As a successful Emeryville-based studio knows all too well, it’s possible to take an inanimate object, give it life and make children and adults alike laugh and cry by telling a good story. That was a lesson that Johannesburg-via-Brooklyn songwriter Jean-Philip Grobler took away when making St. Lucia’s video for “Help Me Run Away.”
The video for the song, off Grobler’s band’s newest album, Matter, tells the story of two pairs of shoes that become separated when their owners break up. The sneakers are forced to transverse the United States to reunite with the heels. Along the way, they encounter an assortment of colorful characters played by Grobler, and other band members, his wife, Patti Beranek, Ross Clark, Nicky Paul and Dustin Kaufman. The sneakers have a brief falling-out and survive several scares before arriving in Southern California for the big reunion.
As it turns out, the concept was already in place before the song existed. Grobler and his friend, director NORTON, wanted to tell the story about the shoes. The idea was tabled.
Grobler spoke with RIFF about the video’s inspirations and catch up on the band’s experiences touring Matter through 2016. St. Lucia’s returns to the Bay Area next week with a show at Oakland’s Fox Theater.
RIFF: Where did you get the concept for the “Help Me Run Away” video?
Grobler: If I have good ideas I sort of store them in this memory bank somewhere, and that was one of those ideas. I was like, “We have to use that at some point again.” When the opportunity came up to make a video for “Help Me Run Away,” I (knew) we had to use that (concept). So, we just expanded on the idea from this very small video. It became a really epic story. We like to have a little bit of humor and stuff in our videos, so it definitely has a bit of that.
Did you have any idea it was going to be as emotional as it was? I mean, those little shoes made me cry.
A little bit. Both of us are huge fans of Pixar films and good animated movies. What’s so great about them is that they make you feel something for a completely inanimate object. I feel like it shows, maybe, the goodness in human nature that we can feel empathy for something that’s just not human at all. I think that something sticks with you more if you feel somewhat emotional about it.
Patti plays a tattoo artist in the video. She herself is covered in ink. How’d you draw that?
Some of them are stick-on tattoos, some of them were literally pen drawings by one of the actual tattoo artists (from) that tattoo studio and our makeup artist. That was the thing that took the longest in that whole video. It took like two hours to make all of that stuff.
The last time we spoke, in April, you told me Nashville was one of the places you would consider living. Is that still a consideration or are you Brooklynites forever?
I feel like we’re going to stay in New York for as long as we can hold out. I really, really like Nashville; I like being there but I kind of miss a bit of the cosmopolitan quality that New York has. Especially, not being American myself, and not having grown up here, I really like the fact that there’s a lot of people from all over the world who live in New York. There’s a very international quality to New York that I feel like no other city in the States has. I love so many cities. I love San Francisco, I love L.A., I love Nashville, I love Chicago. There’s just so many places I love to go.
You’ve been on the road since early spring. Do you have any favorite or memorable experiences yet?
One of the most memorable experiences was playing—it has a happy element to it—we played in Orlando two nights after the horrible shooting happened. I feel like a lot of other artists were canceling their shows because of the threat of something happening. But we still played our show and it just felt like a very important show. I feel like people were really unhappy, and sad, and very traumatized by what happened.
Was it scary for you at all?
No. I feel like you just have to put fear aside. It, maybe, was a tiny bit scary but to me it’s important to just pretend you’re immortal, and do stuff like that because the value it brings to peoples lives. If you show them you support them in some ways, it’s way more important to them.
Even though we’ve talked numerous times, I never really pressed you on your previous career as a commercial jingle writer in New York. This was before you started St. Lucia. But I heard you’re still proud about at least a few of the jingles you wrote.
It was a Sealy mattress commercial. Patti sang the vocals. I feel really good about that campaign. I think there was a Chase bank commercial that I feel good about, I was actually really proud of a lot of the music that I made. I would always be proud of the track that I made when I made it. But then, often, they would send it off to the agency, and they’d come back and say they’d want changes. In the end it was unrecognizable Frankenstein version of what you originally came up with, (which) you’re not proud of anymore because it’s not your original vision.
What are the rules for writing a successful jingle?
I don’t know, because I was not that great at it; I was okay. To me, I think the rule is to not get too attached to your work. I definitely treated it as a music education. I would really pour my heart and soul into any piece of music I made. I wanted to feel good about the piece of music. Often. that’s not what the people who end up hearing the music want. They just want something that fits exactly in the box that they—
They’ve already written it in their heads.