Tom Krell has released over 50 songs as How To Dress Well in under three years, across one album (Love Remains) and a bunch of small-scale releases. I hadn't really taken stock of this overabundance of product until a few days before meeting him, when I dutifully revisited the tracks I'd heard before and listened for the first time to the others, including his new record Total Loss, which represents a subtle but resolute shift in sensibilities for an artist who is far more sincere and cerebral than that unfortunate 'hipster R&B' label would suggest.
Meeting Krell on the morning of his impossibly sold out show in Dalston, he talks at length about the elements that drive his creativity: musical, personal and philosophical. That hazy patina on the surface of How To Dress Well's abstract lo-fi soul music isn't just an Instagram of a passing trend. In contrast to the copycats who've emerged in the wake of his innovation, Krell is lucid and assured in putting across his artistic intentions. In the end, the 40-odd minutes of recorded conversation were so densely packed with ideas that it wasn't worth tainting them with my own feeble edit, so here follows an abridged transcript for your consumption.
Chal Ravens: So tell me where you're at right now. You seem to have been touring and not recording as much?
Tom Krell: I had the intuition two and a half years ago that in order to get to where I wanted to be as an artist I just needed to release a lot of stuff and make my sounds available to as many people as possible as often as possible. Over the course of seven months I think I've put out about 35 songs. But I've reached a point in my dissertation research where I'm taking a pretty heavy break and just doing the music full time. It just felt progressively more important for me to pursue it in a more full-blown fashion.
CR: Each How To Dress Well record seems to deal with a different subject or event, like the death of a friend, which you dealt with on the Just Once EP. What has influenced your songwriting on Total Loss?
TK: It was quite a dark writing period. The recording of Just Once marks a really important break in the writing process, because September 2010 was really affectively charged for me. On the one hand, Love Remains came out and it was super exciting and exhilarating, and I was selling out shows. But I'd just lost my best friend and gone into a long-distance relationship, which was very painful, and then my uncle passed away, who was very much a sort of symbolic figurehead for me and for my mother. It was just a quite spiritually rending time. A lot of Love Remains is about my experience with my friend who passed away and his progressive breakdown.
So he passed away and I was singing these songs, and I started to realise that it was a nice testament to him, and that's when Just Once came about. One song I recorded in that dark period was 'Ocean Floor For Everything' and I decided I wanted to build more towards that sound. So I spent the rest of the spring and summer really trying to sit down in the affect that song represents to me, and that affect to me is about overcoming loss – not in the sense of putting it away, but kind of going through it, learning through it. So rather than disavowing loss, it's trying to find a way to metabolise the loss in a productive way that doesn't end either in depression or in denial.
CR: Musically speaking, as well, it's another progression – brighter and less lo-fi. Was it always the intention to move towards a more hi-fi sound?
TK: To get away from that depressive and suffocating atmosphere, the material took me formally to a less rough sound. The first song on Total Loss is quite a Love-Remains-esque ambient thing and then the vocal kind of pierces out, and that gesture to me is like the gesture of the whole record – trying to find a way to get my head above water. But then each song has these kind of signature or experimental moments and sounds. I don't understand why anyone would make a song where every single sound wasn't completely original. That's the difference I think between what I'm doing and what pop music is in general. I'm not comfortable using pre-established sounds on any level of the track, whether it's the drums or the subs or whatever, unless the meaning of using the pre-established sound is an experimental one.
CR: Like the way you make use of that trap rap snare drum sound on the record. Do you ever worry that by using such genre-specific sounds you might stray into pastiche?
TK: Pastiche maybe, but there's nothing ironic or kitschy about it. I never use these elements in a way that suggests I take the trap drums to be a superficial element over my 'deep' music or whatever. Like, it's the 21st century, so a certain kind of assemblage approach is unavoidable. That song, until the trap drums come in, is one of the most lo-fi, experimental tracks on the record. At first you can't quite catch the rhythm and it's this circling, ambient thing, and then the trap drums come in and suddenly it tightens and the frustration and the sadness intensifies. I mean, trap music is essentially frustrated and angry music, so the material dictated that choice.
CR: Another new song, 'Say My Name or Say Whatever', has a repeating piano phrase that seems to reference Steve Reich?
TK: I've listened to a lot of Terry Riley, Ligeti...
CR: And you mentioned William Basinksi before?
TK: Yeah, Basinski and The Disintegration Loops [a recording made from deteriorating magnetic tapes, said to have been completed as the Twin Towers came down in 2001] was a massive breakthrough for me in my thinking about music. Love Remains is like pop through Basinski, basically. To me he's interested not in sound representing something, but sound being affectively charged. The Disintegration Loops aren't depressing, they're depression, you know?
CR: And they're about memory too, much like your music.
TK: Absolutely. Testament, as well. And what I think he does, which is what I want to do, is rather than have songs which are about an experience or which tell a story, they trace an affect. Which could be connected to a personal situation for me, or the Twin Towers for The Disintegration Loops, but it also transcends that personal moment because it sketches an affect which people have in all different kinds of moments. It may or not be about 9/11. If you are experiencing disorienting tragedy and the poles of your life are shifting, if something that used to anchor you is being displaced – that record is the feeling.
CR: You've said before that that you don't want to create a direct link between your philosophy research and your music.
TK: No, I think that the philosophical studies that I do and the music are two very different outcroppings of a creative source. The thing about the music is it's important to me that it's a very dumb approach. I try and write the affect I'm trying to trace, and invite language to speak and pull the words out of me, rather than using language to label and organise. And this is all me retrospectively analysing what I do musically, so I don't have this in mind when I'm working musically.
CR: So I was reading an article about D'Angelo recently which drew a link between his religiosity and R&B's roots in gospel, and how that's expressed in a really sexualised way. And I thought that, considering how rooted in R&B your music is, it doesn't seem to be so sex-fixated?
TK: I mean, D'Angelo also sings about Africa too. So there's a very complicated story to get into about why we say that black R&B singers are singing about sex, when in fact they're singing about a lot of things. Maxwell very rarely sings about sex. Maybe that's part of the reason he hasn't had the same praise as someone like Trey Songz, who just sings about sex, and that satisfies a certain racist image of what a black R&B singer can be. That's why Frank Ocean is so special and impressive, because he's really shattering that idea.
I don't stay away from sex, but to me sex is very... it's a very joyous thing but it's just incredible fun to me. People only talk when there's a problem, in general. I'm thirsty, so I say water, you know? Sex doesn't give me anxiety. I've never had trouble finding it and I've never had complications with it, save through love. When sex happens with love then you have complex emotions, completely new forms of joy, completely new forms of sadness and disappointment. I think a lot of people sing about sex and drugs, and sex and drugs to me are both just really cool, I'm just into both of them. I don't feel much of a challenge from them, like, existentially. If you're having too much sex or doing too many drugs, just chill out for a week and like, watch some TV or something [laughs]. I'm more interested in growing old with my disabled siblings than having sex, you know? Sex is easy.
CR: Quite a few artists are now making music that bears some resemblance to How To Dress Well – I'm thinking of Balam Acab, Inc. and Vondelpark, for instance. Do you think you've inspired these acts, or is it more that your sound – hazy, lo-fi, R&B-influenced – is one that defines this generation?
TK: It's hard to say. It's been interesting to see people pop up who are making my music, it's weird. It's totally flattering and amazing. I don't think its a generational thing per se. It's weird to me that something that I was doing, that I thought was outsider, is now...
CR: People get it?
TK: Which is awesome. But for me at least, I'm much more interested in pushing beyond the conventions of the genre or whatever, and I guess the term 'resurgence of R&B'.
CR: Do you know Hype Williams at all? I think your music has certain elements in common – fading memories, hypnotic disorientation.
TK: I absolutely love them. I think Black Is Beautiful is probably one of my top five records of the year.
CR: But of course there's always the feeling with Hype Williams that you can't be sure if they're being sincere.
TK: Yeah, this is where we differ. They have this aggression motivating a lot of what they do, which I don't like. It's like, are you gonna believe that we're serious or not?' I'm interested in that as a listener, but as an artist I'd never want to make someone feel potentially embarrassed for liking my song. To me, openness and sharing are the guiding goals, but they're hardcore outsiders, they have a 'fuck the world' spirit.
We've travelled from Kant to Hype Williams, with pit stops at William Basinski and D'Angelo, in less than 45 minutes. The coffee's gone cold, so I quickly ask if he's working on any other projects right now. Turns out he's collaborating on an album with Xiu Xiu (“Piano duets – I'm singing the low part and Jamie is singing the high part”) and now off to Sweden to play in a church in the middle of the night.
Krell isn't a complicated character; he's not presenting himself as a tortured genius in his garret. Instead I guess he's omnivorous, emotional, unconventionally earnest in a sea of ironic waffle. He's a musician for our time, whatever that may actually be – and one who doesn't see his work as merely a happy accident.