Jean-Philip Grobler encourages us to “f—k the fear” as we embrace the magic of his musical brainchild, St. Lucia.
Photography by John Hong
Makeup, Grooming, and Hair by Tammy Yi
Story by Sarah Yoo
Video by Jonathan Navales
Sound check hour dawns, and the first few eager notes tickle the walls of the waking theatre. The band is settling into position — Nick Paul on keyboard, Ross Clark on bass guitar, and Dustin Kaufman on drums — as they summon all stage lights and sounds at The Wiltern in Los Angeles. Founder and frontman, Jean-Philip Grobler, lingers backstage, the furrow of his brow growing deeper with each tentative step toward the stage. “We have to move ‘Elevate.’ What about opening with ….” He turns back to final bandmate and wife, Patti Beranek, who’s just a few steps behind. The two stop and examine the set list for what we gather is the hundredth time this evening.
This moment here perfectly exemplifies just why St. Lucia is quite possibly one of the best live performers in today’s music scene. Every song, every show is tailored for each city, each venue, with such careful consideration of the story of the moment. When you attend a St. Lucia show, they are talking directly to you, reading your energy, and giving it right back to you in a two-way conversation. Grobler looks up from the set list and contemplates just a moment more. “OK, let’s do it.” He steps into the light, onto the stage, and the night is officially on.
It’s almost impossible to articulate the transcendence of a St. Lucia show. It’s more than a performance; it’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of freedom from time and space, from here and now. The music bears an otherworldly quality that takes you — mind, body, and spirit — to a whole other place, defined only by happiness and fearlessness, however that may be characterized for you in that moment. This, paired with the fantastical set design — large diamond-shaped gold frames backlit by colorful, flashing lights and accented with large potted cacti — play dutiful homage to the founding mission statement of St. Lucia: to deliver an escape laced with exotica and guilty pleasures. The spirit of St. Lucia was born out of bandleader Grobler’s musical experimentation and genius and today embodies the reflection of his ongoing exploration of music, self, and the world around it.
Composure Magazine: What, or who, is St. Lucia?
Jean-Philip Grobler: I was really frustrated about coming up with a name. I had all this music I had been developing, and some of it had developed this slightly escapist, slightly exotica pop, with a slight guilty pleasure quality to it. That seemed to be the freshest thing out of all I was doing, and I’d been looking for a name. Eventually, what I did out of frustration was take out a map of South Africa and close my eyes and just do the thing where you take a pen and just put it down on the map. And I think the fifth try was where it landed on St. Lucia. It was crazy because right in that moment, everything sort of came together and just made sense because St. Lucia was this place that I used to go on vacation with my family as a kid. It’s kind of similar as a mental idea to the St. Lucia in the Caribbean, where it’s this beautiful, tropical place where people go on vacations, where they maybe escape to, that they probably have some hazy memories of. That almost seemed like the perfect embodiment of what I’d been working on and the perfect mission statement, where I was making music that in some ways was very, very escapist and had this sort of exotic feeling to it and was very eclectic. So that was just a really pivotal moment for me, just coming up with a name. It was almost like that was my tent pole and my guiding light whenever I was like, “what do I want to do now,” you know, and it always sort of came back to that idea.
CM: And has that stayed consistent as you’ve grown the band? You’re very much the heart of it, but now you have four other members [Ross Clark, Nick Paul, Dustin Kaufman, and Patti Beranek] and an ensemble on top of that, so how has it evolved from there, or has it stayed very true to that core?
JPG: Everything — I would say most things — that we do starts with me coming up with an idea and working on it myself sort of privately, and I don’t show anyone for a while. I develop these ideas, and then there normally comes a point where I start showing it to Patti. Patti’s normally the first one to hear it. Then members of the band will hear it — maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t — but I kind of pick up little ideas along the way and develop them gradually. And I’d say the St. Lucia mission statement has in some ways stayed true, but I also think it’s important to not stay too true to a sort of contrived idea. You know, to kind of try and explore new territory, new boundaries and stuff, but the interesting thing is that I feel like it always does in some way come back to sort of that thing. Yeah, so I would say St. Lucia has remained the sort of guiding light in a way, but I always try to explore a little bit further than that.
CM: Along with the evolution of the spirit and mission statement of St. Lucia, how has the creative process of the music evolved as it’s grown from being your solo project to a more collaborative art?
JPG: Well, I have always had a collaborative spirit. I grew up loving solo artists like Michael Jackson, like Prince, like David Bowie, but also really loving the idea of a band and loving bands like Radiohead or Pearl Jam — just that sort of romantic idea of four or five guys that go into a room together, and they’re all connected to the same idea, and everything they do kind of works out really well. But in a lot of the bands that I would find myself in, I never found that group of people where we initially all very much connected on the same ideas. So there came a point where I started feeling like I was being more fruitful by doing things myself, and I just did that for years. It felt very fulfilling to me even though sometimes it was frustrating because I was the one who had to come up with all the ideas. But there came a point where the sort of music I was coming up with just felt very similar to the first record “When The Night,” and I never wanted to just make a “When The Night, Part Two.” I wanted to show that St. Lucia could progress, that that idea could grow in some kind of way, and then I just came back to the idea of collaboration because I think when you collaborate, you learn something and you grow as a person because you experience that other people’s influences …
CM: Energy is a real thing!
JPG: Yes, exactly. It creates this sort of energy flow, and I think that was very refreshing to me to do that, so I think my process now is definitely more collaborative. I’ll still mainly write by myself, I still mainly finish things off by myself, and I have the final say in things, but I think having some outside influences in the work makes it fresher and more interesting.
CM: And what is it about Patti, Ross, Nicky and Dustin that clicks for you?
JPG: I think what works really well about this group is how different all of our influences are. Dustin, Ross, and Nicky all come from a jazz background, and they grew up in the States. I grew up in South Africa, so their whole musical vocabulary is very — it’s just very different to me. I like our live show to feel like not everything’s played exactly like it is on the record, so Nicky and Ross and Dustin can go and change things and improvise if they want, but what Nicky will do when he improvises, for example, is very different from what I would choose to do. Sometimes I’m like, “really?!” but I also think it’s good to have those things that rub a little bit with what the initial intention of the band was.
CM: Now let’s talk about the music a little bit more. You guys are categorized a lot as “synth pop,” but your sound is so much more than that. How would you describe your music?
JPG: I think, like you said, we get put in this box of “synth pop,” and I think every band in history gets put in a box. Radiohead gets classed as “rock and roll” or “indie,” but I’d say probably half their tracks are completely electronic at this point in their career. Prince was kind of roughly put in the style of “rock and roll” category, but he had so much R&B in his music and so much gospel and so much soul, you know? All artists struggle with this sort of label that they’re put under, and I don’t know if anyone at any stage in their career feels satisfied, like “now everyone really understands me and gets what I’m about.” But then I think there is a positive end to that where I think it’s important for an artist to feel that sense of trying to communicate with the world and trying to make them understand what you do. With us, it’s that we’ve been categorized as this fun synth pop band that’s running around on stage just having a great time and their song’s not really about anything, but to me there is a lot of meaning behind the songs.
CM: What is the intention behind the music at the end of the day? Because they’re really fun dance records, but they’re actually pretty deep if you’re really listening. You’re actually addressing some real issues. Where does it all come from?
JPG: I could talk about this for hours! I really believe in following my feelings and my intuition when it comes to songs, so I’m not writing lyrics like I’m going to write a song about, you know, the election season right now or some specific issue. It’s more like I really believe in the power of the subconscious and that what the subconscious puts out there is often a lot deeper, more powerful than what you can come up with with your conscious mind, in a way. One of the exercises I like to do is to write sort of a diary entry every morning that can be up to three pages long and not even think about what I’m writing — just write — and often it’s almost like this inner subconscious voice just comes up with all these things that make so much more sense about your life. It’s funny, I went through, for a big part of my 20s, some pretty crazy depression actually, and one of the ways that I came to terms with it, or came through it, was by doing this writing. By doing that, I figured out that the best way to live my life is to just follow my intuition and just f—k the fear basically, and that’s kind of what’s fed into what St. Lucia is. And because I found this positive influence in my life, what I naturally gravitate towards is material that feels a little more positive and that I feel like will be inspiring to other people. There’s more of a need for that in today’s world than for me to go and write really dark, foreboding music. I think it’s important if you have a stage and people listen to what you say, to show them that it’s possible to live a life that is without fear and is the maximum, most awesome version you can provide from what you’re doing. So we try and do that, I would say.
CM: Clearly it’s working, and people are really connecting with your music, and as a result of that, St. Lucia has been coined one of the must-see live acts, especially in the major festival circuit. What’s the best part about performing live and being there in the room with your audience, face to face?
JPG: The best shows are the ones where you almost forget about time, and you forget that you’re even in that place or that you’re separate from the audience, and it almost feels like everything is this one ball of energy. Those are my favorite moments at shows, where it just feels like you and the audience are connected on some kind of deeper level that you can’t really explain or understand in the moment, but it moves you and moves that audience, and you just know that there’s something awesome going on.
CM: Going on tour and playing live, how do you think that adds to your artistry, and how do you think that helps you grow as St. Lucia?
JPG: When you’re working on an album in the studio, you’re in there for weeks and months, and you’re making this thing in a box, almost. The moment you take those songs out and start performing them live, it’s amazing how different it feels and how differently it makes you think about those songs. The live experience is such a completely different flow of energy and makes you see everything from a completely different perspective.
CM: So what’s next for St. Lucia? What happens after the tour?
JPG: I’m always working on a lot of new music. I’m still learning so many things. It’s always a new process, and it’s almost like the universe is just throwing you curveballs all the time. Six months ago, I thought I had so many good songs that I thought I could probably just go and make a brand new album right now, but now with some of the new stuff that I’m writing, I’m like, “oh man, this new stuff is amazing.” You just go through these phases of new things and new influences and writing 10 songs you think are amazing, and then six months later you only think one of them is still good. It’s just an endless process, and there are so many older tracks that I’d like to somehow get to see the light of day, so maybe I want to push them onto other artists or if we release an EP that … yeah, I have no idea, but definitely I will be back in the studio a lot!
Keep up with the latest on St. Lucia at www.stlucianewyork.com.