We love How to Dress Well’s new album “What Is This Heart?”. It’s a brave step forward for Tom Krell, bursting with emotion and energy, and crystallizing styles he’s employed on previous records into his most complete, focused, but also accessible statement yet. The album is one of our favorite of the year so far, so we quizzed Tom on which songs influenced it (read here), asked him to give us a peek into life on tour in Europe (read here), and sat down with him for an in-depth interview on love in the 21st century, drawing inspiration from dreams, R&B, the question posed by the album’s title.
“What Is This Heart?” is out today, June 24. You can buy the physical, digital, or deluxe edition of the album through How To Dress Well’s website here.
What’s it like being back on tour? When you’re recording an album, do you look forward to playing it live?
Every single phase of this process is so different. When I first made music, I never thought about playing it live. And then when I went on to play it live, I didn’t think too much about how to play it live. With Love Remains, I just thought, “okay I’ll sing it, and see how it feels.” Then with Total Loss I decided I wanted to elaborate and develop the live music a little bit more. Over the Total Loss touring experience, I realized you have to do a translation of studio material for the live setting, and I started think more and more about the shows that impacted me, and the shows I really loved.
In every case, there was a marked difference between the live and the studio material so I was trying think why I would be attracted to that. Like, why would I be so attracted to a heavy band playing an acoustic set or something like that. With the Total Loss tour I tried to do some heavy translation of the studio material for the live context, while still keeping the same emotional intensity.
What were some live shows that really impacted you and affected how you approach your live performance?
It’s actually pretty funny, but one of the first concerts that made me want to play music live was Dashboard Confessional, when I was 15. But it was before anyone had heard of him, so he was the first of three on a bill. It was him, Hotrod Circuit, and Alkaline Trio. I just remember being so impressed by how—you know when you’re a teenager you see a band on stage and they’re this mythological entity? But with that show, I remember it was just this guy, and I was like, “woah, he’s just a guy and he’s doing this.” It felt so much more creaturely and human and so much less like Hollywood. And another one that blew me away was Anthony at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is 2006. Then I played a show with Grouper in Portland in 2010, it was astonishing.
You know when you’re a teenager you see a band on stage and they’re this mythological entity?
So, for the new music, I wrote this on the heels and even in the thick of a lot of that touring. Again, I don’t think about the live context at all when I’m writing. When I’m writing, I think about nothing but the song. Don’t ever leave the song when you’re writing the song. So I did a lot of things in the studio that are impossible, and now we have to translate it to the live setting. I think a lot of people come out to the show for Total Loss and are pretty surprised. On the record your hear this really gauzy thing, and then live it’s just an 808 drum and me singing really fully, and you can hear the words. The response I got from people after that was so positive that I thought maybe I should put something on the new record that’s more creaturely, that sounds more like there’s an actual guy there.
That will make sense to anyone who has heard the record, I think. Your vocals have become clearer, they’re more foregrounded.
Yeah, and there are a few explanations for that. One is; when I made Love Remains I was living in one room and there were people sleeping while I was making songs. And then recording and touring Total Loss… You know it’s just so crazy because I’ve been doing this for so long. I mean, it’s really awesome and I hope this carries on, but I was gonna say it’s so crazy to be this far into this and still be learning about myself!
I would be kinda turnt up for a show or something and I’d just belt out a song with this sudden release like, “Fuck! Yes!”
So, touring Total Loss, I really learned how to sing again. It was a very weird experience, but it felt amazing and I wanted to translate that to the record. I would be kinda turnt up for a show or something and I’d just belt out a song with this sudden release like, “Fuck! Yes!” It was a really emotional thing, just belting the songs out and feeling amazing. I’d make a note to myself while I was on stage feeling like that to have songs on this new album where I can just let rip and go for it. I wanted them to feel so vital. It’s going be interesting to see what happens next. I’m talking about “next” now and the new music isn’t even out. But I’m always thinking next, next. Where will it go? I really hope I can keep learning about myself through these different acts and keep following this path.
Did you have any formal musical training?
No. I was taught how to play music by a friend of mine in high school. He taught me how to play three guitar chords but back then I couldn’t do it with four fingers. We wrote 100 songs together in two years, that’s when it started.
Making Total Loss, there were emotions you could pinpoint and a specific loss you were dealing with. You were drawing strength and finding a way move forward. Are there similar moments, emotions, or people you can pinpoint that impacted this record?
It’s kinda weird, Total Loss is grounded in an actual loss and mourning the loss of my best friend. The stuff that was motivating me was so real, and the record came out pretty impressionistic and more abstract than the first one. For this new record, the stuff that was motivating me was much more the product of sitting on a plane or in a van for eight hours a day, having nothing but time to think. So the present record is more like a question, but the result is much more grounded and less abstract. There’s a weird asymmetry to the processes.
I’ve spent a lot of time this past year on tour and thinking about whether or not the society we live in is actually hospitable to love. I’ve spent a lot of time reading George Saunders’ short stories and Alice Munro’s short stories and watching a lot of DVDs, the Dardenne brothers and stuff like this—that’s life on the road. I just started to be really cynical about the possibility of love in this, this… whatever we call it! This late stage capitalist society, this neo-liberal completely fucked, 21st century cybernetic, fucked society. On the one hand I started to become very cynical about that, and on the other hand, I also saw some of my best friends get married this year and pronounce to one another—in public, in front of their family and dearest friends—insanely true love in this really incredible act. And so running that kind of gamut set things up for me, as I’m looking around feeling like love is actually robbed from us and we’re barred from entering love on so many levels in society. Both in the sense of entering in trusting partnerships and in simply caring for oneself in a fundamental way.
I just started to be really cynical about the possibility of love in this late stage capitalist society, this neo-liberal completely fucked, 21st century cybernetic, fucked society!
More and more, privacy is seen as theft nowadays. The idea that you could have a rapport with yourself where you could ask yourself that question in a safe way and engage with the answers or lack of answers, seems like something that, societally, is being evaporated. But on the other hand I saw all this amazing love and I was in love myself this year, so that’s the orientation of the record. It came out of wondering what is possible in respect to love in the 21st Century, and that is the question in the title of the album
And then also… and this is an interesting thing about doing press, I’ll figure out exactly what the record is about. It’s really cool. Like, press is annoying, no offense, but it’s cool for me personally. I made all these songs—same thing with Total Loss—and I look back and understand better why I made what I made. I’m looking back now at the songs on this record and I’ve come to the conclusions I just gave you, and I think I’ll start to figure out how all the other things hang together, how they all connect together. Because it’s also a record about family, past and future, and desire. How desire and time are connected. The present is not something you can grasp hold of, the present is a negative. The present is nothing—it’s no longer past and not yet future. So we’re suspended here in this present moment, but what pushes us forward?
We always want to fill the present with an object that will satisfy our desire and stop time flowing, but that doesn’t happen, that’s impossible for the kind of creatures we are. I also think the kind of creatures we are is connected, for me at least, to the question of the record. And I made a point to put it in quotes, as if it were a line in a movie or play. So the quotation is interesting because it’s a question of attribution, like, “Who’s willing to attribute that question to themselves?”
Is it now more difficult to create music? Before you were creating because there was something you just had to get out, so is it a different process now?
Well, on the one hand the initial writing process came just as easily. It’s weird, I can’t even really remember where I got the backbone of certain songs. I remember recording a little bit of a vocal demo for in Warsaw or something in a hotel room but I can’t even remember—say there are two samples on one song—I can’t remember the moment when I realized they were in the same key and it would make good writing material. So the writing process is still this kind of blind, very immediate thing. Even though I was doing all this thinking about this question I don’t want it to seem like the record isn’t a product of total weird immediacy.
You’re working on a doctorate in philosophy at the moment. When you’re writing is there an academic approach at all?
No, it’s literally the opposite. It’s really a balance to that whole highly mediated process of academia. It’s raw, childish. Every single element on this new record, which is so polished, originated in a freestyle. Whether it’s a melodic element or a lyric, literally every single moment is freestyled originally
The album starts with “Two Years On.” When you recorded that song did you know that would open the album, because I think the sound and style will surprise some people.
It’s like a Tracy Chapman song. I wrote that song—I’m trying to date it right now because I do actually remember when I wrote that song. This is a really weird experience. I was living in Berlin, the summer of 2012 between tours, and in this apartment I found this nylon string guitar. I hadn’t played guitar in ten months and I started to just record some things. That was when I came up with that guitar line, really feeling it, really finding it beautiful. Then I went to sleep and the next morning I woke up and played back some stuff I recorded which was basically just a loop of guitar line. I had woken up, been up for a while and had a coffee, and I heard the guitar line and I remembered my dream from the night before in a weirdly vivid way.
This is gonna sound really metaphorical but the affect of that song just showed up at the gate of my mind. That affect had accessed a path in my spirit that lead right to the kernel of my dream. I hadn’t been able to access that dream at all, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had had a dream! Then that affect just showed up, plugged in, and opened up that dream. The dream is what I sing about on “Two Years On,” and I have three other songs about dreams, which are called “Suicide Dream 1,” “2,” and “3.” I sang one or two takes for “Two Years On” that morning in Berlin. Now, flash forward to two weeks ago rehearsing for this tour, I realized that “Two Years On” which is subtitled “Shame Dream” basically has a similar structural content to “Suicide Dream 1.” For some reason in both dreams, I’m in a car.
You say, “We were on a road.”
Exactly, so I’d been on tour, “on the road,” but in the dream I was on the road with my family. There’s a lot of dream analysis to do here. So being on tour, carrying around these songs, carrying around these people too. So that song came in a real flash, and I’d been listening to a lot of Tracy Chapman and some American Football, old emo stuff that I that I used to be into. So that’s why I wrote that guitar line, and that song just came in this really weird flash. It felt special and fortuitous to me and so although I had written one or two of the songs in demo form before that, I knew it would be the first song on the record.
So then the rest of the record flowed from that?
Yes it flowed, but it’s not like a concept album. It does a few things for me. There are a lot of songs that I think casual listeners and singles-listeners will be able to latch on to. But this is also a How To Dress Well record, for the people who have been with me, journeying with me like some sort of spiritual journey-men or women. I have a lot of people who email me, speak to me after shows, or send me letters and let me know that records were important to them and helped them get through things. That’s cool, and I knew I was going to be writing a record that was going to have some more moments of clarity and even moments of weird joy, which is a little bit uncharacteristic for my emotional repertoire.
It’s one thing if you get into “Repeat Pleasure” or “Very Best Friend” through iTunes or Youtube and that’s your connection point to How To Dress Well. That’s dope, but I wanted the people who get this record as a record—the people who experience this music in the way that I experience it, the people who use music in a more heavy and spiritual way—I want them to feel that they can still trust me. If the record started with “Very Best Friend” it’d be a very different record. Instead it starts with this moment where I’m saying, “Look, here’s the terrain we’re on. Here are the stakes.”
It’s definitely still a How To Dress Well record, but maybe there’s a crystallization and clarification of the different styles you’ve employed before. “Very Best Friend,” for example has that house or garage swing to it, like the tracks you did with Jacques Greene or Shlohmo.
People forget that I had these moments on earlier records. On Love Remains there’s a song called “Mr. By & By” which, to my mind, is dance-y, a little bit two-steppy, a little bit of house kind of tune, but lo-fi and very impressionistic. I was listening to the same amount of Craig David then as I was when I was writing “Very Best Friend.” I had a moment the other day where I was listening to the record for the first time in a few months and I really thought it was great.
That was for a lot of reasons, but it’s great that there is the real growth and discontinuity with the earlier work, but then there are those moments of real continuity. That’s why we put out “Words I Don’t Remember” as the teaser. I chose that as the teaser of the record because it starts with this massive clear sound with this reverb-y vocal and a Love Remains vibe, but then throughout the song it builds and introduces elements that I’ve used throughout my whole career. And then it ends with this anthemic feel that I’ve never had before.
Having heard that, people are going to be surprised by some of the other moments on the album.
Very early on in writing this record I knew that “2 Years On” would come first and “House Inside” would come last. In very different indirect ways, a lot of the same themes are happening lyrically in those two songs. They’re about dealing with the future and the past, and dealing with family. They’re dealing with life on earth, but filtered through this dream lens. I believe more and more in a faith that has nothing to do with God or a god transcendent. I really think that faith is this earthly, irrevocable thing.
I believe more and more in a faith that has nothing to do with God or a god transcendent. I really think that faith is this earthly, irrevocable thing.
Are you aware of your influence on a certain style of music? Are you aware that people are trying to make records that sound like your first two records? Does that push you to try and evolve and keep moving forward?
On one hand, it’s flattering when I respect the artist. We just did a show with Ricky Eat Acid—amazing guys, just the sweetest guys. Their music is phenomenal. And he was hugely inspired by Love Remains and Total Loss. It’s evident to me, I can see or hear something and think that was a move I would’ve made a couple years ago. He’s a really creative guy, hes not copping my style or anything.
But it is weird when I hear someone and I’m like, “Holy shit, they’re just copping my shit. That’s a soundbite.” It’s a weird thing that some of the music came from me. Not trying to sound like a dick, but it is cool that I started some of this shit! Legitimately started this shit. Some of the stuff that’s flowed from it is the most inspiring music I’ve listened to in the last few years. It’s depressing when someone doesn’t have their own ideas and they’re kind of just following you out. So that’s annoying. And it’s also annoying when I get grouped with artists that I shouldn’t give a shit about.
How would you categorize that sound that has influenced these artists? Some people might call it indie R&B or alt-R&B, no one really knows what to call it…
Whatever it’s called, every single band now has “R&B vibes.” I swear to God I’ll listen to some shit and in a magazine it said it had “R&B vibes” but it has nothing to do with R&B, it’s just rock music. But nowadays you just have to have that word in your stable in order to get press attention. Which is great, because R&B music is music that—it just means that someone is actually trying to sing something with some kind of emotional content.
That was why I was attracted to both R&B and emo music. In high school I used to make fun of my friend who used to listen to Pavement because I saw it as so indie. I don’t ever wanna be indie if indie means there isn’t that emotion, that creaturely element. I don’t ever want to do that. I’m happy when people are making real emotional music.
“What Is This Heart?” is out today, June 24. You can buy the physical, digital, or deluxe edition of the album through How To Dress Well’s website here.