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GFP Meets… | How To Dress Well

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By Rob Jurewicz and Tom Johnson

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It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that our interview with Tom Krell – better known to us all as How To Dress Well – ended up getting quite heavy. While it wasn’t particularly led there, the chat became about so much more than just the music he makes. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe all that emotional weight is something that follows you around when you’re the kind of person who takes the often left-behind thoughts that come at us in the night and turns them in to songs to present to the world.

Which I guess is where we, as consumers, come in. What do we get out of it? Why do we feel such a connection upon hearing someone we don’t know, confront their own demons? The answer is a murky one that has something to do with context, escapism and growth, amongst many other things, but it’s true to say that most of us would be a little bit lost without that connection.

The music that How To Dress Well makes has always been about that very link and the grey areas that surround it. It acts as some kind of emotional gateway, the muddiness of his debut record, in particular, somehow provided a startling clarity by which we could examine our own inner-thoughts. Total Loss, on the surface, was a different beast. A far less dense record, it was his voice this time – a startling confessional falsetto, that was brought fully to the fore – that acted as a hand to guide. But guide us, it did.

A few months on from the release of Total Loss, and with a new record already in the works, it was an honour for us to sit down with Tom and discuss just what it means to be How To Dress Well…

I guess we should start by asking how the UK is treating you…

Very, very well. We started in Leeds, headed to the Great Escape and then Glasgow yesterday. It’s been great. We started in Europe ten days ago. The UK is always really good, we always get an amazing reaction over here.

Is there a difference in the reaction over here?

It differs all over the place in various ways. People are really good here. Manchester, weirdly, is one of the best cities in the world for How To Dress Well. We also just played in Latvia to 1100 people which was fucking insane.

You’ve always put yourself ‘out there’ for your live show; do you feel vulnerable doing that? Just you and a backing track?

That was a performance about exposure and vulnerability, but I found that actually just performing with a backing track didn’t really work. People didn’t see it as vulnerable, they saw it as something else. So now we’ve stripped down a lot of the songs. There is still a backing track because I think a live drummer is stupid in the 21st century – unless you play garage rock or whatever – but for me it’s a bit silly having a guy with sticks hit things when any guy with fingers can do it. It’s like using one of those big novelty lighters. Totally preposterous.

The main thing now is the live violin, which is just really beautiful. The voice and the violin play off each other really nicely.

Did the idea of that come from your Just Once EP, when you made the orchestral versions of your tracks?

Yeah absolutely. Actually, the relationship between Just Once and Love Remains is kind of how I see the relationship of between the live show now and the records.

Will there be a Just Once version of Total Loss?

No. Total Loss is done as it is. You already have vibes like that on Talking To You for instance. But the next record, which I’m quite far along on, is very organic and kind of like Just Once; but also pretty weird and noisy. I did Love Remains and Just Once as a project and I think everything I do from now on will be some synthesis of those parts.

When do you think we’ll see a new record?

2014. Hopefully the Winter, maybe February or March. It’s nearly done. I’ve been working with some really talented people…

Can you tell us who?

I can’t really say yet, but people who are into Tim Hecker and stuff like that will be really in to what I’m doing. That kind of zone.

So will it be a big shift in sound for you, do you think?

I guess that depends on your take on what I’ve done so far. If you think that Love Remains and Total Loss make sense coming from one artist then it won’t be a big shift – it’ll just be a new direction. But there are people who listen to Total Loss and can’t even hear songs in Love Remains, so they might think it’s totally new. Really it’s all just an evolution.

The way you use samples has always sounded like a very personal process. How does the process work?

It comes out of my listening habits, which are completely connected to my emotional state. So I’ll be in a vibe and I’ll hear a bit of something and then snip it out and put it in a folder, then revisit it and see if it was worth keeping and then build from there.

You’ve always been seen as a very sincere artist, and your fans seem to react a lot to that. Is it nice to have that kind of relationship with them?

That part for sure, I really love that. But I had a really intense incident with this kid in Berlin recently which made me snap out of a lot of naivety I had about my friends. He requested Suicide Dream 2 and we did it and he was so stoked. Then after the show I went out to the merch to say hi to people and he came over to me and was like “I’m going to go and kill myself now” and…it was just so inappropriate for him to put that on me, for one, and also just so sad that he was there alone and I didn’t know what to do. Does he want me to call the cops? It’s just way too much.

I think that sincerity and openness is really important but nothing I’m doing is immediate. You don’t get to just open your heart and pour your emotions out, you have to do it in really decisive ways. Its about forming bonds not destroying bonds. If you’ve ever been around someone who’s borderline personality disorder, they do this thing where they don’t trust that you’re their friend because you can’t stomach everything they have to give you. But you don’t need every part of it. There are important boundaries. Openness is contingent upon there being really important and certain boundaries. That’s why monogamous love is so interesting because on the one hand it looks like you’re closing down, but it makes possible this openness that’s very difficult to have with a random stranger.

So I’m all about sharing with my fans. It’s amazing. I’ve had really intense emotional experiences with fans that are really cool. This boy was crying at a show in San Diego, and his friend had just passed away, and he was feeling a lot of bliss and elation and also missing his friend and it felt really good. It felt like he was in a good place from this sharing.

Did ever think you would be put in positions like that off the back of making music? It must be bizarre…

It’s super bizarre. I was thinking about it earlier on actually, because I got this message from a fan on the Facebook page, and there was this girl and I remember meeting her in Latvia, and she was like “my friend I was at the concert with just got hit by a car” and she said she was pretty fucked up and that it would mean a lot if I could say hello. So I sent apologies and love and afterwards I was thinking, ‘how weird is this going to get?‘ I would love for it to be responsible and sustainable and have that kind of relationship with people, but I’m just a person at the end of the day, too. Some people think they can burden me with whatever they’re feeling and that can get pretty dark and is kind of selfish on their part.

Why do you think music brings that kind of response out of people?

For me at least, music and my emotional state have always been so connected. I feel like I’ve learned how to be sad by listening to sad music. There was obviously some kind of interchange there, like something in it attracted me to it, but then it gave me this whole vocabulary, not in the sense of words but in the sense of feelings. By which I mean the way the strings move in a songs makes you learn how to feel melancholic…

I make very emotionally-charged music because music has always been about emotional charges for me. I think that’s something very specific to music. Movies obviously have a mood too, but it’s the duration of a film versus a three-minute song. I never feel sad and think “Fuck, I need to throw on some Dardenne brothers!” but I am going to put Grouper on and go for a walk. That’s probably part of  it too; the way that hearing functions as both a passive and active thing. You can’t hold your iPad up and walk around your city. The same with literature. It demands such focused attention that it doesn’t have the same ability to colour the whole field of your experience. That’s probably the metaphysical reason why music has that emotional capacity but why certain people seize on my music, I don’t know…

I guess because it’s coming from such an emotional place in the first place…

Yeah. I’m not that crazy though. I don’t know if you listen to Xiu Xiu much? We’ve become good friends and he gets fucking wild animals, man. People cutting themselves, and injecting shit and he’s just like “I don’t know what they fuck I’m supposed to do with this.”

I do think there’s something wholesome about my music, in the sense that it’s about emotional growth and progress. At the end of the day, even if you go through really cold times…I don’t know. I would just never want anyone’s life to stop unless they were in conditions so intolerable that they probably weren’t able to listen to music. Life is just so precious and rare. It’s about improving life. It’s an emotional or sentimental education, not just destructive emotion. My shit’s more about sublimation, growth, re-organisation, catharsis, stuff like that.

I think that totally comes across too. It’s very therapeutic. If you listen to it in a dark room you can almost see all your emotions around you, because of the atmosphere…

That’s dope. That’s very much the goal for sure.

So who would be the How To Dress Well for you growing up?

That’s a really good question! I mean maybe some more destructive things. Bright Eyes was really important to me in terms of learning what emotional music could be like. I don’t know if you’ve listened to Fevers & Mirrors, but it’s such an amazing record and it’s just fucking sad.

I came out of emo and – this is another way of talking about destructive emotional music – I think I realised that tragedy and excess falls flat. So when someone is like “EURGH, EVERYTHING IS SO FUCKED!” you’re like, ‘Ok, you’re getting some pleasure out of how much pain you’re in’ and all of the tragedy is sucked out of it when you see that. That’s what I learned from Emo. The shit that I listened to when I was 16, man. That’s why my Dad was laughing at me.

Then I guess Grouper was a huge thing for me in terms of ambient music and emotion and introspection. The same with Brian Eno and Tracey Chapman.

So where next for you?

We’re touring for another couple of weeks, then I’ll take some time off in Berlin to do as much recording as possible. Then a small European tour and then just try and grind and get a record finished by October time. Then you have to wait a few months before it can be released, so maybe February/March time for that.

But I’ve got some shit coming out before then, there’s going to be this really cool fan pack for Total Loss with this bound-book and a t-shirt. The design is fucking amazing. It’ll all come soon enough…

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