How To Dress Well Interview: “I Have the Unique Luxury of Having Started a Trend and Not Being Bound by It”

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See him on the street and Tom Krell is definitely Just A Dude. Hear the music the philosophy PhD candidate has made under the moniker How To Dress Well for the last five years, though, and Krell is a point of emotional projection. His three albums have all been critically acclaimed for their honesty and their ability to shed new light on well-trodden genres like R&B, ambient electronic, and now, pop. But his new album What Is This Heart? is… almost happy? “I do think I’m okay with this being a happier record, just so long as that happiness is like twinged with other stuff,” he says. “The sequencing and balance on the album is really important to me.”

We caught up with Krell last week as he was in London on a brief promo tour behind the new album, which is out this week. The conversation veered towards feelings, books, and trends.

Flavorwire: I find some of what you do in line with the female R&B tradition, singers who don’t typically write their own songs and yet present them to the world as their own. In this way, they wear a mask. You create emotionally raw music where the point seems to be that you’re writing from your own experiences. Do you wear a mask as a musician?

Tom Krell: “Yes” would be one answer. Another answer would be: all humans’ public life is a kind of mask. There’s so much performance going on in all different aspects of life, especially when that performance is for like 100,000 people worldwide on a year-long tour. I hope people don’t think that my music is autobiographical in the sense of, for example, the guy at a coffee shop with an acoustic guitar strumming and telling his life story or some shit like that. I’ve never pretended to wear that mask, and I think that as much as my music is confessional, it’s kind of obliquely confessional. It’s not really about getting to know me.

FW: It’s more like people project whatever they’re going through onto it.

TK: That’s the whole thing — that’s the entire point, why I carry on doing this. People who listen to my music and think they know me completely — that’s just a mistake. But that’s not the point, either. It’s about some kind of like common shared experience.

FW: I think people will be surprised by the directions you go on What Is This Heart?, and not just because parts of it — like “Very Best Friend” — are downright joyful. In terms of the production, it’s as though you widened the frame in all directions: “Repeat Pleasure” is the poppiest song you’ve ever made, but there are more abrasive effects here as well.

TK: That was definitely the idea. From playing live, I started to become really fascinated about experimenting with massive, dynamic shifts, so for instance whether it was about singing something off mic and then ripping in with a full band loudness. Or if it was about singing like a really, really sad song, and then in banter, cracking a joke and making everyone laugh. I just started to feel really excited by and confident in exploring more dynamic shifts. I left my last tour feeling so confident, and feeling like I was really on the right path. Just thousands and thousands of people like affirming me and telling me, “Keep going, you’ve really touched me in these ways, I really love what you’re doing.” It let me fully trust myself on this record.

FW: You said something that stuck with me in your recent Pitchfork interview: that when you were in a pop-punk band in high school, you were playing music because you weren’t okay, emotionally speaking, but nobody ever bothered to ask if you were okay. With the kind of music you play now, do people ask you that, or perhaps more realistically, do people make assumptions about your emotional state?

TK: People definitely make assumptions.

FW: That has to bother you, right?

TK: Not really that much, to be honest.

FW: Well, when people see you live, they hear the funny banter…

TK: Yeah, I really like playing live to confound those expectations. I really like when people see that you can navigate these different worlds with confidence. There’s basically a dominant assumption that sadness is like a contagious disease, and if you go too close, it’s going to ruin you. But actually, if you’re a grownup, you can move pretty fluently between different registers. For instance, you can think about something really serious and then go eat dinner and talk about something else — sports, whatever — if you’re a grownup. And so to share that on stage is to show that I can go into a very emotional song, and then I can go out and have a very normal conversation. I think in general we need to be a bit more fluid and a bit more capable in terms of metabolizing, with some honestly complex emotional things. Usually people are either depressed or they’re okay, and that separation there is what causes people a lot of pain. ‘I can’t let this in, it’s going to infect my entire life.’ It doesn’t have to be like that.

FW: To change gears a little, I know you’re an avid reader. Have you read any truly great books this year, or did any writers influence you when writing the new album?

TK: I’m reading something right now that is actually so unbelievably profound and touching, it actually feels so important, it feels like such a touchstone for what it’s about, which is a really cool feeling: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It’s so, so brilliant. And when I was making the record, I read like every single short story that Alice Munro has written, including the new volume, which is such a beautiful treat. I remember maybe four months ago, I said that if Alice Munro hadn’t called her book Dear Life, that’s what I would have called my album.

FW: I hate this term [PBR&B], but I want to ask you about…

TK: You don’t have to.

FW: I don’t have to but I’m going to.

TK: You really don’t have to. You can skip it. Let’s skip it, why not?

FW: You helped popularize a resurgence of R&B in the underground, something that went on to become a trend in mainstream pop. Does that bother you, or does that flatter you?

TK: I’m always flattered when people compare me to artists that I like. I’m often kind of baffled by some of the comparisons. It’s cool, though. Look, I was making my music before there was a trend. Obviously I’m making a different kind of music now than I was five years ago, I’m going to be making a different kind of music in five years’ time. I have the unique luxury of having started a trend and not being bound by it. I think it’s pretty evident that my interests and skills aren’t restricted to one genre of work.

I can’t even remember the names of the bands, but there was some article about this trend so I was like, “Oh I guess I’ll bring like five tabs up and listen to some of these songs.” They’re just ridiculous. The music is ridiculous. This idea that you can be a normal-ass rock band and just add falsetto to one song on your record, and call your band an R&B band… it’s very weird to me. Now we all remember Pavement, but we don’t remember the 150 bands that put out records in the five-year period around that movement who were just garbage rip-offs, impersonators. We remember The Rapture fondly, but we don’t talk about like whatever kids moved from Kansas City to Brooklyn to start a disco-punk band in 2002. […] I sound like a dick.