No man is an island; but some sort of sound like one.
Indeed, Jean-Philip Grobler exists in one of those contemporary identity grey areas – performing under the nom de guerre St. Lucia, which seems sometimes to be just him, and other times to include assorted musical accomplices. Born in South Africa, he went on to study music in Liverpool, and now resides in Brooklyn.
Their latest, Hyperion, was released in fall of last year, with FLOOD magazine raving that, “making ’80s music with 2018 fidelity has its advantages.” Indeed, tracks like the retro-funk “Walking Away” and the lush, extravagantly romantic “Last Dance” alluringly harken to that over-the-top decade without ever lapsing into nostalgia. While the lavish “Paradise is Waiting” (a duet with wife and bandmate Patti Beranek) recalls Faith-era George Michael.
They’ve also just released a surprising four-song EP, Acoustic Vol 1 (which is just what the title says it is), including a breezy, inviting cover of The 1975’s “Tootimetootimetootime.”
We caught up for a chat with Grobler just before St. Lucia will fittingly launch a 15-date “acoustic” North American tour this coming Tuesday, May 7 (at Seattle’s Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room) – and also asked the band to fill us in on their fave places to hang when back home in Brooklyn.
Your last album Hyperion was released only digitally. Do you feel we’re really at that time – that physical music is no longer a viable model?
It was also released on vinyl, actually. It wasn’t really our decision – it was a label one, where they felt it wasn’t really worth printing a few CDs, because normally our CD sales are pretty small in comparison to vinyl. But yeah, this is something I think about a lot. It’s a shame really, because I think that when you put a CD in the player or a record on the turntable there is a certain commitment you’re making to listening to that record.
You can quickly change it.
Of course you can change it; but I think the fact that there is a physical thing you have to do to change it makes it more likely you’ll listen to at least most of it. After living with it for a while, and as amazing as streaming can be from a discovery standpoint, I do think that it in some way it cheapens the art, because it just exists in some intangible ether. Or at the very least, it puts the focus way more on singles – and I’m an album artist.
What inspired you to do an acoustic album?
For a long time we actually really didn’t like doing acoustic shows; but we were always asked to do them for radio or private events, so we went along with it. On this record the acoustic things started to feel really good and natural, so we wanted to capture that. There are also some amazing acoustic versions of my favorite songs floating around, and I realized that we’d never officially made anything like that…so it seemed like it would be fun to try it. It was all of us in a room contributing to the arrangements and trying to make something fun over two days. Voila!
What do you feel the acoustic versions bring to the songs, especially old faves like “Elevate” and “All Eyes On You”?
For the most part, they’re at roughly a 1 or 2 intensity level, where the originals are maybe at an 8 to 10. So, it’s framing the songs in a completely different way and making them shine from an angle I don’t think anyone would expect. The “Elevate” arrangement we came up with on the spot, but for “All Eyes on You” we mimicked the original demo of the song that I was really bummed never made the cut. When I changed the arrangement of the song to what it is now, Patti and her sisters staged a protest because they loved the original demo so much, but it just didn’t work with the St. Lucia aesthetic that was developing. Patti also has her first ever full-song vocal in the acoustic version of “Love Somebody,” which I think is really fun and kind of irresistible.
Will she be doing more lead vocals going forward?
Are you fans of The 1975?
I’m just glad to see a band like them doing so well in the current musical climate, and making real albums that are hard to pin down. I think we’re kindred spirits in many ways, we both make big pop songs, but we also go down experimental roads; and I think in this world of needing to be “one thing,” that’s brave – and they do it with aplomb.
You’re launching a North American tour this month. What can we expect that’s different?
Well, it’s going to be mostly acoustic and majorly stripped down from what you might expect from our usual live show. Normally we try to carry as many instruments, lights and video panels as we can on our bus and trailer, but it felt like that instinct was perhaps starting to take precedence over “what do we really need?” So, we had a Marie Kondo moment, and thought we’d try touring with the absolute minimum and challenge ourselves to still make it engaging.
You’re from South Africa – what do you miss about it?
I mainly miss being able to see my family all the time. But there’s also some intangible connection I think we all have, for better or worse, to the place where our roots are. I definitely have that to South Africa. I feel so at home and comfortable when I go back, and I can’t really explain the feeling; but it’s like all the smells and the quality of the light and everything is just all so pleasing to me. Of course because I’m older, I’m way more aware of the ironies and harsh juxtapositions of the society; but the more I travel the more I realize that all countries have that to some extent, and I try to focus on the positives. It’s a beautiful country full of contradictions and joy and sorrow and you have to see it if you haven’t.
What inspires you about Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is really at an interesting place right now, because so much about it has changed so drastically over the last ten years – which is almost how long we’ve lived in New York. I go back to neighborhoods that I haven’t been to in a few months and I can’t recognize them. I sometimes really think we’re in danger of losing what’s unique about Brooklyn to everywhere-ism. Almost every city I travel to now, whether it’s Taipei, Münich, Atlanta, feels like when I go to the area that is supposedly ‘cool’ it’s just the same “cool” big brands that I see in the same “cool” area in all of the other cities. I don’t know if it’s Instagram that’s doing this, or Netflix; but it’s like somehow we’ve all decided, together, what is cool, and that we’re going to have those things in every city now. That being said, what does really inspire me about Brooklyn is all the people that still decide to open up small coffee shops, or restaurants, or clothing stores in the face of insane rental prices. It’s like the little plants that somehow push their way up through the concrete.
St. Lucia’s Fave Places in Brooklyn
One of our absolute favorites that we always stop at whenever we’re around DUMBO or visiting our manager’s office and being told to post more stuff on Instagram. It’s a Japanese-run store that sells a mixture of vintage and new clothes and homewares. It’s the kind of place where you really can’t make a bad choice, anything you pick will make you look cooler or make your home look like you’re well traveled. Everyone that works at the store is extremely helpful and more than happy to help you curate a look or find a gift.
It’s rare to find something that is truly an undiscovered gem in Brooklyn these days, but we feel pretty confident in saying that Corner Delhi is one; it hasn’t received much press, but it’s one of our favorite restaurants in Brooklyn. Serving what they describe as ‘first-generation Anglo-Indian’ cuisine, it’s a refreshingly modern take on Indian food, in a way that isn’t trying to be flashy or self-important. It’s delicious, fresh and inventive and we always walk away feeling like we’ve just been hugged by a close Indian friend’s mom.
Tucked under the BQE, Llama Inn doesn’t really need an introduction, and for good reason. Where most restaurants change their entire menu daily, Llama Inn has had many of the items on its menu since it opened in 2015. That’s not for lack of inventiveness, it’s because they are so god-damned delicious. From the spicy pork belly skewers, through the quinoa salad with banana and bacon, on to the whole branzino and the beef tenderloin stir-fry, washed down with a glass of Pais. Oh, and the interior is beautiful.
An old standby if ever there was one. Cafe Mogador originally opened in the East Village of Manhattan in 1983 and the Williamsburg location opened in 2012; but it’s still owned and run by the same family. Restaurants come and go in this city so it takes something really special to stick around this long. It’s nothing pretentious, but the interior is filled with thoughtful and personal rustic details and the food is full of heart. From the best baba ganoush outside of Morocco to the tajines, you really can’t go wrong. Also, if you like a bit of spice they have their own harissa paste.
It’s expensive, but still feels rustic – and the food tastes of the earth. Mexican food’s soul comes from being rooted in the unpretentious and the rustic, and so if you try to make it too nice it loses something. One way Oxomoco overcomes this is by using an open wood fire to grill most of their meats, seafood and vegetables, so most things have an earthy, smoky flavor that is extremely pleasing and transportive.