Jean-Philip Grobler chats about his lifelong musical journey, from a boys choir in South Africa to commercial writing in New York City to then starting St. Lucia, as well as the tension of his ‘80s influences and what his version of perfection sounds like.
This upcoming tour is going to be the biggest headlining tour you have done so far, so that must be pretty exciting to see these last couple years come to this point.
Yeah, absolutely man. It’s been quite a ride. I guess what’s been interesting is we’ve definitely seen some bands that we started with blow up quicker than us. We’ve had this steady pace where things have kind of happened, and each time we’ve done a tour it’s been bigger than the last. Even though we haven’t had a big radio hit or anything, it seems like people are enjoying the music and enjoy coming to our shows. It’s good to see that the growth is happening at the right pace.
I thought it would be cool to talk a little about your background, which I think is a fascinating story. You grew up in Johannesburg and got started in a boys choir around 10. What made you want to join that, and how do you think that ended up shaping your musical sensibilities and tastes?
I went there when I was like 10 years old. I was really young. I grew up in a suburb in Johannesburg. The way that I grew up was not that different to how a lot of kids grow up in suburbs in the States in some of the big cities. Apart from the fact you could go on safari an hour away, and there were a few other things you could do that were different, it wasn’t that different. I think I was just having a hard time at a normal school. For some reason, I was bored, but my music teacher at school realized I had some kind of talent in music.
The Drakensberg Boys Choir that I joined is kind of a legendary place in South Africa. I think people think of it a little bit like Harry Potter, but without magic. Instead of magic, it’s music. We heard there were auditions for the school and I was like, “Yeah, OK. Cool. I’ll try out.” Then I auditioned for it and got accepted to the school. At that point in my life, I thought, “Why not try something new?” I was 10, and went off to boarding school for five years.
I think it might have been one of the most important experiences of my life. We had two hours of choir practice every day. It was in the mountains of South Africa, so it was far away from any city. In our spare time we would go down to the river, swim in the river, go tubing, and then go on hikes and stuff like that.
Then, we’d do a few tours every year. We’d do a few national tours of South Africa, and then one international tour. I think that prepared me for our life that we have now on the road. I think I have a high tolerance for travel, in a sense. I think the fact that we were doing music all the time from such a young age, it got under my skin in a lot of ways.
Then in your late teens you decided to move to England and study music there for four years. What do you think you took from that experience that you wouldn’t necessarily have gotten if you wouldn’t have done that?
When I grew up in South Africa, until I was about 10 or 11, it was still apartheid. So for most of my childhood, South Africa was fairly closed off from the rest of the world. It would take us half a year to get a movie that other people had seen ages before. Lots of music wouldn’t be released in South Africa, and all sorts of stuff. Definitely leaving South Africa opened up the world to me in a lot of ways.
Before I left, I think to me the most underground band I could think of was Radiohead. When they released OK Computer, it seemed like such a crazy thing from another universe. I had no idea of the whole alternative-indie scene in the rest of the world. When I left, I had so much catching up to do. I learned about My Blood Valentine and the Smiths, who I had never heard about before that. It was a huge growing experience for me.
It was kind of a culture shock in a way. In the school that I went to, there was one South African guy that had just graduated or something, so I had no connection to my own cultural reference. I just had to learn other people’s cultures and come to them, rather them coming to me in a sense. That’s probably the biggest thing, me learning about the world of music and the world in general.
Then finally after that you decided to move to New York City and worked for the Lodge, which does licensing for film and TV, and you did some commercial work as well. Did that allow you to learn more about the business side of things? What did you draw from that?
The reason I took that job was I basically got offered the job at a time when I had finished studying in England and didn’t have any options remotely as good as that. I guess it was kind of a no brainer. They offered to move me to the States with Patti, who is now my wife and she also plays in the band. So we did it, and I worked with the company for probably two-and-a-half, maybe three years.
It was a really, really high-pressure job. I’d have to write, record, produce, mix and basically finish two 30-second pieces of music per day basically every day for the whole three years. We had to write all sorts of genres that I had never written before that I might not have even been into. I took it upon myself to do as much research about those genres as possible, and try and pay respect to them by making them as accurately as possible. I know there’s this stigma attached to jingle writing or writing for commercials, because a lot of people think the music is of a lower quality, so I always strived to make it as good as possible.
I think from doing that I learned about so many instruments that I wasn’t interested in before. Before that, I couldn’t care at all about synthesizers. I was like, “Why would you ever use a synthesizer?” Then I started doing that, and I developed this sound where it wasn’t just rock or pop or whatever. It was this mixture of a lot of different sounds and textures. Without having done that job, I don’t know if there would be St. Lucia.
So at what point did you decide to go out on your own and start St. Lucia? Did you always know that you would end up doing a band, or did you think that might not ever happen?
It was always my ambition, to do what I’m doing now. I always wanted to either have a band or have a solo thing, some kind of musical project where I was doing what I wanted to do and wasn’t just writing music for some other thing. For anyone who makes music, it’s always this pie in the sky idea. You never really know if it’s going to work out. You just try and work towards it, and fortunately these opportunities opened up to me.
I left the job, I think I burned out from it, and my goal while I was doing it was to save enough money to be able to buy enough equipment to have my own little studio. So I did that and I left. I had saved up enough money so that I could afford to experiment and try some things out for a couple years while doing some freelance work on the side, and that’s what St. Lucia came out of. It was experimenting and going back to my past in music. I was reconnecting with my roots in a lot of ways and creating this thing that combined all my influences, rather than one side of it.
You brought up that thing about going back to your roots. As a kid, you were into pop music and ‘80s music, like Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac. Then you went through that period where you were more into rock, stuff like Radiohead or Interpol, and then you went back to the ‘80s stuff for St. Lucia. What has that journey been like for you to go on?
Like you said, I went through this whole period where I was really into guitar music and music that was a little more angsty in a sense. It just got to a point where the project I was working on at the time, I started feeling like I had hit a brick wall with it. It didn’t feel exciting to me anymore somehow. It felt like I was constantly making music that I had made before and wasn’t fresh to me.
For many years while I was into all that music, I felt sort of embarrassed by the fact that I liked ‘80s music when I was growing up. I shunned it a bit, ‘80s music or world music or whatever. Out of that frustration of hitting this brick wall, I started opening up a bit more again to stuff that was maybe considered guilty pleasures. I would force myself to not feel guilty about listening to it.
I just became more open about music. If it made me feel good and I liked it, why should I feel embarrassed about liking it? I think going back and listening to all that music, becoming reinfluenced by world music and pop music from the ‘80s or ‘70s, I think it naturally started coming out in the music I was making. That developed into St. Lucia.
Going back and being influenced by all that older stuff, how much of a challenge is it then to write music that doesn’t sound dated or specific to one time period, and to keep it sounding fresh and pushing forward?
For me, the whole musical idea and creation process is very intuitive. It’s not like I go, “OK, I want to write an ‘80s referencing track now.” And then once I’ve done that go, “OK, now I’m going to add some modern elements.” It’s just that things that lean a little bit in that ‘80s direction come out, because I listen to all these modern bands as well. I love Beach House and Interpol and Mew. There’s so many modern bands that I love. I think the fact that I love both things equally naturally makes my music a bit of both, if that makes sense.
It’s definitely not a conscious process. I’m not trying to make it modern. It’s always what makes me feel really good. I did have tracks where it sounds like a pure ‘80s homage, and then it doesn’t become a St. Lucia song because it’s very one-sided. It’s normally the things that have a bit of tension in them between the old and the new, and maybe the happy and the sad. When there’s a good amount of tension in the songs, those are normally the stronger ones and the ones that end up becoming St. Lucia ideas.
There’s one song I wanted to ask about in particular, which is the song that got me hooked, which is “Elevate.” That’s such a catchy song, and the way it’s put together seems so effortless. Was that an easy one to write, or did it take some time to get right?
Thanks, man. The whole thing definitely took some work, a lot of work, but certain parts of it were definitely effortless. When I came up with the song, it was one of those where the bones laid themselves out immediately. The melody was there. The lyrics were pretty much there. The chord changes were there. The whole structure of the song happened very, very quickly, and I actually recorded most of the parts very, very quickly.
That song seemed so strong to me, so partly because this was my first album that I was going to release, I wanted to make a really impressive statement with it. I think at some point I had 300-plus audio tracks in there, with horns and various vocal parts and all these things. The hardest part of that song was whipping it down and deciding which are the strongest parts to go with. It was weeding out the stuff that didn’t need to be there, because I really loved all the parts. The mixing and that whole part of the process was really difficult.
Also, our label, Columbia, saw that song as such a strong song and they kept pushing me. They never put their hand in it, like you have to do this, but they were always like, “We kind of feel like it’s not quite there yet.” I was like, “Aw, man,” and I’d keep working on it. Because of that, because they were pushing me a bit, and other people were pushing me, it became better. I’m really, really happy with the version that’s out there now.
You like to do a lot of tinkering in the studio, as you were saying. How much of a perfectionist would you say you are in that regard?
I do think I’m a perfectionist, but I also don’t really need that perfection to be achieved, if that makes sense. If you believe that something can be perfect, I think you’re fooling yourself, and you’re going to run into a lot of troubles. To me, my version of perfection is more truth and honesty, like if a song makes me feel a certain way and I feel like it’s the purest expression of what it can be.
When I first come up with the song, that’s normally the strongest feeling I have about it, and then the rest of the recording of that song until the finished track is almost like trying to catch up to that initial feeling I had about that song. When I finish it, to me it’s as close to perfect as it can be.
Even when it’s done, I’m still like, “Oh, I could do this. I could do that. I could do this.” I’m aware of the fact that all the things I want to change are little, tiny nitpicky things, and it’s at that point that I’m like, “Maybe it’s done. Maybe by changing more stuff, I’m not making it any better.” It’s kind of a tightrope, the perfection thing.
This summer, you released the deluxe edition of When the Night with three new tracks on it, which are “Forgiveness,” “Cold Case” and “Out Tonight.” Were those three leftovers from the When the Night sessions or are those new songs?
No, they were leftovers. All three of them at some point were in serious consideration for the album. As the recording went on, and the process of finalizing things with the label and getting “Elevate” mixed properly, I’m always writing. I would then come up with new songs, and then it would be like the album feels more like it needs this new song than it needs “Cold Case” in the flow of the album.
For example, at one point the album was going to start with “Out Tonight,” and then “Cold Case” was going to be second. That was the only place on the album where those two songs felt like they worked. The moment I came up with “The Night Comes Again,” it was so obviously the opener of the album, and then “Out Tonight” didn’t work anywhere else.
I would occasionally go back and be like, “Maybe we could work it in as a bonus track.” It’s a constant thing. I’m definitely really proud of those songs, but I wanted to make a concise album that wasn’t 14 or 15 tracks, because my favorite albums are normally the ones that are 10 or 11 tracks and get to their point fairly quickly.
Your music has been described as “feel good,” and there’s certainly a hopeful romanticism that runs through a lot of the songs. Where do you think that comes from?
Man, I’m really not sure. I think, in a sense, that’s who I am. A lot of the art that I really enjoy has that romantic idealism to it as well. In terms of films, I love Wes Anderson, and I love Hayao Miyazaki, and I love Almodóvar and I love Quentin Tarantino. I love art and film where it feels lustrous and textual. There’s a lot of elements at play and a lot of moods. There’s also maybe an element of ridiculousness to it. I think that naturally comes out in my music.
I’m definitely not trying to make happy music at all. I’m pretty sure in the future there will be a lot of tracks that aren’t super happy, necessarily. But yeah, it just comes out like that.
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk