Dancing in the Dark
Published Mar 06, 2014
When Trust released TRST, their 2012 debut album, many critics and fans conveniently placed the Toronto duo into a specific category; synth-pop-structured, clubby electronic music created by a goth fanatic and a member of Austra. But with the release of the sophomore album, Joyland, Robert Alfons has seemingly broken down these misconceptions. Now the sole project of Alfons (Austra’s Maya Postepski left shortly after the release of the first album),Joyland is a rich tapestry of pop melodies and crisp production that seem more relevant for the dance floor in a pop-up club than the futon of a dark basement. Alfons talks the recording of his new album, finding his confidence and the merits of mainstream pop music.
Where am I talking to you from?
I’m in Montreal, at a studio. We’re in rehearsal right now.
Can you give us a bit of background on yourself?
Trust’s first performance was four years ago, which is crazy to me. I live in Toronto, I grew up in Winnipeg, which is a little different scenario than Toronto. My sister was a musician, my aunt listened to a lot of pop music, I guess these were my musical influences as a kid. I just sort have always been keeping those musical things on the peripheral.
Did you move to Toronto specifically to start a career in music?
Yeah, in a sort of not-linear trajectory. But I definitely moved there to try to figure things out.
Was it always electronic music that you’ve been playing?
I guess I’m like a piano player but I’ve always been attracted to electronic music and that’s been the most direct relation to how I make music.
Can you talk a bit about the new album? How is it different from your debut?
A lot of it was written in different places in the world while touring, which changes the energy of the song. Whereas the first album was written in Toronto, where every week we had a writing session, and this one, there was a lot of energy from the live shows, being in hotter climates and I think I had a boost of confidence as well, which allowed me to really go full force with releasing different characters and experimenting with my vocal range and that sort of thing.
The first album received much acclaim. Did that confidence help shape the energy of this album?
I guess those accolades helped me get audiences and to be able to play these shows. I can be really hard on myself, but especially with creative things, it’s so easy to never ever show anybody the song, or for me it is. So, it’s a miracle that I even worked hard enough the present the record, but it gave me enough confidence to continue moving it and finish these ideas.
Do you think that if your first album had went completely unheard and unappreciated, that the new album would have sounded any different?
That’s a good question, I never thought of it in that way. I think it’s just the support has definitely allowed me to continue doing it.
I guess this good fortune has presented you the opportunity to play with a lot of other musicians and artists. Did you take anything from these experiences?
Yeah, absolutely. Maybe not exactly just musicians, but I think I’ve made a lot of really great friends from around the world; like a friend who’s a booker, a friend who does graphic work. So, not necessarily musicians, but it’s really nice to see how big and yet how small the world is. But I guess you have all of these like-minded people all over the place. But, yeah, I’ve definitely made some really good friends around the world just from being able to tour and make music.
So, where did you record the new album?
I recorded it on the road, I recorded it last summer when I settled down in Toronto, yeah, mostly those places.
Now, with the latest technology, you can record right when those ideas come to you, as opposed to ten or 20 years ago, where if you had an idea it would have to sit with you and possibly mutate until you got into a recording studio. Do you prefer this new method?
Yeah, I think it’s brilliant that you can just get to the idea right away or just put down the idea and leave it for another day. I was reading this David Byrne book (How Music Works) and in the first chapter he talks about how space influences and shapes different culture’s music, which is way beyond what I’m doing but it’s so true. But if I’m in Argentina and I’m excited about everything that’s going on there and I want to make a song, if I wait until I’m back in winter, it’s not going to come out the way I want it to. And there were a bunch of songs I started when I went on a trip to Argentina and I think that vibe would have come if I made a note to come write that song later.
I think there’s definitely immediacy to the album. Do you think that’s what led to the pop elements being more prominent this time around?
I guess I just wanted to embrace that side of it a little bit more, I think it’s just that there’s a lot more pop music and dance music that I’m excited about and I wanted to just hit that influence.
Pop music is really prominent in modern electronic and underground music at the moment, which wasn’t really wasn’t the case 20 years ago. It seemed like there was more of a defined line between mainstream pop music and underground indie music.
But that’s not true, because Sonic Youth did (side project with Mike Watt) Ciccone Youth, they did Madonna covers (on 1988’s The Whitey Album), which is an awesome record.
Certainly, but I always looked at that project as irony. Do you feel that you can still make emotional, authentic pop music?
Yeah, none of it’s irony, for me it’s real. Some of my favourite moments of my life are dancing at a club, and it could be what some person might consider a guilty pleasure, but to me it’s just a brilliant song and I definitely lean towards emotional songs and melodies and that sort of thing. So, none of it’s irony, it’s total heart. I guess these things always happen, where things get overturned and then reinvented but I guess that there’s definitely vapid pop music, for sure. I mean, it’s definitely out there… and sometimes enjoyable. But there is also pop music that comes from a deeper place, or it means more. There’s been artists that have made poppier music and it certainly challenged the idea of what pop music is, or in my opinion it has, if I’m thinking of those artists. Yeah, I’ve grown up with pop music all around me and I think it’s just a real influence for me.
Do you feel that too many people are doing the same thing; incorporating mainstream pop music into electronic and indie rock?
I guess I could voice my opinion but I’m not super with on what’s going on all the time. It’s a trend, I guess? I know that not in any way, shape or form that this album is shaped by R&B and that’s a big thing. I know in indie music, a lot of people are inspired by R&B and hip-hop beats and I will certainly say that this album is not influenced by R&B or hip-hop, which I like, but I just wasn’t an influence.
Can you talk a bit about Maya’s departure from the group?
Yeah, it was something that was years in the making, I guess, because from the start she was already involved with another project (Austra) and they got signed, so it was always sort of second for her. Around the release of the first record is when she departed and a lot of those songs on the first record were old songs of mine so in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel too different for me. I kinda had a clear vision of what I wanted from that first record and again from the second one.
Was she more of an auxiliary player in the group?
Yeah, I think that we would get together and process ideas. But the start of the band was really me bringing old songs of mine. She’s an amazing drummer, I remember seeing her play live as a drummer and it was really exciting for me to collaborate with someone who understood that world better.
A lot of press you’ve gotten seems to mention your distinctive style of singing. Where does that come from? Because it’s obviously not your speaking voice.
Of course it’s influences, but also it’s an instrument. Like any other sort of instrument, you sort of have to figure it out and work on it. I guess I’ve always been singing and wanted to challenge it, but maybe the fact that I can sing in a super high range is maybe something that’s not going to happen in the next 20 years, maybe it’s going to change and it has changed over the course of my life too but it’s just an instrument and it’s my favourite instrument I guess.
That’s true. Production-wise, I find that you really bury your vocals sometimes.
Yeah, sometimes it’s not about the vocals and sometimes it is.
I find that you seem not overly concerned with verses in your songs, the vocals are usually pushed down into the mix, but I find that you like the choruses of your songs to be, vocal-wise, bombastic and loud.
That’s interesting, I never really thought of it that way.
Your singing voice has been described as “goth-y,” do you come across people who think that the person on the cover of your debut album was actually you?
Yeah, constantly, which I love.
Who is that person?
It was just a picture I took of somebody at a club.
Were you afraid that that photo would pigeonhole your music as goth-inspired?
I guess I didn’t understand what it would mean but I’m definitely inspired by a lot of goth and industrial music and it obviously comes through in the music. I just obviously loved that picture and it doesn’t feel as just a goth picture to me, there’s many more layers and I think it’s a gorgeous picture. I can see that the branding was putting it in one direction but if you listen to the albums from start to finish, you’ll see that there’s so many more things going on.