Photography by Phil Sharp | Words by Chal Ravens
Frozen pavements and Arctic winds; dry ice and blacked-out basement clubs; pulsing metallic rhythms tempered by narcotic lethargy and lashings of pulse-quickening euphoria. Half Eurohouse and half haunted house, the debut album by Trust, titled ‘TRST’ – as our faddy vowelphobia currently demands – is the latest in what’s become a long string of records inspired equally by the sharp lines of primitive electro and the murderous theatrics of goth. Among others, we’re talking Salem, Zola Jesus, Crystal Castles and Toronto band Austra, whose drummer, Maya Postepski, was once one half of the band whose original and sole remaining member, Robert Alfons, is this afternoon’s interviewee.
Since its release in early spring, the album has been gently gathering pace and turning heads, pleasing the ears of all those who, yes, like a bit of goth and yes, like some dancing, but are allergic to the crushing scenesterism of the sprawling genre that we might as well call witch house. Now touring the album without Postepski but with two extra hands on synths, Alfons is in London as part of a European tour, which includes last night’s show at the Shacklewell Arms and a performance out in the artists’ enclave of Hackney Wick.
Arriving at a studio in north London’s soon-to-be-trendy Manor House, Alfons cuts a slender figure, encased in black from neck to boot but otherwise quite unlike the affected gothic scenester you might fear him to be. Softly spoken and obliging, he appears to be enjoying that fleeting, happy moment that belongs to a band on the cusp of something, whether success or failure, when touring is still a holiday and interviews are just like hanging out.
“I love coming [to London],” he says. “People have been receptive, which feels great. I’m flattered because there’s definitely some sort of intimidating vibe going on here – or maybe that’s because I’m quite sensitive…”
Growing up in Winnipeg in the middle of the flat Canadian prairies, Alfons was always something of an outsider, keeping himself to himself and disappearing into music, particularly the European pop on his family’s record shelves. “I think I was always kind of a loner as a kid,” he says, noting that Winnipeg’s music scene offered little for a teenage Pet Shop Boys fan. “I didn’t really go to live shows. People are very passionate about the live music scene there, but it’s more of a hardcore and punk scene. There’s not really any electronic music. So I played the piano and wrote music, and I would fool around with electronics, but it was always for myself.”
Most of his musical heroes were an ocean away at the time, clogging up the British charts with poptastic baubles of Hi-NRG dance workouts. “When my sister got her first boombox, the first CDs she got were Real McCoy, Ace of Base, lots of that early ’90s Eurodance stuff – and I just loved it,” he says. “My aunt had a big collection of CDs that I would listen to whenever I went to her house, usually in big compilations – I mean I don’t think there was like, a Whigfield album that I loved, it was more like choices, the real dark stuff, real moody stuff.”
Desperate for a change of scene and a chance to develop his music, Alfons packed his bags and moved east to Toronto, opening a blank page on his life. “I needed to get out of Winnipeg,” he explains. “I wanted a bigger city, something with a little bit more opportunity. Toronto intrigued me for many reasons – I didn’t know anybody there and I had no idea what it was like. I thought it was like a big metropolis with this endless sea of huge mountainous buildings and cold streets. It’s not – it’s very small town-y and liveable, and it has a soul.”
Gradually he worked on his music, building a sound that mingled his beloved pop melodies with gothic melodrama and a touch of the industrial edge found all over Toronto’s electronic scene. Creating the project that eventually became Trust was a slow process at first, though.
“I’d never really played in a band so there were a lot of walls I needed to shatter, personally, to get myself to play. I think I’m kind of reserved and there was a certain reluctance,” he notes. “Of course I still doubt myself all the time, and I think it has an influence on how the music comes out and how it’s presented.
“The first show was exceptional,” he continues. “I remember feeling embraced right from the start, very luckily. That would have been maybe two and a half years ago. It feels like 10 years ago. It was just after New Year’s, just a small show in a goth club and we played maybe four songs. In those early shows we played specifically for like 20 or 25 minutes, strictly. We thought, we’re not in the place where we can be playing for 40 minutes. I don’t want people to get bored.”
Fast forward two years and Alfons had cut a deal with Arts & Crafts, the Canadian label helmed by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, and finished an album with Postepski that wraps his childhood pop fantasies in a shroud of frigid darkwave. “The darker stuff is like my filter over it all,” says Alfons. “I have tastes that I guess would be gothic, things like the Sisters of Mercy or Suicide, but I don’t know what those qualities are [in my record] – maybe it’s the album cover or maybe it’s my low voice.”
The latter is an obviously gothic reference point, hovering somewhere between the cape-swishing histrionics of Sisters of Mercy and the bleak intonations of Interpol’s Paul Banks. “I don’t use any effects or anything, but I think the most unique and strong instrument is your voice and people forget that. For the stuff I’m writing now I’m using my higher register a lot more. Some of it is kind of maniacal, almost ridiculous,” he says.
Is it a way of disguising what he’s singing about, perhaps? “Maybe. Like, I really can’t stand it when there’s lyrics in the liner notes. When I buy a record and I’m putting it on I think the worst thing is when you have the words there, and you’re sitting there with a cheat sheet and not really listening, not really feeling it. It’s almost more fun when I’ve made up my own words for other people’s songs,” he says.
“That’s not to say I’m not proud of my lyrics, and I spend the most time on the lyrics, even more than the music. But lyrics, you know, they’re heard, so I digest the sound, the alliteration – that stuff to me is almost more important than the actual literal meaning. Some of my favourite singers are like that, like Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins.”
Beyond the music, the album’s cover has done as much as anything else to get Trust filed in record shops under ‘goth’. The image of a double-chinned transgender clubber caught in the flashbulb, head lolling back and eyes vacant behind a mask of Rocky Horror make-up, is gloomy yet glamorous, depressingly druggy but somehow exotic. Why that image? “It’s a picture I took at a club in Toronto that’s no longer around. I was taking a lot of pictures then, I always carried a camera around, and I thought she was beautiful and really striking. It just fit as I was writing this music and it was like, this needs to be the cover of this album,” he explains.
Postepski’s touring commitments with Austra dragged her away from promoting Trust, so the band is now solely Alfons’ vehicle. “The record was a collaboration, but I’ve been touring it without her,” he says, noting that the split was down to clashing schedules rather than the old ‘musical differences’ chestnut. “I have two members in my live band, both doing keyboards. It will definitely change again, but this feels like the best it’s ever been and it makes the most sense,” he says. “A lot of this project was rooted in dreams that I had before we even met, so it felt like my baby anyhow.”
With the first record now receding into the distance, Alfons is already focused on the next one, which so far he thinks will be “volcanic, in a lot of ways.” Um, sorry? “I’m just getting fascinated by volcanoes,” he smiles, obviously without sarcasm. More specifically, he expects to up the tempo and push further into danceable territories.
“As I’m writing now the BPM is going up, it’s even getter faster and I especially notice it playing live. You can see people reacting to it – people want fast music,” he says. “So sometimes I’ll write a ballad on piano and it turns into a song on the album, and the BPM moves up and becomes like a dance song.”
He’s also been experimenting more with his higher vocal register, tapping into his inner diva and challenging himself to hit weirder heights. “A lot of ideas that weren’t explored on the first record are now going to be born on the second record. I’m working with different keyboards, different tools and challenging myself with vocals, using higher registers, because the songs are calling for it,” he explains.
Is that the “maniacal” voice mentioned before?
“Yeah, that’s ‘her’ – it’s like, ‘she’s coming out’! It’s very feminine but at times ridiculous.”
It takes guts for a loner kid from Winnipeg to bring his Ace of Base and Sisters of Mercy records to the party and come up with a song as fine as ‘Candy Walls’, the album’s unarguable highlight, and from his quietly assured words you can expect this polite gentleman’s best work to be ahead of him still, as he notes finally: “When I wonder if I’m allowed to be doing this or if people are going to laugh at it, then I know that I’ve achieved what I want to do.”
Originally published in Loud And Quiet 43. Read the issue in full here.