Interview with How To Dress Well

Having just lost a love, Tom Krell wrote his first album ‘Love Remains’ from a dark and lonely place. Known under the moniker of How To Dress Well, Krell’s soulful voice transformed the harsh and noisy instruments on his debut into an almost religious experience. I meet him on the eve of his London show, a couple of weeks before the release of his second album, ‘Total Loss’, in which he claims to have turned despair into moments of true brightness and positivity. Amidst rushing sound engineers and band members fresh off planes from New York, we sit down and cover rock and roll inspirations, Kanye West quotes and, obviously, the world of fashion.

Having only arrived on the morning of the show, Krell looks remarkably at home on the hip Kingsland Road in Hackney. He lived in the area for a month while working on the final recordings for ‘Total Loss’ at the XL studios. Since then he has been in Chicago for the year and Berlin for the summer, but it’s New York and London that stick with him, “every time I’m not in New York or London I just miss the intensity of the city, you know like the existential velocity that matches the vibes in New York and London. I just love it. The shopping’s so good. The people are just so fucking attractive.” I wonder if the intensity of his environment influences his writing, an idea he is quick to dismiss. “The place I go to tap into the creative well-springs in my mind is not geographically bound” says Krell.

How To Dress Well’s critically acclaimed debut, ‘Love Remains’, was written in a much darker period of his life. “I just lost my best friend, my uncle passed away and I was in a long distance relationship, which was brutal, and I had to figure out how to work through those losses in a way that just wasn’t going to kill me”. He acknowledges that the album and its stand out tracks “Ready for the World” and “Suicide Dreams” have a feeling of “depression, frustration and isolation”.  The songs are awash with distorted percussion and blurred vocals, balancing melody and noise in order to create an album that was “alien but not alienating”.

Although Krell can’t remember when he got into R&B – the genre that provides the foundations for his music – he could distinctly remember when he became a rock fan: “I remember when I changed high schools and in order to fit in there with the guys that I really liked I decided that I was going to get into rock and roll music. I got Clarity by Jimmy Eat World and an Alkaline Trio album”. Despite a wide-ranging musical taste, he recalls having always sung R&B melodies, reasoning that learning what music was really about was listening to his mum singing Janet Jackson and Smokey Robinson.

With complex subject matters in Krell’s lyrics, I pay particularly close attention as he walks me through his songwriting process. He attributes the backbone of each song to an individual affect, “sometimes it will be motivated by another song I’ve heard, or a film or image or experience, but I try and trace that affect”. He develops a sound that he is melodically attracted to, before incorporating other elements and instruments with reference to the initial emotion: “I try and make all the formal choices, the sounds, verse, chorus and structure responsible to the affect”.

A while back Krell reposted on his blog a lengthy quote by Kanye West with the title ‘Creativity’. Amongst contemplations on his past and family deaths, Kanye had written, “I’m tormented with the need to create”. Is Krell tormented with a similar need and is that need hardwired into human beings? Rather than being hardwired, Krell’s need to create is a result of experience. “When I think about what has forced me to be creative: tumultuous things that happened when I was young, disabled siblings and just feeling like an outsider and wanting to give voice to my frustration”.

Krell reveals that he had created another, near entire album before recording the songs on ‘Total Loss’. “I would like to release it eventually but it is really, really dark and I didn’t want that to be my contribution to the world”. I’m surprised that that the material isn’t felt to be too close and personal to release to the world. No, he retorts. “I wanted to show that I am invested personally, and especially as an artist, in a shared experience of mourning and spiritual growth.”

The new album marks a turning point not only in Krell’s music career, but also in his life. He illuminates how for ‘Total Loss’ he wanted to write in a way that meant “not just burying myself and drowning myself in depression in a way that ‘Love Remains’ did. So it was really important to me – not just as an artist, but also in terms of saving my own life – to figure out how to write my way towards a different affect. Not in a way that was falsely happy, but one which wins a certain happiness and a certain hope through the intensity of loss, like in the way that you forge steel over fire. That was the goal”.

The task of translating such a personal record to a live format has also been subjected to a lot of thought. “I want the live show to be a collective, emotional and aesthetic experience, something like collective mourning. Whatever people used to go to church for, I want them to come to my shows for that: feeling special and feeling grounded on the earth and feeling like there’s meaning in the world”. Throughout the show the dynamic shifts, with pared back numbers on the piano and violin of “the first song, [which] may be really sensitive and quiet and then we’ll build towards a song that’s a moment of fucking piercing noise”. The ambience is maximized by projections played out behind him, some psychedelic, and others with more narrative.

The origin of such intellectualizing of songwriting and performing seems to be the importance Krell places on philosophy. As well as embarking on the How to Dress Well project, he is also studying for a PhD in the subject. Last year he spent his weekends traveling between New York, Montreal and Toronto as How to Dress Well and then on weekdays he taught undergrads. “You just have to grind. I’m the kind of person where if I don’t have too much on my plate I don’t do anything at all”. I tell him that I didn’t think anyone could sustain such an intense lifestyle, and he responds, saying that this year – for the first time – he is focusing solely on music.

Approaching the end of the interview, I have one final question. How did the elusive name, How to Dress Well, come about? Krell laughs and explains that he used to live above a second hand store, where his friend had jokingly bought a 1980’s life instruction book with the title. He is proud of the connotations such a name obviously has. He loves the idea that people in the world of fashion would hear his music, commenting, “people in that world are very sympathetic to emotionally complex music … they are just quite a bit more of a progressive, cutting edge and avant guard community, so if calling myself How to Dress Well gets their attention, I’m totally keen on that”.

While Krell hopes for the attention of the fashion community, he has undoubtedly received it from the music world. Signed Weird World (a subsidiary of Domino Records) and ready to embark on a US and European tour, his goal of making ‘alien but not alienating’ music has offered fans something truly original and compelling to listen to.

Luke Innes