Frontman Jean-Philip Grobler talks about St. Lucia’s second album Matter, his approach of exploring any and every idea, and realizing the importance of speaking out about what you feel.
You’ve been able to have a little break from the road recently. How have you been enjoying that?
Oh, it’s been super nice, man. It hasn’t been a full break, because we’ve had stuff basically like every weekend with summer festivals and everything. We’ll have four-ish days in the week to be in New York, which has been very nice.
Matter has been out for seven or eight months now. Looking back, are you happy with how everything turned out and how it’s been received?
Yeah. I feel like even though you always have your slight reservations or things you’re annoyed about, I always remind myself that we’re in a really amazing position and there’s really nothing I can actually be unhappy about. We’re touring. We’re playing really big venues.
I walk down the street in New York and random people will recognize me and tell me how much they love my music. Even though we’re not selling six million copies of our album, it moves people and has an effect on people. It’s not shoved in their faces, and I feel really good about that.
You took a little bit of a different approach creating this album. What do you think you learned from doing the first record and touring off of that that you were able to carry over into this one?
I think the biggest thing I learned from the first record, When the Night, was to not be above getting help or delegating. On the first record, I literally did everything by myself, which was a really good experience, but I feel like there were moments where I almost went insane. I had a choice to make between three things. Like, should this section have tambourines? Should it not have tambourines? Whatever. Just that would send my brain into a loop.
So on this one I involved more people, which was good because that takes a little pressure off of me having to think of and deal with everything. I think it also provides a counterpoint to what’s going on in my mind. I think it’s good to have other people’s influence and input. That to me was the biggest thing that I learned, but I feel like I had to go through that with the first record.
Are you a big perfectionist, where you like to oversee every little detail? Did that play a role in why it was a little more difficult for you to get more people involved?
Yeah, definitely. When I was playing in bands growing up, I would always get frustrated with certain things. I felt like people didn’t have the same vision or perfectionism that I had in my own mind. No one would ever want to take it as far as I would, but I also wanted to be diplomatic. I hated confrontation, so I would never say anything about it. I would just get internally frustrated, I guess [laughs].
Then at some point I just decided to do everything myself. I feel like When the Night was the apex of that approach, where I was just basically in my studio alone doing everything, with a little bit of help from people here and there. At some point, I realized that it’s good to open yourself up to other people’s influence and input. It provides a good counterpoint, or else I feel like every album starts to sound the same.
Since you toured so much off When the Night, you were able to write some of this record on the road. Was that the first time you were able to write in that kind of environment? What did you like about doing it like that?
It’s funny because on paper it seems like a really not ideal situation to be writing an album in, but I’ve actually found it to be really inspiring. In a weird way, because it has so many limitations, it’s actually freeing.
When I was writing When the Night, I was in the studio that I had at the time and I had every option available to me. I could record piano, I could record guitar, I could record tambourine. But when I’m writing in a van on the road, I’m basically limited to what I have on my laptop. That doesn’t include guitar. That rules out a lot of possibilities.
The cool thing about that is it makes you focus on different things, because you can’t really focus on all the details you hear in your head. You have to sort of find lesser substitutes for certain things. It just has an interesting way of freeing up your creativity and focusing it a little bit more.
Have you found yourself writing while you’ve been on the road this year, too?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like all the good stuff I’ve come up with I’ve basically written while we’ve literally been in a van or on a plane somewhere.
How did you arrive at coming up with the album title of Matter?
When we were in the stages of finishing up the album, I was a little bit worried because normally by that point I would have an idea of what the name of that record should be, but I didn’t. Then one night I had dinner with Patti, who’s my wife and plays keyboards in the band, and I just said, “Hey, do you have any ideas for the album title?” She immediately said, “Matter.”
In that moment, it was like that was the most perfect name that you could ever come up with for the album, the themes that it deals with and the message. I was just like, “Oh my god. Where did you find that?” And she said she was just walking around downtown and somehow that word came into her head. So I was like, I’m going to keep that in the back of my mind unless a better option comes up at some point. But it didn’t, and so the album was called Matter.
One of my favorite elements about the record is the production side. It’s very ‘80s sounding, obviously, but also very modern, and there’s a lot of little details and flourishes here and there. How much work goes into getting things to sound like that and coming up with all those little details?
Definitely a lot of work, but I think the main thing is not rushing stuff. We spent a lot of time making sure that everything sounded really good and allowing ourselves to explore every idea that we came up with. Basically, that’s my approach to making records. Literally any idea that comes into my head I’ll put down in some way.
I remember there’s this one quote from John Lennon where he was talking about, I can’t remember what song it was, but it was some Beatles song. He was talking about how his one regret was he had this idea to have this monk choir on one of his songs, but the producer George Martin convinced him it was too much and he never did it. Since then, he always wished that he tried that out. Once you’ve tried it, if it doesn’t work then at least you’ve explored that option and can put your mind to rest.
So we just try everything. Sometimes it’s too much, sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it leads to a different thing that’s even better than that initial idea. So that’s it. We have a lot of fun and explore all the ideas that we have.
What’s an example of something you’ve tried where you realized it was too much and you had to pare it down?
There’s a lot of horns on this record, like a lot of brass. We had one day with the horn section, because it was really expensive. There were a bunch of songs, like on “Dancing on Glass” I had written this whole funky horn section line, very Michael Jackson and similar to the end of “Elevate.” That kind of horn part. We recorded it, and it took us like an hour to do because it was so complex and intense. In the end, we were like, “Nah [laughs].”
There was this one other time where Nick came in to play some keyboards. I had written this whole bass guitar part for the end of “Love Somebody,” where it goes into that whole Earth, Wind & Fire section. I just wanted to try having him double that bass guitar part. So we sat for an hour listening to each bar separately, because every bar is completely different. We would do each bar and it would take us a few tries to get it right. Then at the end, once we had done the whole thing, me and Chris looked at each other, who produced the record with me, and said, “Nah, it doesn’t need it [laughs].
So sometimes you just have to go through doing something that’s really painstaking and hellish in order to get to the other side and be like, it doesn’t need it. I think it takes a lot of confidence to do that.
You did some co-writes with a couple different people on this record, and the one I was most excited about was you were able to work with Jack Antonoff. I’ve been a fan of his for a very long time, and I feel like your styles and musical sensibilities mesh so well together. How did you like being in the studio with him?
It was cool, man. I feel like he’s a very free writer. I really enjoyed writing with him. Some of the other sessions I did, I enjoyed all of them, but there were some writers who I feel like when they were writing you had to check certain boxes in order for a song to have hit potential or whatever. But with him it felt very fluid, which is basically the way I like to write. It’s very intuitive and not thinking about are there enough catchy words in this line or whatever.
It was a very enjoyable experience. We were only together for three, three-and-a-half hours, and we wrote the whole song in that time. We were just having fun. I feel like we weren’t super taking it seriously. At the time, I didn’t even know if that song was going to be a St. Lucia song, because it felt almost like taking the ‘80s aesthetic a little bit too far. It almost felt pastiche, you know?
But then a whole bunch of people heard the song and were like, “Dude, this is like a super catchy song, even though you think it’s pastiche or whatever.” I spent some time with it myself, to take it away from that a little bit, and then yeah, it made the record.
Did doing these co-writes give you a desire to do what Jack does and how he works with a bunch of different artists on their records? Did that spark anything in you to do more of that in the future?
Yeah. I’ve done a lot of that in the past, like I produced the Haerts record. I’ve done a lot of production. I really enjoy doing it. The only thing is that I like to be really involved in the project and not just spend a day writing a song, and then whatever happens after that I’m not involved with. To me, songwriting and production go hand in hand.
Recently, with touring and me working on a lot of my stuff, I haven’t had the time to devote as much as I would like to another project. But I definitely would like to in the future. Maybe once we stop touring this album and I’m working on the next record, maybe something comes up. But yes, it’s absolutely something I want to do.
That video you did for “Help Me Run Away” was such a creative idea and one of my favorite videos that I’ve seen this year. Have you gotten a pretty good response back from that one?
Yeah. I mean, it definitely doesn’t have as many views as I would have expected it to have, but I feel super proud of the video. Anyone who’s seen it, we’ve only gotten really positive feedback about it. The guy who directed it, who is one of my closest friends, Norton, him and I have this shared affinity for Pixar films and really great animated films that speak to both the child in you and the adult in you.
We really wanted to bring that across in that video, and we sort of came up with the concept that way. We wanted to have all these cool little touchstones of this shoe going on this adventure, but then maybe met this dark side and his shoe friend helped him out. I’m just really proud of how it came out.
Do you think you’ll get another single or video after this one?
Hopefully, yeah. We have a lot of music that is close to being done that we’ve been working on for years. Some of them are collaborations with other artists. I have a track that is a collaboration with a Norwegian electronic producer, one of my favorites, called Lindstrøm.
Then there’s a bunch of other things as well that we’re working on potentially releasing either later this year or early next year. I’m not promising anything, but hopefully we’ll have some new stuff out soon.
I know you did a deluxe edition of When the Night with some extra songs on there. Would that be on like a deluxe edition of Matter?
I really don’t know yet. In a way, I’d like it to be its own stand-alone thing, because the songs I’m talking about weren’t part of the Matter sessions. They were separate tracks that were in many ways straight up collaborations. I’d like it to almost be like a flagpole between Matter and whatever the next record is going to be, if it happens.
My favorite song on the record is “Always,” which is the one you wrote with Patti and she sings leads on for the first time. Can you talk a little bit about that song real quick?
Sure, that was the last song that was written for Matter. I like to have a really strong beginning and a really strong end to an album to really feel like a journey. At the time, I didn’t feel like we had the song that felt like the obvious riding into the sunset moment or period at the end of the record.
Patti and I were just sitting in the studio one day and she started playing that beginning piano riff on the piano. I was like, “Ah, that’s awesome.” We just started working on the song and basically wrote it in a matter of hours. Then I showed it to Chris and it became the obvious closing song for the album.
Then the last thing is I’ve noticed you’ve been unafraid to be pretty outspoken on social media this year, with all the politics and stuff that’s been happening in the world. Has that always been something you’ve been passionate about and unafraid to share your opinions?
It’s definitely something that I’m passionate about. I wouldn’t say I’ve never been afraid to share it, because I feel like there was a time in my life where I didn’t want to be seen as a preachy artist. I thought that was maybe uncool.
I feel like as our, for want of a better word, stature as a band has grown, I’ve realized how important it is that if you have an opinion or if you want good in the world to happen, if you have a big audience it’s important to speak to them about what you feel. Not hit them over the heads, but just throw in seeds here and there to hopefully help guide people who are maybe a little bit confused about life in some way.
I’m not trying to be the Dalai Lama or something, but I think it’s important if you have the ability or the audience to change the world in some small way, that you do that.