St. Lucia's Jean-Philip Grobler Talks Bad Taste and Tour Stories

"I want to be anti-that. I want to sound clean, I want to sound big, I want to sound bombastic," says the frontman.
Reading time 9 minutes
Photography by Shervin Lainez

If you’re looking for a musical pick-me-up, St. Lucia’s vibrant new record Hyperion is the thing.

The band’s third studio album presents bursts through speakers first as a funky melody, but on closer inspection presents dichotomous, heavy lyrics. According to frontman Jean-Philip Grobler, Hyperion's present sound was a response to critiques of St. Lucia’s album sound lacking the vitality of their live sets. But, in general, the Johannesburg native prefers to steer away from conformity and, in his words, that which is perceived to be in "good taste." To propel his vision forward, he’s brought together thoughts, pieces of music, and a group of individuals.

Comprised initially of Grobler (vocals, guitar) and his now-wife Patti Beranek (keyboard, percussion, back-up vocals), St. Lucia has grown to include Ross Clark (bass), Nick Paul (keyboard, synths), and Dustin Kaufman (drums) and, according to Grobler it’s turned into a family. “We tell each other everything,” says Grobler. “[The band dynamic] is very intimate in many ways.”

Grobler sat down with L'Officiel USA just ahead of the album's release out today to talk band dynamics, parenting, and his views on the current state of songwriting.


What are some of your crazy tour memories?

The first one that springs to mind was when it was Dustin's first show—Dustin wasn't in the band from the beginning, but our other drummer had left. So our tour manager at the time made this schedule for the first day of our tour and it was like you know sound check is at this time, and at the end of the list it said ‘Curfew is like 11 pm’ And ‘curfew’ means the time that everyone has to be out of the venue, so Dustin goes up to the manager was like ‘Hey, so we have to be in bed by 11 pm?’ He thought this was bedtime and it was hilarious to us old hats in the band.

There was another one—also involving Dustin on the same tour—where we had a trailer because we were still touring in a van. We were playing in Minneapolis and it was the coldest day in like a hundred years and Dustin was the last person to put his suitcase into the trailer before we got in the van. When we got to the hotel everyone started unpacking their suitcases and Dustin was like, ‘Hey guys anyone seen my suitcase?.’ We're like No. And then I just thought ‘who closed the trailer?’ We realized that, basically, Dustin had left the trailer unlocked and that his suitcase had fallen out on the way to the hotel. Fortunately nothing else fell out, but we went back to look for it and we couldn't find it so Dustin had no clothes for the rest of the tour. That's like the tip of the iceberg.

And you guys don't tour in a van anymore?

No we've been in a bus for a few years now, which is really nice in certain ways but in other ways touring in a van is great because you're driving all day through places with amazing natural beauty. One of the most amazing drives is between like Calgary and Vancouver: you go through the Canadian Rockies and you’re driving through the most incredible mountains you can imagine. Whereas in a bus you basically go to sleep. You drive while you're sleeping and when you wake up you're already in the city. So you have more time to explore the city but you don't see as much of the road or the scenery.

How has your sound has evolved in those last few years as your celebrity has grown?

The first record was basically me in the studio by myself trying to figure it out. I'd quit my job as a jingle writer and I wanted to make an album, make a statement. It was the sort of indier-than-thou moment where everyone was trying to be super indie and dark and weird. I loved a lot of that music but what felt fresher to me was going back to the guilty-pleasure classics from the 80s like Phil Collins and all the stuff that was in many ways considered bad taste at the time. It just felt natural for me to incorporate that stuff into the music I was making. Whereas I feel the second record was a reaction against this synth pop scene that emerged—and we were a part of it, but I wanted to differentiate us from that a little bit. The record is a little more intense a little less of the island, tropical pop vibe.

One of the biggest comments that I've heard people make about our records is that they didn't capture the energy that we have during our live show because we have this very active, very intense live show. So I really wanted to capture that energy on this new record and have it feel a little bit looser. I was in the mindset of not trying to make everything sound perfect, embracing the imperfections and mistakes in the record and having it feel like a group of people playing in a room together. That's the biggest difference on Hyperion—it feels like a band.

The subject matter of this album—gun control, parenthood—is quite intense, but the overall sound is fun, vibrant. How do you balance the joy and the intensity?

The most interesting place in music is where there's a space between happy and sad or the dark and the light. The name, Hyperion, comes from the Greek god who discovered the movement of the sun and the moon. I took that as a metaphor for balancing the light and the dark. Our sound is very vibrant, very positive, very epic in a lot of ways. I like the lyrics to have poignancy without being preachy. Like “Gun,” for example, it's about gun control but it's also a metaphor for power because the moment you have a gun you have power over anybody else who doesn't have a gun.

Has being a parent changed the way you write music?

The best analogy I can come up with is so many people care about food these days. I care a lot about food and I love good food made with good ingredients that comes from good farms, where it's made by a chef who cares about how he makes it. And I just realized that people don't really care about that when it comes to music even though music is also a form of sustenance, like a sustenance of the soul. At the time I was trying to make this record in a way that is an example to my future child, who is now my child. It's so easy to become a part of the sausage grinder of the human race. You go to college and you get this job and your whole life is planned out ahead of you. But I think there's a richer and more connected way of living your life. It's about trying to make informed decisions and being connected to your experience of life.

I'm going to challenge the first part a little bit. I do think that we're in a day and age when the audience very much cares about what musicians are doing politically, socially.

But they don't think about the actual music. So much of what’s coming out is the McDonald's of music where the artist has very little to do with how the music is made. There's a team of people who just make it for them—songwriting camps. It’s this production line of stuff that's fed to them and they're the logo. I have nothing against that, but I do think there should be a rich experience of music and people should care a little bit more about how the music is made. It's great that artists are more socially conscious and involved politically, but I'm talking purely about the musical experience—how that’s created.

You were saying earlier about when you first started making an album, you were looking to the type of music that’s largely considered to be in bad taste, but that’s actually the epitome of being hip—taking something uncool and making it cool. Like the resurgence of ‘dad’ fashion.

What's interesting to me is how it’s like being indie by being the opposite of indie. Whenever I look at any band that Pitchfork reviews positivity, I know it's going to sound like Mac DeMarco or Tame Impala because to them that's what rock’n’roll sounds like. I want to be anti-that. I want to sound clean, I want to sound big, I want to sound bombastic. I wanted to sound like all these things that are the opposite of what you'd do in the indie world if you want to get good reviews. In many ways that's worked against us because we don't get written about by Pitchfork or Stereogum, we don't get written about by any of the blogs that supposedly are the harbingers of good taste in the world of music. But to me that's what I find exciting. I just find it exciting to take something that is thought of as being in bad taste and flipping it on its head, and in some ways making it good.



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