St. Lucia: How One Man Went From Choirboy to Electropop Frontman
Welcome to Throwback Tunesday, where Mashable amplifies the echoes of music past. With genre trends and throwbacks, we synthesize music and nostalgia.
St. Lucia frontman Jean-Philip Grobler’s musical background is varied — and that’s putting it lightly. The South African-born musician grew up performing in a traveling, internationally performing boys choir. This group, the Drakensberg Boys Choir, is also a school nestled in an isolated mountain range, which Grobler attended for five years.
From there, Grobler went on to study music in Liverpool, eventually relocating to Brooklyn after landing a gig as a commercial musician. Through penning and mixing jingles, Grobler dipped into genres that he hadn’t previously explored. And it opened doors for him.
“At the time I was obsessed with guitar bands, so I was like, Why would you ever want to use a synth? It was baffling to me as to why anybody would want that. But I learned to write with those instruments, and over time, from learning to use them I learned to love them. It became a part of my sound and my music,” says Grobler.
Today, Grobler brings the synth and his acquired taste for electropop to St. Lucia. Named not for the island, but for an African childhood vacation destination frequented by Grobler’s family, the music is packed with nostalgia beyond the synth tie-in. St. Lucia’s live lineup is rounded out by Patricia Beranek (Grobler’s wife — who he met during his Liverpool days), Ross Clark, Nick Paul and Dustin Kaufman. With a debut full-length album and several EPs under their belt in their ~2 years of existence, the group has been touring internationally and making waves.
Mashable checked in with Grobler via Skype — who was in London touring at the time — starting with a (hilarious) photo from two years ago.
What’s going on in the photo?
That was when we were playing in The Starlite Room in Santa Ana. There’s not a crazy backstory, but it was one of our first West Coast tours, and it was cool to be on the West Coast for the first time.
It’s not really a funny story per se, but the photo is with our old drummer Nick Brown, who left the band at the end of last year. It’s just a photo that we always look at and remember who he was and how foolish he could be (laughs).
You’ve said the band name comes from St. Lucia, a place you used to visit as a child. What are some of your favorite memories there?
I was born in South Africa and lived there until I was 19. St. Lucia was a place were we used to go on vacation, not every year, but we went there a couple of times. I remember the last time that I went there I was really small, and the only memory that I have is that my dad was going swimming or fishing one day — and I really, really wanted to go — but I was too young. I think it was a “boys” fishing trip. I was really, really sad … and I think I cried (laughs).
How do the ’80s influence your music?
The ’80s definitely influence my music in a big way. I think the reason it’s so prominent, at least with the stuff we’ve released so far, is that leading up to the creation of St. Lucia, the music that I was making was very old rock based. Very strongly Radiohead-influenced, influenced by more guitar-based bands. Bands that also had some synth-y stuff.
But I also feel like at the end of the 2000s there was this music trend that was very dark and brooding and serious, and even though I really liked all of that music, I started feeling that making that felt a little bit tired. So I started listening back to some of my earlier influences in music, and this happened over a couple of years … listening to it compared to the very serious guitar rock that I had been listening to before, you know, it just made me reconnect with a younger, more innocent part of myself, so that’s what you get today.
You’ve said “I really believe in albums, even though some people believe the year of the album has passed.” Can you elaborate?
Radiohead’s OK Computer was one of the first albums where it really hit me — that this is such an amazing piece of work and I remember the first time I listened to that. It was actually my parents who bought that album for me from Christmas. It was a recommendation from random guy in a shopping mall who they asked what they should give me for Christmas. When I first heard it, I hated it. It sounded like noise to my ears. But it was Christmas weekend and all the shops were closed so I was kind of forced to live with this album. So I listened to it a few times and the third or fourth time, there were little things in it where I was like, Wow, pretty. Over time, it just started opening up to me and becoming really beautiful. It became one of my favorite record of all time.
I think because of that, but also if you have a really strong album versus a really strong single song, it’s similar to comparing a short story to a novel. A short story can be really interesting and enriching and powerful, but a novel just contains so much more information and richness and depth. That’s what I strive for in my music. I want to create something that’s like a longform statement.
Do you find that your experience with the Drakensberg Boys Choir plays into your music today?
Yes, absolutely. We did a lot of classical music in that boys choir. We did some cheesy contemporary pop classics like “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. We did a whole African music set and I guess the discipline of being in that choir — a very disciplined environment and we’d go on tours — I think having done that made it easier to do what we’ve done today. Just being on the road all the time, being uprooted from our homes all the time as well. But I also think musically it had an influence — all the interweaving choral harmonies and melodies, and I think that’s evident in some of what I do.
What about your experience writing commercial music?
I think I learned more about that than I did actually going to music school. I was thrust into this environment and at the time I really experienced at all with recording and mixing and I had to learn on the job. We were forced to write in so many different genres and styles. There were genres I didn’t have any experience in writing, like R&B or hip hop or electro.
If you could go back to the beginnings of the band, about two years ago, and tell yourself one thing from where you sit now, what would it be?
I would say, if you have a bad feeling about something or someone, trust your bad feeling and go the other way.