Toronto musician Robert Alfons takes inspiration from from acid house and my so-called life.
Words by Amaya García
From the first electronic bleeps of Joyland, the second album from Toronto-based musician Robert Alfons under his moniker Trust, you can’t help but feel that there’s a deeply imbued sense of nostalgia in his music. The darkness of the goth clubs he used to frequent in his early years in Toronto, the teenage melodrama and the fascination with ’80s industrial and dark wave sounds are all palpable in Alfons’ music, but there’s also an innocent sense of fantasy with things immediately out of reach. It’s emotionally charged music made for a pitch black dance floor, and that’s exactly how Alfons’ intended it.
Inspired by the rich music scene that surrounded him in Toronto, the Winnipeg native made his debut in 2010 with the album TRST, a tour de force of moody synth lines, dense melodies, grimy vocals and cold, atmospheric beats made alongside Austra’s Maya Postepski. Four years later and sans Postepski, Alfons’ sound has taken a leap towards the shiny and grandiose, thanks, in part, to a willingness to step outside his original vision and take in a surprising array of conflicting influences, from early techno to volcanoes and My So-Called Life.
“I haven’t seen the show for a while,” he laughs. “There’s definitely some sort of fantasy in that teen drama world, and I just super connect with Angela Chase and the whole melodrama.” Aside from being influenced by the ’90s quasi-power couple of Jordan Catalano and Angela Chase, one of the more notable aspects of Joyland is how much of the Trax Records style of production made it onto Trust’s current sound.
“I’m not a huge connoisseur of acid house or techno,” explains Alfons. “My knowledge is still skimming the surface, but guys like Joey Beltram and the amazing stuff he did were definitely huge influences. A lot of those guys and girls didn’t do full albums, just singles. So you get [singles] like Adonis’ “No Way Back,” which is one of the best dance songs ever written. I listened to a lot of that stuff, lots of random techno and acid house for sure.”
He says he knows his influences might be laughable to some, but what he’s made from them is anything but. Joyland is a funhouse of sound, where every song triggers different emotions from the listeners, with twists and turns that veer from the ecstatic, to the introspective and the downright melodramatic. “I think emotion is sort of what pushes me to make every song,” he explains about his methods. “It’s definitely very easy to put things aside and not be diligent about working on music, but when it’s connected to and fueled by emotions, there’s moments when you have to go and finish a song. You have to go write it.”
Perhaps that’s why Joyland sounds so urgent. “Slightly Floating,” is the ambient influenced album opener that paves the way for drastic beat changes throughout the record. Songs like the dark and mechanical “Geryon” and the obscure ballad “Are We Arc?” stand as almost polar opposites to the poppy bliss of “Joyland.” It’s a well calculated feat, considering another important theme in Alfons’ work is the instability of traveling and movement, which forces one into exploring unknown territories.
“I was definitely a bit more playful with many aspects of the record; maybe most notably my vocals, which I definitely let myself explore and play around with a bit more […] I was just trying a bunch of different things,” he states. Alfons’ vocal style—an intersection between Ian Curtis and the harsh baritone of Interpol’s Paul Banks—plays an increasingly important, albeit garbled, role in Joyland. It’s a fault that the lyrics are quite hard to understand, but the reward is on those who listen closely, as they reveal parts of his personality and worldview. “They’re part self-expression—the processing and the pep talks—and the other part is definitely fantasy and the surroundings and excitement of that. It’s definitely a balance of those two. But the lyrics are usually the last thing to come together for me. I don’t know if it’s because I find it harder or because it’s a more intense process,” he ponders.
While the music is central to Alfons, there is another aspect of Trust that rarely gets the recognition it deserves, aesthetics. From the get go, Alfons branded his music with images that he was inspired by or that he took himself while dancing in the goth clubs. That’s how TRST’s mysterious and striking album cover came about. According to the musician, it was a picture he took on one of his hangouts, and it became the image that gave a face to the industrial sound he’s known for: dark, ambiguous, grimy and, to some extent, sexually charged.
As for Joyland, the reverse is true. It’s a contrast between light and dark; the modern disco and Tron. “I think the title Joyland came out of this bouncy, acid house, candy coated idea of presenting music,” he remarks. “I paired it with a sort of dark album cover, which is quite the opposite. It’s a play on dance music, but it’s also very elemental.”
This minimalist approach stands for his live shows as well. As a general rule, we go to live shows to witness the band play, but that’s something that Alfons doesn’t really follow. It all comes back to whole concept of nostalgia for a bygone era where the club had the same effect as a church, with the DJ preaching to the faithful dancers, guiding them on their way to a higher state. “When the club is dark, I think people release a lot more and it becomes less about watching the band perform and more about people getting lost in their own little world dancing,” he muses. “They’re in their own atmosphere. That’s when I feel like I’ve succeeded. They’re doing their own thing and that’s exciting.”
Joyland is out now on Arts and Crafts.