Inspirations: Men I Trust’s ‘Oncle Jazz’ Is a Cozy Tour de Force

For Dragos Chiriac, Emma Proulx and Jessy Caron, known collectively as dream-pop band Men I Trust, letting go has been a challenge. 

The French-Canadian trio delayed their upcoming album Oncle Jazz multiple times. Once, because they were touring and didn’t have time to finish it. A second time because they looked at one another the night before it was due to be uploaded to major streaming services, and decided it wasn’t quite ready. Now, after taking a scalpel to it several times and softening it’s overall sound, the band is self-releasing their third album this Friday (Sept. 13). 

It will be Men I Trust’s first album since Headroom in 2015, but the band hasn’t exactly starved their fans of music. Since March 2016, when Proulx joined as Men I Trust’s full-time guitarist and vocalist, they have released 12 consecutive singles. Reworked versions of eight of them, including “Tailwhip,” “Numb” and “Show Me How,” will be be included on Oncle Jazz, which has 24 songs in total that combine for a smooth, seamless listen. The strategy was partly intended to build a fanbase, so that when their full-length debut did arrive, there would be people waiting for it. 

And it worked. Their YouTube channel now boasts 131,000 subscribers, star rapper Tyler, The Creator is a fan, and they’ve played Coachella and the Montreal Jazz Festival -- not bad for a completely autonomous indie band without a label or a PR team. “We have an incredible fan base,” says Proulx, smiling. “People are asking for the album, but they’re patient and they’re nice. I feel like we’re good friends.”

Since deciding in February that they needed more time to polish the album, the band has been largely holed up in Chiriac’s house, which is a two-hour drive from Montreal, in a town with a population of just over a thousand people. The band has a recording studio there, and it’s where they perfected what they call the Men I Trust sound: a warm, cozy mix of pop melodies and jazz rhythms that flow more like a river than an avalanche. “I don’t think loud songs will give the best listening experience in years to come,” says Chiriac.

Living in the quiet was key to discovering the magic that’s inside of Oncle Jazz. The green, solitary confines of rural Québéc helped Men I Trust immerse themselves in the creative process and let the music’s own heartbeat shape the album. “It put us in a really different creative mood and we were able to focus more, because there’s nothing to do outside of the house except for walking and thinking about music,” says Proulx. 

“My 30th birthday was this year and it was just spent writing the album, seeing no one,” adds Chiriac. “It made me become a bit more wild, because I was just stuck in the house with my own ideas.”

The band doesn’t like to reveal too much about their music -- in fact, they’ve declined most media invitations to discuss their new album in detail. “I don’t like that it can cancel the mystery and the aura of the music,” says Proulx, who, despite agreeing to talk with Billboard, remained tight-lipped about the subjects and characters she sings about. 

For this edition of our Inspirations franchise, Billboard caught up with Men I Trust guitarist and vocalist Emma Prolux and keyboardist and producer Dragos Chiriac (bassist Jessy Caron was on a fishing trip) to break down some of the forces that shaped one of 2019’s warmest indie pop albums. 

A Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. “Numb,” “All Night” and “Found Me” were all enriched by the glassy, crystalline tones of a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. First released in 1983, the instrument came to define the ‘80s, and was used famously by Brian Eno, as well as in A-ha’s hit single “Take on Me,” and more recently in Bruno Mars’ throwback ballad “Versace on the Floor.” It’s also the first synthesizer Chiriac ever owned, and is responsible for the warm, timeless quality in Men I Trust’s music. “We found the Men I Trust sound with this synthesizer,” Chiriac says enthusiastically.

An Arturia Mellotron. The final minute and a half of the tender, French folk-inspired love song “Pierre,” features a rare piece of hardware in Men I Trust’s arsenal: an Arturia Mellotron. The band utilized the instrument’s flute setting to take some of the gravity away from the song, which along with “Pines” is one of two acoustic-led tracks on Oncle Jazz. Proulx says it’s “a love song for a friend. It’s saying, 'I love you, I hope you’re fine, do better, be better'. It’s turning frustration into love for someone.” Speaking about both the mellotron and the DX7, she says, “those synths really brought the magic together.” 

An animated sci-fi movie. At the midpoint of Oncle Jazz there are two instrumental tracks, “Slap Pie,” and “Fiero GT,” that loosen the mood a little. The first is exactly how it’s described in the title, a lot of slap bass and a wavy synth line. “Fiero GT” is a 51-second heavy metal interlude that sounds like it belongs on a Whitesnake record. “It was inspired directly by the Heavy Metal movie,” says Chiraic, referring to the 1981 animated sci-fi flick.

Friends. The band has never been shy about including their pals in their work (as long as a sense of mystery is maintained). On a solo album Chiriac produced before forming Men I Trust, he named two songs after friends, and three times this year they’ve taken friends on tour with them. Continuing that theme on Oncle Jazz, both “Pierre” and “Seven” were written explicitly about witnessing their friends’ odd behavior. “You don’t have to create the story, because the story already exists,” Proulx says of the benefits of writing about things they’ve witnessed with their own eyes. “We could never start a song by inventing something, they’re always inspired by our lives and what we feel.”  

Winter. The album was mixed during the winter of 2019, and Chiriac says, “You can hear a desire for heat in the mixing style.” He credits how the cold was kept out of his wood-lined recording studio by a chimney that runs up one side of it for giving Oncle Jazz its warm, cozy quality. “Even though I started some of them in summer, they all ended up being winter songs to me,” he says.

A green room in Austin, TX. In 2015 Men I Trust played a show in Austin wearing gloves and ski masks. “It was kind of a joke, but it was also necessary,” says Proulx. “It looked like an outside shack where you put shovels and gardening equipment. It was poorly insulated and it was so cold,” explains Chiriac. In order to keep his hands warm, Caron started working on a bass line for the song “Norton Commander” in the green room. For the rest of their spring tour that year the band worked on the song while driving cross-country in a Chrysler 300.

An acoustic guitar. Men I Trust songs rarely include acoustic sounds, but after much back and forth, they decided to make an acoustic guitar the primary instrument on “Pines.” The lightly plucked folk song showcases a side of Men I Trust that seldom gets shared outside of the studio. The song is one of the highlights of Oncle Jazz. “It began as a really nice guitar and voice-type song, and we built upon it so much,” says Proulx. “But in the end we totally stripped it down and brought it back to the original version.”

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