St. Lucia’s front man, Jean-Philip Grobler, had recently finished an almost two-hour sound check Saturday afternoon when he agreed to sit for an interview with The Carletonian and KRLX. He hadn’t yet put on one of his signature floral shirts, but wore a short-sleeved V-neck shirt. Although he and his wife (bandmate Patricia Beranek) live in Brooklyn, he spoke with a South African accent, a reflection of his upbringing.
I’m sure Minnesota is a bit different than Brooklyn. What do you think of it?
We played a show here [Minneapolis] in January and I think it was the coldest day in 100 years--it was like minus 40 or something insane. So that was quite an intense baptism by ice, I suppose. But now, this is absolutely beautiful. It’s beautiful to be out in the middle of the countryside. I really didn’t expect to be in surroundings like this.
I know you’ve performed at Chapman College and Syracuse University. How is performing at a college different from performing at other venues?
There’s always a slightly different energy. Sometimes it feels like at College shows, people go to the show and they don’t even know who you are. They just go because it’s an event that the college puts on. And sometimes the energy is a little low and it feels like the audience doesn’t know who you are, so you have to work harder to connect with the audience. But there are other college shows that are completely insane. We recently played a college show that was amazing. Everyone was partying and having a great time. Today really..feels like a festival. We’re outside, the weather’s great.
Do you get bored of playing the same set of songs at every concert?
For me it’s always exciting because I wrote the songs, and it’s just amazing that we can play them to a group of people every night. I’ve never felt bored about it. It’s pretty much been exciting every night unless my personal energy is low. We just have a lot of fun on stage. We don’t try to be serious or appear to be a certain way. We just do our thing, and if we laugh about something, we laugh about it. So the fact that we’re natural about how we go about the performance stops things from feeling stale.
How do you spend your time when you aren’t touring?
The down time we’ve had recently has been pretty sporadic and staggered. We just finished [opening for] the Foster the People tour, and then we had two and half days back in New York, and basically that whole time we were doing our laundry. And now we’re here, and then we go back to New York tomorrow, and then we go to South Africa on Monday. We’ll have a couple of weeks off over there. The whole band’s going on safari, which is going to be cool. And then in the summer we have a lot of festivals, but they’re mostly over the weekend so we’ll have our weeks free. The only thing thats hard with that is you don’t have a lot of sustained down time; It’s very staggered and sporadic. I’m working on a lot of material for the next album, and I like to spend a good chunk getting into it, but it’s hard to really get into it when the down time is staggered in that way.
What’s your music-writing process?
For the first album, pretty much all of it was done in my studio in Brooklyn. I had all my synths set up and all my mics and my piano. For this album, we’ve been on the road so much that I’ve had to embrace writing on the road. So now I have a very good setup on my laptop so I can write songs and play with ideas while we’re traveling.
Of the songs you’re going to play today, which was the hardest to write?
They were all pretty difficult. Closer Than This was probably the easiest out of all of them, even though it happened over the longest period of time. I started writing it in 2008 at some point and it just sort of lay dormant for years because it really didn’t make sense with what I was doing at the time...We got it wrong was pretty difficult. I probably had five completely different versions of it that we rerecorded from start to finish. Elevate was easy in a certain way. Like writing it was easy, but then figuring out the arrangement and mixing it and making it into a coherent whole was [difficult]. Basically my vision for that song was I wanted to have almost every instrument that you can imagine in it: brass, tons of backing vocals. And there’s still tons of stuff in there, but there use to be like 3 or 4 times more going on in the end of that song. It was a process of going through and weeding out. So there are different things that make songs easy or difficult. Sometimes the writing process is difficult sometimes the production process is difficult.
You’ve said you like to address the album as a unit, rather than just a collection of songs. What’s your approach to a live set? Do you try to structure it like the album?
We definitely like to structure is like the album, or at least we have up to this point. A lot of bands keep a lot of there best songs for the end and the encore. But we have these two sides of the album: the one side is the bright and poppy and happy and nostalgic songs and then there are darker songs that happen at the end. Over time we’ve started to experiment with where those things are placed. Because we started thinking that maybe it’s best if the darker songs are at the end, so that you have a clubby feel at the end. But we started to feel that wasn’t working very well and we needed to move Elevate a bit later...We’re probably going to change things a lot in the future.
I know you do a lot of remixes. How do you approach those differently than your own songs?
I like to almost not even know what the song is like, and I’ll basically only listen to the vocal track, and I’ll just listen to that and imagine how I would produce that if I was producing it. And as the remix progresses, I’ll start to unmute other instruments from the track and see if that fits into what I’m doing at all. And if not, I’ll just record everything myself.
But with my own stuff, its a very very drawn out long winded process of trying things. They seem great at the time but then a few days later it seems like the stupidest idea ever. Or it seems stupid and then it seems great. It’s almost like a bizarre mystical journey that I’m on. I have no control over it but I just embrace the randomness and the beauty of trying new things.
As someone who’s been successful in a precarious field--music--what advice do you have for Carleton seniors as they step into the real world?
I would say, listen to your heart, listen to your intuition. Things might be difficult for a while but don’t give up on what you’re doing. I’m not super young. It’s taken me awhile to get to where I am. I was a jingle writer for a few years, and I released a bunch of EPs under different names, and it just took a long time for things to come together for me. I think often people look at their favorite artists and it seems like they suddenly came upon success. But it takes a lot of work. On some level you have to think of it as a job and not think of it as easy and fun all the time.