Jean-Philip Grobler hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. He is classically trained. He’s clean-cut. You’re probably thinking: pretentious techno, Brian Eno-inspired.
But you’d be wrong. The now New York-based frontman of St. Lucia has instead devoted his life to being a pop maestro (though he’d balk at that term if he had a say). He and his band are now opening for Ellie Goulding on her North American tour, and with their disco-pop EP September out on Neon Gold (and a debut LP in production), they’re well on their way to becoming a household name.
I chatted with Jean-Philip on the phone during his Ellie tour. Here’s what he had to say about South Africa, St. Lucia the island, and the goddess Ms. Goulding herself. Scroll down to hear their single, “September.”
Where are you?
We just arrived in Orlando, and we’re in Universal Studios! I’m gonna get to ride some roller coasters. Yesterday was the first date of our tour, and we were in Miami. And this is like the start of our long trip with Ellie.
Touring with Ellie Goulding – how did that happen? How has it been?
I mean we’ve only done one show. She’s been very nice to us, she said hi backstage after the show and we chatted about it. I think she has a really strong live show, and her fans are
super receptive and young — really receptive to new music. I think it just came about
because Derek and Lizzy who own Neon Gold helped Ellie in the beginning of her
career, so they put in a good word for us and she needed an opener. She made the choice
And you’ve opened for Two Door Cinema Club, that seems like left-field compared to Ellie.
Yeah, I don’t really see music as fitting in one specific place apart from pop, which is a pretty general catergory. I think in that sense it fits, Two Door Cinema Club is very poppy, Ellie has a poppy element to her. Whats about our music is that we can fit with a lot of different artists.
Tell me about the St. Lucia name. Is it pronounced “Santa Lucee-ya” or “Saint Loo-sha”?
The band started being Santa Lucee-ya, it’s just that everyone in New York said Saint Loo-Sha, so whichever really. I’m like really terrible at coming up with band names.
All the band names I’ve ever had I spent months trying to figure it out. One day out of
frustration, I took out a pen, and took out a map of South Africa, and put the pen anywhere on the map. On the fifth try or something it was St. Lucia in South Africa. Everything snapped into place immediately: the idea of this tropical island thing, I think that our music is quite nostalgic, and has a hazy summery feeling
Have you ever been confronted by the St. Lucia tourism board?
I haven’t! But loads of people post on the Facebook page stuff like “Where’s a good place to eat in St. Lucia?”
You mentioned being inspired by rhyhtms in Johannesburg that got you out of your classical rutt. What did you encounter?
When I was growing up in South Africa, I was way less inspired by the idea of African music. I think when you live somewhere, the place seems less novel to you because it’s around you. It’s forced on you. But I definitely absorbed all that stuff because in my boys choir we always learned African music. Since I moved from south Africa I discovered all this amazing African music, and even though I didn’t like it growing up, I love it now. That has been a huge influence to me. When I was growing up we had a limited access to what music came into South Africa, so we’d only get the super poppy stuff from either the US or the UK, so I would just listen to that growing up. I think that’s why my melodies are so poppy and stuff like that.
How does your classic training inform your work today?
I think the biggest way it informs it, is my desire to make things really lush, and to have
a lot of contrapuntal elements, a lot of different melodies going on, and a lot of information in the stuff. Some people find that a negative aspect to my music.
“Before the Dive” was more of a pop piece, and I feel like “September” is more focused on dance. Are you a producer, a pop star…who is Jean?
Its funny I just don’t see my self as a pop star. That’s someone like Rihanna or Robyn or
people who have supersized personalities and just exude that into every aspect of what
they’re doing. I see myself as someone a little more like Peter Gabriel or something
like that, someone who has a personality but, the music is the most important aspect. And I don’t feel the need to be a star in the sense of having my photo everywhere. In some ways I shy away from that.
It just seems like in New York you basically have to be super dancey, or super chillwave hipster. How have you it been in the New York realm?
It’s definitely in between. In New York we get a huge mix coming to our shows. We definitely have the dancey people, who come for “September” and the four-to-the-floor songs, and other people who respond to the songs that aren’t like that, then people who respond to all of it. It’s interesting. My biggest struggle in New York is feeling like I didn’t fit in in that sense. I saw the whole hipster thing and I loved a lot of the music, but I didn’t get the attitude. There’s almost a self-destructive attitude in that scene sometimes. But sometimes on the other side, not always, dance music felt a little dumbed down. There’s a desire to be as simple as possible. I love things from both sides of the fence.
Are there any bands you listen to that might surprise me?
I actually really like some metal. There’s this band Isis that I really love.
Where would you like to be in a year?
I mean I would love to be able to tour more comfortably than we’re doing now. We’re in a 15-passenger van. It’s fine but, it would be nice to be able to be more comfortable. I’d like to be working on projects that I’m excited about, which I feel like is happening already. To
be honest right now, apart from financially, things couldn’t be better.
Yes, it’s not easy to be a band in New York. You’ve faced financial hardship?
Yeah I mean, we did this Victoria’s Secret commercial and got a pretty good licensing fee, but it just disappears to pay the band, the rent. All these tours costing us 20 grand more than we’re actually making from them. We have to find various ways of paying for that, whether it’s getting a publishing deal or getting creative.
I’ve just been finishing up the album. The last time I wasin new York I was working with Chris Zane who has worked with Holy Ghost and The Walkmen…we’ve just been working on doing ultimate mixes of some of the tracks and adding a couple of things here and there. But I think the album is pretty much done. We just need artwork and all those things, then we have the tour. From there and from there who the fuck knows.