Premiere: St. Lucia's "Physical" Is An Ecstatic Dance Anthem
And Jean-Philip Grobler on his band's bold new sound
After two years of nonstop touring, including a barnstorming performance at this year’s Coachella, New York-based electro-poppers St. Lucia are coming back strong with their sophomore album, Matter. Last month we got a taste of the record with "Dancing On Glass," an infectious synth anthem with a surreal video to match, and today we’re premiering second single, "Physical." It’s a bold new direction for the band, with stuttered vocal loops and a trancey breakdown midway through the song. We caught up with frontman Jean-Philip Grobler to discuss the new St. Lucia sound, celebrity co-writers, and touring while married.
After leaving South Africa, you studied music in Liverpool. Do you think your training sets you apart from the pop competition?
Training is an interesting thing because I think there are some benefits to it, like giving you a more resilient voice when you’re performing live, it gives you better stamina in certain situations, but I think in certain regards training can hold you back a bit. You were told that certain things were the right way to do stuff, and that holds you back from being creative in certain ways. I’m sure it provided some kind of benefit, but you have to be inventive and break rules as well.
You also met your wife Patti while studying at Liverpool. How did you two first meet?
I’d just arrived in Liverpool and had my orientation at the university, a kind of international students meeting, and I made friends with this guy. Later on we were hanging out at his student apartment and Patti came by and invited us for drinks over at her place. She was actually the first girl I met when I moved to England. [indistinct noise] She’s shouting in the background, “And most beautiful!”
You guys have been on tour together pretty much nonstop since your debut album When the Night came out. Has touring brought you closer or been more of a source of havoc and mayhem?
There’s so many different angles I could come at it from. I think sometimes it brings us closer, sometimes you just get into tour mode where you’re living next to each other and not fully together because you’re in a bus with eight other people and trying to stay out of each others’ faces. It gives us camaraderie, though, us being in it together. We’ve been together a little over thirteen years, so I feel like we’re very comfortable in those situations. When we were starting out it took a little getting used to because we were literally together all the time.
With all that time spent touring, how did you find the opportunity to write the songs for Matter?
It’s funny because making When the Night took me such a long time. I was a jingle writer before starting St. Lucia, but I left that job to set up my own studio with the money that I’d saved and started developing my own sound. It took three or four years for When the Night to be finished, and I had my own studio, all my instruments at hand. When I had an idea I could just go to the studio and work on it at the highest quality whenever I wanted. Once we started touring, I realized if I wanted the record not to take five years then I’d have to embrace an imperfect situation. I built a laptop rig and became good at writing while in completely random scenarios, like in a hotel or in a van. Once we finished touring I went into the studio with Chris Zane and properly recorded everything.
The album involves a lot more textures beyond the synth pop that made up When the Night. How did you develop your sound this time around?
When you’re confined to writing on a laptop, the result can end up sounding very synth-y. In the studio we added horns, guitars, brass, and all the voices you hear on the album. Every song on the album had about 200 to 250 audio tracks. We basically recorded every sound or idea in our heads and the end of the process was digging through the sounds that we’d created.
When the Night was very lush and tropical, while you’ve previously said that Matter is themed around desert. What drew you to that concept?
Before When the Night came out, we hadn’t spent that much time out west, meaning the West Coast of the U.S. We live in New York and New York is this very lush, well-watered area of the world, and the West Coast is a lot drier. There was something about that idea that translated itself into the music, with the songs being a bit more lean and prickly. As the album was being developed, these visions of a drier climate and totally different sound world started popping into my head, so it felt more appropriate for the visuals to have cacti instead of palm trees.
You co-wrote "Dancing On Glass" with Tim from Walk The Moon, and album track "Help Me Run Away" with Jack Antonoff. Do you find the current trend of having lots of co-writers on pop albums to be productive?
I’m more drawn to doing it by myself because there’s a part of me that’s attracted to being a bit of a lone wolf and being like I’m on a pilgrimage when I’m making music. I have nothing against the whole songwriting thing—I think it can be really helpful and really productive, and I had some good sessions on this record, but I think for a lot of labels it’s become the shortcut to making a big pop album, throwing as much shit at the wall as you can and hoping it kind of sticks. I tried to do it with people that I knew or had admiration for, and I was very conscious of being as in control of the sessions as possible.
Apart from your own work, you’ve made your name remixing and producing songs for other artists like Charli XCX and HAERTS. Who would you be most keen to work with these days?
So many people! I did a writing session with Grace Mitchell a couple years ago that I really enjoyed. She was really, really young at that point and I’m enjoying seeing her come into her own right now, so I’d love to do another session with her. I’d also love to work with one of my favorite influences who don’t seem to be making relevant records anymore and try to enliven their work again, maybe a band like Fleetwood Mac or Phil Collins.
Finally, you’ve cultivated a very strong aesthetic on Instagram. How do you consistently keep your pics so fresh?
I post whatever I want to post, really. It’s funny because I often look at other people’s Instagrams and think, “Wow, I’m so inconsistent.” Some people are so dedicated to a visual aesthetic and I feel like mine is all over the place, but occasionally I get people saying what you just said, that I have an aesthetic, and I appreciate that. It’s not something I try and create. I definitely go on wild flights of fancy, and if you go down my Instagram feed you’ll notice a lot of different eras.