ABOVE: ROBERT ALFONS, AKA TRUST. PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTIAGO FELIPE
Robert Alfons is TRUST, a “darkwave dance act” or “synthpop club music” group based in Toronto. TRUST was formed during the frozen dark Canadian winter of 2009 with his former collaborator Maya Postepski. They released its first singles, “Candy Walls” and “Bulbform,” on Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones Records in 2011 then signed with Arts & Crafts, debuting TRST, a full length LP, in 2012, at which point Postepski left to focus on her other project, Austra. Alfons is noted for his haunting, eerie vocals that effortlessly slide from baritone to falsetto, paired with dance beats, chirpy synths in a hypnotic mix evoking old-school house and techno. Over the past few years, TRUST has performed with acts such as Death From Above 1979, Crystal Castles, Balam Acab, Glass Candy, Washed Out, Zola Jesus, and Hercules and Love Affair. Alfons just finished performing at SXSW and is gearing up for his international tour.
We recently conducted a Skype interview with Alfons, who lives in Toronto. At first, Alfons didn’t put the cam on, resulting in a blank icon, but we asked him to as a more intimate way to communicate. In person (sort of), he’s personable, attractive in a fresh-faced way, and charmingly shy. We spoke on March 3, the day before Joyland, his second album, was released. We’re premiering here a remix of his song “Rescue, Mister.”
GERRY VISCO: Hey, Robert. You popped into New York City this January to perform at Glasslands, but I couldn’t make it. You’re coming to New York on April 10, right?
ROBERT ALFONS: Yeah, absolutely, it’s the first stop of my tour at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Then I’m going on throughout the U.S. and Europe for a good month.
VISCO: What’s your act like now?
ALFONS: I have two others onstage, two girls.
VISCO: And they’re singing?
ALFONS: No, I’m the singer, so I have a drummer and someone doing keyboard wizardry.
VISCO: How does this album feel different from the one before to you?
ALFONS: This one’s a lot more playful.
VISCO: In terms of the actual music part, do you feel it’s more danceable or more chill?
ALFONS: It’s definitely way more of a dance album, which I’ll get slacked on because I tend to write ballads. But I got really excited about a lot of dance music so I wanted to make a dance album.
VISCO: You write all the songs and everything yourself right?
ALFONS: Yeah, absolutely.
VISCO: You’re kind of an intellectual, aren’t you?
ALFONS: Oh, I don’t know if I could say that.
VISCO: Why not? I heard you like to read. Don’t you like Flannery O’Connor?
ALFONS: Yeah, but I don’t read as much as I should. Flannery O’Connor has been a favorite. I haven’t read everything by her, but everything I have is pretty spectacular.
VISCO: What do you like about her?
ALFONS: The world that she creates is absolutely terrifying. I read all these short stories by her, and every one has a big doom ending. Every character is really abrasive and larger than life and a bit rough around the edges. I’m like, “Oh, man, these are the people I want to meet.”
VISCO: So you tend to like rather dark things?
ALFONS: Sure. There’s definitely a connection there.
VISCO: What else inspires you, or what is your passion?
ALFONS: Everything fuels it. I’ve never been a technical wizard [who] could sit down and chat gear with you. I’m way more like, “I gotta go write a song right now because I’m feeling like shit.”
VISCO: So in other words, you are dark.
ALFONS: [laughs] That’s just one example, but I mean I feel things more than I’m worried about the sound of a kick drum.
VISCO: Have you always been singing? Are you classically trained or is it something that came on later?
ALFONS: I played the piano when I was younger, but I was really shitty at all of the technical stuff. I was playing video game music and stuff.
VISCO: When did you become a serious musician or performer?
ALFONS: TRUST started four years ago, so that’s when I started to get my shit together. But in the last two years, I really got my shit together, because that’s when the album came out.
VISCO: And you’ve been getting some good press, right?
ALFONS: I mean, it’s okay, but I’m never happy with myself, which is an awful trait.
VISCO: That’s how people in the arts get ahead. Ultimately do you see yourself being solo or you’ll add other collaborators? I know you had a collaborator before but will you add more people?
ALFONS: Collaborating is valuable and it keeps you on your feet, but it’s got to be the right one.
VISCO: What would you say about the music scene in general right now?
ALFONS: Oh, that’s tough. There’s lots of cool stuff going on. It’s more accessible for people to make music now—they can make it on their laptops. Before, you had to have a crapload of money from a record label to be able to do anything.
VISCO: What about making a living as a musician—is it possible?
ALFONS: I’m new so I don’t know. I guess it’s possible. People don’t buy music as much as they used to, but there’s other ways of making money by doing music.
VISCO: What was the art in the video for “Rescue, Mister” inspired by? Are you a visual artist too?
ALFONS: No, I wasn’t responsible for that. This Montreal artist, Sabrina Ratté, did that, but I just loved her work. I take photos, but I don’t call myself a photographer.
VISCO: Are you very involved in the scene in Toronto, or are you more of an introvert who stays home and writes dance music?
ALFONS: It’s definitely the latter. There are definitely periods where I’ve been out all the time but now I’m focused on writing the record and taking care of myself. Now I need to find the balance because I can be a recluse. I have some great friends but I don’t see them as much as I want to.
VISCO: You’re based in Toronto but from Winnipeg. How long have you been living in Toronto?
ALFONS: I first moved here seven years ago.
VISCO: What did you study in college?
ALFONS: I didn’t go to college.
VISCO: Well, you’re a solitary intellectual.
ALFONS: See, I’m not an intellectual—I didn’t go to school.
VISCO: Probably you were doing what you wanted to do.
ALFONS: Yeah I guess, that’s totally it.
VISCO: What about your singing? You have an interesting vocal style. How did you develop that?
ALFONS: It’s always been there and I just needed to harvest it. I’m a huge fan of really crazy vocalists like Kate Bush or Lee Hazelwood. These are really strong iconic voices for me.
VISCO: What’s your goal for your next project? You’re going to do another album? How do you write songs, individually or as an album?
ALFONS: I’ve never been in the position to sit down and work in a studio for four months and write an album. It’s always been cumulative. I’m using songs on Joyland from seven or four years ago and just reworked. The first record was like that, too: old stuff and new.
VISCO: You know how everything in the music industry is based on genre. Do you feel that’s limiting? Where would you put yourself?
ALFONS: It’s definitely going to change. I’m making electronic music right now but in America the idea of electronic music is very different than if you go to somewhere in Europe, like Germany or something.
VISCO: Do you consider yourself allied with any particular group, or are you just doing your own thing?
ALFONS: Yeah, those comparisons seem limiting and restricting. If a friend introduces something new to me, they’re like, “Oh it sounds like this, you’ll like it.” On this new record, I’m definitely going to lose some fans and maybe gain some.
VISCO: Is there any current music that turns you on?
ALFONS: Are you familiar with Planningtorock? She’s a Berlin-based English electronic musician doing really cool things. She just put a new record out. You should listen to it.
VISCO: Is there an opening act on your tour?
ALFONS: Yes, a Montreal artist called Mozart’s Sister is opening, and she’s really awesome.
VISCO: So what about the “war” between Canada and the US—how do you feel about it?
ALFONS: [laughs] I live in Canada.
VISCO: Do you hate Americans?
ALFONS: God no! People are ridiculous who say that. I love America and I’m so excited to go on tour again. It’s amazing.
VISCO: What’s different between Canadians and Americans?
ALFONS: Americans are definitely pushier—they have a fire inside them that Canadians don’t.
VISCO: Are all Canadians nice?
ALFONS: No! Of course not. [laughs]
VISCO: There’s some mean ones, I bet.
ALFONS: Oh yeah, there’s tons of them.
VISCO: What about your family, are they still in Winnipeg?
VISCO: Is Winnipeg more rural?
ALFONS: Ah, it’s under a million, half a million. It doesn’t feel like a big city, it feels more like a small town.
VISCO: What kind of a kid were you? What was your thing?
ALFONS: I was obsessed with hockey. I also loved video games, making music, and performing, so it was a mix. I always ended up playing on hockey teams with a bunch of dudes, and I was the weird one. I think I loved hockey because of the dance music in between rehearsals.
VISCO: You said you liked performing when you were a child. Do you feel confident on stage now or are you still getting used to playing big venues?
ALFONS: I’m definitely still uncomfortable, but I think that gives a good performance as opposed to having a huge ego or not really caring. Sometimes a small show intimidates you more than a huge show.
VISCO: Has your style on stage developed during the time you’ve done these two albums and the touring? What have you learned from all these performances?
ALFONS: The energy from the audience fuels the show. At first it was less dance oriented and now it feels like, “Oh this is a dance show,” which is fun and has good energy.
VISCO: The title of your album is Joyland. Isn’t that kind of different from your persona, since you have an air of dark melancholy?
ALFONS: I wanted to make a dance record. I was listening to a lot of acid house and early techno stuff.
VISCO: What techno in particular?
ALFONS: I listen to Joey Beltram, a New York guy from the early ’90s. I like everything from that period as well as C.J. Boland. “No Way Back” by Adonis is probably one of the best dance songs ever.
VISCO: What is your ultimate goal as a performer?
ALFONS: For me, making the record is very insular and therapeutic. The goal for that is just to carry out whatever I need to survive.
VISCO: What do you see yourself doing in the future? Continuing recording and performing or do you see yourself branching out into some other art field?
ALFONS: I am responsible for taking my album cover pictures. I would like to experiment, but again, music is what I feel I’m the best at so I’m sure it’ll always tie into my music.
JOYLAND IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON TRUST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.