This interview first appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the fall of 2018.
Interview by Cody Critcheloe. Photography by Raul Romo. Styling by Katie Qian.
Seven years ago in Toronto, the band TR/ST (trust) was formed by Robert Alfons with Maya Postepski of Austra. Two years later, they released their first album, TRST, to great critical acclaim. Alfons, the voice and songwriter behind TR/ST, released his second album, Joyland, in 2014, with it entering the Billboard dance/electronic album chart at number 12. Much more than dance, Alfons’s music is cavernous, sophisticated, and always an exhilarating show live. Now living in Los Angeles, Alfons chatted with Cody Critcheloe of SSION during the run-up to the release of TR/ST’s third studio album, slated for release early next year. Critcheloe is the lead singer and creator of the band SSION (pronounced “shun”), a band with a near-undefinable sound made up of hypnotic melodies and post-punk dreaming, not to mention a world of stunning visuals and live concerts. Critcheloe has also directed music videos for the likes of Charli XCX, Kylie Minogue, Robyn, Santigold, Peaches, and Perfume Genius.
CODY CRITCHELOE: Hey Robert, how are you?
ROBERT ALFONS: I’m so glad it’s Friday. Where are you?
CC: I’m back in New York. I came back and there’s all this construction going on across from my building. It lasts from six in the morning until seven at night, so it’s been kind of hellish. Where are you?
RA: I’m in Toronto for a week.
CC: Oh really? What are you doing there?
RA: Family and shit. And just being with friends and, you know, going to the bank.
CC: Cute! I love going to the bank.
RA: It’s so nice to be back in Canada for the summer. I don’t know a city like this. I guess it’s similar to New York—as soon as the winter is over it’s, like, the ’50s chessboard.
CC: Yeah, it’s the same in New York. I actually love being in New York in summer. People go so crazy.
RA: Similar situation. You get spoiled in LA. It’s good weather all the time.
CC: Yeah, right? It makes me sort of sad, in a weird way.
RA: Oh yeah. It’s raining right now and I’m crying with happiness. I crave a rainy day in LA every so often. First-world problems.
CC: But it’s OK, you’re Canadian. It doesn’t matter, right?
RA: I know! So, be honest with me.
RA: What do you think of the new Shania Twain song?
CC: I haven’t heard it! I didn’t know there was one. I had no idea. I’m not kidding. Wait, let me look it up. What’s it called?
RA: I don’t even know. I can’t remember. It’s called something like “Ready to Go.”
CC: “Life’s About to Get Good?”
RA: Yeah, that’s it! I really don’t like it. I mean, it’s an exciting moment, now that she’s putting out music again.
CC: Yeah, definitely. Oh, there’s a video for it, too.
RA: I haven’t seen that.
CC: There’s her on the beach. People have this really old-school idea of what it means to have a lot of money. You know, they probably spend $100,000 on catering alone. They don’t know how to rough it, really. I mean, she does, because she comes from a really tragic place. But she’s probably over that… Oh wow, this video’s amazing.
RA: I’ll have to check it out.
CC: I’m entranced by it. It’s very Ikea. Wow. It’s like Ikea meets Hobby Lobby.
RA: What does that mean?
CC: Well, like the font they’re using, the color scheme. There’s a crispness to it—like, a little bit Old Navy. It’s actually breaking into an Old Navy moment right now. It’s her audience perfectly, aside from us.
RA: We’re the real big fans.
CC: I always tell people that Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders and Shania Twain are kind of the same. There’s something about the way they write songs that reminds me of them both. There’s a weird parallel there.
RA: I see that. I don’t know enough about Chrissie… “Angel of the Morning.”
CC: “You’re Still the One” could totally be a Pretenders song, with different production and packaging.
RA: Yeah, you could see Shania doing “2,000 Miles.”
CC: Or “Back on the Chain Gang.” I could totally hear Shania doing that. It’s totally her range, her melodies. I feel like it’s perfect.
RA: Oh yeah! What’s Chrissie Hynde up to these days?
CC: I don’t know. Being a bitch, I guess. She’s such a woman hater!
RA: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
CC: Well, she put out this book. I mean, she’s still awesome, right? But in interviews she always comes off so shitty to me… She can be really negative toward other women. The only chick she can support is Sheryl Crow, which I think is so odd! Not that Sheryl Crow isn’t awesome. [Chrissie] said something [in an interview in The Sunday Times] about blaming herself for being raped that was offensive. I don’t know, I didn’t actually read her book, but I guess I should.
RA: Oh shit.
CC: But, you know, people nowadays freak out about anything, so it could actually have been nothing. I’d have to read it for myself. Who knows?
RA: Yeah, people can often just be into the shock value.
CC: Yeah, totally. But let’s talk about you.
RA: Well, I was going to say I want to talk about you, but that’s fine. Go ahead.
CC: I think it’s so funny because I was thinking, gosh I don’t know how to do a proper interview about a record or anything.
RA: Oh, it doesn’t need to be.
CC: Well, I know, but I want you to be able to talk about this thing you’ve made and spent a lot of time on and that you’re going to spend the next few years living. Do you have a name for the album yet?
RA: No. I’m still finishing up songs for it. Yeah, there will be a name. Two more months. It’s been very loose. I’ve done this in the past and I’m just giving myself sort of realistic deadlines. So, yeah, mid-October is the plan.
CC: What’s the song you’re working on right now? What’s the vibe of it? Is it The Hit?
RA: No, not at all. I feel like it’s not really… I don’t know. I haven’t been listening to pop music, so I feel the album isn’t catchy. I always think that I make pop music but then I guess I don’t.
CC: You do.
RA: I don’t really do a lot of it, so I feel like the record sort of shows that.
CC: Well, but at the same time, when you played me those three songs at Jake’s place,
I thought they were really catchy—like, crazy catchy [Critcheloe, Alfons, and Jake Shears, of the band Scissor Sisters, had all just finished, or were finishing, albums and were listening to each other’s songs at Shears’s house.]. Maybe they’re not subscribing to what is current pop—you know, maybe it doesn’t sound like what’s on the radio, but it’s still super-hooky. And that to me is what makes it pop. A hook. Something that gets lodged in your head. And you know, all my friends in New York listen to your new single, “Bicep,” all the time.
RA: I’m so happy to hear that. I was so happy to put that out. Wait, you haven’t put anything new out from your record, right?
“Where I’m from, people are reserved, but I’m not like that. The people I encounter in Spain are warm and open… The presence of shame isn’t so evident”
CC: No. We’re going to release a single in October, though, which I’m glad about.
RA: Oh, so it’s happening? That’s so exciting!
CC: Yeah. I’m really glad it’s finally going. I want to release a video with the song. I don’t want people to hear it unless they can see it first. I think that’s super-important. Yeah, so basically, now I’m in a desperate search to find funding to do a video for it. Because I feel like that bar has been set so high. Like seriously, I want to make something that’s really fantastic, and celebratory, and beautiful. And sometimes that takes a little cash.
RA: I’m so excited.
CC: Yeah. Did you find someone to put out the album?
RA: It’s going to happen. There are talks right now. I don’t know. Somebody is going to do it. It’s all very exciting right now. I am very happy with everything. But it won’t come out until early next year, just because it’s already the middle of August.
CC: How did all that stuff start to get going with the label? What got that motor running?
RA: You know, a few things. I got management, but I also put the song out. We did FYF Fest in LA, which was crazy and exciting.
CC: Yeah, those pictures looked amazing.
RA: It was so fun. I never see the video after a show. So I’ve never really seen any shows I’ve done. But it really felt like one of the better shows that I’ve done. That’s always a good feeling. But yeah, so wrapped up in emotions. I don’t know, it just felt better.
CC: I think that’s what it comes down to anyway. It should all come down to the emotion of it. If it feels good, then it probably was really good.
RA: Well, I don’t know. I still feel like such an amateur at so much of it.
CC: Oh please—at what?
RA: At so much of it. Also performing, more specifically.
CC: But compared with what, though? I wouldn’t say it’s amateur at all. I mean, you’ve done a ton of touring. You know what you’re doing. You make the music, you perform the music. And you don’t seem like someone who is hiding as a performer either. You’re kind of front and center about it. It doesn’t strike me as amateur, unless you have a different kind of end goal.
RA: I think it’s good to have forward- looking aspirations, I guess. Or I haven’t performed in a while and I feel a bit weird about it.
CC: I wish I could have seen it.
RA: The whole FYF thing was so fun.
CC: Who was your favorite there?
RA: I love Slowdive so much and I finally got to see them live. I never thought I would.
CC: How were they?
RA: It wasn’t the most exciting show, but sonically it was beautiful. Also Arca. I had never seen an Arca show before. It was fucking incredible.
CC: Yeah, he’s really blossomed into… like, it’s weird because I feel he actually puts on a pop show, in a way. It’s like a very modern pop show, even though the music isn’t necessarily what you would think of as pop, but I feel like the presentation of it is very, very pop. There’s no shying away from anything. It’s very Madonna Drowned World Tour, hahaha.
RA: Yeah, there was even a little moment of “Hollywood” by Madonna mixed in there.
CC: Oh really? So maybe it’s a bit more “American Life”?
RA: Oh yeah—a good 45-second weird cut-up version of it. I love when people reference that one because it’s underappreciated, in my mind.
CC: “Hollywood” is such a great song. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately and it’s so of the moment. It’s, like, her woke record, even though I hate using that word. You know, it’s like, if only Katy Perry could have been that woken up. But let’s not talk about her.
RA: I understand. If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it.
CC: Exactly and I’m really bad about that. So I don’t want to do that. Although, you know what? I do think that people should talk a little bit more shit. Everyone’s really guarded. I even find myself being super-guarded about saying how I feel about something. If you don’t like a record, there’s nothing wrong with saying that. It’s not like a personal attack on someone. Sorry, I don’t want to get lost in that. So, when did you say the record is coming out?
RA: I don’t have a date yet, but it will be early next year. There will be another single out soon. That’s the plan right now. Next year will be busy.
CC: Are you going to tour a lot?
RA: I don’t know. Definitely some. I haven’t been to Europe in a few years, never toured in Asia or Australia. There are a lot of places I would love to go and do a show.
CC: Yeah, you should. I ache to tour. We should go on tour together in Spain. Only in Spain, hahaha.
RA: That would be so crazy! We should really make that happen.
CC: What is it about Spain?
RA: I don’t know. I know we come from different places. I feel like, where I’m from, people are kind of old and reserved, but I’m not like that. The people I’ve made friends with and the people I encounter in a lot of places in Europe, but especially Spain, are very warm and open. I kind of miss that. I’m really attracted to that. And then there’s the weather—that’s just the beginning and then things get out of hand.
CC: You know, even when things get out of hand, it’s all done in a celebratory way. I think I’ve said that to you. If you’re getting fucked up in the UK, there’s this ominous undertone, or even overtone, to it. You know, it’s sort of escapism, because everything is so gray and rainy—even when it’s hot it’s only, like, 60 degrees. But in Spain, it’s like a celebration. It’s like we’re doing this because it’s beautiful. Life is beautiful!
RA: I agree. And the presence of shame is not so evident.
CC: True. What do you want people to know about your new album? What stuff do you never get asked in an interview? What stuff do you want to talk about but no one ever asks you? Like, music journalists versus what you actually want to talk about?
RA: I always appreciate more of a back and forth. It feels so weird to me, that sort of one-sided questioning. It’s also weird because the record’s not out. And when it is out, it speaks for itself, I guess.
At this point the record is sort of like on both sides. The first single is sort of noisier and a bit more of a vibe that is maybe familiar territory and the other half of it is super-chill and kind of tender. Yeah, maybe a step in a different direction.
CC: Cool… Hahaha. Sorry, I was just thinking about me saying, “That’s cooooool,” as a response. Who’s in your band right now?
RA: This girl, Esther.
CC: Is that the chick who I met? The blonde?
RA: Yeah, totally.
CC: She’s been with you for a long time?
RA: Yeah, she’s played for a few years now and we’re super-close. She also makes her own music. She’s a really special girl. She was a mutual friend. It was like, “Let’s try making this work.” And we became friends that way. She’s from the valley where I go to play hockey.
CC: Oh yeah, you’re really into hockey.
RA: Well, I don’t know. I grew up with it. It’s fun. It takes me away from all the trouble. Justin Bieber was playing in my hockey team for a bit.
CC: Wait, really?
RA: I didn’t tell you this? I love it. Yeah, we were playing on the same line for a while. He came on and off for a month, or something like that.
CC: Wait, when you were living in Canada?
RA: No, last Christmas in LA.
CC: What? Did you guys become chummy?
RA: No. I mean, no. No. He wouldn’t remember who the hell I am. But he is super- friendly and he loves the game.
CC: So what’s he like in person?
RA: The same. He’s… short. I’m not attracted to him at all.
CC: Yeah, I’m not attracted to him either, but I love short guys. Because I feel like they have this crazy kind of mojo. Their mojo is nuts.
RA: I appreciate it, too. Yeah, I always go for shorter.
CC: I know, right? I don’t know what it is. I love a short guy.
“When I feel like my life is taken care of, then I feel like my work gets better. I go deeper and darker. But I also enjoy it when things get crazy”
RA: Because it’s so rare.
CC: You know, it’s not anymore, though. I feel like 90% of all gay Instagram thots [those hos over there] are short because their bodies tend to be more compact. It’s so crazy, you always meet them in person and they’re, like, 4ft tall. They’re all really short and they photograph well because they have giant heads and these really compact bodies. So they look incredible shirtless and lying on the beach, but then you meet them in person and they’re miniature.
The next time you meet an Instagram star, I’ll bet money that they’re actually really short, and really awkward, too. You can’t even have a conversation with them.
RA: Yeah, I like that change, because I’m tall—a lanky giraffe. I appreciate the short and stocky.
CC: I always like shorties.
RA: This is way, way better content for an interview, haha.
CC: Yeah, I agree. Wait, don’t be angry at
me. What’s your sign again? I can’t remember.
CC: My boyfriend’s an Aries. I have a lot of Aries in my life. That’s not a bad thing, I’m just curious.
RA: It just came up the other day—how Aries can be difficult.
CC: I don’t think they’re that difficult, actually. There’s a stubbornness to it. Actually, my boyfriend’s a triple Aries, so he’s basically a sociopath. No, I shouldn’t say that. He’s actually really sweet. He’s always got, like, a royal air to him. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with being an Aries… Maybe it’s just because he was spoiled as a child.
RA: Yeah, I remember that one time he came out. I didn’t even meet him.
CC: I brought him over to Ed Droste’s [the lead singer of Grizzly Bear] the last time I was in town. Ed and I spent a day going shopping, which Ed was miserable doing. And I kind of love constantly fucking with Ed. I love it.
RA: Giving him mono… [Critcheloe has known Droste since he was 19. They dated for a little while… Critcheloe gave him mono and Droste dropped out of NYU. Critcheloe just directed a music video for Grizzly Bear.]
CC: Yeah, it’s true. I feel like Ed loves it, too.
I feel he’s at a point in his life where he’s ready to really rock the, I don’t know, rock the casbah. Or at least get really silly on a more regular basis.
RA: Yeah, he enjoys lighting fire.
CC: Yeah, he does. Also, I love Freckle. Thank you for introducing me to Freckle.
RA: Did I really introduce you to Freckle? [Freckle, a mutual friend of Droste and Alfons, is an actress and Critcheloe is really in love with her—like everyone who comes into contact with her. She stars in the new Grizzly Bear video.]
CC: You know, I met her a while back, which she doesn’t remember.
RA: Oh yes.
CC: Are you loving living in LA? Are you going to stay there for a while?
RA: Yeah, I love it now. The hump happened in winter. It took me a while—I kept wanting to find Toronto things in LA, and once I got that out of my mind, I really liked it.
CC: What do you mean, “Toronto things”?
RA: Things like walking—street traffic and running into people on the street. That
just doesn’t happen so much in LA. People are more spread out. People will live in the Valley and in Malibu and Topanga, and then people will live in Lincoln, and those places are far apart. Whereas in Toronto everyone lives in one area and you can walk and bike everywhere. I got really used to that. But the payoff is I’ve got a great garden and a house. I don’t know where else I would be right now.
CC: I feel you, because I spend half my time in New York and half my time in LA and I
keep toying with the idea of moving to LA [permanently]. But I have the same sort of problem, where I get, like, I just find myself never leaving the house in LA. It made me realize how social I need to be daily. I love being able to walk to the coffee shop and running into someone. New York is the perfect place for that—it’s made to be social, but
LA isn’t. When I’m in LA and we’re talking about hanging out, half the time I’m in bed by nine o’clock. I never even show up. I’m just like, “Yeah, we should do something,” and then I just don’t ever… You know what I’m saying? I feel so domestic there. I’m nervous about fully embracing [LA].
RA: It’s not good for me. I will [hide], that’s the thing. It definitely takes more work in LA. I definitely have to work harder because I will stay in for days, I will lie low. But I feel, yeah, it’s all about finding that area. And I thought about Silver Lake for so long, but I’m more of an Echo Park person. I kind of fought it for a while and then I was like, all my friends are here and it’s much easier to walk over to people’s houses and walk to get things, and not get in the car.
CC: I feel like when I finally do make the decision to move to LA, I have to live in a gay village around people for sure… WeHo?
RA: It seems like you have the best of both worlds.
CC: Yeah, but I don’t want to do this forever. Although I’m restless regardless. It’s just something I have to accept. Are you like that at all? I like traveling, touring. I get super- depressed when the tour is over. I kind of wonder why I always want to be mobile. I can’t be in one place for too long without going a little bit nuts.
RA: Yeah, I have that once I start moving. But actually in my core I like to be cozy. That’s when I get the best work done, too—when my basic needs are taken care of. Whatever the, quote unquote, triangle of health is—shelter, people, love. When I feel like my life is taken care of, then I feel like my work gets better. I go deeper and darker, or whatever. But I also enjoy it when things get crazy and I move around and go to lots of different places. Though that’s not really sustainable for the long journey.
CC: I know what you mean. That’s interesting, because I always feel like it’s so romanticized, this whole idea about how you can only make something good if you’re tortured and miserable, as if that’s the only time anything good is going to come out. I mean, I do think it’s important to have… Of course you’re going to have ups and downs, regardless. But it’s funny, most people probably think, just based on your music or the persona you have, that it’s all about doom or whatever. I feel like people are so surface with that kind of stuff. They just take it for whatever is on the surface.
RA: Yeah, definitely. The past few years have been the hardest of my life and I definitely spent a lot of the time super-depressed. But I would say that I strive to be healthy. I’m older, I thank the universe that I have my garden, and I get super into that stuff and really inspired, in some weird way.
CC: What makes you the most depressed? Like, what gets you more than anything?
RA: Being hungover. That’s it. I mean, I don’t know what it is. I think it was just
a certain age. The past few years, it was heavier than before. I just didn’t really feel like myself. And I think it’s just dealing with extreme amounts of shame.
Also, the state of the world and, I don’t know, I always thought I wanted a kid. And then I think, “Damn this world is going to be so different in 40 years.” Part of me feels that maybe it’s the realization that it’s going to be really different—it’s going to be a different place in a fucking crazy way.
CC: I know what you mean.
RA: And I’ve been moving a lot, so that has its ups and downs. I don’t really know. Good question.
CC: I guess just living life, huh?
RA: It can be a valley. Exactly.
CC: When are you going to go back to LA?
RA: I’m going back this weekend. What about you?
CC: I’m going to go back in September.
RA: We have to meet. We have to talk about our Christmas song.
CC: Yeah, I know. We really do.
RA: And our video.
CC: One hundred percent. Also, I really want you to do a remix of one of the SSION songs on the new album.
RA: Oh man, I would love to. I can’t wait to hear the whole thing. I’m so excited about it.
CC: Yeah, the first song that’s coming out,
I didn’t play for you. It’s my favorite. It’s really fun. It’s a real life-liver, hahaha.
RA: Is that coming out in October?
CC: Yes, it’s out in October. The goal is to have the video and the song come out in October together. And then I wanted the album to come out in the new year but sort of release singles and videos up until the full album comes out. I’m excited about it. I love the record. You know how it is. Sometimes I would get really concerned about just doing the visual side of it. I get really tied up in that, which is important.
RA: It’s super-important for the project.
CC: Yeah, but I kind of feel it’s like that for a lot of people, the way it’s packaged and branded. It’s the heart of this whole thing, you know? When I was a kid and really got into a record, an album, or an artist, it was like, I got into all of it, you know? Like, the whole thing was super-exciting for me. Even if it was an artist who was the antithesis of being super-visual, I would get into that because it was part of their thing. I was on a journey, no matter what.
RA: Well, definitely let me know when you come to LA.
CC: All right, I will. It’s good talking to you. We should chat more on the phone. I feel like we need to be really chatty.
RA: Yeah, like, Skype or something.
CC: For some reason my Skype was not working. It was so frustrating. I think I need
to take in my computer because it’s so old, and the only reason I think it’s still working is because I don’t update it. No joke. I mean, it’s from 2007. The fact that it even still works is a miracle. But, you know, I talk nice to it. I treat it well.
RA: You take it to the spa?
CC: Yeah, basically. I only use it to watch porn on, nothing else.
RA: A healthy diet. I was just going to say to you that we should talk about porn in the next interview.
CC: We should. But that one will be for Vogue Italia. Yes, let’s do that.