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St. Lucia's Jean-Philip Grobler on 'Matter,' moonshine and writing a breakup song with your wife

"First, it's not a breakup song — well, it could be, but we definitely aren't."

St. Lucia's 2013 album "When the Night" created a name for the Brooklyn-based band who spun airy, energetic riffs of '80s synthpop. With their sophomore album, "Matter," (released in January from Columbia Records), Johannesburg-born frontman Jean-Philip Grobler worked with producer Chris Zane and Bleachers' Jack Antonoff, who co-wrote, "Help Me Run Away." The more intimate dive into Grobler's life features "Always," a tender ode to what could be lost in a breakup co-written with wife and band mate, Patti Beranek, as well as a cautionary tale disguised as a party jam in "Dancing On Glass."

Grobler calls in from Brooklyn, the night after a backyard barbecue, to discuss the band's upcoming tour with Chris Baio's indie project, BAIO.

Can we please start off by discussing the album art for "Matter"? It's magical. How did the concept come together?
That's a can of worms you're opening there. I really wanted to make something special that I could tie into the merch and the stage design. We started the mockup artwork when we started recording the album. I wanted it to be a room with lots of things going on, almost like a "Where's Waldo" situation. We connected with Silas Adler, head of one of my favorite men's fashion lines, Soulland from Denmark — most of the shirts I wear on stage are done by them — and gave him images of different things in our apartment and lives to include. Each of the objects is meant to represent one of the themes on the album. Silas then made a photo collage of all the items, and we found Lauren Mortimer, an English illustrator, who actually made the artwork.

What's one item of significance featured in the picture?
Everything in some way had some importance. All the wine bottles are wine bottles from our apartment, and there's a carafe-like thing that says Mampoer. That's South African moonshine, and that bottle belonged to my godfather, who unfortunately passed away. There are certain parts of the album that focus on those heady days of being a teenager, and that bottle has been around for most of my life.

On the song "Help Me Run Away," you talk about being an outsider from the perspective of an immigrant in the United States. You say, "Thought I was living undercover/Now I'm a child, child without a mother/Who was a stranger to the American way/But now I'm fully ingrained to toe.” At what point did you see yourself "ingrained" after moving here?
Myself and Patti have been here for about 10 years now, and it's been an adjustment. We moved from England, and America had this bad rep [at the time] because of George W. Bush and everyone internationally bought into this idea of American hatred. I was resistant when we first moved here. I only stayed in New York. But once we started touring I started to realize what an amazing country it is with so many extremes. Like you have some of the best food in the world here, and then some of the worst.

And "Always" is a song you wrote with your wife, Patti, and it definitely sounds like a song about the end of a relationship. How were you able to be so honest and vulnerable when writing that together?
First, it's not a breakup song — well, it could be, but we definitely aren't. I've been with Patti for 14 years, and we have a really strong, good relationship. But this is about those moments in a relationship where you've been together for so long, and you have a lot to lose, but the thought [of breaking up] just crosses your mind. "Always" is like, if we broke up, we'd still have love for each other, even though we're standing in flames.

 

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