St. Lucia is the name of the band and musical enterprise started by South African-born singer-songwriter Jean-Philip Grobler. Along with wife Patti Beranek and live band members Ross Clark, Nick Paul, and Dustin Kaufman, Grobler is now on tour promoting St. Lucia's third studio album, Matter, which was released in late January, and they'll be playing two shows in SF this weekend Saturday at the Fillmore, which is sold out, and Sunday at The Independent, for which there are still some tickets as well as a sold-out show at LA's Fonda Theater next Thursday.
The album marks a bit of a departure from the breezy, "tropical" vibe of the previous two and Grobler has said in interviews that he did more collaborating on the songs this go-round than before though fans will find plenty that's familiar in 80s-pop-inflected tracks like "Dancing on Glass," "Rescue Me," and "The Winds of Change."
SFist spoke to Grobler today from his hotel in Portland, where St. Lucia is playing a show tonight.
SFist: First off, how would you say the new album differs from the first two?
Jean-Philip Grobler: It's still difficult for me to step away and see it from an objective point of view, but maybe I'm starting to. It feels a little like on the last album I was still maybe holding back a little bit, in the sense that as you're still coming out as an artist, in the back of your mind you're a little concerned with how people are going to react and generally what people think of you and how they're hearing you. And with this album I think I'm starting to think less about that and just not hold back.
Also on the first two albums, things were quite drenched in reverb and there's a lot of atmospherics, and in this album and maybe this is a product of touring and playing live so much I'm singing out more on a lot of the tracks and there's less stuff to fill empty space. If there's empty space then it's just that, empty space. And it feels a little braver maybe? Also it feels a little less overtly tropical. A lot of people have branded us "trop pop" or "tropical pop" and this is a bit less so.
Do you have a favorite track?
There's a few... I'm really proud of the whole record, but I keep coming back to "The Winds of Change" it has this windswept, sci-fi darkness to it, almost this Spaghetti Western quality and mystery about it that I really like.
I know your wife, Patti, also plays in the band. What's it like working with and touring with a spouse?
Generally it's great. Occasionally we'll get in a very public screaming match with each other in front of the band like we did the other night, and because you're always around other people sometimes you just have to wash your dirty laundry in public. But for the most part it's amazing. Back in the beginning, money was a challenge we'd just put all of our money into the band and things were financially very difficult for a few years, but as we hit our stride and things have fallen into place it's been a real pleasure. We're fortunate just to be able to travel and see all these different places together.
Where did the name St. Lucia come from?
First off, the band is named after St. Lucia in South Africa not in the Caribbean. I was thinking of what I should name the band, and I thought maybe I should make some reference to where I'm from, to South Africa, so I closed my eyes and took a pen out over a map of South Africa and just wanted to see where it would land. On the fifth try I landed on St. Lucia and the moment I hit that name all the stars aligned, and I just knew that had to be it.
Also, the first two albums had this tropical tinge to them kind of this hyper romantic, extroverted sound. And when you hear the name St. Lucia, whether you've been to the place in South Africa or the Caribbean, you think of somewhere you might escape to, someplace you may have hazy nostalgic memories of and St. Lucia is the saint of light, and I think my music has some light to it, too.
There's an obvious 80's influence in your music, and you've said that Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins were big influences on your songwriting. Was Phil Collins really huge in South Africa when you were growing up?
He was massive! I feel like he was massive everywhere. I don't love everything Phil Collins has done, but the good stuff is so undeniably good. In many ways it's because he was this completely untraditional pop star he was this balding, not skinny, British guy and I really liked the fact that he completely no pun intended went against the odds and became this huge pop star.
Everyone always stamps us with this 80's thing, but the main idea I think, the main thing I think about in terms of what the sound conjures up is it's like the last decade of indulgence, of hubris in a way. We as a society started in the 90's being more concerned about the environment and people started being more globally aware, but before that there was a kind of blissful ignorance in a way. The good side of that is that there was a lot of music being made where people didn't hold back, people were just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what worked, and this what we try to do, I think, work with all these different ideas and see what works together and what sounds right.
How many times have you toured the US at this point?
Man maybe like eight or nine times? Ten?
Do you have any favorite cities, or favorite touring memories?
We've had good experiences in nearly every city we've been to at this point. Sometimes you have technical issues or you're just exhausted as a band, and somehow those seem to be the memories that stick out. My best memories are from times when just everything goes wrong. I'll tell you this one, in particular. We had this one show in Minneapolis, and it was like minus-30 degrees and we were packing all the gear into the tour van after the show. Dustin, our drummer, was the last person to put his bag in, and when we got to the hotel that night he turned to everyone and was like, "Hey, where's my suitcase? Did anyone see my suitcase?" And it turned out he put his suitcase in the van but assumed someone else was going to put something else in and close it, and we all assumed he'd closed the door, but what happened was we ended up driving a half hour with the rear door of the van open and luckily, miraculously, only Dustin's suitcase fell out, because there were guitars leaning against the entrance to the van and like all of our equipment. We were so lucky.
How come no Coachella this year?
Well, because most festivals don't have bands return two years in a row. It's not like we'd turn them down!
Is there anything about the Bay Area or San Francisco audiences that you especially like? Care to make any comparisons to Brooklyn?
I feel like we always have an awesome time in San Francisco. The food is great, the views are beautiful, the city's just such a special place. My parents came over one year and we had a few shows around the Bay Area, one up in Tahoe, and we spend like two weeks just driving all around. We went down to Monterey and Carmel and we went up to Point Reyes, and we went to Sonoma, and we really got to experience the whole area and it's just beautiful, everywhere.
As for New York, you can see how both cities have had this rampant gentrification. Like where we live in Williamsburg, we moved there seven years ago and it's all just completely changed just in that time. We're getting a Whole Foods that's about to open, and now there's an Apple store, and a Levi's store, and a J. Crew. There wasn't even a grocery store anywhere nearby when we moved in. You just see this runaway thing, and on the one hand it's convenient for people like us who've moved in, but of course you see people being driven out just by their property taxes like older people who own their homes but because property values have skyrocketed they have to move just because they can't afford the property taxes anymore and that's kind of sad to me. But I've had Uber drivers who grew up there and they're happy because the value of their property has just gone through the roof and they can now sell it and buy something somewhere else. But it's kind of a moral minefield. I don't even know how to feel about it anymore.
St. Lucia plays in SF on March 5 and 6, at the Fillmore and the Independent, respectively. Find tickets for the March 6 show here. The LA show is sold out, but there appear to be some available on Craigslist.