Jean-Philip Grobler looks right at home in his flowery button-up shirt and pale blue fitted Dockers. A native of Johannesburg, South Africa now living in Brooklyn, he’s naturally hip without being a douche about it.
In fact, he’s super nice. The electro-rocker with princely good looks sits down with me shortly after he’s arrived at the CounterPoint festival grounds, politely removing his sunglasses even though it’s bright out here. I ask him about his childhood in South Africa and how his early classical training in the prestigious Drakensberg Boys’ Choir has shaped his relationship to music.
“We had two hours of choir practice every day, which was intense, but in the long run I think it’s been really good for me…I think the more you really get to know music early, the more it gets into your DNA or under your skin. Learning about theory enabled me to…just do it without having to think about it.”
After music production training in Liverpool and several frustrating years trying to keep up with the “weirder and more alienating” rock scene, Jean went back to the music that got under his skin as a kid: pop.
“[I] started listening back to things that felt refreshing to me, and that just happened to be the music from my youth…80s music, world music, African music, music that didn’t have a very pretentious feeling about it, that was very immediate and made you feel happy but maybe still had something more to [offer] over repeated listens.”
He doesn’t have that American shame of loving the mainstream pop and rock acts that soundtracked his childhood.
“I didn’t have any kind of negative association to pop music when I was growing up…we didn’t have goths or any kinds of scenes in that sense. It took me until my mid-teens to be like ‘oh pop music is kind of a bad thing.’ But the fact that I had that in the early part of my life enabled me to come back to it recently and rediscover that unabashed joy of pop.”
Jean has done plenty of production work and remixes for other artists over the years, but since St. Lucia’s five-piece formation in 2010 (which includes his own wife Patricia Beranek), he’s been hard at work making an EP, touring, and in 2013 finally releasing their full length album When the Night.
With the catchy pop sensibilities of Tears For Fears and Lionel Richie but with the edge of, say, Peter Gabriel and Depeche Mode taking ecstasy on a beach (YAY for that image), St. Lucia doesn’t restrict itself to one formula. When the Night is a fleshier, perhaps darker and trancier exploration of their summery EP. It must also be noted that Jean’s onstage dynamism belongs up there with some of the best guitar-playing frontmen.
“I love the emotional power of really good pop music, but I also love experimental music that takes you on a journey, takes you somewhere that you might not expect. I guess my modus operandi is to combine those two approaches.”
And gawwwd, does St. Lucia ever succeed at that. By the end of their set a couple hours later, I had danced, laughed, and even cried a little. All out of unabashed joy.
Photo by Christina Kuhlmann