"I feel like it was the lost decade where it really felt like there was no ceiling on what one could achieve as a musical artist," Jean-Philip Grobler tells EW.
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Synth-pop wizard St. Lucia walks EW through the creation of his fresh new record, Matter (released Jan. 29), which pumps the sound of the ’80s into one of the year’s most promising pop releases.


Johannesburg-born frontman Jean-Philip Grobler found a lot to celebrate in the decade that birthed his musical style. “I feel like it was the lost decade where it really felt like there was no ceiling on what one could achieve as a musical artist,” says Grobler, citing Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, and Prince. “You had all these amazing artists in the mainstream who were pushing boundaries as well as being hugely poppy and making these massive records, these real physical records in the purest musical record sense of the word…electronic music was such a new thing, and there was this maximum ferocity in music.”


Grobler cites the ’80s as an innocent time, and St. Lucia as an innocent way of making guilt-free music. “St. Lucia represents, for me, where I found myself musically once I stopped trying to be cool, in some way, and stopped stopping these guilty pleasure influences I had from coming through.” It’s true—everyone has their guilty influences, and Grobler’s include Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Radiohead, and Mew, to name a few. “It’s very whimsical music in the sense that I just go with my whims,” he laughs. “It’s very self-indulgent. I’m just going to put every idea down, and then it eventually turns into this bombastic, huge thing.” For Matter, Grobler also cites influence from neo-soul artists like Miguel and Frank Ocean.


An avid collector of vintage studio gear—“not a super-purist, though,” he clarifies—Grobler dusted off his 808s for Matter, at least metaphorically. “Most of the synths on the record are real analog synths,” he says, “or, like, digital synths that were used on Michael Jackson records. But sometimes,” he admits with a laugh, “the laptop from your demo just sounds better no matter what.”


Though Grobler typically works alone, Matter hooked him up with Jack Antonoff (of fun. and Bleachers, and Taylor Swift co-writing fame). Within hours, they had the propulsive “Help Me Run Away”—a slightly smoother process than Grobler’s usual MO for dictating song ideas: “Normally, I’d do it awkwardly into my voice memos in my phone, just standing in a corner,” he says. Grobler actually began writing “what I thought was going to be the whole album by myself” before a trip across the country forced him to embrace an on-the-road style of composition. “[Collaboration] always seemed like a cop-out that people do when they don’t have enough of their own ideas or when they need a hit,” he confesses. “But if I feel I want to do something new or if I’m a little bit stifled, I’ll go and do the thing that I kind of frown upon because you break out of your comfort zone.” The result? Songs like “Physical,” “Dancing on Glass,” “Game 4 U,” and “Always,” which he co-wrote with his wife and bandmate, Patti Beranek. “It ended up being a very collaborative album without me setting out for it to be.”


Matter boasts a handful of immediate dance hits — “Help Me Run Away,” “Dancing on Glass,” and “Rescue Me” among them — yet Grobler is more surprised by St. Lucia’s place as an ebullient pop band than the band’s own rapid rise in the last three years (since the well-received debut album When the Night). “It is funny to me that people think of St. Lucia as this, like, feel-good band,” he admits. “When I’m making the music, the songs that I get most excited about definitely make me feel good, but often it’s a really good feeling combined with some kind of melancholy element. To me, St. Lucia isn’t just purely feel-good; there are these other juxtaposed elements as well.”