How To Dress Well interview: “How to hear right.”

Following the release of his third album, Tom Krell talks mind-body divisions, playing basketball, and why he doesn't relate to irony.

"It’s cool, we’re developing our own cultural metapsychology here," says Tom Krell, otherwise known as How To Dress Well, over a plate of ricotta and miscellaneous courgettes in a slightly swank restaurant of London’s Shoreditch area. He’s referring to his developing theory of pure noise-as-psychosis, following on from the brain’s bent to pattern recognition and the “massive theoretical fiction” of the mind-body division. Cutting the academic figure, as so much press about the future R&B performer with his famously sentimental turn alludes to, Krell’s rounded thin-rimmed spectacles hold a head that seems itself split between scenes. As a Chicago-based PhD candidate currently writing a dissertation on “the problem of Nihilism”, it’s hard to imagine that this is the same person I’d seen crooning Ashanti and Janet Jackson covers at Field Day last year – eyes closed, hand hovering over his heart. “Only an idiot would say that they’re a Nihilist because it’s actually an untenable view. If Nihilism is true, then Nihilism is not a very important theory.”

The man makes a point, but I’m more interested in how our developing conversation – although digressing wildly across topics from his favourite ‘post-ironic’ authors (David Foster Wallace, Leslie Jameson, George Saunders) to the Colonial fantasy of self-actualisation – reveals how much his intellect and intuition are connected. If not for the fact that the rising orchestral ebb of emotion in Pour Cyril – stopping just shy of melodrama via the bendy, warp-y soundwaves heaving through its composition – is inspired by Cannes Grand Prix-winner The Kid with a Bike. Or that House Inside (Future is Older than the Past) comes from this “Imperialist idea of the future” that, in moving forward, anything is possible: “where it’s like it’s just a new land. Where we’re just going to go there and be free and set up a new world. Where, actually, it’s totally populated with the people of your life, and the present, and your past”.

All this from lyrics that Krell tells me are initially free-styled for his third album ‘What Is This Heart?’: “I spent about two weeks in June transcribing all of my freestyles and looking at everything to see where things would fit and I started to notice that across all the songs I was constantly quoting people; things that I had overheard, something someone had said to someone else. Or when I had said something, the full consequence of which I didn't understand; I hadn’t said something that I wish I had said. There were just, like, quotes all over the place. It was a pretty interesting experience for me to see all the different people that populate my so-called autobiography. This thing that’s supposed to be just me, pure me, is full of all those other people.”

You take from such a broad pool of influences, what’s the logic behind where you take them from?

How To Dress Well: “There’s no real logic; it’s just intuition. That philosophy stuff influences me on some basic level but I never have a theoretical approach to music at all. It’s really about “affective resonance”, so I’ll be listening to one song and I’ll be like ‘oh you know what, this kind of vibes with this song’. I’ll put them on and like maybe it strikes me as a bit funny. Like, ‘ok these are crazy things to juxtapose’ but if I really feel it and just trust that it’s there I have no qualms about synthesising elements if I feel that that synthesis was available.

“In terms of putting things together, there’s nothing that I apply in advance, it’s just if things feel right. It’s cool actually. There are two times in my life where I’m really able to be intuitive and not just trapped in the head: music and playing basketball. I’m not that good but I just find myself doing things, like, I didn't see that if I went over here and threw a ball there I would achieve that. I just did it and I knew it in my gut."

“Only an idiot would say that they’re a Nihilist because it’s actually an untenable view. If Nihilism is true, then Nihilism is not a very important theory.” - How To Dress Well 

I like this bridge between intuition and concept; as an instinctual thing that also has reasoning.

How To Dress Well: “Yeah, I don’t want to separate concepts and intuitions that much. This is the thing; my sort of final analysis, or my theory on this is that being too much in your head is actually an attempt to separate concepts and intuitions. When you get out of your head, you realise that your intuitions are actually full of conceptual stuff.

“Like, I’ll listen to a Tracy Chapman song and I’ll have a hunch that it would segue into this Rich Homie Quan song. I have that hunch, not on some brute animal bodily side of things, without concepts, but because my body has been trained over my life through my listening practices. The things that are important to me – the way I taught myself and have been taught to register emotion in music, the way I hear melodies – there’s so much conceptual history that makes intuitions the ones they are. You can train your intuitions.

“Practicing in basketball, watching videos, going through play charts and shit, makes you more able, literally. If you watch videos and see how speeds work, you have better court vision in the moment. There’s this idea that concepts and intuitions are separated but that’s an attempt to get all the way on the side of thoughts. And actually, that does a disservice to how smart the body is.”

It is interesting, that mind-body distinction. The very way you interact, the way people respond to you, the way you move around a table has a direct impact on how you perceive the world.

How To Dress Well: “Mind-body split is like a massive theoretical fiction. We’re constantly, in this conceptual and intuitional way, finding all these paths through the world. Literally, the things that appear before your eyes are what are salient to you. If you spend your entire life studying colour theory and you walk in here, that’s the first thing you’re going to see. I don't give a fuck about colour theory. I could never talk about it in my entire life so I walk in here and I’m like, ‘the hard wood floors are like in my apartment’.”

“Mind-body split is like a massive theoretical fiction. We’re constantly, in this conceptual and intuitional way, finding all these paths through the world. Literally, the things that appear before your eyes are what are salient to you." - How To Dress Well  

One thing that strikes me is that, especially as a journalist, I’ll leave this conversation with a certain impression of it. Then I’ll listen back to the recording and have a whole new one. It’s scary.

How To Dress Well: “You’re constantly exposed. Things are constantly shifting around and changing.”

Even in terms of what your ear chooses to hear. When I record a conversation, my dictaphone won’t necessarily pick up how I heard it the first time around.

How To Dress Well: “That thing also has a very different ear than you have because it doesn’t have all the same concerns that you have.”

It’s an interesting interaction between man and machine.

How To Dress Well: “That’s what production for me is all about. Trying to figure out how, through technological means, to teach the recording device to have the ear that you have. Like, it hears all these bright things but I want it to hear these ones, so I’ll put this on it and teach it how to hear right. Well, not right but how to hear what I’m trying to hear.”

In terms of that kind of translation, do you concern yourself with how people hear and interpret your work?

How To Dress Well: “You can only do so much. There’s this whole adage, ‘stone thrown is in the devil’s hands’ or whatever, which means, once I do something in the world, it’s not up to me to completely control the consequences of it. My intention only goes so far.

“Once I release it, literally in the case of an album, it belongs to other people and then I’m responsible; I have to respond to what other people are telling me. I learn a lot about my work through doing press. I’ll be like, ‘oh shit you’re right, that song never registered to me in that way and actually that might be more right then my own interpretation of it’. But I try to do a lot of context work, that’s what the mixes do. Obviously that’s what press is about too. Making sure that people at the very least know where I feel like I’m sitting. Or how I sort of hear things.”

 “The only people that can afford to be straightforwardly naïve are privileged people, and the only people that can afford to be straightforwardly cynical are privileged people. Everybody else has to navigate some balance between those things." - How To Dress Well

Thinking in terms of the sincerity in your music, there doesn’t appear to be much irony in it.

How To Dress Well: “The only people that can afford to be straightforwardly naïve are privileged people, and the only people that can afford to be straightforwardly cynical are privileged people. Everybody else has to navigate some balance between those things. Where you’re not going to buy some bullshit story about how to save yourself but you’re also not going to say, ‘I’m un-save-able’ and just whither away and die. 

"So, for me it’s about figuring out how to have some sort of, like, ‘second naïveté’; where you pass through cynicism but you don’t take it the point of being like, ‘hey, what’s gonna change, man. It’s just more of the same”. But I don't really relate to irony. Frankly, I don’t really believe that irony is real. I don't think that anyone has ever told an ironic racist joke. I think people have just told racist jokes. I don't think that anybody has ever been ironically sexist. I actually don’t believe that irony exists, in any way, shape or form."

I’ve thought about it in terms of that Nietzschean idea of the inexplicable origins of intent. Whether ironic or racist, whatever your intention, the outcome is the same.

How To Dress Well: “Also, the only difference is that you know that you are a racist. That’s, I guess, what an ironic racist joke, or an ironic sexist joke is. Like, ‘man, I’m fuckin’ super sexist’. It’s like, ‘What? How does that do anything? That doesn’t change anything’. It’s like over-investing in self-awareness. My major problem is that people think that if you’re like, ‘I know that I’m doing this. I know that I’m stepping on this person’s hand’. See?”

Where does humour sit for you then?

How To Dress Well: “I don't know. I don't really do a lot of humour in the music. I think there’s some cheekiness, here and there. Precious Love is cheeky to my mind but I don’t think that humour has to be ironic. I think it can just be pretty straightforward.”

I was thinking there is no self-awareness in your music, in that sense.

How To Dress Well: “There is, sort of, some songs. But I also don’t think that humour is self-awareness.”

It’s more awareness.

How To Dress Well: “Well, it’s just a different way of doing things. Like, it’s a human thing, a fact that we can both laugh and cry. I think that basically all art comes out of those two facts.”

And you choose more to cry.

How To Dress Well: “Yeah. Also Very Best Friend, the pre-chorus is, like, funny. But it’s quite serious also. You know what, I used to talk about this with my friend Rob. He used to always make fun of me for not liking funny music. He loved They Might Be Giants and shit like that, back when he was a teenager. That was it, I was just never moved by it at all but, I don't know, maybe I’ll do a comedy record next.”

Weird World released 'What Is This Heart?' on June 23rd 2014 (buy)

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