By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
When I last spoke with Jean-Philip Grobler, he sounded like a man who had been shining – brightly, intensely – for so long that inevitable breakdown was just around the corner.
It was the fall of 2014, and the St. Lucia frontman’s enthusiasm and optimism only thinly masked the fact that he seemed to be close to running on empty, worn down by months of travel and not-quite-restful sleep on a tour bus. Much like the neon tubes that are the building blocks of his band’s light show, my conversation with Grobler had a bit of a warm, fuzzy haze to it, which is to be expected when you’ve performed so many nights and done so many interviews and been on the road for thirteen months.
At the time, St. Lucia had already criss-crossed the United States four times, as well as performing on three continents. As critical acclaim for When the Night built up, they had stayed on the road a bit longer, going from playing small, intimate venues, to increasingly larger clubs and audiences. Their final long overland haul culminated in two sold-out shows at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club on consecutive nights, cementing St. Lucia’s place in the pop-music zeitgeist as 2014 came to an end.
Grobler had earned a long, hard break.
And, of course, he didn’t take one.
“We played our last shows in late November, and then I went into the studio the Monday after Thanksgiving, literally,” Gobbler remembers. “We basically started recording Matter immediately. Since then, I was working flat-out on the new record.”
Grobler is preparing for his band’s show at Boston’s Royale Theatre when I reach him over the phone on a February afternoon. It’s the first week of St. Lucoa’s tour behind Matter – the band’s second record – and he sounds renewed and refreshed, unbothered by the burdens of the heightened expectations surrounding the sophomore effort.
As he readies himself for soundcheck, it’s evident that fame hasn’t stymied Grobler’s work ethic, either. In an era where many artists stretch an album cycle for years and years, touring on the success of a record way past its shelf-life, Grobler is prolific in a way matched by very few peers (a notable exception being his recent collaborator, Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff).
This dynamism translates to the music on Matter – an expansive, glowing ode to Grobler’s many influences: the music of Fleetwood Mac, Prince, and Madonna; the clean, minimalist design work of Silas Adler; the stunning natural beauty of his native South Africa.
St. Lucia plays the 9:30 Club on Saturday. Matter is available now on Columbia Records.
St. Lucia had previously seemed to be a somewhat solitary endeavor for you, at least in terms of writing and recording. What was it like for you to break with those habits and work with people like Jack Antonoff and Tim Pagnotta? What made you want to collaborate in the first place?
It’s kind of a long story, but when I started writing for the new record – and I think the first song that was written for it was “Home”, which I wrote even a year before When the Night came out – I was coming up with all these ideas and demoing them on my laptop, because we were touring a lot and I couldn’t be in my studio. I was writing and demoing on the road. I started noticing that some of the tracks felt a little bit aurally similar to the first album, and I’ve always been very mindful and conscious of not wanting to repeat myself too much. I want to feel that I’m expanding and growing and including new ideas in my music.
I started asking the guys in the band to come in and play different parts over the demo. Ross [Pryce Clark] would play some guitar stuff over it, and we’d work on the parts together. His and Nicky [Paul]’s influence – and the influence of the different people in the band – married with my songwriting and production aesthetic, and added new energy and fresh air to the proceedings. They’re also such talented musicians, and so good at playing their instruments that we were able to come up with parts that I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to play myself, because I’m not the best guitarist or the best keyboardist or whatever.
In terms of writing with Jack and Tim, it got to this point where we’d already spent three weeks recording, and then I went on tour, and then I went to the studio with Chris at the beginning of December. I was one hundred percent sure I had all the songs for my album, and I didn’t feel like anything was missing, but I had a couple of weeks open. I just thought, “Why don’t I just try and do some songwriting?” [Collaborating] was always something I had been intrigued in doing, but it had a negative connotation around it. It felt like this thing where people just go to LA and do these pop songwriting sessions, and what they come up with doesn’t feel natural; it feels like a cop out.
Something I’ve always done is that if I felt like I needed to grow or expand in some way is to go and do something I have a negative perception of. Often in life, if you see something in a negative way, it’s because you don’t fully understand it. So, I just decided to go and do this thing, and do it with people that I personally knew – I didn’t feel like working with Dr. Luke or someone completely random, and I ended up being very happy with the trip. Even though parts of it were a little bit difficult for me, and out of my comfort zone, that ended up actually being a good thing, and brought some new energy to St. Lucia.
As you mentioned, “Home” is a song you sat on for a while. It even precedes your debut. Why did you hold onto this song for so long? Did it serve as the emotional compass for this album?
You know, I have such a massive backlog of songs ideas. There are songs from when I was writing When the Night, and even way before that. There’s one song i’m working on right now that I wrote in 2008 or something, that I’ve brought back and rehashed, and I’m looking for a way to release it. I have so many old songs like that, that I feel really good about, but just haven’t fit on any of the albums yet. You can only pick ten or eleven tracks, and if you go over eleven tracks, people lose interest – people’s attention spans aren’t much longer than that for an album.
I have songs that are really old that still feel very relevant to me in some way. If I’m writing stuff, I’m usually developing several songs concurrently. Occasionally, I’ll come up with a song idea that somehow feels like a deeper idea from the outset, or I’ll expresses something I haven’t expressed before but have always wanted to express, whether or not I ever knew I wanted to. It’s often those ideas that stick with me over time, and I keep coming back to.
I’m always writing and coming up with new ideas, and new songs. Some fall by the wayside over time, even though I felt really good about them when I came up with the song, because maybe they’re not strong enough at the time. “Home” was just one of those I kept coming back to that felt very bombastic, and the first song that I wrote as St. Lucia that felt like I was really “singing out” in the way that Michael Jackson or Freddy Mercury does. In the past, I always felt like I was restraining myself and trying to mix my vocals in a really dreamy or reverb-heavy way, but this was the first time that I felt I was saying something in a very direct way. It was a new stepping stone for St. Lucia, and that’s why I stuck with it.
Your music as St. Lucia and Jack Antonoff’s music with Bleachers touch a similar sort of ’80s aesthetic, as much as the sounds and energy of an entire decade can be lumped together. Do you see the relatively recent revival of that ’80s sound – and the mainstream’s embrace of it – as a trend with a shelf life? Or do you think that after that music fell so sharply out of favor in the 90s, people are now open to the idea of its permanent reintroduction into pop music’s DNA?
I definitely feel like the 80s have a negative connotation in some people’s minds because they connect it with the hubris of the era. There was this abandon of any restraint or anything. It was this maximalist decade. And there’s some bad that comes with that, definitely.
Over the last couple of decades we have seen a lot of restraint in music, which can be a good thing, but I am in a lot of ways attracted to the sense of expansion and maximalism the ’80s brought, where it felt like anything was possible in music, and nothing was faux-pas, in a way. It was all guns out, and all guns blazing. But I definitely think that once there’s enough space from a certain period of time and a certain style of music, it almost then becomes part of the canon. You’re gonna see a lot of 80s stuff, and I don’t think it’s just going to be a wave of trends – it’s going to be a constant presence of the 80s in there, the same way there’s a constant presence of certain elements of the 70s and 60s sound. It becomes part of the aural palette, in a way, rather than being identified as specifically 80s sounding. You also hear a lot of people picking bits of all the different decades, you know?
A lot of people are framing our new album as this very “80s album,” but to me there are a lot of ’70s elements in there as well. There’s a lot of proggy elements, there’s a lot of Fleetwood Mac – though I guess Fleetwood Mac were also very prominent in the ’80s, as well. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting period to draw from.
Inherent in this sort of music is a dance between, on one hand, modern technologies and current electronic music trends, and, on the other hand, older textures and instrumentation. Has there ever been a moment when you’ve found yourself walking back an idea that’s too much of the latter? In other words, have you ever been making a song and thought, “I don’t know, this is might be too 80s”?
Yes, for sure. I feel like the songs that I normally stick with, that I keep coming back to or feel important to me, normally have some kind of rub between old and new, and happy and sad. A lot of different kinds of electronic and organic textures. I like to have a lot of “rubs” in my music. However, I felt that way about “Run Away” for a while, as I feel like it’s the most flat-out 80s palette song on the album, but it was just so catchy – almost undeniably catchy – that it had to be on the record. Normally, I wouldn’t go that full-on 80s, but it just felt right in the context to have this celebration of the hubris of the decade.
What attracts you to analog synths? Is there something you can get out of them that you can’t elsewhere, or is it more of a gear-head’s fascination?
It’s always been the sort of tactile nature of those instruments, you know? I don’t have anything against soft synths or using the computer – I’ll use often those when I’m demoing – but it’s kind of an esoteric thing that’s very hard to describe. When I’m using an analog synth, I almost feel like I’m directly interfacing with the the thing, like it’s alive in some kind of way. When I use more digital synths, it doesn’t feel as immediate or satisfying to me for some reason. I can’t explain why.
There’s even a thing with analog synths that have digital controls; it almost feels like another step away from the immediacy [of the sound]. If you’re playing with the LFO, or something that changes the sound as you’re playing, I can almost feel it changing in some way in my body if it’s directly circuited into the circuit board rather than some digital thing. It’s a very esoteric thing, but that being said, certain sounds on the album are the soft synth sound because it simply sounded better.
So, I’m not a purist purist in that sense, but I just generally prefer analog synths for some reason.
I understand the need to have a physical, human connection to the sound and timbre.
Yeah! And it’s difficult to describe. People who use them know what that feels like.
When the Night was an album released into the world presumably without the burden of expectations. It’s a record that found its audience on its own time. When you’re making a record like Matter, and you know the audience is going to be there the moment it comes out, is there a greater sense of pressure? Is there any feeling, like, “I need to write hits”?
I mean, there definitely is some pressure, but I’ve never been someone who’s thought that I need to write hits. It’s not like what I naturally want to write is the more experimental, darker stuff, and the record label is forcing me to write hits. I’ve never come from things from that perspective, because I have a true love for both sides of the musical spectrum: the more experimental, kind of darker side, and the brighter, poppier side.
Some of my favorite pieces of music that touched me just as deeply as some of the more experimental stuff is the classic Madonna stuff or Chic records or Fleetwood Mac; even some more recent great pop stuff. Pop music just naturally comes out of me, and I just wait for those ideas, and those are the songs that generally turn into the singles, in some kind of way.
That being said, I definitely feel some kind of pressure to at least equal or better the first record. There definitely is a certain amount of pressure, but I always try to do things on my own terms and not allow the pressure to dictate my process.
In your heart of hearts, where do you want to take this project? What’s your most wild ambition?
Obviously, I like to imagine doing massive shows, and being massively successful in a lot of ways, but I always like to think about what’s most important the core of what success means. To me, that is having the freedom and the space to do what excites me and what excites the band the most, at the time, rather than being focused purely on the success and fame aspect of it. I feel like that comes naturally if you’re really doing what you enjoy in some kind of mentally healthy way, and not burning yourself out by playing songs you hate, night after night. I think people can see if you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing, and we legitimately do. Hopefully that will continue to expand in a way that we believe in, rather than in some superfluous way that means nothing to us.
As a producer-songwriter, have you found yourself fielding offers to work with pop artists more frequently now?
Somewhat. There haven’t been that many massive offers. I had an offer to do a top line on a song for a DJ with a huge following – like a David Guetta track – but I didn’t have enough time to do it. I don’t really have anything against doing that kind of stuff, but I just couldn’t. I’m definitely interested in doing something like that, but I’d prefer to to do it where I was in some way involved on a production level, because I feel like my songwriting and my production are just so intertwined. For me to just go in and contribute song ideas might seem a little bit out of context and arbitrary, rather than being involved in production in some kind of way.
The artwork for the album – and each of the individual tracks – is really distinct and clean. What inspired that direction?
Man, that’s a whole other long story in and of itself. [Laughs] We’ve always been very focused on the visual representation of the aural world we’ve created. With the last album, we didn’t have that much time to think about the artwork; we were very happy with the cover artwork, but that was basically the only image that we had, and we used it over and over.
For this one, we really wanted to focus on having really great cover art that could be used across merch, set design, everything. We started making the cover art when we started recording the album, thinking about what the visual world would be. We were introduced to one of my favorite menswear designers, Silas [Adler], from a label called Soulland from Denmark. We did some brainstorming together, and came up with this idea of having a room with all sorts of things going on in it that represented different themes from the album or themes from our lives, and had personal objects in them. We developed the idea over months and months and months, and decided what objects were going to be in that room. There were a couple of times where we were close to pulling the plug on the idea and go with something completely different because we couldn’t get rights to specific things – like the room from Conde Nast and all sorts of stuff – but in the end it actually ended up coming through. And we’re very happy with it, because making the album cover was more difficult than making the album. [Relieved chuckle]
You partnered with Soul Cycle to promote Matter, hosting workout classes set to the album on the day of its release. Are you guys into Soul Cycle?
Actually, that Soul Cycle class was the first Soul Cycle class that any of us had ever done. And we’ve done a couple since then. I think it’s a great work out class. It’s really, really intense, but it’s good. [Laughs]
This came to us through our label, and I think Soul Cycle were fans of ours, and knew we had a new album coming out. It just seemed to make sense – they were looking to do something like that. We’re definitely a band that likes to keep fit on the road, as it’s important for your general well-being when you’re shoved together on a bus for weeks at a time. It just made sense. [Laughs]
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.