Himne za državu na dnu oceana.
Tom Krell has never been shy about naming his influences. On Love Remains, his How to Dress Well debut, they were pop and R&B acts like Ready For the World, Shai, Michael Jackson, and Bobby Brown. He's no less forthcoming about the inspirations behind his heartbreaking second LP, Total Loss. During the penultimate apologia "Set It Right", he provides a roll call: Ryan, Dan, Mama, Grandma, Francey, Robbie, Nicky, and the list goes on. None of them are famous, none are musicians. They're real people in Krell's life. Some have died (his uncle and best friend), others are living but have slipped out of view, many including himself are struggling with depression. So the title Total Loss gives you fair warning about what to expect. Where Love Remains drew much of its power from emotional suggestion and tactile sensation, Total Loss uses the common tools of pop expression-- four-minute songs, autobiography, choruses, confession-- to create a work of poignant and devastating art.
The cruel irony of Total Loss is that it finds Krell striving for directness and candor with family members who've become unavailable to him through breakups, depression, addiction, or death. The record's first lyric-- "You were there for me when I was in trouble/ You could understand for me that life was a struggle"-- is addressed to Krell's mother and reprised later on. Otherwise, the listener is in the position of the "you" populating so many of Krell's thoughts.
The sleek, alabaster sound of Total Loss is a far cry from the heavily distorted and distant Love Remains. That album wasn't considered a drug record for the same reasons Ambien isn't considered recreational, but its shrouded production mimicked the effect the drug can have when it starts to kick in: the sensation of controlling yourself in an out-of-body experience. That feeling is foreign to Total Loss. It's still flooded with reverb, but the anesthetic is gone.
As a result, Total Loss feels subject to heightened sensitivity both sonically and lyrically, and the effect is made more unnerving by the sharp, sudden movements of its elements-- harp plucks, ticking hi-hats, slapped snares and, of course, Krell's own voice. It's high, thin, and boyish, but in no way timid. His quavering falsetto creates an intriguing friction against the newly aggressive, seething tone of his lyrics, particularly when he grapples with the self-blame, hopelessness, and betrayal that survivors of suicide victims often experience. "Say My Name or Say Whatever" begins with a recording of a homeless teen from the 1984 documentary Streetwise describing the freeing effects of flight. "The only bad part about flying," he says, "is having to come back down to the fuckin' world," a projection of Krell's own idealism and disillusionment.
Though it contains Total Loss's most visceral, even sexual music, "Cold Nites" sounds downright angry. The hook boasts, "But I keep on doing it/ Ain't gonna stop until we're through with this," and it's an anger born from Krell's perception of his own shortcomings-- "Tell me what I've got to do to get better." Album opener "When I Was in Trouble" is a piano hymn that takes its cues from William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, decaying in real time. Krell moans, "Dear Mama, didn't you try to tell me everything was going to be safe?" and then repeats the line in a rare lower register. The effect is chilling, and indicative of the confusion that permeates Total Loss: Whether Krell is trying to find relief in hurting himself or others is left open-ended.
Fortunately, How to Dress Well's malleability prevents Krell from getting too ponderous. If you found his orchestral direction on last year's Just Once promising, there's the string interlude of "World I Need You, Won't Be Without You (Proem)" which is reprised on the emotive centerpiece "Talking to You". "& It Was U" pulls a similar deception, as Krell's accumulating harmonies disguise an imploding relationship over joyous new jack swing. It maybe lacks the shock of his earliest singles, and that's fine: Coming from someone discovering that his love for a style of music and his ability to pay it homage are starting to intersect, it's every bit as promising.
The rhythmic backbone of Total Loss's second half slackens a little, which can make the album feel frontloaded on the first few passes. Though Love Remains was more of a compilation than a proper album, its highlights were spread out judiciously. Total Loss doesn't fully compensate for its lack of clear standouts like "Decisions" or "Ready for the World", but it does benefit from a narrative cohesion that Love Remains lacked. Its path of grief follows psychology's Kübler-Ross model in chronology, from denial to bargaining to something resembling acceptance-- the lyric sheet even shows a smiley-face emoticon appending the "Set It Right" line, "as far as love goes, it's one step at a time." "Struggle" revisits Krell's love for blown-out reverb, obscuring gut-punch lyrics that attempt to reconcile the joys of reckless behavior with that sort of action's deadly, consumptive attraction: "I remember drinking with you in your bed… But in the morning we'd go and start again." And while "Ocean Floor for Everything" wasn't a stunning first single, erring too close to melodies Krell has used before, it's an apt sendoff for Total Loss, the point where the pain has settled in. But any hope here is implied. It's not explicitly a happy ending.
It's a fitting conclusion to a record that is very lonely for Krell and risky for How to Dress Well. In light of the "PBR&B" digs that initially circled Love Remains, it's notable that many of the most exciting artists to arrive in its wake (the Weeknd, Jessie Ware, AlunaGeorge) are nominally "indie" but incorporate modernist R&B in a similar manner. Krell hasn't benefited much from that swell of momentum, operating in a space that's far more niche and less overtly "pop," in both genre and populism. But Total Loss is similar to the xx's Coexist in retreating to further minimalism and introspection after a groundbreaking debut. It feels like more of a success because there's no dissonance between its artistic intent and its optimal home-alone listening experience. Its effectiveness is a result of its intimacy-- or, as Krell puts it on "Set It Right", being "true to you, I'm true to me, too." - Ian Cohen
“I love to fly. It’s just you alone. You’ve peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky. No one to hassle you. No one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world.” Those words, spoken by a homeless teenager and excerpted from the 1984 documentary Streetwise, introduce a track on How To Dress Well’s sophomore album Total Loss. A big splash follows the clip, presumably the sound of a human body hitting the ocean. The boy (who in the film goes by the name “Rat”) is, of course, here meant to represent a foul-mouthed Icarus. His notion of freedom is characterized by a disdain for the world (and the worldly) and a reverence for upward emancipation, for transcendence, for the sublime. And like Icarus, his hubris leads to his (implied) watery demise. These ideas are key to understanding and, depending on the listener, appreciating How To Dress Well’s music.
How To Dress Well is the stage name of Tom Krell, a singer-songwriter by trade who also happens to be a student of philosophy, particularly that of the 18th century German Immanuel Kant. Krell’s art is as shaped by Kantian doctrine as it is by turn-of-the-1990s R&B. The latter is his mode; the former inspires his themes and approach. A first-rate integrator, Krell translates Big Ideas into the very structures of his songs. It’s impossible to discuss his music apart from its philosophic underpinnings.
I don’t know of another artist, apart from a classical composer, who can so thoroughly transform a specific system of thought into sound without relegating the impossible job to his lyrics. He makes you hear and feel what a philosophy implies, good or bad, without having to wake up early for class. The squawking distortion of How To Dress Well’s debut Love Remains communicates the messiness of Kantian sense perception. Total Loss, with its crystalline beauty, counters as a peek into Kant’s perfect noumenal world. If you think this seems too cerebral for an album review, you’d be right. Happily, you don’t need a PhD to enjoy How To Dress Well (see “& It Was U”), which is a huge achievement in and of itself.
Tom Krell is unique in another, albeit superficial, way. He is a white man who makes sophisticated (i.e., uncommercial) R&B of the sort that regularly places him in the company of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. But where Frank Ocean is a worldly chronicler of particulars and The Weeknd a participant in nihilistic orgies, Krell is a sentimentalist through and through. Here is a typical, direct quote from his blog:
love is a miracle. like, as far as i can tell, it almost shouldn’t be possible, but it transpires sort of in spite of the the world […] this will to love can give us the most beautiful stability and a sense of truly living, but can also lead us into totally spiritually rending compromises, split between worlds.I’m not sure what this means. I’m even less sure it makes sense to anyone apart from Tom Krell himself. Still, the passage’s sincerity is more important than its substance. It’s stubbornly optimistic despite the universal frustration of its premise. For Krell, sentimentality is more than the mawkish words found in a Hallmark card; it’s a rebuke to cynicism and irony, those ever-pervasive cultural twins.
If “love is a miracle,” then it is likewise otherworldly. Total Loss, too, is ethereal in nature, often coming closer to Gregorian chant than R. Kelly. Krell’s melodies’ structures remain unmistakably tied to R&B genre trappings, but the album’s lush production and string-laden instrumentation (which naturally follows the orchestral Just Once EP) along with the impenetrable reverb applied to his voice make Total Loss more a collection of mini-symphonies than traditional slow jams. These songs swell and subside and often reach seemingly inevitable, glorious climaxes in the model of Love Remain’s “Decisions.” “Struggle,” an album highlight, represents the best of this form with its complex percussive elements and soaring chorus. The masterful “Talking to You” finds Krell singing a solo-duet between his preferred falsetto and his sorely underused mid-range. Even more straightforward numbers like “Cold Nites” and “Running Back” tend to drift up into the ether. Only the excellent single “& It Was U” is meant for a dancing body rather than an uplifted spirit. Consequently, it sounds jarringly out of place here.
Talking to Pitchfork about his music, Tom Krell reveals, in a typically Kantian manner, what’s both wonderful and frustrating about his new album:
I’m striving for a balance between wordless singing and signifying lyrical lyrics. The goal for me, lyrically, is to trust that the affect is going to be carried in the corporeal motions of sound. The worst thing is when you hear a singer with a beautiful voice singing banal ass shit.Total Loss is a striking expression of hope and devotion in the face of, well, a whole lotta loss (the album’s two final tracks are particularly heartbreaking). How To Dress Well’s “affect” is indeed regularly “carried in the corporeal motions of sound.” Still, Total Loss can be more aesthetically interesting than genuinely moving and it’s almost always too cluttered with floating abstractions. Say what you will about “banal ass shit.” But that “shit” tends to relate to the world in which we actually live. I’d love to hear what kind of music Tom Krell would make back here on Earth. - prettymuchamazing.com/
How to Dress Well: Loss Leader
STORY BY: Hank Shteamer , PHOTOGRAPHY: Dorothy Hong (F81)
How to Dress Well turns the blues into gold.
Stepping out of a minivan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Tom Krell looks a little dazed. He’s spent most of the day behind the wheel, zigzagging back down from Montreal for his second New York show of the week, and he’s in need of a shower, or at the very least, a change of clothes. At 28 and lanky with his thin mustache, long face and doleful, puppy dog eyes, he brings to mind a young David Arquette. His manager reminds him of a photo shoot scheduled before the show, so he spritzes cologne under his arms and takes to the road again, this time in a cab bound for Park Slope. When we arrive at the shoot, a stylist leads Krell over to a rack of suits. “I don’t dress up that often,” he says, motioning towards his less-than-stellar outfit of a loose fitting long-sleeved shirt, dark socks and dress boots. She hands him a pair of pants to try on, but he hesitates. “I’m not wearing any underwear,” he confesses sheepishly, so they settle instead on a jacket and shirt. The photographer directs Krell into a back room to change in privacy, and he reemerges a few minutes later, taking his place in front of the camera. “You look so dapper,” she says, satisfied. “I don’t feel dapper,” Krell says. “I ate Taco Bell for lunch.” Undeterred, she offers: “Your fatigue is giving me such a great vibe.” But he’s relentlessly droll: “If it’s any consolation, this is a pretty normal zone for me.”
After the shoot, Krell’s first order of business is solving the underwear problem: he picks out a package of black briefs at an American Apparel in Williamsburg, and walks around the corner to the venue to meet Cameron Reed and Aaron Read, who play laptop/keys and violin/guitar, respectively, in the current live incarnation of Krell’s avant-R&B project, How to Dress Well. The three recount the day’s case of tour van delirium, which found them freestyling perverse country songs to pass the time. “In one, I was in a boat full of broken lightbulbs on an ocean of erection blood,” says Krell. “It got dark—it kind of sucked.”
By 9PM, the venue has already begun to fill up, and Krell makes his way out onto the stage, where Read and Reed are making last-minute sound adjustments. He thanks the crowd for coming and flashes a boyish grin, looking more at ease than he has all afternoon. “This one is quite quiet and plaintive,” he says, before opening up with “Suicide Dream 1,” which concludes his 2010 debut, Love Remains. Starting with a cool-toned midrange and gradually working his way up to an angelic falsetto, Krell’s voice dances over the murky keys-and-violin melody. He navigates a pair of mics—one dry and one reverby—and shuts his eyes tight; the crowd dutifully hushes. A series of bewitching screen projections, including a shot of a nude woman striding slowly across a darkened bedroom and footage of the late Butoh master Kazuo Ohno, play out behind him, helping to sustain the reverential mood. Delirious whoops shoot out from the crowd. “That’s my dude!” a girl in the front row yells repeatedly, eliciting several bashful smiles from Krell. At one point, she encircles her arm around a stranger, re-stating the catchphrase. Krell digresses with an R. Kelly cover and a few dance-friendly tracks, but it’s a determinedly meditative set. For the encore, he sings a cappella, exploring a golden upper register with the mic slung over his right shoulder. Outside, after the show, fans debrief in a chorus of amazings and incredibles—a scene not dissimilar to his Manhattan show earlier that week. There, Krell performed on the floor, and people crowded him as he sang. No one flinched when a crescendo of imposing static rose up and nearly consumed his voice. He had a good number of admirers that night as well, including a tall man with an angular haircut wearing a Mickey Mouse jacket.
The next morning, Krell’s up early nursing a hangover. We meet at a donut shop in Greenpoint and conversation turns toward the response to last night’s show. “I was looking at Twitter, and everyone was talking about how [How to Dress Well] was, like, sex music,” he says. When I ask if he agrees, he pauses for a second, and says, “When you enter a certain terrain of intimacy and emotionality and the sensualness of my voice, sex is on the table.” He’s not wrong, but still, How to Dress Well feels miles away from your average R&B radio hit. Nevertheless, he’s a devotee of that music and is quick to praise the quality of the stations in Chicago, where he’s currently living and working toward a PhD in philosophy at DePaul University. It’s with that same scholarly rigor that he digests popular music: scanning the airwaves, looking for a certain emotional punch, which he unpacks with a strange combination of a fan’s zeal and a grad student’s erudition. “Even if you write a good hook, whatever that means, it’s all about the affective transmission,” he says. “Chris Brown has a ton of hooks, but sometimes you can just hear he’s phoning it in. Whereas ‘Deuces,’ that song is quite amorphous—what’s the verse? What’s the refrain? Still, it’s a better pop song than some of the better-hooked songs on the record because of the affective connection.”
He touches on other hit makers, like Trey Songz (“He’s got a ridiculously good ear”) and The-Dream (“Some of his phrases and shit, you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, Terius! That’s such a Terius-style phrase’”), before turning to musicians on the opposite end of the spectrum, like Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and Grouper’s Liz Harris, who, like Krell, flaunt their experimental roots while flirting with the tried and true form of writing from real life experience. I ask Krell how autobiographical his own work is, citing “Set It Right,” the emotional centerpiece of his new album Total Loss, which features a litany of I miss you proclamations directed toward various friends and loved ones identified only by first name. He concedes: “Everything I sing about comes from something real. And I think this is something I learned from Xiu Xiu that I hope comes through in ‘Set It Right,’ that it’s personal to the point of being impersonal. It doesn’t matter to you that I miss Faith or Francey, but you miss people in your life. What I hope that you’re going to connect with is the emotional experience. You know this Xiu Xiu song ‘Nieces Pieces?’ It’s, like, the most brutal song ever. [In it] he’s like, I can’t wait to watch you get older/ I can’t wait till you realize mommy’s heart is broken/ I can’t wait to watch you grow up around the people who broke it. What’s interesting is not Jamie Stewart’s story but the experience of thinking, Oh my God, this baby is going to grow up around these people who have a lot of problems. That’s what’s relatable: being a generation with older generations’ stories bearing down on you.”
Krell goes on to describe a similarly heavy Grouper performance he saw. “I couldn’t believe the control she had,” he says. “To make such a small sound in such a focused way. People were nervous about the ice shifting in their glass because there was such powerful attention. The success or failure of my live show is super contingent on whether or not people are going to pay that kind of attention, to have a couple songs where it’s just very plaintive and slow, where I’ll even sing un-mic-ed. When it comes off, it’s fucking beautiful. Walter Benjamin quotes this French philosopher Malebranche, saying, ‘Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.’ This is a super cosmopolitan, maybe naive thought, but if we could as a group develop a kind of shared attentiveness in realms beyond concert halls, that could be quite monumental.”
Love Remains, the record that earned How to Dress Well his first serious buzz, nods to the flamboyant R&B popular during Krell’s ’90s youth while also embracing the transporting power of crackly, densely packed audio collage. Album opener “You Hold the Water” approximates what it would be like to blast a glassy, unstable drone over Soul for Real’s yearning 1994 smash “Candy Rain” (which Krell samples on the track “Endless Rain”). The songs represent soul music’s unstable isotope; hooky as many of them are, they always tilt toward abstraction. A subsequent EP, Just Once, may have moved How to Dress Well even further away from the “sex music” center, cushioning Krell’s voice with lush strings and piano. But Total Loss is Krell’s most eclectic release to date, with several tracks bordering that radio-ready vibe he’s so attuned to: “& It Was U,” an upbeat, “Don’t worry, baby” finger snapper with heady, multi-tracked vocals; the trip-hoppy vamp “Running Back,” which shows off Krell’s Michael Jackson–style voice percussion; and “Cold Nites,” a brooding track featuring a sample that sounds like a slowed-down sonar ping. But the album also pushes into musique concrète territory. Krell recorded album opener “When I Was In Trouble” in his compartment on a railroad trip from Frankfurt to Cologne, and you can hear bits of train noise first complementing and then later nearly overwhelming the vocals and keyboard. A track like “Set It Right,” which starts out with a moaning, sluggish loop that sounds like an old soul record melting in magma before segueing into the aforementioned I miss you sequence, perfectly encapsulates How to Dress Well’s strange left-field soul alloy. “It’s not a photorealistic shot of a pop song,” Krell says. “I imagine the pop verse structure splayed out impressionistically across the song.”
Total Loss, itself, is the culmination of a long aesthetic arc, a two-decade cultivation of a musical split personality. Krell grew up in Boulder, Colorado and began singing as a boy. “I had a cute little voice,” he says. “So my mom set me up with this sweet hippie woman who would help me learn to sing the songs I loved, like Michael, or All-4-One, or Whitney. I only did this for about a year, but I got to do two recitals—all of her students performing pop songs for their parents. It was sick. I did Shai’s ‘If I Ever Fall in Love.’” But by his teen years, inspired by his older brother, Dan, one of a pair of twins with Asperger syndrome, Krell got interested in metal. “Since I was 10, [Dan’s] been into black metal,” says Krell. “He started a zine and he played the drums. He always insisted that I listen to Burzum instead of Tag Team. I went through a period in my late teens where the way I dealt with having disabled siblings was by being like, Fuck the world; he’s true. Everyone says he’s crazy, but he’s not crazy. He’s a really amazing guy, but a massively frustrated person. I think I wanted to impress him by playing metal.”
If Krell second-guesses these angsty, adolescent impulses now (he refuses to reveal the names of his various high-school bands—“too risky,” he says), improbably, it’s that early influence playing cathartic, DIY rock that fueled his current love of falsetto. “I went through puberty super late,” he says. “When I would sing in hardcore and metal outfits, and I’d go to scream, it’d be quite high pitched. We gave our demo to some guys on some message board and they were like, ‘Sick—you guys have a female singer?’ I was like, Fuck you guys! I sang high, and then my voice dropped, and I continued to sing high, and it became falsetto.”
It wasn’t until undergrad at Cornell College in Iowa that Krell began making his first solo recordings. He started out working in what he describes as “Elliott Smith-style songs,” but then he heard seminal experimentalists Wolf Eyes and caught the noise bug. The summer after his sophomore year, while browsing a used bookstore in Minneapolis, he picked up a vintage fashion manual called How to Dress Well and adopted the moniker for his sonic experiments, which collaged together guitar, voice and harsh electronics, a sound he held on to when he headed to New York in 2006 to pursue a philosophy MA at the New School. Playing back a glitchy acoustic piece that dates back to this early period, Krell seems unimpressed. “Now when I listen to this, there’s a defensive posture guiding it,” he says. “Where there could be a really tender moment, I would fuck it up and go, like, Aaargh!” Krell even devised a deliberately off-putting alias, cokc dokc, to mask some of his more esoteric productions, a move he also writes off as a “failsafe mechanism.” “It seems to me that I was basically afraid,” he says. “If people didn’t like the songs, I could say, ‘You think I really care? I called this shit cokc dokc!’”
During the summer of 2009, Krell, then living in Brooklyn, began obsessively listening to “Right Side of My Brain,” The-Dream’s lush ode to romantic delirium from his Love vs. Money LP, and it spurred a shift in How to Dress Well. “I remember sitting in my living room, sweating and singing, and really feeling like I had made a new step,” he says of recording the buoyant, fuzzed-out pop track “Kidnap City” (which he’d later remake and include as a bonus track on the Love Remains vinyl). “I’m just a tall, skinny Jewish guy, but I’m singing R&B,” he says, reflecting on the epiphany. “And to do that and be, like, Yeah, that’s what feels right, took a long time.” This breakthrough spawned an intensive new recording spurt, which coincided with Krell moving abroad to study 18th- and 19th-century idealism at the University of Bonn in Germany. There he produced seven self-issued EPs over the course of eight months, many of which provided the raw material for Love Remains. A deep cut from Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel served as another major inspiration. “There’s an interlude on ‘Angel (The Prelude)’ that I couldn’t believe when I first heard it,” he says. “There’s no hook or anything; it’s just her using her voice in all these different ways over a beat. I remember thinking, There’s nothing else like this.” You can hear that wonder in Love Remains tracks like “Ready for the World,” a downtempo groove piece whose warped, static-kissed texture can’t contain its unabashed sensuousness. But just as Krell was exploiting his newfound R&B aesthetic, personal tragedy blindsided him. Mere days before the release of Love Remains, Krell’s best friend, Ryan Hitchon, died in his sleep, his heart stopping under unexplained circumstances. “He never got to really sit down and hear the record with me, because I was in Germany that whole year,” Krell says. “It was an abrupt truncation of a path I thought was just going on.”
The episode triggered a serious bout of depression, but it also served as fruitful inspiration. If Krell had already been working in a cathartic mode, his next release, Just Once, treated grief as a holy phenomenon. The strings-abetted “Suicide Dream 2 (Orchestral Version),” a reworking of a track from Love Remains, plays like a gospel-infused take on Antony and the Johnsons’ sumptuous alt-soul. Though the song was written before Hitchon’s death, the lyrics scan as a meditation on mourning: It’s like there’s no air. On a similarly revamped “Suicide Dream 1,” Krell addresses a poignant corollary to his friend’s passing: Before his death, Hitchon had fathered a child, who is currently alive and well. In tribute, Krell appended a new verse to the song: Man, I can’t believe you had a baby/ But that’s some shit that life goes on. In a recent rehearsal, Krell surprised himself with a lyrical slip. “Completely, as if by the will of the song, I sang, by accident, That’s the shit that life goes on, and I felt the warmest, most beautiful, mournful feeling,” he says. It’s a small linguistic twist, but in light of the heavy psychic baggage Krell has been toting, a momentous one. For Krell, an academic heavily attuned to the way words can set off emotional fireworks in a performer and listener alike, it was a eureka moment. “You don’t get over melancholy by denying it,” he explains. “You get over it by learning how to sustain loss creatively.”
This idea serves as a key guiding principle for Total Loss. “I find it largely to be a happy record.” he says. “Music is a huge therapeutic vehicle for me. Being surrounded by disability and mental illness when you’re a little boy, it’s quite hard to understand what it means; you just love these people. I grew up and became quite negative. Spiritually metabolizing these things, I’ve come to realize that I need to practice openness like it’s a sport. I think it would be such a shame to feel life as a burden the only time I get to live it. For me, the openness of my live show is a symbol of and a really important site of my work to fight negativity and depression and self-enclosedness, and really fight for intimacy and community.”
As a history-of-philosophy junkie and an R&B eccentric, Krell has few logical peers, and when you hear him discuss his in-progress dissertation—“a history of German idealism from 1781 to 1842”—his need for this kind of all-heart outlet becomes clearer. “The hunch is that we can understand the transitions in the German idealist trajectory if we use the thread of nihilism,” he explains. “I read Kant and Jacobi, then I write about Hegel’s big Science of Logic, then I write about some of the last work of Schelling.” The research is clearly a labor of love (“If you’re in [academia] as a trade school, you’re fuckin’ crazy,” he says, pondering the grim job market that he’d face if he tries to pursue a teaching career), but it isn’t exactly a vacation from life’s big questions either. Because Krell doesn’t fit readily into any specific scene, he has had to create his own, a disparate group of well-respected musicians with whom he’s forged personal bonds. He says he’s planning a collaboration with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, and that he went to the gym with fellow ethereal-soul purveyor Michael Diamond of Blood Diamonds in Vancouver and lunched with Frank Ocean in LA. “Frank and I have the same people in our camps, and they said, ‘You should meet up with him,’” recalls Krell of the latter encounter. “I was at a friend’s house, and [Ocean] and his little cousin came and picked me up, and we went and had some weird organic burgers and fries. I had my iPad, and this is before I had done any of the vocals for Total Loss, so I just played my whole record and sang along with it from front to back. Frank was super attentive. Both he and his little cousin had their hands on their chins, heads nodding, occasionally looking up at me but just patiently listening. And then after every song, saying, ‘That’s tight.’”
Krell has also been forging strong bonds in the experimental-music world, including a collaborative friendship with Pete Swanson, a noise-reared sound sculptor. Swanson mastered Just Once, and he made his presence felt at Krell’s concert earlier in the week, planting himself in the front row, beaming and nodding his head in approval. “He kept patting me on the back—did you see?” Krell asks proudly. “If the ethos of noise is just to throw yourself out there spiritually, to visibly rend yourself in public, then there should be a recognized commonality between what Prurient does and [what I do] standing there literally six inches from 100 faces singing my heart out in this alien voice. Pete sees that.”
Krell relishes these connections, but he doesn’t expect to feel fully comfortable in a specific niche anytime soon. “I would be so stoked if I ever got a song on rap and R&B radio. I would love it if people who vibe to Trey Songz…,” he says, trailing off as if daydreaming about a certain level of mass appeal. “But that’s not my goal, per se. I just don’t think of myself as within a given genre. I would prefer to be in an iTunes playlist with ‘X’s & O’s’ by Jeremih, a couple Terry Riley songs, a Mount Eerie song and maybe a super emotional rap song like ‘Fuck This Industry’ by Waka Flocka.” Krell’s playlist fantasy doesn’t seem that far off base, nor does his prophecy for the future of How to Dress Well. In his head, he’s already zooming years ahead, to the third, fourth and fifth LPs. “I want to follow this music absolutely as far as possible,” he says. “I want to make something ridiculously beautiful.” It seems almost unnecessary to point out that he already has.
How To Dress Well: Total Loss
In an interview from Dazed & Confused's October
issue, Tom Krell talks about creative mourning and his heartfelt new
Text by Karen Orton
It’s 10pm mid-week at Birthdays in east London, and the sold-out How to Dress Well show should have started half an hour ago. The audience shifts impatiently. In the dressing room, Tom Krell, the 27-year-old American songwriter and producer behind the moniker, is cracking jokes as he gets ready with his musicians, Cameron Reed and Aaron Read, warming up by singing several lines from “Suicide Dream 1”, from his first album, Love Remains. Krell leans back, his lanky frame a tight fit in the small room, and squeezes drops from a bottle of honey into his throat. He sips a hastily poured whisky and ginger ale, and pops a Xanax.
“London’s a big deal to me,” Krell explains. “When it’s 300 super-aggressive people who are either going to tell their friends that it was shit or that it was great, it’s important to me that it goes off well.” For nights like tonight, he isn’t self-conscious about the need for disinhibitors. “When I get this nervous, the drugs and alcohol are important. I don’t want to have so much that I fuck up, but I need to feel quite poised. With singing I just want to become a voice, you know, so it takes a little work.”
And it’s clear, from the moment that he steps on stage and his piercing a-cappella falsetto cuts through the room, that it’s all about that voice. A silent hush of attention instantly blankets the heavingly full room, the raw fragility of Krell’s voice provoking a collective intake of breath. It’s a voice that bears only a faint resemblance to the one muffled under layers of reverb in Love Remains. In fact, three years ago, this performance would have been unthinkable. In 2009, Krell was giving away new tracks on his blog and keeping himself in relative anonymity, despite the growing buzz around his work. When he released his first album in 2010 the blogosphere was seriously hyped on the mysterious new producer whose hazy, experimental tracks echoed with R&B-reminiscent layered vocals. Despite reviewers heralding How to Dress Well as the second coming of R&B, albeit a narcotised, atmospheric one, Krell rarely stepped out of the shadows (he wouldn’t even show his face in early interviews). When he nervously embarked on a world tour last year, he would sing over his own CD, calling out track numbers to a sound guy offstage.
But things have changed. Krell is on the verge of releasing a second album, Total Loss, as heart-rending as the name suggests, and he’s come into his own. Now accompanied by a backing band of violin, piano and sampled drums, he is selling out venues and reducing audiences to tears with his emotionally walloping performances.
At Birthdays, Krell is possessed, swaying, eyes scrunched shut and hands wavering. There’s an oddly charming dissonance between his soulful emoting and the R&B legends he’s channelling, and as he slips into a stirring, better-then-the-original cover of R Kelly’s “I Wish”, a round of cheers greet the first familiar strains. For almost an hour, he keeps the room electrically charged with an unearthly quality more akin to the reverential atmosphere of a church than a nightclub. As he leaves the stage, a huge smile on his face, he’s visibly buoyed and full of excess energy – he punches the dressing-room wall, but even a swelling knuckle does little to dampen his enthusiasm. “The vibe in this place was amazing!” he exclaims. “At the beginning, performing was horrifying. It took me six months to figure out how to be onstage doing these songs. If just one person in the crowd is having a really intense aesthetic experience that makes it totally energising. I feel that the stakes are high, so when people respond in kind, it’s awesome. It can fill me up for a whole week.”
Krell’s cultivated his online fanbase since the early days of How to Dress Well, and after his shows, the Twitter love flows in. An early blogpost invited an intimacy you wouldn’t find from most artists. “please come out to the shows & say hey,” he wrote. “i can’t wait to see u, because even tho we don’t know each other yet i think we will really like each other u know?” He signed off: “<3 br="br" tom="tom">But sceptics looking for traces of irony in his effusive messages can be assured that Krell is simply “4 real”. “It’s weird. The persona was totally uncalculated and now it’s actually helped me immensely,” he considers. “Like, I’m much more compassionate and less negative and judgmental than I was a few years ago, and a lot of it’s by virtue of having to continue with this persona. I get these intense confessional emails from people. The responses I get from playing these shows, the tears and hugs, opening myself up and seeing people respond with emotional honesty...” He trails off. “It’s basically changed me forever.”
If you were to go by that online persona alone, you might expect Krell to be a slightly camp, plaintively emotional kind of guy; in person he’s anything but. It’s an endearing contradiction. Displaying a fondness for shorts and Rick Owens t-shirts and rarely making eye contact, he’s measured and articulate when looking back at his exhaustive range of early musical influences. He brushes off questions about the PhD in philosophy he’s working on (appropriately, it’s on “love as a logical concept” and the history of 19th-century metaphysics), preferring to detail his new, spiritual approach to life.
Krell wrote the songs on Total Loss in the dark months following the release of Love Remains in autumn 2010, a period of personal tragedy. His best friend and his uncle passed away, his mother became mentally ill and he entered into a long-distance relationship. “In music and life at the time, it was like, ‘If you don’t get this shit in gear, you’re done,’” he remembers. “I wrote these very dark, sad songs, but I also wrote ‘Ocean Floor For Everything’ (the first single from the new LP). It stood out from everything else, so I spent the next few months putting it on the horizon, trying to write my way to that song. The album’s about developing a relationship with loss which is spiritually enriching rather than devastating. It’s more wistful and mournful. It’s challenging but also quite powerful, even liberating, when you can transform loss into hopefulness.”
While Total Loss is full of the moodiness and distortion that characterised its predecessor, Krell’s voice has freed itself from the ambient haze, achieving a newfound clarity. Calling it “a head-above-water moment”, he sees the vocals as an emotional guide. “Going into this record I just feel much more at home in my body and grounded in my voice than I did before, because of touring as much,” he reflects. “Now when I make mistakes in singing, I don’t feel destroyed by it like I used to. I feel like it’s personality shining through the melody, you know?”
Krell’s predisposition to emotional empathy started early. “Since day one, I’ve been forced out of this male emotional norm, like, the strong and silent type or whatever, by my family situation,” he says. “I have siblings who are disabled, and that was just enough of a rift in the fabric of my incorporation into so-called ‘normal culture’. Being exposed at three years old to people having completely senseless emotional reactions...” He stops to consider. “I guess I knew that because of this, everything was going to be different, no matter what.”
Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Krell’s first musical influences were his mom’s favourites, like Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson. “When I started to sing, my voice gravitated towards the patterns
I learned singing along to the radio in the car with my mom,” he remembers. “I never liked manic stuff. It was never my energy. I was much more into heartbroken and lovesick songs, I guess that’s what all R&B is: love and love lost.”
In college, his older friends popped downers and listened to drone music, exposing him to experimental sounds, and he got turned on to the likes of Terry Riley, Scott Walker and his oft-referenced idol (and now collaborator), Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. “I guess I’ve always liked music that gives me an emotional education, some sensitivity of spirit.” Krell explains, adding that a recent favourite is a YouTube video of Beyoncé performing an acoustic version of “Halo” at a children’s hospital. “It’s fucking super intense,” he says. “At the end, she says, ‘We can see all your halos,’ and it makes me want to cry.”
But it wasn’t until he moved to Cologne, Germany, on a research fellowship, that How to Dress Well really came together, separating itself from the heavier experimental music he’d been working on before. While translating a book on German philosophy by day, by night, Krell’s disparate influences joined full circle. “I spent a lot of time in my room working on songs. My music became about wanting to sing and make something beautiful. It was a time of intense creative output. It was blind creation, and I had no idea people would respond the way they did. I sent it to blogs I admired, I was so fucking thrilled when one day, eight blogs posted my music!” he remembers. “These days you get to cultivate your audience in a way more focused way, even if it’s super leftfield. I think there’s something happening with music now that’s really exciting.”
So does Krell feel part of a movement? He namechecks artists he respects like Frank Ocean, Julia Holter, and his friend Holy Other, saying, “It’s cool that there are a lot of people working on concepts of emotional openness and love. Although, for as many similarities, there are massive differences too. But I love that this is somehow becoming a collective project... not self-consciously so, but it’s happening.” He adds: “Only good can come when a bunch of hipsters face themselves and do some emotional reckoning.”
Perhaps most intriguing of all of his disparate influences is his underlying focus on spirituality.
“My parents are atheists so I didn’t grow up spiritual. It’s quite strange, my family situation – there’s a lot of love but also a lot of undesirable anger and sadness,” he half laughs.
“I guess my parents are both kind of in their own world. My mother is quite unwell but she loves my music. She doesn’t know how to use a computer. They have Love Remains on CD. It’s a challenging record so I’m not sure how they feel about it,” Krell pauses to consider. “Sometimes I want them to listen to it and pay more attention to it, other times I don’t care.”
In the end, his self-informed spiritual mission goes back to the performances, now a defining aspect of How to Dress Well. “I mean, the people in my life, they know, you know?” Krell says. “But it’s about sharing this experience with the fans who are touched by this. With my music I want to show that everyone can have this emotional relationship with life. I like the idea of just being an occasion for people to have these experiences.”
So has his growing success affected where he wants to go next? “It doesn’t really change the songwriting, I just have to deal with a lot more anxiety and stress about it all. But I feel much better about it now than after I first started to get attention. You know, I’m really, really proud of this album and I want it to be universally adored,” Krell laughs. “I like to think that I’ve made a completely new sound. I mean, it sounds arrogant, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t put it out there if I could say, this sounds like this or that. I feel really happy about not just being another pop singer. I want to do something novel and special. I guess I don’t have anything else to offer. If what I’m offering gets me there, then that would be a dream come true. I just make the music I can, I can’t do it any other way.” 3>