“We felt like we wanted to make a record that felt like the antidote to the last few years that we went through,” says St. Lucia mainman Jean-Philip Grobler of the band’s fourth LP, Utopia, which drops this Friday, October 7th, courtesy of Nettwerk. The synth-pop band, led by Grobler and his wife, Patti Beranek, kick off and month-and-a-half-long US tour this Thursday in Charlottesville, and have a stop at Theatre of Living Arts this Saturday, October 8th. A few weeks ago I got a chance to chat with Jean-Philip Grobler via Zoom and he told me about St. Lucia’s latest album, his thoughts on Philly, and the group’s approach to performing live.
Izzy: Since this is a Philadelphia publication, I have to ask your thoughts on the city, as you’ve played here a ton of times now. I actually saw you back in 2012 when you double-headlined the North Star Bar with Charli XCX…
Jean-Philip Grobler: [Laughs hysterically] And there were like three people there, right?
Izzy: Yeah, it was totally empty, but it’s now one of those shows that no one believes me that it actually happened! But yeah, anyway, any favorite memories of the city, whether it was from onstage or just, ya know, around town?
Jean: Yeah, I mean we’ve had some super memorable shows there. We did one supporting fun back in the day on the waterfront, and that’s where I met Jack Antonoff and we ended up working on “Help Me Run Away,” on our album Matter, together. I mean, I always love playing Philly. The food’s great! Like, we’re playing TLA again and there’s that amazing cheesesteak place next door …
Izzy: Sadly, I have to say, that place burned down.
Izzy: It did, just recently!!!
Jean: No waaayyy!!! But yeah, we love it there, Man. I think the last time we were there we were sort of down towards the water — we would’ve been supporting somebody — and then me and Patti and Indy (We only had one kid at the time.) walked around that whole area, where the Liberty Bell is and all that stuff, and that was super beautiful, and we had some really good food. Yeah, I love Philly!
Izzy: You’re about to release your fourth LP, Utopia. How do you feel like the album compares to previous releases, both in terms of sound and just the process of writing and recording it?
Jean: Everyone that I’ve played the record for — that’s heard it and knows St. Lucia — says it just feels like the best combination of all of our records so far. I think there’s a very big part of When the Night on there, a bunch of Matter… You know, it just feels like a really good combo of all the records.
In terms of the making of it, it was probably the first time that we had exactly the amount of time that we needed to make the record exactly the way that we wanted to, and the freedom to make it exactly the way we wanted to. We’re on a new label, Nettwerk, and they just really let us do our thing, which is amazing. And it’s not just up to them, it’s also the whole pandemic happened, and we had a lot of time [laughs]. And it’s not like it wasn’t stressful. We basically didn’t make any money for a couple of years, so that was kind of stressful… But I feel like we really just had the time to fully stretch out and make exactly the record we wanted to make and to take exactly as much time as we needed to take to make it.
And, it’s a well-known fact that a lot of times, bands on their first records, they have all this time to make it so they can make exactly the record they want to make, and that’s true to an extent for us, although towards the end of making When the Night we signed to Columbia Records – there were years that went into making it before we signed to Columbia – and at some point a bit of pressure was put on. And pressure isn’t necessarily a negative thing; I think it can be a really positive thing. But with this one we just did exactly what we wanted to, and I think we just fully made 100% the record we wanted to make, and hopefully people can hear that.
Izzy: You have been releasing music from the album throughout the year, so it won’t totally be all new for fans. But I’m curious, do you have a particular favorite album track at the moment, whether one you’re most proud of or one that you are just excited to play live?
Jean: My current fav I think is the last single that’s being released from the record, called “Gimme The Night.” That’s probably my current favorite. But we can already play all the songs live, like we’ve been doing a few small, one-off shows throughout the summer, and the band can already play all of them and they all feel really super good to play live. I think it’s maybe the first record where every song feels super good to play live, and they just have locked-in in a really easy way. If I were to pick a handful of favorites, I would probably say, “Gimme The Night,” “The Golden Age,” “Separate World,” “Another Lifetime,” and “Hey Now,” which is almost the whole record [laughs]. But I just feel really close to this record, because of the time we made it, and we put a lot of joy and hope into it. We felt like we wanted to make a record that felt like the antidote to the last few years that we went through. And I feel like we did that. The record feels that way to me.
Izzy: You’re about to embark on a pretty big North American Tour. What can be expected of the live show when you return here to the TLA, both in terms of the setlist and just the general vibe or production of the evening?
Jean: We always go really out of our way to make the absolute best show we can, to the point where we don’t really make that much profit from our tours, because we’re just trying to really give people the best experience they can have in the size venues that we’re playing. So, we have great production. A lot of people aren’t using real amps anymore, but we’re using real everything, like analog synths, like drums, the whole thing. To me it feels like maybe people are getting sick of seeing people just standing onstage pressing buttons. A lot of what we’re influenced by is those bands from the golden age, that were just really doing their thing onstage, and we want to bring a bit of that experience to people in 2022, and it’s important to us to do that.
Izzy: You’ve been touring a lot of years and have a pretty big catalogue of music. How do you decide on the older tracks you’re going to incorporate into a given setlist? Is it mostly based on whatever the band is most feeling, or does it have more to do with what you think your fans most want to hear, or a bit of both?
Jean: It’s definitely a bit of both. There’s songs that, for whatever reason, have never really come together when we’ve played them live. And we tend to shy away from those. Like you said, we have so many records now, that you want to play the songs that seem to get the best reactions from fans, and the songs that feel the best to us. And, generally, those are the same thing. It’s also cool, each time we tour, to just try to bring in a couple older songs that we’ve never played, just because we get asked to play a kind of obscure part of our catalogue all the time. So, it’s nice to have a couple of those things, and also bring in the most enjoyable new songs for us to play. Which, when you’re going into a tour for a new record, is always a bit nerve wracking to play the new-new songs because people aren’t as familiar with them yet. But honestly, a lot of the new songs off Utopia are feeling super good to play live, and so we’re really excited to play them.
Izzy: You’ve also regularly played a pretty wide variety of settings, from huge festival stages, to nightclubs, listening rooms, tiny bars, and theatres. Do you have a favorite setting to play, or one that you feel is most conducive to your sound, or do all have their own benefits?
Jean: They do all have their own benefits. Like, I would say you can’t beat an amazing big, outdoor festival, in the middle of the summer when the weather is good. A couple of the best experiences we’ve had were like when we played the mainstage at Coachella a few years ago. That was incredible, to play that during sunset. We did after the headliner at Firefly, this late-night set, which was amazing, such a fun show.
But then, the downside of those festivals is that there’s often technical issues and you just don’t have the time to figure it out, so you’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants. Like, your technical side of things isn’t perfect. Whereas, if we’re at our own shows on tour, we have time to really dial in the sound to make sure everything is working, so it’s a bit more of a controlled environment, and you’re playing for your fans, so you can play songs that maybe everyone doesn’t know that well and you get stronger reactions to those things.
Izzy: On a related note, have you developed any particular touring rituals over the years, whether certain kinds of places you always make a point to stop, or certain things you make a point to do before or after you play each night?
Jean: [Laughs] At this point there’s a lot of them! One of the things we love to do on tour, as much as we can, is on days off stop off in national parks, or just beautiful places. Because, touring, you’re often in cities and these dirty venues and stuff [laughs]. Especially having kids, and just having this amazing opportunity to travel around the whole country. America’s a beautiful country and it would be a shame to not allow yourself to experience it. Patti and I, before we had kids, made a point of always checking out the city, trying out one of the good restaurants if we can… And then during the show we’ll normally have a couple drinks during, talk about it… There’s a very family vibe to this band. We’re all really good friends. Of course, we fight here and there [laughs], but we also just like to enjoy each other’s company, listen to music…
Izzy: You seem to draw inspiration from a pretty wide variety of places musically, so, considering that the year’s slowly coming to an end, I’m curious if there’s been anything released this year that you especially love or find to be especially inspiring?
Jean: A record I’ve been listening to a lot is the new Soccer Mommy record, Sometimes, Forever. I really, really like that record. It reminds me of so much music I was listening to in the late ‘90s. I think the production is stellar. It just sounds so good, it’s just so perfectly exactly a time capsule of that time, but also it’s original in its own way and its sounds are just so good. Oneohtrix Point Never produced it, and it’s cool to see him do that because he’s been doing a lot of the new Weeknd stuff and then for him to make a record that’s kind of more organic – although I really like a lot of the stuff he’s done for The Weeknd, as well – it’s really cool…
I’m also a big fan of the band Parcels, from Australia but they live in Germany. Also, good friends The Knocks put out a really, really great record, a great disco/EDM record with a lot of great songs. There’s also this guy Jake Wesley Rogers that I did a remix for earlier this year, and we’ve been doing some writing, and just spending time in the studio with him was amazing. He’s such a talent and has this amazing persona and is just so flamboyant.
I just think there’s a lot of great music right now. And I think what’s really great about the time we live in is you kind of have license to do anything, as long as you do it well. So, people are still making great old school records, but then people are always making great modern records, even though there’s a lot of questions around how artists are being paid on Spotify and everything [laughs]. That stuff kind of sucks, but I also think maybe what’s good about that is it’s forced artists to be a little more diversified, in terms of the way that they make money, and they’re not necessarily doing it for the money. They kind of just do it and have faith that it’s gonna work out in some way.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for the band? What are you hoping and planning for the first part of 2023?
Jean: Like I said, during the pandemic we had all this time to work on music, so before we made Utopia we already basically made a whole other album that was more or less finished, and then Utopia was made after that. So, we’re now focused on the tour and making the show great, but we’re also finishing up a whole other record for next year. I’m not sure when we’re gonna start releasing stuff from it yet, but it’s in the process, so we have a lot of new music coming out next year. And, also, it’s the 10-year anniversary of our first album, When the Night, next year, so we’ll probably be doing some stuff around that, and hopefully some festivals and stuff. So, it’s definitely a busy time in St. Lucia world, which is enjoyable.
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