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Escape Velocity

Streetwise: How To Dress Well Interviewed
Sophie Coletta , September 25th, 2012 06:02

Tom Krell has just released his second album as How To Dress Well, Total Loss. He talks candidly with Sophie Coletta about the difficult events that inspired the making of the album, and why the R&B tag doesn't quite fit

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In 1984, Martin Bell made Streetwise, a documentary about homeless teens living on the streets of Seattle. One of its protagonists, Rat, was a 17-year old who lived in an abandoned house that could only be accessed by crawling up a drainpipe.

The film opens to lethargic whistling and seagulls. Rat stands atop a bridge, soaked through, the Seattle heat visibly evaporating water off his back. "I love to fly," he drawls, baseball cap positioned backwards on his head. "It's just you're alone; there's peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky. No-one to hassle you, no-one to tell you where to go or what to do." He steps up onto the railings of the bridge, grasping a nearby lamppost for support. "The only bad thing about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world," he finishes, before hurling his emaciated figure to the sky, hanging in a moment of inertia before plunging 80ft into Seattle's Swinomish Channel below.

Over an unusually clear Skype line, Tom Krell, known better by his onstage moniker, How To Dress Well, has just rolled out of bed. Ironically, considering his chosen name, he's not wearing all that much. He is talking about how Bell's film influenced part of his latest album, Total Loss, a subterranean exploration of grief.

“It's a film I've been moved by for a long time,” he explains. “I just remember thinking of that boy and how it's a really disturbing scene, because he's such a baby, but he's so grown. I just took that as an emblem for the song started writing, the music that I wrote and the clip, they're both working together, they both share in some way that affect, how hard it is just be alone.”

These artists - one with a love for Janet Jackson and high-pitched reverb, the other an Academy-Award nominated filmmaker - share an openness, a want to expose moments of complete intimacy without over-romanticising them. Krell has often been noted for his intimate construction of modern R&B, lacking heavy sexual references à la The Weeknd, but still championing a style that has been of late, marred by over-commerciality, monotony, and - well, lets face it - Chris Brown. His debut album Love Remains followed a flurry of free online tracks, and continued Krell's initial style; swirling loops and samples, accompanied by his unearthly falsetto. It's difficult not to overindulge in the adjectives whilst describing Krell's work (read any review and it's all ethereal synths, haunting lyrics, and ghostly reverb), but the lucid depth and intimacy to his work, both aurally and characteristically, makes it almost impossible to describe it any other way.

Just as Bell's work peels back layers of audience nonchalance, creating scenes that become an integral and arresting part of the viewing experience, Krell invites his listeners into the depths of his own personal sphere, without ever allowing them to be anything other than mesmerised observers. For them, seeing and hearing is more important than just being.

The opening to Bell's film is sampled in 'Say My Name or Say Whatever'. How did its influence play out in this song?

TK: I was in London working on the record, and that song is very much about getting into a position in your life where you somehow - I don't know how exactly it's possible, it's a sad thing - but one finds oneself in a position in life where one doesn't really have time for oneself in any meaningful way. You might be dealing with yourself all day long, going to work, feeding yourself, making sure you rest right, ostensibly really taking care of yourself and doing all these things for yourself, and then you'll have a moment where you realise, you've completely lost touch with yourself. A lot of the movies that that movie inspired are about how to live authentically in America, which is really fucked up.

The way Bell shoots the film, it it's very invasive, he rarely shoots from far away. Is that similar to anything you were trying to achieve, this idea of exaggerated nearness?

TK: Yeah absolutely, I love the rawness of the film; I wouldn't say it's invasive but I'd say it's incredibly intimate, just so in perspective, a lot of your expectations fall away. After a certain period of watching it, you don't see that it's too close; you just inhabit the space of the film. He really created something special; a world to enter and live in for two hours, and that's certainly an inspiration. I should watch it again and think about that question.

The new album seems to be inspired by feelings of loss, and dealing with these feelings that come from loss. In what ways does the album relate to the passing of your friend?

TK: My friend passed away right before Love Remains came out, then I made this EP in his memory. There's one song in particular on the new album I recorded on the one-year anniversary of his passing, it's called 'Set it Right'. That song in particular is dedicated to and about him, but not exclusively, it's also about the lessons I learned from that loss, and that's kind of the whole vibe of the record, the spiritual growth and personal growth that is possible from mourning,

Was making the album somewhat of a cathartic experience then?

TK: Yeah, yeah definitely. I made a lot of songs over the period of time from which Total Loss comes; probably about two albums worth of music. The first sequence of songs were really dark and brutal, I was in the throes of a really shitty time, then I wrote the song 'Ocean Floor for Everything' and I started to write the songs that become Total Loss. My whole songwriting changed, my whole attitude and comportment changed, and I just started to feel like I was making a transition from a melancholic position to a more mournful position and optimism and hope and things that started to be recoded a in a meaningful way for me.

Is the personal intensity something that's quite hard to translate to a live show, to a room full of people you've never met?

TK: Actually no, I find the transition to the live show quite easy because you're there and you can really confront everyone. We start the show right now with a really slow and plaintive version of 'Suicide Dream 1' from Love Remains – just violin and piano and voice, and it's quite intense. It sets a tone for everybody there at the show which then makes dealing with intense things make more sense. If you're just putting the album on and you're at work, or going for a run or whatever, in a car eating lunch, I don't have the same control over the effective ambience when you're listening to the record as I do live. I really like the live presentation because I can set the whole context and make sure the songs are delivered in the right package and setting.

There was a video going around of you playing recently at Way Out West, in what looked like a church?

TK: Yeah it was so sick. It was amazing. It was like 4 in the morning on Sunday, the last show of the entire festival, in this really old church in Gothenburg. You could see there was a very weird kind of wear to the walls, which was just from the Swedish cold; they were cracked in this really strange and beautiful way. It was a massive church, and it was still packed at 4 in the morning and everybody was really quiet. The sound in was really good, and we got to do some of the stuff completely unamplified, just piano, violin and voice, and yeah it was really cool. A bunch of artists I really respect were there too and everybody was really into it.

You seem to have a pretty broad taste in music. I've noticed samples from Blackstreet, Coil, even Debussy. Is it a case of using music you're into at that time, or using music that goes well with the sound you're trying to create?

TK: Both. I'll be working on something and then depending on what I'm listening to at the time, I'll hear something and be like 'Oh that's perfect for this', but I do try and listen to a whole bunch of different music, all the time. I do a lot of curation for myself - I'm constantly throwing songs that come to my mind into a playlist, sort of like a bank for inspiration.

I'm in this period now where I'm writing another album and I'll hear something and be like 'yeah that's what the next sound is supposed to be like'. I'm looking at this playlist right now, and it has Elliot Smith, Brian Eno, Grouper and DJ Shadow on it. Nine Inch Nails is down there, and Nina Simone and Vetiver. I just try to trust my instinct, and if two or three different songs are ostensibly different from each other, and they all hit me with the same feeling, then I trust there is something common in all three of them. Then I figure out what that is, and figure out that shared ground of all those sounds.

A lot of people seem keen to pin you down exclusively to R&B. Are you ever wary of getting pigeonholed, in terms of genre?

TK: Not really, just because I've already made enough songs in enough styles that I don't feel like anyone can predict what I'm gonna do next. I was making weird ambient noise music, and then I started making really fucked noisy, scarred pop songs. I feel like people also don't really notice that Love Remains has all different kind of styles of music. 'You Won't Need Me Where I'm Going' is like a rock song, and 'Mr. By & By' is kind of like a disco song, and 'Walking This Dumb' is kind of like a soulful song.

What about Total Loss?

TK: This record, like you said, it's got all different kinds of influences. The first song is like weird ambient soul music, and the second song is an R&B song. 'Say My Name or Whatever' is something altogether different, it's like a Steve Reich-style piano loop with the 'Streetwise' intro and a Janet Jackson or even Tracy Chapman backward style vocal, and then it ends with this very weird child-like innocent singing in the round chorus of voices, which to me has a CocoRosie vibe to it. The song after that is like a mellow R&B song, followed by an experimental '& It Was U', which is a kind of floor to the floor soul track. That's followed by an orchestral piece, which is then followed by a weird ambient footwork song and then you get into the latter part of the record and 'Set it Right' in my mind, is a rock song.

Do you think it's easier for artists to flutter freely between genres nowadays rather than say, 30-40 years ago?

TK: I think it depends on the artist, I mean back then just the same. I can't imagine James Blake coming out with some really weird noisy record. I don't think it would be out of question for me to put out a noise record, and I don't think that would be discontinuous with what I've done so far. Some artists make their way by developing a really distinct style and doing it, other artists make their way by doing a bunch of different things but always showing their signature style through that work. I think given the breadth of my own listening and also the fact I'm pretty voracious, – I don't want to stay on the same thing forever - I can be that. I took The Velvet Rope by Janet Jackson sort of like as a guide for this album. I think Total Loss is a super varied record, there's a lot of different styles and songs on it, and to me, her record had every genre of song, ever on it.

Are you still doing your PhD?

TK: Yeah.

I've heard that you like to keep you academic work separate from your musical endeavours.

TK: I wouldn't say that I keep them separate, they're just very separate, very different expressions of like my life, they're totally different.

Do you ever find the boundaries between the two overlapping?

TK: Yeah, there's a common wellspring, which is me. The ways in which they overlap would take a long time for me to explain, because it's not intuitive to say there's a common thread between this experimental R&B stuff and developments in 19th century logic, but I'm attracted to all the things I do for common reasons, which I can see personally.

Beep Beep
Sep 25, 2012 1:09pm

He certainly uses the word "weird" to describe his own compositions quite often. Makes the whole thing sound calculated, and not a little bit contrived. Is that what the indie-r&b guys set out to do? Making purportedly "weird" records to distinguish themselves?

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Rob
Sep 25, 2012 2:00pm

'...it's like a Steve Wright style piano loop'

Steve Reich, no?

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Sophie
Sep 25, 2012 3:35pm

In reply to Rob:

You're right. I'm pretty sure the Suffolk Strangler didn't play the piano.

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John Doran
Sep 25, 2012 3:58pm

In reply to Sophie:

The punishment beatings will continue until morale and the spelling of names of minimalist composers improves.

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K
Sep 25, 2012 5:14pm

In reply to Beep Beep:

He's trying to make something unique, combining influences some would see as being kinda disperate into something "weird". Even though he seems to like Cocorose, I'd see them as an example of being weird for no other reason other than "ha ha look, puking unicorns having sex!!" attention, whereas HTDW is making solid original work.

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Rob
Sep 26, 2012 12:31pm

In reply to John Doran:

Oh lord, what have I done? A pedant never goes un-guilt-tripped, I suppose.

Should that have had two hyphens? Or is guilttripped one word? Could the prefix be hammered on too?

Oh yes, right, bloody good interview and all that...

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Guy
Sep 27, 2012 9:49am

Total loss is beautiful. Certainly feels like a very honest album to me

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Jim Higgins
Jul 22, 2014 10:55am

Would like to point out in your description of the opening scene to "Streetwise", where rat jumps off the bridge. It wasn't Rainbow Bridge in LaConner Washington, it was Rainbow Bridge in Folsom, California. I searched hard to find that bridge over the years. Plus he was dry when he jumped off. You'll note the bridge has distinct architecture, plus it has lamp posts on it. Still does today. Fitting, as it was right next to a railroad bridge. (rat always traveled by train) You can see a video clip of the bridge here... http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-966520-stock-footage-a-locked-down-view-of-historic-rainbow-bridge-over-the-american-river-in-folsom-california-at.html

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