How to Dress Well is the work of Tom Krell, a 27-year-old PHD student based in Cologne, Germany, but born in Chicago. Beginning in 2009, Krell started to turn out free EPs online, in which he minted a 'hipster R&B' sound; in which '90s-style New Jack Swing ballads were funneled through layers of echo and copious lo-fi murk, with wave after wave of washed-out falsetto vocals. After introducing the How to Dress Well sound, Krell copped comparisons to everyone from Ariel Pink to Bon Iver, The-Dream, and Justin Timberlake; but his trailblazing sound was his own, and soon inspired a legion of imitators. His debut album, Love Remains, assembled the best of his early EPs, and was one of the best albums of 2010. After the 2011 EP Just Once —a four-song suite of 'Suicide Dream' songs set against a string quartet— Krell returned in 2012 with the immense Total Loss, a powerful, definitive artistic statement that ranged from the thumping "& It Was U" to the dreamy, barely-there "Ocean Floor for Everything." Krell has also collaborated with Active Child, and covered R. Kelly, Elite Gymnastics, Xiu Xiu, and Janet Jackson.
Interview: September 7, 2012
I saw you play in Melbourne in 2011, and it seemed like you were having a semi-tortured experience on stage; which, to me, made the show more interesting, and of-the-moment. Is that how performing live is for you?
"I work myself up, live, into quite an agitated state. It's quite emotionally intense and spiritually rending. And performing solo, I don't think people quite understand the sense of exposure and just the, like, bravery —just to toot my own horn a little bit— that it takes to get up on stage by yourself. I'm touring, now, with two friends; one of whom is playing live violin and effects and pedals and stuff, and the other of whom is playing live piano, live synthesiser, and drum machine. And I really love the show that we have going now. It feels just so beautiful. Everything has progressed a lot this year, in a direction that I'm really keen on, and super proud of."
How did you feel when you first started performing by yourself —and just singing, sometimes even a cappella— and just being so alone up there, with nothing to even stand behind?
"I was super-stoked to try it. The first time I ever did an a cappella encore, it was completely spontaneous. And it felt insane and amazing. A lot of it has been like that: I have an intuition or a hunch and then I just go for it; and then it becomes a staple of the tour. Right before we went on stage for our second New York show a few months ago, I said to our band-mates: 'let's cut out all the effects on the instruments on the first song'. Because the live piano is manipulated so it sounded really crunchy, and the live violin is going through all these pedals so it sounded super-ambient, hazy, really tripped out. But I just had this hunch —I was a little high— that it would sound cool. It turned out amazing: really plaintive and beautiful, and really, really quiet and supple and mournful. Now we do that every single show, and it sets such a beautiful tone. It's always a matter, for me, of trusting my instincts. When I sense something is just beyond my reach, that's when I should go for it."
Your music is often understood in the context of contemporary R&B, so sometimes people talk about it like you're some kind of cool, electronic beatmaker. I don't really see it that way; to me your music is really sad and beautiful, and it has this airy, ambient quality to it that no actual R&B production ever would.
"I'm really stoked you have the response you have, because that's where I see it. But, I also use pop forms. I think people find it challenging to talk about how, on the one hand, [my music] has this gravitas, it's heavy and passionate music, but it uses forms that aren't typically thought to be able to carry those affective payloads. I think one of the things that is happening now that I'm super excited about, is that pop musical forms seem to have been set free from their populist strictures. It used to be that in order for something to be called pop, it had to be completely populist, and accessible on every level, and evacuated of all complex emotional content. One of the things I'm keen to do is try to use a pop form to deal with affects which are more intense, ambiguous, rending, and strange than we thought pop forms could handle."
There's also been this perception that you, as 'indie' musician using R&B form, almost have to be doing it with some level of irony. But it seems like it's finally becoming clearer that there's a really intense sincerity in your music, both for the genre that you're referencing and in and of your own music.
"It never really dawned on me, but maybe that is true, that people at first thought I was being ironic. But I absolutely loathe irony, and I take pains, whenever I catch myself with an impulse to tell an ironic joke or do something ironic, I really try and train myself against it. Because I think it's anathema to sincerity and I think sincerity is about the most important thing out there. Taking the time and energy to engage in true, human, existential commitment, that's all we have, and the only reason to wake up in the morning. I do think you're right, that more people seem interested in sincerity, musically."
So you're talking about sincerity as a philosophical approach, not just a musical one?
"Yeah, it's both. I think that art is a magnified, intensified form of general human life. People walking around on the street right now, they have their own aesthetics, and all their little existential commitments which they, if you push them on it, they take quite seriously. Art is just the name for attempting to do that —to express your aesthetic and to develop that existential commitment— in a reflective and intensified way. For me, sincerity in art is of the utmost importance, because it stands as an emblem for sincerity in life. Emotional honesty in my songs helps me be emotionally honest in my day-to-day life."
Is your music a reflection of who you are as a human-being? And that people could get a sense of that through listening to it?
"Yes and no. It's both more and less than who I am as a human-being. On the more side: I use it to direct myself, and orient myself, towards an emotional sensitivity and a hopefulness and a wistfulness and an attentiveness which I want to see in my own actions, but that I don't always see in my own actions; because I'm also, like, often times just horny or angry or impatient or busy. So, in one way the music is more than I can be as a person. But then it's also less than me because I have all those complexities and contradictions that I can't capture in song; or, at least, that I haven't captured in song yet. Maybe in three or four more records, maybe I'll be able to say, yeah, my corpus is a good picture of me. But I've just, now, done these three records; and they're three very different experiments in charting the affective territory that makes up a lot of my life; my psychic life, my spiritual life. But I haven't exhaustively mapped everything out yet."
Was Total Loss the first album that you felt you got to make as a conceived, whole work, built from the ground up?
"I feel like it was the second thing I got to, just, full-blooded set out and make it. Because Just Once was really produced; from the start I was 'this is what I want to do, let's do it'. The main thing, though, is not that it's the first whole album that I've made, but more about what's actually going on on the record. Love Remains, I wanted to make a record that was like the sonic presentation of melancholy; the way that melancholy can be really self-enclosed, and the affect can drown out everything in your life, and you want to get out of melancholy and try and scream, but all that happens is a muffled cry, under layers of sadness. Sonically, I wanted to chart that; that's why the record sounds the way it does. Total Loss is more a record about learning how to overcome melancholy in the direction of spiritual regeneration. That's my longform way of saying: it's not about melancholy, it's about mourning. The main difference between mourning and melancholia, for me, is in mourning you get these head-above-water moments where you get a breath; and then you go back into sadness and you learn from sadness and you can glean energy from pain and lessons from pain, and not drown in the affect. The record is produced the way it is to present that affective dynamic; to present that experience or situation. If you were to think of them photographically: Love Remains would be a bunch of really blurred-out photos of fragments of bodies; Total Loss would have some blurred edges, but it'd also have moments of real clarity. Because mourning is a more hi-fidelity affective state than melancholia, which is just burnt-out, grinding, crunchy depression. It's not like I just went from lo-fi to hi-fi; I would hate for that to be the conception."
There's a lot of loss in both albums; perhaps all too emblemized by the title of Total Loss. Are these records a way of helping you through grieving? Do they have that functional a purpose?
"I didn't conceive it in advance. I didn't think: 'I'm losing things, I should make some music to preserve them'. But I am of the mind that almost all art is a way of mediating loss and all things synonymous with loss, of dealing with finitude and mortality. Personally, the last two records, in particular, were just straight-up therapeutic experiences for me, without which I don't know if I'd still be on the phone with you right now. I think it's important to deal with loss artistically because it's not often dealt with in a more straightforward, discursive way. A lot of our day-to-day lives we have to pretend that loss is not a real feature of human life, in order to just carry on. And art is a unique space in which one can deal with something like loss, with the right kind of sensitivity, and the right gravitas. It shouldn't be treated flippantly."
I went to a funeral a little while ago, my first one in like a decade. And I was shocked at how little people seemed to be freaking out that there was literally a dead body in a box, right there.
"Yeah, that they didn't really register that strangeness, right? This is one of the many reasons my music may reference pop, but it will never be populist. Because part of populist music is that the form has to be completely un-strange, it has to completely recognisable without any one twinge of strangeness. But, to me, the way loss registers in the world is as strangeness, as something that you can't quite process; you can't quite understand that it looks the way it does. Like, why wasn't anyone confounded by the fact that that body was there? Formally presenting that is why I pervert pop forms the way I do."