If Men I Trust’s musical journey is a well-paved one, it’s because the band members laid down every single cobblestone in it. Although the trio evolves in an environment where one has access to everyone else’s two cents, it prefers that if you want something done right, you do it yourself.

Longtime friends Jessy Caron, bass, and multi-instrumentalist Dragos Chiriac founded Men I Trust in 2014, and gained full power in 2015 with the addition of Emmanuelle Proulx on vocals and guitar. Strength in numbers.

Men I TrustWe speak with Dragos on the eve of a key concert in Men I Trust’s tour, their show at the Festival d’été de Québec. Sure, the band has gigs in Copenhagen, Zurich and, earlier this month, even flew to Egypt, but a homecoming gig in a huge venue is pretty special. “We’re playing the Impérial,” says Chiriac. “It’s much bigger than the venues we usually play. And crowds during the FEQ are always maxed.”

“Finally, we’re getting some good musicians in Egypt,” read a post on Facebook about ten days earlier, when Men I Trust landed in the kingdom of Pharaohs. But just how does an electro trio from Québec City end up on the bill of an Egyptian music festival? “Our followers are sprinkled all over the world,” Chiriac explains. “It’s hard for us to tour intensively in a given region, because at the end of the day, we’re not that well-known. We are known a little, but all over the globe.”

This global sprinkling of followers is, according to the band’s co-founder, a complete fluke. But one thing’s for sure: everywhere they go, they sell out the venue. “They’re small venues, but they’re always packed,” says Chiriac. “What we like to do are very intimate shows for a very specific crowd.”

Although the band does list Montréal as its hometown on social media, it is a bona fide “Made in Québec City” group. “You see, most places we go, even when we say Montréal, people don’t know where that is, so imagine saying Québec City,” says Chiriac. “It’s sad to realize that even in the States, people are barely able to locate, even approximately, where Montréal is on a map.”

But ultimately, the band’s origin doesn’t matter, because the welcome the band gets in their niche music scene is unanimous. “It’s quite surprising to get to a town we’ve never been to before, and people still buy our t-shirts,” says Chiriac. “The power of the internet helps us a lot. We have a ton of plays online. Every time we release a new song, we gain new followers. Our social network following doubles every six months.”

And whereas emerging bands often actively look for a record label to show them the way, Men I Trust doesn’t. “We’ve had a lot of offers, but we’re not interested,” Chiriac admits. “We manage all of our stuff without a problem. It’s about 10 to 15 e-mails per day.”

The trio practices an aesthetically cohesive do-it-yourself approach. “It’s a big plus not to have to wait for a team to spring into action,” says Chiriac. “We can release a song and video, aligned with our basic idea, in two weeks. And by making our own videos for each song we release, we consolidate the band’s universe.”

The time-consuming part of their business is bookings. That’s why the band has delegated those for the U.S. and Europe. “Everything else – production, recording, image, photography – we love doing it ourselves, and we have the know-how. As long as we can make it work, we’re gonna keep doing it that way,” says Chiriac.

The band’s appeal comes from catchy, mellow melodies that willfully target a niche audience. “It’s not a commercial style,” says Chiriac. “We don’t play on the radio. We do appear on certain playlists and specialized media.”

He says Men I Trust want to obey the silence. “We want a music that breathes, music that takes its time, even in more uptempo songs. Even when it comes to images, we consciously prefer long sequence shots, and distance. It’s a calculated choice.”

Two new songs were recently introduced onstage, notably in Québec City. They’ll both be on the upcoming album, planned for February 2019, at the end of a lengthier and more substantial recording process.

Meanwhile, the band keeps on touring, and their calendar has more than100 gigs left in 2018, from September on. “I think we’ll write the album in August,” sats Chiriac. “We’ve got a small 2-week break then…”

The London-based Rokstone Studios has served as an incubator for songs that have taken over the world. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Pink’s “What About Us,” and a number of hits later popularized by such boy bands as The Wanted, Westlife, and One Direction were put together there by the master of the house, British composer Steve Mac. As the British music industry giant Simon Cowell’s right-hand man, Mac plays in the same league as Max Martin and Dr. Luke, two pop music mercenaries who artists, music producers, and managers call to craft and produce hit songs.

One day in June of 2018, the visitors entering the famed studio were, of all people, two French-speaking Montrealers, Zacharie Raymond, a.k.a Soké, and Yannick Rastogi, a.k.a. KNY Factory (on Soundcloud), both at the personal invitation of Steve Mac. And all the hit-making producer wanted to find out was how the musicians behind the Banx & Ranx duo had managed to produce “Answerphone,” a dancehall mega-hit with afro-beat, electro-trap, and Caribbean influences.

“He said he wanted to understand the science behind the piece,” says Raymond. “I couldn’t believe we were in his studio at his request,” adds Rastogi. “He was telling us how much he loved the Banx & Ranx sound. It was crazy!”

Thanks also to the talents of singer Ella Eyre and rapper Yxng Bane, “Answerphone” now totals 65 million plays on Spotify (and probably more by the time you finish this sentence).

Just two months after its release in March of 2018, the song reached No. 5 on the U.K. Singles Chart. In fact, it was the United Kingdom as a whole that was answering the Banx & Ranx call, since “Answerphone” also climbed to the No. 10 position on both the Irish and Scottish charts.

“It’s the song that changed everything,” says Raymond. “People’s perceptions of our music suddenly changed. Locked doors flew open. Incredible producers and artists started calling us and wanting to meet us. We just spent a week in Jamaica working with Sean Paul.”

It wasn’t the first time the Parlophone label-signed duo worked with the Dancehall King. Sean Paul’s latest EP includes four songs credited to the Canadian duo. “We’re also receiving tons of requests from artists who want us to re-mix their songs [Gorillaz, Major Lazer, David Guetta]. We can hardly keep up!”

The Plan

It all began for Banx & Ranx when they started posting their first re-mixes online. “I started playing music when I was very young and living in Guadeloupe,” says Rastogi. “I first learned the piano, but they were more interested in rapping my knuckles than teaching me how to play. Then I got interested in the ka (a Guadeloupean drum), but I finally fell into reggae. I soon started producing my own riddims because nobody wanted to do it for me.”

Arriving in Canada at the age of 19 or so, Rastogi became interested in electro music at first. “I always loved rhythm, so it made sense,” he explains. “But I knew that I wanted to keep my Caribbean influences. So I started mixing the two styles.” Rastogi then started posting his first pieces and re-mixes on Soundcloud, the platform where Raymond would discover him. “He sent me a message. I was already following him, so I knew who he was, but we hadn’t spoken yet at the time.”

Known on the Québec rap scene for his collaborations with Koriass, D-Track, and Samian, Raymond started honing his talents as an electro-beat producer. “I was very trap, jungle, and drum & bass,” he says. “Then I fell into urban music. I worked with many rappers, but I couldn’t actually see myself being active in that environment, long-term. I was looking for something else, and I got hooked on reggae music. I fell in love with dancehall. I learned the Jamaican Patois. I worked hard on my solo career [to the point of releasing the Cellules album in Québec in 2012]. But I soon realized that I wasn’t really happy with performing live. I was playing shows for the paycheck. I didn’t want to be that kind of an artist. My real strength was as a composer and producer.”

Once they got to know one another, Rastogi and Raymond worked on a few shared projects before producing their first song, “Crime Scene.” “This is where we first understood that we could work as a team,” Rastogi explains. “We shared the same vision: making electro music and r-emixes while keeping our Caribbean influences. The Banx & Ranx objective was soon established. We wanted to write for ourselves, but also for other world-class artists. On the other hand, we would never have thought that we would get this close to pop music.”

Now that we’re on the subject, it’s not every day that we have an opportunity to talk with local composers who hobnob with the world’s pop elite. According to stereotype, that sphere of the industry builds its success on famous commercial recipes. “Before you can talk of a recipe,” Rastogi warns, “you’ve got to realize that the secret for breaking out at that level is non-stop work. You must be willing to spend a lot of time away from your family, and not be afraid of eating Kraft Diner. You can’t be afraid of failure either, because a lot of people are going to say no to you. You never know when the money will start coming in. But above all, you have to make many, many friends. Our success is 25 percent music and 75 percent contacts made during years of hard work. It requires an enormous amount of rigour and logistics. We’ve got friends in London, Jamaica, Sweden, the U.S. You have to spread your network right across the world.

“If you want to make it as a composer on the international scene, you need to be more than just a beatmaker,” he continues. “You have to be able to build the structure of a song, produce it, think of all the different vocal lines and their harmonies. This is where our strength lies. While we occasionally write separately, and send files back and forth, we’re much more productive when we lock ourselves up in a studio. We usually come out a few hours later with a brand new song.”

This is exactly how “Answerphone” came into being, during a November 2017 afternoon session in London’s Hammersmith area. “There were five of us in the studio,” Rastogi recalls. There was Zacharie and me, Ella Eyre, our friend Shakka, and Blonde’s Jacob Manson. We talked for an hour while listening to Nigerian music. Then the afro-beat materialized. We thought about a guitar line, a verse, a bridge, a chorus. Everything fell into place quickly. We started off at around noon, and the song was completed by early evening. But the craziest thing was that our management team had booked two studio sessions at the same time for us! So, after giving our instructions for “Answerphone,” we quickly moved to another part of the studio where we were recording with the dancehall singer Culan. Then we started working on “Answerphone” again, and so on. The song featuring Culan hasn’t been released yet.”

And what if that other composition becomes as successful as “Answerphone”? “Then we’d be talking about a very productive afternoon!” laughs Rastogi.

What would you do with a year to yourself, just to write music? No recording or touring obligations. Just you, your instrument, and the muse. In 2016, Chilly Gonzales conducted this experiment, and the result is his latest album, a collection of instrumental piano tracks called, simply, Solo Piano III.

“I didn’t put myself in front of an audience, or a camera, or use social media,” says Gonzales. “To sort of see what happens to my brain chemistry when I don’t have to do anything that I feel has to cross the void to another person… What happens if I can really get lost in the music?”

The new Solo Piano III is 15 songs, with each song dedicated to a person of interest to Gonzales, from athletes, to inventors, to classical composers, to pop stars. It’s the third in a trilogy, following 2004’s Solo Piano and 2012’s Solo Piano II. Each is, partly, an exercise in using pop structures for his abstract instrumental music, and they’ve each “crossed over.” Solo Piano II was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, for example.

“I actually had the feeling the pieces were writing themselves,” he says of the new record.  “I had the luxury of time, to not make any final decisions before I’m good and ready. Rather than, ‘Oh, I have to go back on tour, so I have to finish these pieces.’ At the end of the sabbatical, I had 15 or 20 new ideas that weren’t leaving the piano.”

Born Jason Beck in Montréal, he and his brother Christophe (now a screen composer in L.A.) were schooled in music at a young age by their maternal grandfather, who Gonzales says instilled his “respectful connection to music.” In the 1990s, Beck began by playing drums in Son, an alternative rock band signed to Warner Music Canada – which produced a radio hit, “Pick Up the Phone.” He soon re-located to Berlin, and still remains in Germany. There, he adopted the stage name Chilly Gonzales and a new persona: rapping over piano and electronic keyboards, often while wearing a velvet robe and cracking jokes. An upcoming retrospective documentary Shut Up and Play the Piano features some choice archives from this period, which he admits was thankfully short-lived.

Still, the Chilly Gonzales character remains ambitious and outrageous, regardless of what music he’s playing. “Franz Liszt said he was possessed by the Devil,” says Gonzales. “I call myself a musical genius in the same way; it’s not meant to be taken literally.” The man his friends call “Gonzo” broke a Guinness World Record for longest solo-artist performance in 2009 (27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds). He’s created a series of YouTube videos called Pop Music Masterclasses, in which he breaks down the musical elements of pop hits like “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift, attracting millions of views. He’s written columns for The Guardian about the correlations between rap and classical music, published a best-selling book of piano pieces, and earlier this year, created his own music school.

Called The Gonzervatory, it selected seven musicians for a week-long, all-expenses paid music workshop in Paris with Gonzales, and guest professors including Jarvis Cocker, Peaches, and Socalled. What was originally designed as a performance masterclass quickly turned into a songwriting one.

“As I dove into what I wanted to tell [students] about performance, I realized we needed to address the songwriting issue,” he says. “Because there are ways to compose in which you already have the stage in mind, and that shortens the distance between the abstract idea when you’re alone, and its final form.

Working With Drake
Gonzales has increasingly been called in to consult with pop’s A-list, as an expert in the art and science of harmony. It’s how he ended up working with Drake on the rapper’s multi-platinum 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, contributing piano to the song “From Time.” “It was very interesting to see Drake work,” he says. “How he thinks he’s written a chorus, and then he’ll write something even more catchy, and what he thought was the chorus becomes the verse. You get these pieces… where it seems every part of the song could actually be considered a chorus. It’s very high-pressure, and not my usual musical world, so very interesting for me to soak that in. I had a temporary visa into Drake country… [but] I’m not there to brainstorm higher concepts for songs, or as a holistic collaborator, or adviser. I’m there to fix musical plumbing.”

“It’s something I learned from Jarvis Cocker when we were writing Room 29… He would perform [my piano pieces] while he was trying to come up with the lyrics. Instead of coming back from a tour and thinking, ‘I finally know how to perform these songs,’ but you’ve already committed [them] beforehand to a record.”

One assignment for the students mimicked a co-writing experience with Feist. They had to pick a song title out of a hat, then compose on the spot. It’s a technique he found success with when working on her JUNO Award-winning, Grammy-nominated album The Reminder. Their track “Limit to Your Love” – which later became a hit in England for James Blake – originated with the title, and then the two “performed” the song as if it had already been written. “I think 85% of what you hear on the final version was improvised in the moment,” Gonzales recalls. “It about erasing the barrier between composer and performer.”

Where to next? A solo piano tour starts this fall, booked through to spring 2019. Beyond that, he wants to take The Gonzervatory idea into year-round programming, for both students, and teachers. “As I grow older, I start to think about what might still work when I’m 60, the sort of connection to music that I want,” says Gonzalez. “What I want is to be around young musicians. Feed off their energy and transmit to them my energy.”