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How To Dress Well's Tom Krell Talks 'Total Loss'

Don't call it "PBR&B."
September 18, 2012, 6:00pm

Tom Krell is very well educated. Whether he's talking about his studies as a philosophy PhD candidate at DePaul University or the experimental bedroom R&B he's been making as How To Dress Well for the past few years, the dude doesn't really laugh, or make jokes. He speaks in complete, self-assured sentences, is a fan of audible commas, and uses the word "affect" as a noun often. He knows what he wants to say about himself, and he's not likely to make any statements with which he's not already comfortable. Call it a product of a well-organized mind, or simply one of talking ad nauseam about a sophomore album that deals largely with the deaths and losses he's sustained personally over the course of his life (especially a best friend, who he says passed two years ago last month).

In retrospect, I can't help but wish I'd made him mad, gotten him to yell at me about the term "PBR&B." Krell says repeatedly in interviews that, with said album, Total Loss (out today via Acéphale), he was trying to create "something alien that wasn't alienating," even though he also repeats that he "didn't have a vision" for the record and says that most of his work is a combination of genres that already exist.

Instead (partially because Total Loss is about death, partially because I liked the record), we kept it civil. I tried to talk to him about how telling it is that he's a philosophy PhD student studying, in part, "the problem of nihilism," all while making experimental music that is the exact opposite of nihilism. He seemed more interested in Antony and Jeremih, though, overall. This is how the conversation went.

First, let's start off with an easy question: what percentage of the interviews you've done for this record so far would you say have been total bummers?
I wouldn't say that any of them were total bummers. There's different ways to ask a depressing question with tact, and I feel very ready to answer in an open and honest way. If the question isn't tactful, you find a tactful way to answer a different question.

Is it bizarre to have to answer questions about something so obviously personal as a record about death and loss?
There's no better way for any artist to feel completely inauthentic than to talk about his or her art for four or five hours a day, several days in a row. But if you meet an artist who feels confident about talking about their art all day every day, they're probably not making very good art. But then, on the other hand, I don't go into music-making with a lot of concepts, or a lot of theory. So actually going through interviews and talking about it, I learn quite a bit about myself and about what I was up to, and where my commitments are, and what I want to do next, and who I am and stuff.

Would you consider yourself an artist with a defined vision?
No, I definitely wouldn't say that I have a vision, that, you know, "I want to start with this record and move on to this record and then this record." If I have a vision, it's about following out the emotional power of music in the way music can be an impressionistic medium for sketching and drawing out affects. Where the next record [goes] is all contingent on what happens in my life.

But you must've had intentions when you started this record.
The weird thing is, I was recording as an [emotional] release, or whatever, before I knew I was putting out a record called Total Loss. I was just working, creating stuff, and then the record started to take shape itself, and then it was like, "Okay, cool, this is what I'm doing." There's a kind of naïve approach to things that's really central to what I do.

Did the record change at all over the course of making it?
Quite a lot, actually. I started in a very sad place, and I ended up in a much less sad place. The final record compared to the record I was working on initially—I had to throw out 10 or 11 really dark songs in order to get to this record.

There's often a kind of stigma attached to being the kind of artist that's celebrated for (and more or less defined by) making a very particular kind of record, with a very particular—in your case, sad—story. Do you have a problem with that characterization?
Not at all. The record is super varied sonically, which reflects what's happened over the recording process. Some of the songs are real misery songs, and others are quite joyful, hopeful songs. There are artists that I go to all the time, every time I put out a record, just because I know they're tapped into something and they're going to be emotionally honest, even if it's not hip anymore. Like, this new Antony record. The last one as well, which didn't receive as much critical attention as it should have. They were both amazing, amazing records. That's where I want to be. If that's the clique you're talking about, I would like to be included among artists you can just trust are going to put out—even if they take a left turn, or whatever—[a record] you're going to love to put on.

Would you consider Antony a big inspiration for this record?

What other artists were on your mind?
I actually just put out this FACT mix — in my mind, it's the key to what I was listening to when I made the record. The first song is the edit I made of the instrumental of DMX's "Slippin'" with Britney Spears talking to Matt Lauer over it. And then there's a little bit of Shai, "If I Ever Fall In Love [Again]," this ambient track by this group called Porn Sword Tobacco, and then there's [a track] by Mariah…and there's other stuff on the record, too, like this weird Italian guitar guy called Estasy, as well as some quite controversial music like Jimmy Eat World.

Why put out a mixtape like that right before you put out a record? Is it just a marketing ploy?
I think it's important to have as a key because I really make my music in like a…my music is a feature of my tastes. I'll have a playlist that has Terry Riley and Jeremih on it, and then I'll get get the intuition for a song that'll sit in between those two, and that's where I want my music to be. So, like, the record is some kind of synthesis or amalgam of all the different parts of that mixtape.

That intentional coupling is interesting, considering how important curation has become to contemporary Western culture as a whole—it seems like it would logically follow that that's how music would eventually start being made, that picking-and-choosing-and-weaving-together element.
Absolutely. I try to actively curate my life. That's something I've talked about elsewhere, that [idea of] taking care of yourself. I get freaked out sometimes when I'm at a party and the music is really bad; I start to worry that, like, if I go to make music the day after, I won't make as good of a song because I was listening to shitty music.

A lot of artists will say they don't listen to music at all when they're writing and making a record. Have you ever tried that?
Honestly, no. Maybe about a month ago, there was a period where I had trouble listening to new music, but that passed quite quickly. If I had to choose between making a new record and listening to music, I'm not sure I would choose to make a new record if it meant I couldn't listen to music. It's just that important to me. All day, every day, I'm listening to music.

You're obviously a fan, first and foremost‚ which makes me think a lot about the evolution of the genres you're working with, in that "blue-eyed soul" sense. Do you ever think about the way you fit into the scheme of R&B as a genre, and how you might affect it as a whole?
I think [my music] fits into it, but folds out of it. I don't think of my music as R&B in the sense that Trey Songz, Jeremih, Ciara, and the-Dream are. My music, first off, is experimentation; it's experimental music. So I see my stuff begin somewhere in the cracks between whatever syntheses have to be drawn to bring, like, Scott Walker and Ciara together. That's where I situate my music. Jeremih and I aren't colleagues. We're making something very different. There are as many moments of ambient music on the record as there are R&B; there are as many piano loops as there are heavy, noisy influences.

I hear about this R&B thing a lot, and I don't really...You know, Frank Ocean's album came out this year, sure, but like, are a lot of people downloading R&B mixtapes from DatPiff? Or does it mean everyone has these two AlunaGeorge singles?

I think a lot of it has to do with the consumer, the people who are downloading both. Frank Ocean intertwines pop cultural elements that are familiar to a largely white, largely middle-class, young audience, and it's hitting at the right place and the right time.
That's what sucks—Maxwell put out a really good record three years ago that nobody cared about at all because there wasn't a trend yet. It seems like the trend carries a lot more energy than the actual interest. I keep coming back to him, but Late Nights With Jeremih, I think, is the best record of the year, and most…indie…critics haven't even reviewed it.

Are there things people say about your records that you don't agree with?
I think once people actually start talking about the record itself, that sort of stuff falls away—the taglines. If you look to the record for an R&B song, there are, I think, two of them. But then there are nine other tracks that are quite different. I think it's quite unexpected, what's on the record versus what's being talked about as far as R&B is concerned. I think this contemporary R&B craze will pass, and then people will listen back to this record [later] and say, "Wow, that had a different sound than we thought it did."

But I thought you said you didn't think a lot about where you place in that evolution.
I don't think about exactly where, but I do think about, like, four or five records, what my whole body of work will look like.

What do you want it to look like?
Super varied and diverse. I hate when artists stay on one path, and I really love when you can see emotional growth across an artist's career. That's why I'm so impressed by Antony and his career. It [went] from the most miserable, to the most joyous, and, now, to this no-longer-personal misery, this new cosmic misery—he's afraid if we don't change the way we live, we're gonna lose the world. That kind of maturation is cool to see. I also like to think about Phil Elvrum's career from the Microphones into Mount Eerie; that's really impressive and exciting.

Your press release quote has you talking about how this record was an exercise in "sustaining loss as a creative energy"—do you feel like you've been successful in doing that?
Yes, absolutely. That's the main reason I'm proud of the record. I had a really dark period, and I feel like it could have hardened me, or left me jaded and depressed, or it could've done something else. And it did something else. Now, I feel hopeful and optimistic for the first time in a long time. It's not because I'm walking around pretending nothing is wrong. That's not a real hope. I think often about what I've lost and what I've gone through; it moves me to do something with my life, to try to live fully.

How difficult is it to decide to make a song like "Set it Right," in which you call out the names of people in your life who've died, so specific?
That was something I freestyled, 100 percent. On the vinyl, you'll see that the subtitle on that song is "August 22, 2011," the one-year anniversary of my best friend's passing. The mood was in the air for me.

Then I realized, the specificity…it's so specific that it becomes universal. You [the listener] don't know the people to whom the names are attached. All you know is that, when you think about it sometimes, you're not giving enough to the friends you haven't spoken to in six months, and you come to realize how much you cherish that relationship, and how you need to get on the phone with them. Everybody's got [people] whose names mean something to them, you know? You hear a person's name, [and] you see the person's face, the whole experience of that person. If I was a famous person singing the names of other famous people, that would be different, but they're just people, and you don't know who they are. I have a sense that if you go down deep enough into really personal stuff, you reach a threshold where it crosses back over into being truly universal.

What about presenting it to the people who do know the people you're talking about? That would make me nervous.
Everyone who's in that song can hear the reason they're in that song, in my voice, because they know me. Everyone has been really touched. It's quite cool; it's been really fun to present to people. At a certain point, doing what I'm doing, you just can't be [nervous]. You have to be a little bit shameless.

As I've been listening and re-listening to this record, I've been thinking a lot about that dichotomy that, I think, often exists in art like yours, between an intensely personal subject and its sonic presentation. How do you handle that disconnect between the aesthetic and the emotion?
I do make songs that are really emotionally heavy, or affectively complicated, ambiguous and perplexing in ways that typically you don't see in the aesthetic form in pop songs. But that's the whole gesture—to take a form that's quite recognizable, and then deliver, in that form…and people who are open to that form can let it into their ears and can start to stir things around. So I sneak in intense affect, in pop form, and then you're just humming along, and then you realize exactly what you're humming along to. You're now engaging with affects, which are much more engaging than most of what gets delivered in [traditional songwriting]. I wouldn't say it's a disconnect so much as that's the point. I've said this before, but I want to make something that's alien but not alienating. That's the experiment I was trying to follow through with this record.

I'm not sure I've read anything where you talk specifically about what you're researching as a PhD candidate.
I'm working on a historical project about metaphysics in the 19th century, and the problem of nihilism. The thing about music and philosophy, though, is that they're quite different approaches to the world. They're different manifestations of my spirit, my creative will, or whatever. My philosophical studies affect my life, and in turn, that affects my music. My music affects my life, and that, in turn, affects the kinds of things I'll say and endorse philosophically. But I don't have a philosophical approach to music or a musical approach to philosophy. In either case, you'd have something shitty if you did that. To me, music is very much about immediacy and affect…it's much more of an impressionistic science than philosophy, which is all about argumentation and clarity and…they're just very different.

But someone who says things like "sustaining loss as a creative energy" is obviously thinking about his art philosophically, though, right?
But I think it's more that…I just talk like that, and that's why I do philosophy. It's funny, I have a brother who doesn't study philosophy at all, and he also talks like this. My family's just weird, and my constitution pushes me to philosophy on the one hand, and music on the other. That's definitely a "chicken or the egg?" question.