Sparring With How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell

When the American electro-soulster How To Dress Well (aka Tom Krell) performed at 2015’s Sugar Mountain in Melbourne, disaster struck. Flying in from the Sydney Festival, Krell arrived late – his band unable to soundcheck. He then experienced severe technical issues throughout his set. But, revealing a flair for improvised stand-up, Krell endeared the crowd with his droll quips. Everybody loved it – though not Krell. “It was a nightmare!” he groans today.

Influenced by Elliott Smith, ’90s R&B, and avant-garde electronica, Krell started singing falsetto over broken beats and ambient soul washes. The random handle How To Dress Well came from a second-hand book. In 2010, having generated blog buzz, Krell debuted independently with the much-praised Love Remains – all very introspective, despairing and heartbreaky. He signed to the Domino offshoot Weird World ahead of the follow-up, Total Loss, its theme emanating from the shock passing of his best friend. Krell last presented 2014’s ruminative What Is This Heart?. In the meantime, he pursued academia. Remarkably, Krell is working towards a PhD in Philosophy.

The transitory singer/songwriter, currently based in Los Angeles, is routinely identified with the future R&B phenom – think: existentialist, ambivalent and ambiguous lyrics plus experimental electronic production – alongside the likes of Frank Ocean, James Blake and James Vincent McMorrow. However, he considers himself an outsider.

Now Krell is back with a stunning fourth album in Care. And it is surprisingly blithe, empathetic and poppy – Krell writing about physical desire. He is finally revelling in the idea of “sex music”.

Krell teamed with co-producers as varied as fun.’s Jack Antonoff and, most unexpectedly, dancehall maverick Dre Skull – an underground Diplo. “When I met him, I immediately realised that I was in love with him – he’s like my spiritual guide, period,” Krell enthuses of the latter. Dre guided the dancey highlight Salt Song. “That’s my favourite song I think I’ve ever made!”

In July Krell aired Care‘s lead single – the Antonoff-produced Lost Youth/Lost You. It’s accompanied by a sensual – and exquisitely choreographed video – that has been heralded as his equivalent to D’Angelo’s Untitled (How Does It Feel). Unusually, even the YouTube comments are (largely) positive. Nonetheless, Krell is perturbed that one viewer wrote, “What an elegant way to come out!” He considers that “garden-variety homophobia.”

“This is literally homophobia – like, if you interact sensually with a man, you’re gay? At the very least it’s bi-phobia – bi-erasure.” In fact, the film-clip is subtly, sublimely symbolic. “I wanted to do something really physical and ‘otherly’,” Krell explains. “The song is obviously about falling in love and falling out of love, falling into each other’s arms and then falling out of touch with one another. So we just came up with a physical way of translating that song.”

Krell approaches Music Feed’s interview as an opportunity to debate – so we spar.

Music Feeds: You’ve described Care as “a truly joyous record”. But I wondered to what extent it was a reaction to what you’ve released before – or even to the wider culture of introspective, anxiety-induced music?

Tom Krell: Yeah, it’s definitely a reaction to both my own work thus far and the culture of, like, whatever – fake serious masculinity.

MF: What do you mean by that?

TK: I don’t know – it’s complicated. It’s something I’ve talked about elsewhere, where I think that in a certain Western intellectual tradition we’ve always connected truth with a certain performance of seriousness – self-seriousness. That sort of destroys or erases the kind of play and joy that’s actually part of art-making and part of [the] potential aesthetic experience in the first place. I just started to become more and more allergic to that – it’s like looking back at some of my earlier work and being like, “Why the need to eliminate so much joy and eliminate so much play?”

MF: It’s interesting that you attach that to masculinity because, if anything, I’ve been quite surprised at how urban music has become less about hyper-masculinity and more about expressing vulnerabilities. I guess that was always in the blues, but it seems to be more self-diagnostic now – the whole genre.

TK: Blues music is so masculine, though!

MF: But hip-hop was about that hyper-masculinity for a long time. Then, suddenly, you’ve got a genre where people are eroding that…

TK: Rap music is still like rampantly shitty masculinity. That’s like the whole thing in rap music – you know about this…”

MF: I don’t hear that – I hear something different, a real shift. But, whenever I interview male artists, they don’t hear that! So maybe it’s women who are hearing it. I’m not sure.

TK:Who and what rappers? I’m just curious.

MF: I guess the whole Kanye West, Drake, influence came through when Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak. It felt like there was a real shift in self-perception around that time.

TK: I think that’s true about 808s… I totally agree about that. But I think that, with Drake, it’s all like kinda classic shitty guy vibes to me – I don’t know.

MF: Tricky says the same, actually. I remember us talking about DMX and he heard it very differently to me. It’s interesting.

TK: You thought DMX was fragile and vulnerable?

MF: Yeah, I thought there are moments there…

TK:I’m not sure – I don’t know about the DMX one. I mean, I’m convinced about what you said on the other ones. But DMX is just rabidly misogynistic and homophobic (laughs).

MF: There were moments on his records where he used to have those ‘prayers’ – those spoken bits showed another side.

TK: Yeah, that’s true. I think that manic desperation has always been part of a shitty masculinity… But now we’re pretty far afield [laughs].

MF: You’ve been associated with what they call the ‘avant R&B’ movement. It’s amazing how to the fore this hybrid has become in recent years, to the point that even Zayn from One Direction is playing around with electronic R&B. I also know you met Frank Ocean early on. But you’ve expressed ambivalence towards this phenomenon – why is that?

TK: Well, so there’s a couple of things you’re saying. One, I don’t think there’s a movement, per se. And then the second thing is that my music has always been much more poly-generic – like cross-genre. I’ve always done a range of kinds of songs – from indie-rock songs to R&B songs to, like, S Club 7 pop songs to dark, brooding songs to ambient songs.

For me, there’s an obvious pop aspect to everything I do. But the degree to which it’s R&B is the degree to which the [US Top 40] KISS FM template is R&B – like KISS FM is as much Shania Twain and Celine Dion as it is Bobby Brown. Michael Jackson had songs that cut across all genres.

MF: But, if not a movement, there’s definitely a trend.

TK: Yeah, yeah – well, there’s a journalistic trend (laughs).

MF: I still think there’s an orientation towards that…

TK: No, no – I’m sure there are all kinds of trends right now. I’m just not part of [that one]. I read an article today that grouped me with like – I can’t even remember who it was – but I was like, ‘Huh? Okay.’ I don’t know.

MF: I can certainly hear the diversity on Care. But there is a strong electronic R&B influence in pop culture. When you get every release each week, you can’t help but pick up on things that reoccur. So I guess that’s why I call it a trend!

TK: Yeah, there’s definitely something happening… I think for a 10-year period people weren’t that interested in good singing – that to me is maybe the biggest part of the trend.

MF: You do have your own identity and so I was curious when you had a collaboration with Classixx, Just Let Go, this year. Would you like to do more of that – working with other artists on their records?

TK: Yeah, I’ve always collaborated with friends – like I wrote a song with Jacques Greene (On Your Side) and Shlohmo (Don’t Say No) and Classixx now. I wrote a song with Active Child (Playing House). I love to work with other people on music – especially when we really click, it’s a beautiful thing. My own records have always been super-collaborative, too – except my first one. The first one was really isolated – just me (laughs).

MF: You have this whole other life that a lot of your fans might not know about – you’re in academia. How is your PhD going?

TK: It’s still in progress, yeah. It’s a leisure project – like this is what I do for life.

MF: It’s a very interesting topic – nihilism in German philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Can you tell us about it?

TK: I’m just always interested in life and how we are able as human beings to value things in a way that allows us to combat cynicism and depression and nihilism – like how we can affirm the things that bring us joy and affirm our love and affirm our standing in the world against a cosmos that doesn’t have a home for us. We’re just an utter and total mistake. It’s really something that’s been on my mind since I was a little boy – and then I just explore it in all different ways.

MF: Is there any prospect of you coming back to Australia?

TK: Nothing’s booked yet, but I really pray that in 2017 we get to come down and do a big set of shows. I absolutely love playing in Australia and New Zealand. Some of the most beautiful experiences for me as a musician have been down there.

How To Dress Well’s ‘Care’ is out today. Grab a copy here.

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