"'I had written quite a bit of dark stuff and it didn't feel right. It didnt feel like I was doing justice to myself, or to anyone else, to put out a really sad record. I wanted to write something on the way to something more hopeful.' Josie Thaddues Johns talks to How To Dress Well about new album Total Loss"
Tom Krell, the producer and songwriter known as How To Dress Well, is quite simply one of the most fascinating, interesting and exciting artists of recent memory. Since emerging in 2009, as his tracks got passed around a series of US and UK blogs just as music blogging was really starting to have significant tastemaker influence, Krell’s haunting, ethereal and often melancholy take on late 80’s and 90’s R&B gave life to a whole new wave of bedroom producers as well as opening the minds of all the indie kids that had once dismissed the tunes the producer was reinterpreting and winning fans with all those that had lived them and loved them. Our writer Josie Thaddeus Johns chatted to How To Dress Well about his latest record, Total Loss.
You've said this is a record of mourning - how did that experience inspire you to write?
The experience was the writing, really. I learned a lot about mourning through the record - I didn't have the idea to do this and then write the record, I was going through this and writing at the same time.
Did it feel like a cathartic thing?
Very much so. It was a long and trying period. In fact, the writing of the record was quite transformative.
You got rid of all of your material at one point, why did you make that decision?
I had written quite a bit of dark stuff and it didn't feel right. It didnt feel like I was doing justice to myself, or to anyone else, to put out a really sad record. I wanted to write something on the way to something more hopeful.
So do you have that feeling about mourning in general now - that it should be a positive thing?
With loss I think it 's important to let it shape you and to let yourself be moved, saddened, tortured by it. But then afterwards it's important to not go back to life unscathed or to live in that misery for too long. You have to come up with strategeies to save yourself and pull yourself out of it and learn from that. I think of mourning as a particular kind of emotional education.
How do you feel about having put yourself out there so much with this record, and on your blog?
I have mixed feelings about it. It's usually ok. People are usually pretty sweet and kind. I get a lot of quite emotional emails and messages and quite a lot of teary hugs at shows. It's pretty beautiful, but a bit intense. I feel a bit exposed but it's ok.
Do you feel like it has prolonged your own experience of mourning?
It doesn't prolong the pain. It prolongs this attempt to do this education and to learn from that.
Lots of people have noted the R&B influences on this record, and called it "hipster R&B", as if that were ironic - is that something you're surprised about?
I don't think of it as an obvious R&B record. I think it's a lot weirder than that.
To be honest, I don't understand what people mean by R&B being a trendy thing. R&B, if anything, is on very much a downswing. There's at most one or two R&B songs on the radio. You might hear, like, a Jeremih song, depending on where you live in the States. But it's mostly this Lex Luger-y heavy duty rap, and party anthems, like Chris Brown's stuff. I don't know anybody who's doing R&B ironically. I know, for example, Trey Songz isn't doing that. So I don't know why people say this. To me, R&B is evidence of a kind of nihilism which is quite sad. If anything, my music, and what I'm up to as a person is sincerity - so I don't know where people get this idea from.
How do you feel your influences match up to what's happening in the rest of the industry?
I think there's some kind of sea change happening now, where people my age and younger are determining where indie and experimental music is going rather than 35 to 28-year-olds who determined where shit was going before.
There's a younger generation of people. None of us listened to Nirvana when we were kids.
So do you think in general we're moving away from the boys from guitars thing?
Yes, but also I know that's just me and people I hang out with. I know there are guitar bands still, and really good ones. I really liked that Diiv record from this year, and there are other bands doing it well.
What can people expect from the live show?
Live has always been something I've been perplexed by, at the very least, but now I'm really stoked on the live show. To me, it's really something beautiful that we do, when we do it right. I'm quite happy to be able to share it with people. It's really great to be able to go "I love this, this is it, this is beautiful".
How do you feel about playing bigger venues, as it's such an intimate record?
It's weird - last week we played in a massive 500+ people in Toronto and it was unbelievably intimate and dope. And last night we played in Philadelphia - and it was a great show and people were really stoked on it, but it felt markedly less intimate, even though there was a sixth of the number of people there. It's contingent way more on the vibe, and the whole affect and mood of the people and the space and the day and the weather. I do feel like we could play a 10k room and have it be just as moody and beautiful. We might have to add some more live elements like strings or drums or something.
How did you end up choosing your name?
It came from a weird douchey rich guy book series "How to speak about wine", "How to photograph beautiful women" etc. I didn't really choose it, it was just a book that my friend had.
It's interesting that you chose such a didactic thing - like the name is explaining something educational to your audience. Does it feel like that aspect has spilled over into the music?
It's weird. The project has a didactic edge, but it's about an affective education. I'm trying to train myself to be more emotionally open and spiritually honest through the music.
I find that a lot of people are on that tip with me, for the live show particularly. After the show, listening to the kind of things people say to me, it's clear that we've got a thing going together where we're trying to do something to affect an emotional change in our lives. But that's just a coincidence that the name means that. I thought it was clever.
Why didn't you just choose your own name?
It never dawned on me to call it Tom Krell. When I'm making a song, I'm not trying to do me, I'm trying to do something universal.
To me there's always something important about music even if it comes from a person. I get obsessed with characters, lik Antony, or Elliott Smith, or The-Dream. You get into these people personally, but then beyond that, there's something transpersonal about the way in which music moves, and the way in which it can become important. It doesn't have anything to do with those people...