To hear Robert Alfons describe things, his formative years in Winnipeg weren’t exactly a nonstop blur of frenzied partying and life-changing concerts. Some people grow up attending shows that guarantee future bragging rights. Others are happy to hang out in their bedrooms.
“Music to me was always internal, to where it was like a put-on-the-headphones kind of thing,” says the singer for Toronto-spawned dark-wave unit Trust, reached between tours in his temporary home base of Montreal. “I think that live music is, a lot of times, about a party. That never really interested me. I think that music should be communal, but also very much for yourself. I love seeing people lost in a crowd, dancing by themselves. That, to me, is really exciting.”
Considering Alfons’s past, it’s no wonder that Trust’s debut album, TRST, finds the synth-wielding songwriter leaning toward the black-hearted side of life. Spiked with synapse-frying distortion, the opener “Shoom” heads straight for a Berlin mortuary on Halloween night, while “Dressed for Space” sinks into a subterranean club where the only thing blacker than the walls are the clothes on the dance floor. Once you get past the phaser-fire at the beginning, “This Ready Flesh” is the sound of being lost deep in the Black Forest at 3 a.m., loaded on schnapps with a bombed Nina Hagen riding shotgun. Yes, parts of TRST are that deliciously dark.
Although goth is the tag that’s been slapped on the project by most critics, that doesn’t reflect the fact that the record has its uplifting moments. Starburst keyboard runs illuminate the bass-bombed body mover “Gloryhole”, while “Heaven” is built around synth trills that are nothing less than, well, heavenly.
“I’m definitely a fan of gothic music, but by no means is this a gothic record,” Alfons states. “I don’t think it should be seen that way, but whatever. I think that people tend to put labels on everybody. What I’m doing is much more than that. I think my influences are all over the place.”
What really inspires him, he suggests, are records on which artists make the most out of talents that no one will describe as virtuosic.
“Some of my favourite albums are ones where they use the same synths over and over, or you hear the drums and you know it’s the same sampler that they’ve used for the whole record,” Alfons says. “Think of OMD—I’m trying to think of which record. I think it’s Organisation, where they use the same stuff over and over.”
As critically lauded as Trust has turned out to be, the project has been very much a learning experience for the Winnipegger, who figures he started to come into his own after moving to Toronto. The first part of his evolution was realizing, despite being an introvert by nature, that he wanted to step into the spotlight and make music. He found his inspiration in the Centre of the Universe’s sweaty clubs.
“The people that I love the most are ones who really have a sense of being theatrical as performers,” Alfons says. “After not going to shows in my teens, that changed when I got to Toronto. There was this Toronto band called Pony Da Look. They were four girls, and they were really awesome, really theatrical, kind of in the style of LiLiPUT and Kleenex and Malaria!, but maybe not so dark. They were really fun and a really big influence on me every time that I would see them live. It really got me excited to play music.”
The challenge, once he was ready to get serious about starting a band, was overcoming his limitations as a musician.
“I have a little bit of knowledge of playing piano, but by no means am I a classically trained piano player. I got attracted to playing the piano because my older sister played it. My goal was to learn it just enough so that I could make music.”
Alfons would start Trust as a two-piece. The fledging songwriter hooked up with Austra drummer Maya Postepski, who helped him realize his vision on TRST.
“I’m definitely not a master in the studio at all,” Alfons contends. “I think the big attraction of working with someone else on the first record is that I’m not a drummer by nature. I don’t play drums and I don’t understand how you dissect a drum part. That’s something that I learned making TRST—how to write drum parts.”
As a result, Trust has become a genuine solo project as far as the creative process is concerned, with Alfons promising to branch out on the next record. From the way that he describes things, pop will be a far more relevant reference point than goth. Forget making music guaranteed to resonate with Prince of Sorrow Azrael Abyss; the singer hints that he’s more into embracing his inner Janet Jackson.
“She’s awesome—she’s had a great career making really great pop songs, and is someone that I’ve loved,” Alfons says. “But when I say pop, I also classify people like Tom Waits as pop. I guess my idea of pop is popular music, so I don’t know if that word is for where something is coming from sonically, or whether it’s about where something fits in on the charts.”
As for Trust, it probably doesn’t matter how one labels the band. All that’s important is how easy TRST makes it to imagine a kid sitting alone in the dark with the headphones on, thinking that maybe he’s just been inspired enough to leave the bedroom.