While R&B eats itself whole through endless collaborations, skits, the words “David Guetta featuring”, stadium rave and the attempted, unfathomable rehabilitation of convicted woman-beater Chris Brown (only this morning I witnessed 4Music unveiling his latest music video like it was the second coming), there’s a small group of artists fighting to maintain the soul of the genre.
We’ve already had Frank Ocean’s powerful Channel Orange as his contribution to the fight in 2012 and various releases from The Weeknd, but before those acts came How To Dress Well. Tom Krell’s Berlin-via-New York act released the stunning Love Remains in 2010; it was a paean to late 80s and early 90s R&B, but combined with a lo-fi aesthetic and clearly drawing on minimalist and ambient influences. Krell’s vocals were often indecipherable, hidden under a fuzzy sheen of music yet you could still understand and connect with the record’s themes of lost love and melancholia. He followed this with the string-laden Just Once EP in 2011 and now we have HTDW’s crowning achievement thus far – the deeply sad and affecting Total Loss.
When I first spoke to Tom Krell over the phone – a recording now lost thanks to this writer’s top-notch professionalism – he was in a friend’s cabin near Vancouver, tired from partying and staying up to experience the northern lights. It was in the wake of ‘& It Was U’, the third track we’d heard from Total Loss, following the icy ‘Cold Nites’ and the doomy ‘Ocean Floor for Everything’, dropping online and Twitter going batshit-crazy over it, so I wanted to know if Krell was happy with how that track – and Total Loss in general – has been received. “The response has been so positive,“ he says, “and my heart is so full up from all the love I’ve received. It’s been crazy, amazing…” And what about such critical acclaim, does he see that as a validation of what How To Dress Well does, or is it something that has no impact on his music? “No, I love the critical acclaim as there have been so many insightful articles written about [Total Loss]!”
Total Loss is a sad record, of that there can be no doubt, with the title pointedly framing the theme of loss. There’s a definite progression from the sadness of Love Remains that was shrouded in noise, buried vocals (more of which later) and a general feeling of claustrophobia, through to the more specific themes of loss and mourning that can be found on the Just Once EP and this most recent record – but does Krell see a thread connecting his releases? “Yes certainly,” is the assured confirmation. “I mean, Love Remains was noisy and suffocating and self-enclosed as a way to present the feeling of melancholy, sonically. With Total Loss, I wanted to present not just melancholy, but mourning, so I needed to develop a sound that had these grinding sad moments juxtaposed by moments of clarity.” So it’s something of a balancing act? “Ya, it’s about developing a balance of form and content, which I strive for in all my work. I mean, it’s definitely a bit more hopeful than the first album, I’d say. But yeah, continuing the project of mourning and loss is a thread between Just Once and Total Loss.”
The themes are pretty heavy; however it seems the album is also about processing the loss and learning to either carry it with you, or move through and on with your life. Is it fair, I ask Tom, to say that Total Loss is in some ways a hopeful record? “It’s not a simple yes, but more yes than no,” says Krell. “To put it bluntly, it’s a sad record; there’s only a few moments of light. But, overall, I’d say yes, it is more positive as it’s an attempt to cope with the struggles of loss rather than drown in them.” Not wishing to pry or upset Krell, I press ahead anyway and ask if the music was inspired by certain specific losses or relationships: “Yes, I lost my best friend around this time in 2010 and an uncle that held a patriarchal role in my extended family,” he reveals. “Both were heavy hits and serve as the main inspiration behind the album.” He goes on to state, though, that loss doesn’t simply refer to death: “The reference to loss is not just death, but the album also touches on the loss of friendships, relationships, hope, faith, innocence… you know, like human finitude period?”
In the run-up to the release of Total Loss, How To Dress Well dropped a cover of Janet Jackson’s ‘Again’ (from 1993’s Janet) on us, a reverential and faithful rendition of the original that reaffirmed Krell’s genuine love for the genre – but also betrays the influence Ms Jackson has over his new record. In our original phone conversation Krell revealed that Janet’s The Velvet Rope was writ large across Total Loss, but also that it was the only record of hers that he truly enjoyed. I asked if that was due to the variety of styles and tones found on the record, something that’s also prevalent on Total Loss, as we switch from the near-euphoria of ‘& It Was You’ to the string-drenched neo-classical ‘World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)’ to the dense, depressing closer ‘Ocean Floor for Everything’. “Ya, exactly,” confirms Krell. “It’s a super strange, super varied record – and one explicitly about mourning as well. It’s a huge influence on me!”
Sticking with the subject of popular R&B, I want to know if it’s frustrating that How To Dress Well doesn’t really get much commercial airplay; I mean, Krell’s vocals are superb, up there at times with the best of R&B – think Usher on ‘Climax’, Jodeci, Boyz II Men or even SWV – so it’s perhaps only that Krell takes more risks with the music he backs up his vocals with that prevents him from crossing over, should he even wish to do that…”No, it doesn’t annoy me,” asserts Krell. “I mean, rap and R&B radio is on a real party tip right now. Like, they don’t even play Jeremih’s [the man responsible for the stomach-churning ‘Birthday Sex’, but I do understand where Krell is coming from, when you hear the rave-lite crap peddled by some supposed R&B “artists”] shit on the radio, let alone my sad weirdo vibes. So, I’m not offended or disappointed when I don’t hear my songs on the radio.” But there is some hope of a breakthrough, with daytime BBC Radio 1 spinning ‘& It Was U’: “I am staring to hear more of them played, particularly “& It Was U,” which is probably the most radio-friendly song I’ve written.”
I said that I would cover the issue of Krell’s vocals, and here it goes. There are two schools of thought here, and let’s take early REM as an unlikely comparison. Some might find Michael Stipe’s vocals/lyrics frustratingly out of reach, buried in the mix and mumbled or even made up on the spot, whereas others find them the key to completing the band’s whole – they add mystery, they mix perfectly with the guitar, bass and drums, they simply become part of the music. Not separate, not holding your hand and telling you what you should be feeling or thinking when listening to a track. This is something I had discussed with Tom Krell during our chat, the fact that he doesn’t want the vocals or lyrics treated separately from the music. “Ya I’ve written about this on my blog – not that I make them ‘hard to hear’, rather I use vocals both to signify and as, I dunno, brushstrokes, watercolours, [Gerhard] Richter-style fogs, etc.” So, is he leaving it up to us to fill in the gaps? “I prefer to have listeners develop their own interpretations and I just try to use my voice as just a conduit for effects.”
The Gerhard Richter reference is one that makes complete sense. Like his work, How To Dress Well’s music is dense, fuzzy, hard to penetrate at times and undeniably beautiful. This also ties in nicely with the non-R&B music that influences Krell. We spoke of his love for acts like Grouper and Brian Eno, and other ambient or “mood” music that filters into his song writing and makes How To Dress Well’s approach so interesting and unique. We also spoke about Michael Nyman’s film scores, particularly his work on The Draughtsman’s Contract, which influenced the use of strings on Total Loss: “Strings are so powerful,” enthuses Krell, “They elicit such strong emotions, from melancholy to triumph… and the timbre of the human voice is quite close to the timbre of the violin so it makes for really interesting effects!”
Given that Total Loss can be an incredibly insular experience, and of course refers to personal losses, I want to know if the recording process is similarly personal for Krell. To some extent, it appears to be: “I worked alone on this record at home then took the songs to the studio and worked with Rodaidh McDonald to hone the sound.” Live, though, is where the collaborations begin to take shape: “The live setup is now myself, Cameron Reed on drum machine and synths, Aaron Read on sampler, synths, and violin, and Nicholas Reed on visuals. The new live show has been received so well. I’m very happy with it.” Is touring something that Tom enjoys? “Yep, I do enjoy it but I really do love to make new music. Maybe I’ll find a way to record while on the road. That would be ideal.” Bringing together the subjects of new music and collaboration, I ask if Tom can tell us much about a project with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. Turns out things are still in the early stages: “We’ve sent songs to each other and just need to find the time to work on them together.” Both too busy? “Yeah, we’re both very busy at the moment but we’re trying our best to make the time.”
To end on something of a lighter note, Tom discusses the secret to creating a good mix tape. His explanation is extremely simple, and based on his recorded output, extremely obvious: “I like to hear themes in mixtapes, not just in terms of lyrical content or genre, but an emotional thread, you know?” Yup, because we’ve got that emotional thread linking three great How To Dress Well releases. If you’ve got the emotional strength – and you really should build it up – then the loose trilogy of Love Remains, Just Once and Total Loss will trump most mixtapes you’ve either made or heard in your lifetime.
Total Loss is available now through Weird World and How To Dress Well will be performing the following live shows: