Life can get pretty serious. That's just how it goes, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, the serious parts of life can include death and loss and misery, but it's possible to be seriously, pointedly happy, too. Naturally, Tom Krell, who records music as How to Dress Well and who has a strong intellectual bent as a musician, has been thinking about this, and the results are all over Care, his most recent album, which came out this past Friday.
Krell is known for heavy stuff: The best song on his first album is called "Suicide Dream 2," his second album was called Total Loss, and even his relatively optimistic third album emerged from the proposition that, as he told me at the time, "everything is terrible." There's more nuance to the music than that, of course, but his signature sound—crepuscular, digitally distorted, ambient interpretations of pop music—tends to connote dark, weighty ideas. There's an impulse with music that sounds like this, he said, to "try to make it some German romantic drama with like, fog over the day."
"I wanted this record to be a lot more daylit," he continued. Krell had arrived at the VICE offices on a recent Tuesday morning wearing a relaxed outfit of overall shorts, a Discwoman shirt, and Adidas slides with socks, carrying a cup of coffee as he cheerfully attempted to overcome the effects of a late night out the night before. It was, as it happened, quite daylit outside, and Krell jovially discussed the sudden whirlwind of pre-release and pre-tour activity he'd been thrown into (his tour began the same day the album was released). Compared to the reclusive figure he painted with his early work or even the kind but rather cagey guy I met a couple years ago, he was friendly and enthusiastic.
Krell has a tendency to dive right into the deep end in conversation that might be a little daunting—even if you happen to agree with the premise, as I do, it's easy to be skeptical when someone introduces their album by claiming, "we live in this weird 21st century neoliberal capitalist dystopia, so that comes in on a handful of songs." But you want to listen to what he has to say because he really is interested in grappling with large questions of what it means to be alive and be in love and everything else, even at the risk of being overly earnest about it. It's not hard to see why, with his interest in throwing these questions to the form of pop music, he attracts so many musician friends and collaborators, from Dre Skull to Classixx to Jack Antonoff, all of whom chipped in on Care.
The album he put together is worthy of the attention of anyone interested in pop experimentalism: It's bright and warm, full of MIDI guitars and lively synthetic percussion. On "What's Up," one of the highlights, he blends breezy Balearic production with the melodic vocal cadences of contemporary trap and R&B; another clear standout, "Lost Youth/Lost You," ties together the whimsical tone of an inspirational early 90s power ballad with the vocal distortion that marked How to Dress Well's original songs. He sings, "I think I know what love is now / I think I've got it figured out / but then the second that I open my mouth / I'm gonna change my heart again." Life, like music, is full of trial and error, he suggests, but, also like music, as long as the feeling's sincere it's worth your time.
Listen to selections from this interview on Noisey Radio on Beats 1 right here.
Noisey: You said you're writing from a place of more confidence now. Do you think your past albums were fueled by feelings of self-doubt?
Tom Krell: There wasn't self-doubt. For my first record, I was writing from inside my head, and I wasn't writing for anybody. Then I was like, "oh my god there are people out there. Okay cool!" Say you're a child and you're singing for fun in your room, and all of a sudden you're singing and you're like "yeah—fuck yeah! I'm gonna do this!" It was just kind of scaling up from there. Whatever my approach is, it is slightly polarizing. It is polarizing among a certain subset of people. I know there are women who don't like my music, but I have female fans. There are also men who like my music, but there's a subset of guys who find it utterly unacceptable. I have a theory that it is like because of the tenderness in it. I feel like there's a certain type of masculinity that is utterly allergic to a certain kind of tenderness about life. It's not just tenderness about difficult subjects. I bring a tenderness to bear on the whole world. Some guys are like [in an exaggerated, husky deep voice] "uh, hell no!" It's been so weird to go to like Poland, and that there are people there, and they're like "yes!" You go to Seoul and they're like "yes!" And you're like "oh shit!" It's cool. It's the confidence of feeling like I have a community. It's less self-confidence and more like community confidence.
I think it's good to have a sense of community in music right now. People use music taste so much to individuate.
Live music is still very much the most important part of what we do. I don't even play any instruments per se. I play everything fine. The studio is the instrument I play. It's been important for me to figure out how to translate things to a live context. By the end of the last tour I was pretty confident that we were the best live band playing. It was the best experience you can have going to a concert. With my new band, it's so sick. I feel like going to these concerts are going to be an utter joy, a total treat.
The last time I saw you perform live, you covered Rich Gang's "Lifestyle." I like that you're an outspoken fan of music and finding the empathy in it, the heart in it.
That's why I like Young Thug. He's so sick. He is very weird. Whatever clothing weirdness he has, that's just a red herring about him. His weirdness is in the fact that, more so than Future, he goes off the emotional deep ends in the middle of bars. He'll be spitting some weird shit about cars and fucking, and then he'll like go off. You know the song "Digits?" It's crazy. He has like a metaphysics. Through the course of that song, it's his weird theory of reincarnation. It's like a YOLO theory of metaphysics. That song is so random. You're like "what?" Why is he thinking about reincarnation in the booth? It's so bizarre. People are always obsessed with genre when they ask me about my music. I think when I listen to music I don't listen for anything other than for sympathy—that weird moment where something human emerges. If I hear it in a Celine Dion song or in a classical piano joint—it's either there or it's not there. I don't care if it's country or noise.
To me, that's clear when I listen to your music. Can you talk about a couple of songs on the new album that maybe get to that same sympathetic impulse?
There's a song late in the record that is an extremely tender and empathic song called "Made a Lifetime." I did this song with Kara-Lis Coverdale, she's this super sick musician from Montreal working at the interstitial space. There's something that brings it together with contemporary classical and experimental music, but it's also melodic. Her music is a lot like R Plus Seven Oneohtrix. She's done a lot of stuff under the radar, like doing the synths on Tim Hecker's records. She's a total freak, so sick.
It's an inspirational song, but it's also a metaphysical song. When I was writing it I felt like I was looking down on the earth. There's a lot of scale differences in this song, like being up close to skin, seeing the sun rise, hearing a whisper holding a baby, and making a whole lifetime to that feeling. It's connected to the whole tenderness thing I was talking about. When I wrote the chorus, the weirdest experience happened. It was my mom, my grandma who passed away a few years ago—my grandma raised me, she was like my homie, my best friend—my partner at the time, myself. There were all these factors in this song. I was singing to the site of love and warmth and care in my life, abstractly speaking. I was trying to honor that site, wherever it crops up in reality, be it a random person on the street or a person that is very important in my life. I was singing to that and trying to keep my finger on that the entire song. It's super abstract, but it resonates.
There's an archaic notion that you love one person and maybe your family and then you have satellite people in your life. I feel very differently.
There's an archaic notion that you love one person and maybe your family and then you have satellite people in your life. I feel very differently. I definitely love some of my friends more than I love my parents. I have a lot of people whose love is essential to my wellbeing. That's what I was singing about in this song.
The chorus to that song is the most stripped down moment I have ever put out on a record, ever. There is nothing on that vocal. It is so right in the ear. On headphones, it's almost like an ASMR. It's like somebody whispering in your ear, producing a very warm feeling. It's like a deep cut on the record, a non-banger. I love that song so much. Every time I hear myself sing that song, I'll always be indebted to how warm skin is: "If you ever want to feel it, let me know." I can feel myself and I can feel what I felt like when I sang it during that take. It was tight. The fact that that's recorded—when I'm 70 I'm going to listen to that and be like, "damn, that's so dope. I did it!"
We only allow a couple big events in our lives, like marriages and children. When you think about the stuff that's tough in your life, that's such a mistake. It is a very psychologically mature thing, the capacity to move through certain stations with resilience, like "now celebratory moment and now fragile and vulnerable moment, now courage and strength."
Let's talk about the opener, "Can't You Tell."
I started my last record with this intense acoustic guitar ballad. After I put it out, I felt like it was a bit of a mistake, I questioned why I did it. I guess it's sort of a defensive thing. My friend told me I was like Plato. I was like, "what?" He said that Plato used to stand over the gates to the academy, saying that no one who didn't know mathematics couldn't come in. It was this selective doctrine, and if you were courageous enough to say that you don't know mathematics you could come in. It scared people off. I feel like I used that song at the start of the record to scare people off. If you want the pop music in here, you have to walk through the shit storm of my emotions. I wish I'd put that as the deep cut rather than the first cut. When I was sequencing this record, I wanted the first foot of the record to be bright and generous and welcoming and inviting.
I started writing about sex more. I was like, "oh damn, we have such a crazy dichotomy in the way that we think about sex and love." If you listen to the radio there are songs like "make love to you, you're the one for life"—tender love songs—or they're like [whispering] "it's 5 AM, I'm wasted, I don't care about you but we will fuck." There's no love song that's on the radio that's about love and muscular, wet sex. There's no crossover. It's so disheartening. It was about writing something that was super sex-positive and super sexual. Part of sexuality is about how people speak and the way somebody's face looks. Like, that could be all you need for pure sexual attraction, just a face. I wanted to write a sex-positive sex anthem that was also a care anthem. I didn't separate those things. Dre Skull did the production with me, along with Jim-E Stack and Classixx.
OK, one more. Tell me about "Lost Youth/Lost You."
"Lost Youth" is at the other end of the spectrum. It's a song about the disillusionment of love. In the past I was younger and into the idea that desire can't be satisfied, that I'll always want something else. There is an ethical valence to this stuff. Anything else is an effort to pin down another person and make them be everything for you. That's just not possible, to pin down one object. I had this hubristic feeling, like "Repeat Pleasure" for instance. It's a fall from the hubris of "Repeat Pleasure": Face the facts, if you want something once, you'll want it more. Can you handle this fact? You thought you had found love that could withstand that, the fundamental character of desire. It couldn't survive that flame and that cycle. It's not that we desire new love objects, it's that desire desires more desire. That's a brutal cycle. "Lost Youth" is about that cycle.
The metaphor in the first verse is taking flowers from a verdant garden and giving them as a token of your love and after a period of time finding them in the trash. "It's a sad, sad show" is what I sing. Not feeling like this is a cool philosophical point about desire, but feeling like, man, life is long, and there's going to be a lot of sequences of falling and falling out and falling back in. It can be difficult, and it can be hard to stay affirmative of love as an orienting goal and concept when you start to see how hard changes are and how disillusionment is extremely powerful. It's a sad boy tune.
All photos by Matt Seger. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.