Men I Trust Talk Dream Pop and DX7s

Montreal’s Men I Trust put a jazzy spin on dream pop. Their music sounds like what might happen if a classy lounge act tried their hand covering Slowdive.

The members of Men I Trust.
Men I Trust. Photo courtesy of the band.

Men I Trust was initially formed in 2014 by keyboardist Dragos Chiriac and guitarist/bassist Jessy Caron. The childhood friends-turned-music school classmates at Quebec City’s Université Laval would enlist a fluid cast of vocalists to flesh out their deceptively ornate instrumentals. Their self-titled 2014 debut and 2015 release, Headroom, are ambitious and suave, centered on smokey melodies and funky grooves. In 2016, former-collaborator Emma Proulx joined the fold as the band’s full-time singer, cementing Men I Trust’s place as a trio. Their output since has been even more airy and sumptuous, as suited for a breezy Sunday drive as a night at the disco.

Based on the warm sonics of their music, one might assume that the members of Men I Trust obsess over vintage equipment. But the band’s techniques in the studio are shockingly simple. They mostly record straight into audio interfaces, rarely employing outboard gear or even amps. And there’s a good chance that the creamy Moog lead or 808 groove you’re drooling over is actually sequenced on a VST. In a creative sphere packed with analog purists, Men I Trust are refreshingly unpretentious about the nature of their sound sources.

Hot on the heels of a summer tour, Reverb caught up with Chiriac to chat about FM synthesis, life in rural French-Canada, Buddhist temples, and more. Stay up to date with Men I Trust on Bandcamp, and catch them on tour.

Men I Trust's 2023 single "Ring of Past".

You got in touch with the Reverb team because you just played Lollapalooza and have some big touring lined up. I’m curious how it’s been for you to get back on the road after so many years without international shows on the table.

It’s been nice. Covid put a stick in the wheels of our touring wagon, for sure. It feels great, honestly! We’ve toured a lot since then, and it’s hard to remember the feeling. But I remember really wanting to travel again.

We all live in the countryside here in Quebec, so it’s pretty isolated. And usually it’s the perfect balance whenever we tour and we’re, like, in big cities and we get to see people and be connected with the outside world. But then we’re here it balances out, being more quiet and more peaceful. But two years of just hanging around here felt like a long time. It feels good to be back.

Definitely! Where in the countryside do you live?

We live in between Quebec City and Montreal. It’s really a small village. It’s not known. I won’t disclose it for privacy reasons, but it’s a bit in the middle of nowhere. There’s only 1,000 people here.

Can you talk about your personal background in music and how Men I Trust came together?

Yeah, sure. I started playing classical piano when I was young. I was born in Romania, and I was studying at the classical conservatory of music there. Then – when I moved to Canada with my family – I just continued doing piano classes and stuff like that.

In high school, Jessy and I were friends because we lived in the same city. We used to share hip hop instrumentals together, and he also did metal tracks—I tried to play those on the keyboard as well, they were a bit difficult for me at the time. We started exchanging music super early on; he was working on Guitar Pro, I was working on Reason. And then we did our own separate thing for a while.

He studied classical guitar at the university and I studied philosophy. And then I switched, after my Bachelors, to musicology. So then we all had the same faculty and met again and just talked about doing music together. We wanted to do one song, but it ended up being a full album. So we created Men I Trust that way.

We wanted to have a “positive vibe” name, and the word “trust” was already taken by three different bands. So we called it Men I Trust because it was the two of us guys back then. We would reach out to people at the faculty, classical or jazz singers, to feature on our albums. But we didn’t have any fixed band. It was mostly a studio project. And then as the band evolved over the years, we became a permanent band with instruments and Emma as the lead singer. It’s been better for rehearsing, having a stable number of bandmates and people to do shows with.

I can imagine. On a similar note, it feels like you’ve really embraced collaboration on a lot of your records. Can you talk a little bit about that, and share any of your favorite experiences you’ve had through collaboration?

At the beginning, it was mostly collaborations because Jessy and I don’t sing. We did sing on the second-to-last song we released, “Girl.” But other than that, we don’t sing. So it was cool to reach out and get different voices for different types of projects.

One of my favorites was Nicolas Grynzpan. We did a track, “Offertorio,” which is kind of classical. He has a super low baritone voice. I also really liked working with Odil. She used to be more present in the early days of the band. She also has a really strong, powerful classical voice—super clear. She sang on “A Cycle,” a song that we really love a lot.

The official video for Men I Trust's "Sugar", shot on 8mm film during their Untourable Tour in 2021.

Could you talk a little bit about what your songwriting process as a band tends to be like?

We don’t really jam together that much to work on song ideas. We all have a big project folder on the Cloud, and we work on our computers individually. Many songs have different origins, really. There isn’t a streamlined process, per say. Sometimes, Jessy will start a beat with a bassline or guitar line or some chord progressions, or I will do that or Emma will do that. And then we all pitch in together and add our own stuff to it and make it sound like a Men I Trust record. That’s really, I guess, how we do it.

In the past, sometimes we wrote lyrics before writing the music. It wasn’t the best, because musically speaking it’s hard to force music on lyrics. Whereas lyrics can be adapted, although it is also tricky because you don’t wanna lose too much meaning while doing it. Musically speaking, you can get more musicality doing the melodies first and then the lyrics after.

One thing that stands out to me is that your sound is kind of simple at first. But the more you listen, the more complex elements reveal themselves. I’m curious if you could talk a bit about how you create such a simple-but-intricate vibe in the studio.

If we’re talking about studio work, that would probably be more on the mixing side. We try to have dynamic mixes. So certain aspects of the sound will be way quieter in order to create sort of a three-dimensional image where you have stuff in the background and stuff in the foreground. If you have high dynamics, you can do that. After listening to the song awhile, at first you hear the first elements of the melodies—things that are at the forefront. But the more you listen to it, then you start to hear the more subtle details and other melodies in the background.

It also has to do with our style of music. It’s kind of accessible, I guess, the way that the instruments are put together, and the general sound styles and choices. Underneath that are some really nice chord progressions sometimes. It’s really hard to explain. It’s kind of hard to write something that seems simple, there’s lots of work behind it.

On a similar note, your music is often very dancey. But I feel like it’s also not super loud or boisterous. Can you talk about how you find ways to make music that is energetic, but also simple?

Yeah, it probably has to do with the groove of things. Whenever you want to have something that is super groovy, all the timings of all the instruments won’t align perfectly. Depending on how you want to do it, you can have a bass that is a bit more laid back; some snares that push the rhythm up front; and hi-hats that work in that way, too. So you can have a really strong groove, even if it’s super quiet or even if the tempo is slow-ish, compared to traditional dancing music. You can still have something that is quiet, not so uptempo, but has enough groove to it that you want to bounce your chin up and down.

I love the synth sounds that appear in your music. Can you talk about some of your favorite synths that you play as a band?

Live, I use the Yamaha DX7 a lot. It’s an FM synth from the ‘80s that is really powerful. It’s known for cheesy electronic pianos and bells and stuff like that. But it can do so much more. You can tweak it almost any way you want it, and you can approach the sound of a Moog or an Oberheim or a Prophet or whatever you want it to be, really. So that’s the synth we use live.

For music production, we use lots of the Arturia plugins. We love their sound a lot. I’ve been really digging the E-MU synths recently a lot. The samplers and the sound banks that they do really sound amazing. We’re probably going to use a lot of those on the next album.

Are there any other VSTs or plugins that you’re a fan of?

The Arturias are a huge collection. They use a lot of Minimoog and the Mellotron. Outside of that, I really love the FM8 synthesizer, which is basically a DX7, but a bit more powerful as a plugin.

If you’re looking at hardware synths, I own a bunch of stuff. I also work with the DX21, which is a four operator FM synthesizer. I have a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak, which is a simple Prophet kind of synth. And I used to have a Prophet, too, that I used to use live. So some analog stuff and some digital stuff. But I tend to prefer digital stuff, and the ‘90s a lot.

With FM synthesis, it’s obviously one of the most complex methods of sound design. I’ve played around with it a bit, and I’ve had very little luck getting it to sound like anything I could use in a song. So I’m curious: do you mostly use presets, or do you actually program a lot of sounds from scratch?

I use lots of presets. It helps a lot, but I also program more complex stuff. When I play “Oncle Jazz” live – the opening track of the Oncle Jazz album – there’s some strings that swirl. I programmed that with pitch envelopes and stuff. But starting from presets is really helpful.

The way I think of it: don’t play too much with odd ratios on the operators—it becomes like noise super quickly. There’s always an operator on top, depending on the algorithm you use that you can see as though it is like a filter. That’s where you would work your traditional filters, controlling the envelope with that one that gives the brightness to the sound will be like using a cutoff filter with an envelope to it. So once you see it this way, it becomes a bit more simple to attack. Once you see the ratios as octaves or adding some harmonics to it, it becomes more straightforward.

It’s a bit like using the old organs that people had in their houses, and you had all the different pitches that you can choose on the pitch wheels—it works with halves and thirds and stuff like that. Those are basically how an FM synth works. Some operators can generate sounds, and some operators will modulate other operators. It can become infinite. You can make some really complex envelopes with that. But if you want to keep it simple, you can take a bright sound and make a brass tone out of it. You maybe will work with the operator on top that is feedbacking on itself.

I have a DX Reface. This makes me want to play around with it.

The DX Reface, I own it too. It’s much more simple. Four operators—it’s easier to work with. The sounds can sound as fat and as good, really.

Definitely inspiring! You guys use drum machines a lot in your music. I’m curious if you have any favorite hardware drum machines or plugins that you’ve used over the years.

We have some hardware E-MU and Akai samplers. But it’s hard to really know the origin of those sounds. The samplers have a sound of their own, especially the older Akai one that works in 12-bits—it can be pretty gritty. The origin of the samples is as infinite as you want.

For traditional drum machines, we use plugins for the 707 and the DMX a lot. Those come up often. I really like their sound a lot, especially the snares. They’re fat, and they kind of sound “rock” a bit. The bass drums, too; they’re super dorky-sounding, like needles. They’re punchy if you mix dynamically. But otherwise, if it’s super loud, they will sound like needles. It’s hard!

We use lots of the Native Instruments plugins. The kit from the ‘70s is really good; Vintage Drummer and Studio Drummer as well. They all have a different character and you can have presets and work with them and make your drum kit sound however you want it to sound. It’s pretty cool!

It sounds like you guys use a lot of electronic production techniques in the studio. I’m curious how you feel like that impacts what you do as a live band.

Good question! Sometimes, we use feedback from the live stuff to make production stuff. And sometimes we decide to do a song that is multi-layered and more soundscape-y and it’s harder to translate live. It’s always a challenge to do it, but it’s also really fun. On stage, we’re five musicians, so the amount of layers we can do is limited compared to what we can have in a song. It’s always nice to try to extract the essence or the most meaningful parts and focus on those live, and try to get that fuller sound live. It’s pretty cool.

One of my other favorite elements of your music is that I feel like you have really dreamy, clean, pretty guitar tones. I’m curious what guitars, amps, and pedals you use to get those sounds.

We don’t use amps, really. I think on “Billie Toppy” we used an amp because we wanted to have the tube drive. But we mostly use clean stuff, I’d say. We use a lot of the Strymons. Emma, Jessy, and I all have Strymon pedals on our pedal boards. We love the Timeline for delays—it’s amazing. We love the Big Sky reverbs, and the Mobius for everything that is modulation. It can do lo-fi effects, it can be filters, it can be chorus, flangers, phasers—all the good stuff. We use them a lot for guitars. Up until recently, we used mainly Stratocasters, really. We like having the pickups out-of-phase together, and I love how that guitar sounds.

I know now Jessy uses another guitar live. It’s the one that has kind of small devil horns on it. I think it’s a Gibson SG. He has quite a few solo parts, and we use more driven sounds on that. I think the pickups are a bit more suited for that purpose.

It sounds like you work a lot into your DAW. I’m curious what software you use, and how it impacts your process.

We use Ableton Live a lot. We all switched to it at the beginning of the band. I don’t know, really, how it impacts us. For me, it’s like a blank canvas that I can use to do anything, really. We never use it for live stuff to trigger loops, or stuff like that. We mainly use it on the horizontal timeline view and as a mixing software. It’s pretty easy to use.

What kind of basses do you use, and how do you shape your bass tones?

For the bass, we always plug it directly into the audio interface. That’s the cleanest sound we want to have. We used a lot of the Fender Jazz Bass and the P-Bass in the past. And now we use mostly the Fender Mustang. Jessy uses FAT-BEAM strings all the time because they have a shorter decay and the sound is a bit fatter. He also tends to play with a pick so the sound is a bit more “cut out,” I would say. Sometimes, he will use some packing foam and put it on the strings so it will be even shorter for the attack and the sustain. So it’s really more plucky, cutting through the mix.

I feel like recording straight into the interface is kind of a bold move a lot of the time. I’m curious what interface you use that you feel like captures the sound so well.

We’re big fans of the Apogee line of interfaces. They’re really great. Their plugs are really, really amazing. And also the preamps are really good. We tried to go with outboard preamps, and we bought some expensive stuff that we’re gonna sell now. We bought some Neve preamps, and I have the Acme Motown preamp as well. We’re all selling that because, honestly, we did “A and B” comparisons and it’s kind of hard to tell a difference that justifies the huge price of doing preamp stuff. For me, I like preamps that you don’t really hear that mix well together. And the Apogee stuff is pretty good.

But I’ve upgraded from Apogee. I now have the Neumann MT 48. It’s really crazy good, yeah.

Men I Trust's 2021 NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert.

Steering away from the gear talk a bit, can you talk about some of your favorite experiences you’ve had playing in Men I Trust over the years?

Best concert experience was when we did Coachella a couple years back. Huge festivals are really a great experience—experiencing big stages and huge crowds, it’s really great. It has its own challenges compared to playing at a venue. You have less time to set up and soundcheck. You need to leave faster than you do in venues. We like festivals a lot because of the huge crowds. But also, playing intimate rooms is pretty great.

Otherwise, the really great experiences that we get are probably the days off between shows, when we can visit beautiful places in nature. We visited some Buddhist temples in Osaka, Japan, which was pretty cool. We spent some time in Lake Tahoe in California. That was pretty cool, too. Those are memories that I’d say we cherish.

Is there anything you can tease that Men I Trust has coming up?

There’s our upcoming tour in The States. That’s gonna be pretty cool. It’s gonna be our biggest tour ever. And it’s gonna be really nice, too, because we’re gonna integrate some new stuff that we have coming up in the live set. And also it’s, like, the last tour that we’re gonna play before taking a whole year off next year. We’re gonna write new music for our new album. We have a couple drafts on our Cloud folder, but I don’t know if we’re gonna work on them or try to start something new from scratch. I’d like to use more of the sampler synths I talked about, the E-MU stuff. It’s probably gonna be dark and gritty, but at the same time be us.

What has inspired your shift to darker, grittier territory? Your music often feels pretty optimistic to me.

It can be dark and optimistic, kind of sad and happy at the same time. I don’t know what has really shifted it. Probably just the excitement of trying something new, I’d say.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.