Ross Clark of St. Lucia on Not Taking Yourself too Seriously

Ross Clark of St. Lucia on Not Taking Yourself too Seriously
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I thought Ross Clark would be short. The bass guitarist of the pop-synth band St. Lucia lives in Brooklyn, and for some reason I pictured a skinny, goateed hipster, 5 feet tall. Since it was my first in-person celebrity interview, I figured I’d wear six-inch heels for confidence. As it turns out, I didn’t need them. Clark has that warm, funny, down-to-earth character that Midwesterners are so famous for – and at 6-foot-3, he towered over me anyway.

Clark is touring this summer following the release of Matter, the band’s nostalgic, poppy, welcome-back-to-the-80s album. St. Lucia is a favorite of festival audiences at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza. He came through Des Moines to catch the 80/35 music festival and see family. Clark met me at Malo, a downtown restaurant, to discuss his creative process, spill some secrets about the upcoming production year and talk about the pros and cons of growing up in Iowa.

Your second album Matter came out earlier this year. How have you felt about the reception that album has received?

It’s been really cool! The cool thing about when Jean-Philip [Grobler] is writing, there isn’t a preconceived notion of what he is trying to accomplish. [It’s] more about just putting out music that we feel is indicative of the aesthetic we are aligned with at the time. In this album there are some things that are a little bit more raw, a bit more open to a wider audience. So I think the general reception is that people have been enjoying it.

What’s your favorite song on that album, and why?

I think “Home” is my favorite because of the groove and vibe of it. It reminds me of the modern Scandinavian musicians but it also has a Michael Jackson vibe to it. Playing it is super fun. It’s super hard-hitting and it’s a little more rock and roll in the upfront nature of the groove.

Speaking of home, you grew up in Des Moines and went to Lincoln High School. Were you a chamber orchestra kind of kid or one of those cool guys with his own rock band?

I did a lot of different stuff actually. I was very uncool in that I did jazz band and I did choir. I also did rock bands. So I was a little bit nerd, a little bit rock.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give that teenager at Lincoln? Any advice to inspire other young musicians growing up in smaller cities?

I think that setting expectations reasonably is probably one of the things that has kept me going ― even though there has never really been a consistent upward trajectory in my career. I’ve always been focusing on doing what I am doing currently and doing it really well. I think a lot of people pursuing music get bummed out when things aren’t continually on this exponential growth. When a bump comes along they just say, ‘alright, screw it! I’m done! I’m going to get a regular job.’

I’ve seen ‘School of Rock,’ I know the struggle.

Exactly! Have reasonable expectations and don’t be too bogged down by the idea of ‘your art’ and taking yourself too seriously. This is a thing I have been dealing with a lot lately. I do a lot of session work and writing with other people. I’ll write with artists who some people don’t know, or don’t like. I get asked, ‘how can you do a lot things and not have just one aesthetic?’ Well it’s like, if I was a trust fund baby maybe I would just do one thing. But odds are if I did I would still just be playing jazz in a club instead of playing social pop music for thousands of people. So I think [the key is] having a reasonable expectation, not taking yourself too seriously, and being a little bit myopic about whatever you are doing at the time.

Did you feel like coming from Iowa was an obstacle as you got started professionally or a strength, and why?

I think it’s definitely harder coming from Des Moines, and moving to New York where all these other kids are from Houston or L.A. or New York. They got to go out and see great live music all the time [growing up]. There is good live music here in Des Moines but it’s 500,000 people compared to a few million. I grew up studying with Des Moines musicians and going to see every band I could, but the fact of the matter is, the bigger the population, the more musicians you have. Other kids grew up going down the block to Village Vanguard, the Blue Whale or Yoshi’s in San Francisco. I would have to go to Chicago or Minneapolis. I would go see metal bands, which I don’t even like, just because I wanted to see live music that bad.

You went to college in Minnesota for two years before moving to New York. How did you like Minneapolis and how did it affect your vibe and music style?

Minneapolis has an awesome history of great session work, great studios. Playing gigs there was a perfect stepping stone from Des Moines, where you’re playing smaller venues, to playing in places like St. Paul, Minneapolis, Dinkytown and Uptown. I think I had a lot more confidence when moving to New York because I was in Minneapolis for two years.

You studied jazz at The New School. What was the highlight of that experience?

The New School is more of a real conservatory school vibe compared to what I was used to. So having that time to really practice a ton and really live in that art was so important. The New School was a good hang too. Not only was it a conservatory but everyone there was just chill, you know? Some of these conservatories, the students have personalities similar to a box of rocks, and they just can’t converse because they are so in their minds all the time. The New School wasn’t like that. Plus, by the time I had graduated I had a community of musicians that I was able to go right into working with. It was an amazing time.

Your band members are from all over the world. Patti Beranek is from a small town in Germany; Jean-Philip Grobler from South Africa. What is your process in creating new music and incorporating your different experiences?

Jean definitely draws on a lot of South Africa and his time in [Drakensburg Boys Choir]. We all love making pop music, I think that is one of the reasons why he brings us in. He could easily just do all of this on his computer, move stuff around, and have fake instruments play everything, but he loves having real musicians come in and play the part. He loves having Dustin [Kaufman] come in and play the drum part. Dustin has this jazz-gospel background that makes him look at things differently. We also make songs that are more indie, Fleetwood Mac-type jams. We recently hung out with Halsey at Bonnaroo and we played ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac.

You’ve played live at stages from Coachella to Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza. What was your favorite memory from a live performance you’ve done?

Well, Coachella was amazing, just beautiful. I don’t know if I like that festival as much as I like Lollapalooza, but I know I prefer festival [performances]. 80/35 was super special because I was coming back and playing the home town. I had been on tour for years before that point but I had never gotten the opportunity to come back and play in Des Moines. It was awesome, just incredible.

What’s on your playlist right now?

Chance the Rapper, Young Thug, Travis Scott, and [some] SOPHIE, Magic Jordan, Anderson Paak. I’ve also been going back and listening to some boogie-disco stuff like SOS band, some funky stuff like that. A lot of hip hop though these days.

Tell me something that no one would know about you.

I recently worked with and did executive production on Wycleff Jean’s next album. That’s my little secret that no one knows about yet.

What’s your idea of perfect happiness?

Having a career that is interesting and expansive. I want to work with a lot of people so I can get better as a musician. I want to do new things other than music as well. I’d love to do even more traveling and go to more exotic places.

Tea or Coffee?

Oh coffee, all day.

Ross and I at Malo in Des Moines, Iowa.
Ross and I at Malo in Des Moines, Iowa.

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