mind.
I’m more on the side of someone like Spotify, I think. As a band, we make so little money from record sales anyway that something like Spotify can only do good for us, because we’re not selling a shit-load of records. It’s only beneficial if more people get to listen to our music because that way more people come to our shows, and maybe better and bigger brands want to license our music – brands that we respect and like. As more people sign up for something like Spotify, and there are more paying members, they’ll have more and more revenues to distribute to bands.
It’s a little like Uber. Stuff like that is an inevitable part of the future, and it’s something we have to embrace as artists, and it’s something that will be interesting to see develop, but I feel good about it, I guess. It’s difficult to explain.
Funnily enough, it seems like you and Taylor have a shared appreciation for synth-heavy, 80s-tinged rock. Have you had a chance to listen to her new album?
I’ve listened to bits of it, but this tour is funny: On previous tours, when we were on a van, we had about eight hours a day to just sit and stare out the window and listen to music, but when you’re on a bus, you sleep through the drive, and then you wake up and have shit to do. So, I’ve struggled to find a real context to listen to it, but I’ve heard the first four tracks, and I think it’s a great big pop record, and I’m fan of big pop.
What’s your number one album on rotation right now? Do you have time to listen to anything right now?
[Pauses] The new Caribou album, for sure. We saw him perform on Governor’s Island four or so years ago, just after Swim came out, and it was so good, man. I really respect him, and there are elements of what he does that I feel are similar to what we are doing. I also really love having instruments that are slightly out of tune, or wavering pitch, and I just love that everything he records sounds like he’s had his paws on it. A lot of electronic music sounds sterile, or clean, but with him you can hear that it’s from a great synthesizer and it has been put through a crazy phaser – everything just sounds a little bit tweaked or mushy, and I love it.
Would you ever want to collaborate with him?
[Laughs] Sure! Why not?
Yeah, this is me hoping that he reads this interview and decides to reach out to you.
I’m sure your work in commercial music writing is something you’re tired of talking about, but I’m still curious: Did your work in that field change how you see commercials? Are there certain jingles that you’re especially fond of? Do you have a response to this kind of stuff?
It’s such an interesting field. I feel like the best commercial music writers are people who are able to detach themselves emotionally from doing it, and I always found that difficult to do. I was probably the least successful person at that music house in terms of the number of commercials I won, and normally the ones I won were the jingles I felt the shittiest about [laughs].
When you’re making music day in and day out, and have to create two thirty second pieces every day and finish it, it’s like, even though I put my heart and soul into everything, there were days when I was like “What the fuck: I have to write for a tampon commercial?” And whenever I would put a personal touch in there, that was just the part they wanted to cut or change. [Laughs]
But I learned a lot about music doing that – probably even more than I did at music school, because I was forced to write in so many genres, you know? Every time I would get a brief in some genre I hadn’t written in before, I would do a little bit of research about the genre, and how it’s produced, and the instrumentation. Doing that was probably the reason I fell in love with synthesizers. Before that, I thought synths were just the worst thing ever, basically. We had to use synths for a couple of jingles, and they had a few synths lying around -everyone else was using “in the box” synthesizer software, but I wanted to try using the real thing.
And I definitely won my fair share of commercials! I can always hear, like, “We want Mumford and Sons”, or a Mumford and Sons kind of track, but to me it’s a very practical thing. It’s like IKEA furniture. There’s very little heart and soul that goes into it, but it serves its purpose, and it’s there to sell a product and make people feel a certain way about it a product. I don’t feel good or bad about it; it’s just there in the background.
What are your plans for the near future? When can we expect the next St. Lucia album?
Well, we have a little less than two weeks left on this tour, and I’m really hungry to get back in the studio as soon as we can. We hope to have the next album out next year, but my main goal is to make the best album that I can. I’m not trying to rush it just to stay on people’s consciousness, or make When the Night Comes part two. I want to make something that is its own thing. However long that takes is however long that takes.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.