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How To Dress Well Photo Credits Zackery Michael 140301 05 267 300 DPI

How to Dress Well: "Everybody's under pressure to be fashionable now"

23 June 2014, 15:00

“Imagine if we didn’t have mirrors?”

My conversation with Tom Krell is taking a cerebral, philosophical turn, which is entirely in keeping with the kind of music he makes as How to Dress Well. It’s less to do with an intellectual approach to his work - “I’m really not a theoretical guy with concepts about music and shit like that” - and more about the emotional intelligence that he brings to a songwriting process that effectively sees him turn out self-portraits, however unflattering. “If there were no mirrors, you’d have to put your face into a mould, look at the result and try to figure out what you look like through the inverse of your own appearance. That’s how I’ve always worked; I’m sort of echolocating myself through these songs.”

His second full-length, Total Loss, was one of the outstanding records of 2012; sonically immaculate and thematically powerful, it saw Krell take a style of music that’s been as fashionable as it has vapid these past few years - minimalist, ‘indie’ R&B - and inject into it some genuine soul. It felt like such a sharply-realised version of his vision that you had to wonder if he’d allowed himself much room to manoeuvre as far as next effort was concerned.

“What Is This Heart?”, though, manages to be expansive in pretty much every conceivable way; lyrically, it’s broader, instrumentally, it’s more varied, and vocally, it’s easily Krell’s most diverse and impressive set of performances to date. For something that sounds so carefully crafted, the album seems to be following remarkably quickly on the heels of Total Loss; the intervening period spans less than two years, but Krell never really took his foot off the gas.

“We were on tour for about a year after Total Loss came out,” he tells me over the phone from Chicago. “I spent as much time as possible in between shows just working on demos and ideas, and then, once we were off the road, I had about two solid months in a studio in Berlin to get everything down. That was the easy part, really; there was another five months of mixing, refining and redeveloping everything. It was a pretty intricate process.”

It was one, too, that saw him make a stark about-turn in terms of his sonic approach; Total Loss was characterised by a cold, unremittingly electronic beauty, but one of the first instruments you hear on “What Is This Heart?” - during the opening bars of ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’ - is the acoustic guitar. “Two summers ago, I was living in this apartment in Berlin; my friend Simon used to live there, and he was telling me I should have a look through this huge closet, because there’s this and that in there. I found an acoustic guitar, and realised I hadn’t had one since I was fifteen. As soon as I started playing it, it felt so good; straight away, I knew it was going to be a big part of the record. I’d never written on the guitar before; I would normally start with some melodic trope, or a sample, so it was a pretty big departure.”

The other key factor in the sheer warmth of the new record is Krell’s new approach to his own voice; there’s nothing like as much distortion as previously, with the vocals often presented practically untouched - you get the sense that he’s beginning to come out of his shell as a singer. “It’s definitely an extremely confident album,” he agrees. “I didn’t really know that I had it in me until I spent so much time touring Total Loss, and meeting so many people. Going to somewhere like Latvia and having a thousand people sing your words back at you really gives you a different kind of confidence as a vocalist.”

“I think it’s something that applies to the sound of the album as a whole, too - it gives you a really strong foundation on which to write when you travel the world and have people affirm that you’re on the right track - but as a singer, it was like I’d found another level. I did an un-miked a capella at Webster Hall in New York, in front of about eight hundred people, and that’s a huge place to do something like that - to do something so quiet and have the audience really pay attention. It’s less about confidence in myself, and more to do with just having confidence in the project, now that I really know I’m connecting with people.”

That confidence has helped Krell to present a more balanced state of mind on “What Is This Heart?”; Total Loss, at points, was incredibly intense, with “Set It Right” personal to the point that listening felt more like eavesdropping.

“There’s some really pure, happy moments on that album, too, like ‘& It Was U’,” Krell points out, “and this record starts out with the saddest song I’ve ever written, but it really covers a lot of emotional ground, over the course. It spends a little more time on the more joyous side of things. Overall, it’s just honest and well-balanced, I think. There’s a little bit of an improvement - Total Loss really had some extreme desolation at points - but there’s still grief on this one, and there’s family struggles, and anxiety about the future. There’s a bit more worry about the world evident, too, I think.”

That particular point is an important one; suddenly, Krell seems to have opened the door, thematically speaking, to ideas that stretch past the drama of his own life. “I think you’re the first person to point that out, but I can see it. I mean, Total Loss was such an auto-psychographic thing, where I was really trying to describe the different stations of what I was going through, intentionally or otherwise. I’d just gone through a lot of transformations, like moving to a big city, and I guess that record was very much ‘about Tom’. This one has a bigger scope, partially because I was all over the world touring; when you meet so many people, you really start to realise that it’s not all about your own narcissistic little songs any more.”

“The other thing is, I do feel as if i’m getting more political as I get older; I’m becoming more invested in that kind of material, and thinking a lot about things like systematic injustice. So there is a broadening of the ideas from the sixteen inches of my skull to something a little bigger - even if it’s only the tour van.”

When I was reviewing Total Loss, I came across an interview that Krell had given to The Guardian, in which he claimed that “a lot of indie R&B is ready to be played in Urban Outfitters, [but] it’s not ready to be experienced in any meaningful way”. It’s something that’s stuck with me since, especially seeing as it’s a niche that’s shown few signs of dwindling in popularity in the interim; I was therefore keen to see if anything had changed his mind. “Nah, man, it’s worse than ever!” he laughs. “No, I’m just kidding. It’s really weird.”

There’s a long pause. “I’m trying to think of how I can word this without sounding like a dick. It’s like…you know how a little girl might see her mother putting on makeup, so she copies it, but in this extremely literal way, where she’ll cake her face in it and end up with lipstick all scrawled around her mouth? That’s how I feel about this. People heard that a few musicians were making R&B-influenced contemporary music, and they were like, “oh, now we’re gonna make R&B-influenced contemporary music. And actually, they’re just slathering lipstick all over their faces and trying to do everything to the power of a thousand, like a kid playing dress-up.”

Besides, he insists, that particular genre has only ever been one component of the How to Dress Well sound. “I went back and listened to my first record (Love Remains) a couple of weeks ago; that was one of the records that had a hand in starting this whole trend, I think. I mean, that is a weird album; just like a handful of really odd, noisy, sound-sculptural songs. The strangest production, weird-ass vocals, really disjointed rhythms. I love it, and honestly, I’d have been happy with that if I’d never made another one, but I didn’t even know what an 808 looked like, back then. I had a K-Mart keybaord, and a desk I was banging on to make drum sounds. And then, Total Loss was so varied; it starts off with this ambient, wintery hymnal, and there’s some R&B songs, but also - in my opinion - some folk songs, like ‘Talking to You’.”

“My point is - and it’s definitely the case with this new one - I’ve always made really varied albums. “What Is This Heart?” is a pop record, and you can draw the line between the songs the same way you can on the last Rihanna record, where she’s got a big guitar ballad, and then a dubstep track, and then another chart ballad for forty-five-year-old women. The difference is, those kinds of albums have to check demographic boxes. I’m not doing that, I’m just following the music to where it leads me. I just feel like everybody is under that pressure to be fashionable now. Even if you’re a four-piece rock band, you’re probably going to have somebody saying, “hey, Roger, if you sing falsetto on this chorus, we can mention R&B in the press release”, you know?”

It’s interesting that he mentions Rihanna - and pop music in general - unprompted, because there are clearly some mainstream, contemporary influences running through “What Is This Heart?” - just as Total Loss, by Krell’s own admission, was largely in thrall to Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. Further clues on this front were provided by a mix he uploaded a couple of days before we speak, which will likely win few prizes for obscurity. “I feel like my music is an index of my listening habits,” he explains. “The stuff on that mix is basically what I’d been listening to on tour, because I always end up listening to shitloads. A lot of Tracy Chapman, a lot of Everything But the Girl, but I’d also been listening to people like Prince and Lou Reed for the first time in my life. There’s that, and then there’s the likes of Future and Taking Back Sunday, too. I like to imagine myself among my favourite artists, adding something that brings them together in some way.”

It’s that diversity, Krell feels, that sets him apart from an ever-expanding crowd. “That’s the thing with indie R&B; I’m taking my cues from really huge, well-known artists, even if they’re all pretty different. I don’t know anybody who’s favourite musician is an indie R&B artist. I mean, I’ve met people who say How to Dress Well is their favourite music, and that’s amazing, but those people, typically, are also into Grouper, and maybe as varied as it gets for them would be Disclosure, or something. Personally, I don’t know enough of those artists to take influence from them.”

“My friend was saying that he read this op-ed piece about the genre reaching saturation point, and I hadn’t heard of any of the names he was coming out with. I think it’s because, when these trends happen and start to become firmly established, major labels wade in and put out all these artists that nobody knows, or cares about. Like, remember !!! and The Rapture? They were sick, amazing, but all of a sudden every single band was like, “oh, hey, we’re dance-disco-punk as well!”, and the majors ruined the trend by rushing out all these new artists. I think that might be starting to happen here as well.”

I must admit to having jumped to conclusions about Krell’s choice of producer for “What Is This Heart?”; Rodaidh McDonald seems to meet the case perfectly, with precisely the right blend of pop experience; he recorded and mixed The xx’s debut, but has also worked with Adele, Bobby Womack and Gil Scott-Heron. As it happened, though, it was McDonald who made the overtures - not the other way around.

“After Love Remains, I got this email from this guy,” Krell recalls. “It was like, “hey, your buddy Jack told me you’re going to be in London for four weeks, is there anything you want to work on?” I told him I was making Total Loss, and I was about eighty percent done with it. He replied saying, “come down and we’ll get it finished,” and I was thinking, who is this guy? When we started working, though, we became really fast friends. I can’t believe how lucky I was to have this guy turn up out of the blue, and we have this amazing rapport now. He’s definitely the best interpreter of my work. He helped me achieve some real dreams on Total Loss.”

It’s just barely three and a half years since Love Remains dropped, and yet Krell is already a world away from where he began; the ‘bedroom producer’ tag is something that, as this new record confirms, he left behind a long time ago.

“What Is This Heart?” isn’t a bedroom record in the slightest. There’s not a moment of that kind of thing on there. That’s not to say I won’t do another weird, hushed album again, but I just felt a real yearning for the songs to match what I was experiencing. I was stepping up into the world, and encountering beautiful, thoughtful people everywhere I went - whether it was Beijing, northern Poland or St. Louis. A friend of mine was telling me recently that as much as he digs the new record, he does kind of miss that intense, sweet intimacy from Love Remains. As long as I keep evolving, though, I’m happy to keep disappointing him.”

“What Is This Heart?” is available via Weird World today (June 23).

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