Take Care: How To Dress Well Interviewed
Tom Krell dives into the weird dreams and holistic intentions behind Care, How To Dress Well's fourth – and bravest – album
Tom Krell is doing super good. That's what he tells The Skinny, right after our phone interview interrupts a rare, lazy morning. “I'm literally just waking up and having coffee right now. I slept in today.”
It's reassuring to hear because, as How To Dress Well, Krell has traditionally hit pretty hard on the emotions. His bedroom-recorded debut Love Remains (2010) was an introspective heart breaker, combining shy R'n'B balladry with icy shards of synth. In 2012, he dropped Total Loss – a record as quietly devastating as its title suggests. 2014's What Is This Heart? turned up the drama; epic, experimental pop saw his sometimes brutal self-analysis take an outward turn, with high-stakes choruses borrowed from Celine or Mariah's songbooks.
Breaching the divide between intellectualised electronica and mainstream popular music, the Chicago-born musician has always been an oddity. His research into nihilism and German philosophy earned him a PhD from DePaul University and it makes sense, just about, that after spending so much time in library archives of human hopes and dreams, Krell should make music which seeks out the life-affirming value of creativity.
Krell name-checks David Bowie as readily as New Found Glory, and his songwriting reflects his openly, unabashedly diverse listening habits. His Soundcloud mixes featured Justin Bieber long before the pop star's strangely credible turn, and span FKA Twigs, Rich Homie Quan and Everything But The Girl. Leave your cynicism at the door. How To Dress Well's music emphasises the importance of valuing what it is that you get from a song: if a classic pop-punk chorus takes you down a fuzzy warm nostalgia trip; ride that trip. And if it makes you want to write a song after? Even better.
“Creatively, I'm pretty free,” he laughs. “I've never had an impulse where I start on a song and I like it, but I don't know if it 'fits'? Like, I don't know if it's a How To Dress Well song? I'm just like, this is sick. It makes me feel good. This is what I want to do, and I don't care.”
"People could push harder"
How To Dress Well’s fourth full album Care – to be released on 23 September – takes bolder, braver detours than any of his previous records. After writing the album, Krell collaborated with Dre Skull, Jack Antonoff, CFCF and Kara-Lis Coverdale for the production process, and each of the eleven tracks is an outrageous pop hybrid. Balearic beats clash with classical piano, crashing synth, bouncy indie guitar lines, theatrical vocals and those huge, trademark choruses that make you want to punch the air, Breakfast Club style. Cathartic and clever, Care is Krell’s most accessible, most adventurous record to date.
“People want to pat each other on the back, like pop has reached this new level of artistry: check out the new Beyoncé, check out the new Kanye. But, I mean, my record is still 10-15 strides ahead on the weirdness scale,” Krell says, thoughtfully. He's not wrong.
“My writing is always a dialectic with what I’m listening to, and over time I’ve developed a tool box of so many different things – sounds from a rap template, sounds from an ambient or noise template, sounds from a Kiss FM template; pushing that hybridisation further,” he continues. “Music is one phenomenon – so I think people could push harder, in terms of the experimentation they're willing to take. People want to hear it, too. I genuinely believe that. I love this video that Team USA posted on their Instagram, the Olympic basketball team? They're all on this private jet, singing Vanessa Carlton. It's so sick. All these powerful young black guys – all of their advertisements are scored with rap music – and they're all singing like cute boys to Vanessa Carlton. Because that's how people live.”
On Care, this complete disregard for “false” genre boundaries translates into songs like The Ruins. A cutesy, Ed Sheeran-esque melody opens the track (Krell a-okayed this comparison: “I'm down. Ed Sheeran is sick.”), before the song takes an unexpected nose dive toward the totally apocalyptic. “That's cool to hear,” Krell enthuses. “The Ruins is an odd duck. It was initially a song I recorded over an acoustic guitar, and then I started piling in more and more layers... I thought a lot about writing music that makes changes. When you're like: 'Oh what? I never could have seen this coming. Oh man, what a treat.’
“I think surprising music is so important for pleasure,” he explains. “People are making a mistake in art – we live in extremely fucking dire and serious times and for some people, art must be dire and serious. I think often times people mistake art for politics. We need help soothing ourselves – but not pacifying ourselves. You need to give people something, not just corroborate the fucking news cycle. So, it's important to take pleasure, but it can't be cheap pleasure. Side by side with stories about police brutality it's like, 'Oh, here's a slide show of Kylie Jenner's butt.' Oh, hell yeah, now I'm really satisified. This is supposed to be the balance?”
In dreams: A statement of method
In personal – not political – response, Care is a statement of method. For the first time in his life Krell suffered writer's block, questioning: “Do I do this out of pathology? If I were ‘fixed’ would I make music?” After working through his own attempts to find comfort, these longer, more elaborate songs are an exercise in concentration and imagination. Salt Song sees Krell break free from his moniker to address himself by name: it feels strangely, quietly radical, and it came to him in a dream. No, really.
Twenty minutes in to our conversation, Krell is describing with relish how he, suddenly elderly, met a four-year-old version of himself in a huge, empty house. It’s the kind of dream that a cynic (or psychoanalyst) could have a field day with, but Krell rides it out. Toddler Tom “says super sagely shit” to him, like “all that matters is you feel good – and not good like when you have candy, but good like when you hug your mum.” He cackles, “I was like, 'Uhhh this child is going to make me cry.' And I woke up and felt my face, because I thought I’d been crying in my sleep. It was fucking amazing. It stuck with me for weeks.”
How To Dress Well's live shows have always been electrifying – marked by Krell's earnest, holistic intentions to give everything he has, out of openness rather than vulnerability. Typically, though, he's determined to push that feeling further still. “Directness is a concept I keep coming back to,” he says, suddenly serious. “Towards the end of the last tour, we did a show with all the lights up in the entire space; lights on the crowd, lights on the stage, everything. It was so fucking thrilling. Holy shit. It felt like the first time I was presenting music to people, this real exchange of trust and grace and creativity. It was also really terrifying. It's like...” He pauses, and bursts out laughing. “It's like when you're having sex, and the person suddenly says, ‘Look at me.’ Fuck. I mean, it can be amazing, obviously.”
“This next tour, we'll still do some cool lights and stuff but I just wanna be like, ‘Hey, I'm here. Singing my songs for you.’ And the way that I sing – I've never been into easy shit. Like, what if I go two octaves up from here? It really demands a full focus, physically.” Krell takes a breath. “I just want to do a fucking great job, always.”
Care is released on 23 Sep via Weird World / Domino
How to Dress Well plays Stereo, Glasgow, 23 Nov, 8pm, £12.50