In Conversation: How To Dress Well

Tom Krell is back with some of his most transcendent work to date...

It’s been nearly six years since we last heard from How To Dress Well, the beguiling musical project from American multimedia artist, singer-songwriter, and producer Tom Krell. Over the course of the last decade and a half, he’s crafted a wholly unique body of work, encapsulating everything from dream pop, R&B and soul, to brash, confrontational noise.

For his part, Krell would probably be the first to admit that How To Dress Well projects have always required an open mind, but it’s his unique, unflinching pursuit of truth within the weirdness that continues to make the project so compelling. To be here in 2024 discussing the sixth How To Dress Well LP is something of a gift, not least because if Krell had had his way several years ago, we wouldn’t have been here talking about it.

When CLASH links up with Krell, he’s midway through uploading an Instagram reel on behalf of his record label. It’s a far cry from the early days, which saw him anonymously releasing a series of EPs as Mediafire links via his own website, but things have changed a lot since then.

“I try not to do this stuff anymore,” he laughs. “It’s funny, I had coffee with a friend who does graphic design for a lot of artists that use anonymity or pseudonymity. He was like, ‘There was no gap between the symbols of How To Dress Well and Tom Krell for a while and I didn’t know how it would go for you to come out the other side of that.’ I’m just happy that I got to be a 24/7 self-obsessed artist before TikTok.”

With ‘I Am Toward You’ nearing release, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, Krell finds himself in a position where he can now reflect on his work more objectively. Having worked on the record for close to four years – his longest gap between projects – it’s proven to be something of a healing process, mending a relationship with music that had become fraught.

“The day the album was announced and the first two songs came out, I was driving to the gym, so I listened to the songs on Spotify and they sounded totally different to me. I felt so light listening to them… It slowly started to occur to me that I had lost a relationship with music through this extremely intense relationship with music as a professional musician, which was 24/7. All I thought about was my music career.”

It was only after the release of 2018’s ‘The Anteroom’, a dense, noisy and experimental electronic reaction to pop-leaning sensibilities of 2016’s ‘Care’ that Krell began to realise there was another approach he could take.

“That’s where I came up with the name for the remix package for ‘The Anteroom’, which is called ‘One Train Hides Another’ – that was the way I started to speak about it. The second I let that train go away, I saw that there was another train that was being obscured, running alongside it the whole time. And I wanted to be on that train, and I thought I was on that train. And so like, I just slowly started to rebuild my relationship with music as a spiritual practice.”

To say that Krell’s relationship with his musical alter ego is complicated would be an understatement. Never one to crave the spotlight, ‘I Am Toward You’ is an album born out of an extensive period of self-reflection. Following ‘The Anteroom’s release he toured extensively, playing over 150 solo shows over the course of a hectic two year period.

“When you do music professionally, you need to do things in order to make that living. If it’s popping, cool, you can say no to all the gigs you don’t want to do and just do art projects and stuff. If it’s not, you have to take on a lot of gigs. I was doing it totally solo: two Pelican cases and a huge backpack, everywhere, all over the world. I’d finish a show in Bucharest, get off stage and pack as fast as I could to get on a train to go to Transylvania to play a show there the next day. Chaos. Life chaos.”

Though better received than ‘Care’ – a brilliant pop record in its own right – the extensive touring required in support of ‘The Anteroom’ became more of a commercial need for Krell, which quickly led to him becoming disillusioned.

“It was interesting,” he muses. “I made ‘The Anteroom’ and thought, ‘I’ve made the best record I can make’. I’d never poured myself into a work as much as I did, but because of the way people catch on to music, so many people are about two years behind. People would be like, ‘Oh, How To Dress Well has a new record, let me check it out. Oh, it’s been poorly reviewed. Oh, wait, that was the last one.’ But they don’t make that connection. So this record that I made that I thought was amazing didn’t reach a lot of people.”

Exhausted, Krell turned his attention to another of his passions, taking time out to finish a PhD in philosophy, before considering exiting music altogether with a diversion into teaching. This granted him a new perspective.

“When I started doing the PhD and I was teaching, all the people I thought were the smartest in my department would finish their degree and then end up absolutely scraping the barrel, desperate to get a job where they’re teaching non-stop in the middle of Indiana, somewhere absolute shit. So I was like, ‘If I go into philosophy professionally, it will ruin philosophy for me.’ So I had already kind of done this thing where I had let go of the dream of being a professor of philosophy in order to hold on to philosophy for myself.”

Krell had a similar line of thinking when it came to music too.

“I hit this moment with it where I was like, ‘Okay, if this is what it’s going to take for me to make the living I want to make, I don’t think I want to do this professionally anymore,’” he states. “I had to let go of being a professional music artist to hold on to the transhistorical meaning of music where I’m just a moment in this cosmic process.”

Make no mistake; Krell is extremely grateful to be back making music again – albeit entirely on his own terms. There are no plans for a tour, with the current focus being his family and academic pursuits. This time around, the music is speaking for itself – something that he’s very much at peace with.

“This is the first record of the second decade of my career, which is crazy,” he states.” “I feel so unspeakably lucky to have been able to have this long career. I put out records in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018 and then the pandemic happened, which was this monumental interruption. And now a couple years later to put this record out – it’s the first time that I’ve been able to look at my work as a whole from some kind of distance, rather than just being in it. It’s cool to make music from a more discerning place, more like what I did initially. Before I was kind of like making art on the billing cycle.”

COVID led to a forced period of reflection, of sorts, with Krell sifting through snippets of old recordings and samples, which were then weaved into songs. The end result is some of How To Dress Well’s noisiest, freest, and most poetic music to date. It’s also an album that, for Krell at least, concludes his third duo of records.

“When ‘The Anteroom’ came out I initially thought it was a response to ‘Care’,” he notes. “Now I’m realising that the first two records were a duo, then ‘What Is This Heart’ and ‘Care’ and now ‘The Anteroom’ and ‘I Am Toward You’. What’s interesting is I didn’t see it at first. I thought the first three records were one thing and then Care was this weird thing that ‘The Anteroom’ was a response to, but now I’m realising that ‘Total Loss’ was almost a completion of ‘Love Remains’.”

2014’s ‘What Is This Heart’ was another moment where critical opinion was sometimes at odds with Krell’s perception of his own work.

“The things that people liked about ‘Total Loss’ were ‘And It Was U’ and ‘Cold Nites’, so I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta start making pure pop music,’” he reflects. “’What Is This Heart’ is this unbelievably at times cringy pop record, but, again, people are always late on this shit. I think ‘Total Loss’ was better than ‘What Is This Heart’, but it was better reviewed because people had missed ‘Total Loss’ so they were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to really heap praise on this one.’ And I got to play such huge shows and have such amazing experiences that in my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, this is where the music needs to go.’”

That experience led to Krell delving even further into pop logic for ‘Care’ – a completion of what he perhaps somewhat unwittingly started with ‘What Is This Heart’. It’s a fantastic album full of timely, often eerily prophetic songs about the state of the world in 2016. Tracks like ‘They’ll Take Everything You Have’ observed that “in 2016 we fell off the globe” – a line written and recorded long before the tumultuous US election that year.

“I was actually on the plane to Europe to do the first shows for ‘Care’ when Donald Trump got elected in America,” he recalls. “Literally, it came out into the world we live in now, which before that election happened it was unimaginable. It was suddenly part of a world that didn’t quite exist.”

Understandably, it was time for a re-think. Diversions into experimental experimental noise music soon followed, inspired by the likes of Coil and Joy Division, as well as Krell’s own philosophical interests.

“’The Anteroom’ and ‘I Am Toward You’ are kind of like these companion experiments,” he states. “They’re both extremely aggressive and noisy, but really beautiful albums. Maybe this one’s just far enough away that it’s not a duo with ‘The Anteroom’. I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”

As confounding to him as they no doubt are to his listeners, Krell’s work remains as compelling as ever. Whether he’s sampling homemade recordings, or even hold music – as he did so notably on 2014’s ‘Precious Love’ – there’s a sense of curious playfulness that underpins more serious movements.

“I’m always really shocked that people don’t pick up on that,” he laughs, mulling over ‘Precious Love’ and its enduring status. “That hold music has gone viral in different instances on TikTok and there’s always like six people in the comments saying, ‘Shout out How To Dress Well.’ Like, will ‘Precious Love’ someday get to a point where it gets like 70 million streams? That would be so great for me. But yeah, it’s funny. There are so many different samples that people just don’t clock.”

While Krell’s output rarely, if ever, strays into overtly comedic territory, a brief exception came in late 2015 when Krell partnered with Seinfeld2000, the legendary Twitter account that dares to dream what it would be like if Seinfeld was still on TV today. The end result was ‘Speed Dial’, a madcap collaboration that saw him singing about Jerry Seinfeld’s attempts to move from number seven to number one on a woman’s landline speed dial.

“It’s a slapper,” Krell laughs. “He wrote the song. I forgot it even existed until we announced the album and he posted it. Honestly, my work has no relationship with humour at all, which is weird, because it’s a really big part of my life. In some of the music there’s a cheekiness in certain things, like ‘Precious Love’ in a way, but it’s still very seriously sentimental.”

That divergence between musical and online personas is something that Krell finds particularly fascinating. As an artist who made a name for himself online in the late 2000s, the music largely spoke for itself. Today many online personas contrast with an artist’s output – often to great effect.

“Take artists like Petey, the TikTok guy. I went to see my friend to open for him and I heard the first four songs of the show and it was the saddest emo music I’ve ever heard. And it’s so interesting when there is that split between the public persona and the actual art like that. It’s like creative signals for certain personalities. The guys who go to Petey’s show are probably really unhappy and they can’t verbalise it. What they verbalise are weird fart jokes and like, post-Adult Swim stuff. That’s what they see on the Petey TikTok. Then they go to the show and the songs are miserable. And they like that he says to them, ‘I have this massive split in myself.’”

While the jokes might not be as overt, Krell is equally fascinated by artists who have straddled irreverent humour and seriousness to great effect through their sonic pursuits.

“For a long time, I didn’t understand 1010benja,” he concedes. “Then all of a sudden, it hit me that he has a different concept of humour and I’m obsessed with it now. I think it’s like the best music I’ve ever heard. It’s just interesting – there’s nobody out there looking at what plotted that spectrum from the absolutely zany and slapstick to the most miserable, dour, serious music. You have lots of different kinds of music that’s zany and slapstick, from Benja at moments to Errorsmith and stuff like Two Shell with prankster-ism kind of built into the work around so much serious music.”

While it could be argued that sampling adds a degree of playfulness to the How To Dress Well playbook, Krell is mindful of how technological advancement is increasingly threatening the artform.

“One of the worst things that’s going to happen in the next five years is when people realise how hardcore they can deploy AI to be cops, basically, and 40% of music gets flagged on all the major services because it features samples. My first record has insane mega star samples on it that no one has clocked. And I’m like, ‘How has no one clocked this?’ Every time I hear it, I’m like, ‘Okay, I shouldn’t have sampled that.’ I’ve never cleared a sample that wasn’t from a song that was made by a friend of mine. Like, I cleared Jefre Cantu-Ledesma for

‘House Inside’ on ‘What Is This Heart’. Anything I feel like I can help a friend with, I’ll clear that sample, but otherwise, I can’t believe this is still working.”

While he has no plans to tour ‘I Am Toward You’, Krell has clearly emerged galvanised from his time away, with the promise of more releases to come soon. Next up is an album of live drums and vocals called ‘Spare Music’, which he characterises as “super spare”.

“My goal is to do a bunch of them this decade,” he states. “The last six years of my life have been just like enormously healing for lack of a better term and now the last sound on ‘I Am Toward You’ is the first sound I ever heard my child make. It’s her heartbeat from her first ultrasound. So the last sound is the first sound of this new life… I mean, it’s such noisy music. I can’t believe how hard we pushed some of the sounds on this record. But it just feels like a cool time for me to be sharing work that I feel is open and positive and generous in its spirit, even if the music is torched.”

‘I Am Toward You’ will be released on May 10th.

Words: Paul Weedon
Photography: Sean Stout

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