How To Dress Well interview:

19.09.10, Words by: Ruth Saxelby

In the heat (remember the heat?) of a Tuesday night back in early July, Charlie and I went to see Blondes (read interview here) for the second time in a week. It was one of those nights when everything felt very important, very present, very real. Blondes were incredible (again) and going straight home after the gig just wasn’t an option. The music had us too revved up. So we piled in a taxi and went on to the Alibi to Ximon from TEETH’s Trans night. Blondes sang karaoke. We ate chips and drank beer. Then a few people started wandering round to the tiny, nearly pitch-black backroom. Something was happening. A tall, skinny guy was stood alone, bathed in the fractured, multicolour light from a projector streaming repeated visuals onto the wall behind him. The air was thick with anticipation. What was he was going to do? When he opened his mouth, the sound that came out knocked me sideways. I wasn’t expected

Hello Tom, how are you?

i’m super good, just got back to nyc for the first time in a year, having a blast.

You’re based in Berlin, right? But you grew up in America? What
prompted your move and what’s Berlin like? I’ve never been.

no no no… i was based in köln, germany for a year—- i was in berlin a bunch over last year tho, it’s fun. saw Black devil disco club, which was sooooo inspiring. living abroad was super great—- i had a lot of time to really focus on my goals.

I saw you at The Alibi in London after a nearby Blondes gig a little
while back. Your performance really floored me. I hadn’t heard your
music before and it was totally, beautifully unexpected. Did you
enjoy the gig?

wow! you were there!? that was a really special show—- super intimate, great sound (c powers of mane mane did my sound), with all my homies there (including the dudes from blondes and noam from merok). that was a really fun show—- had a total party vibe, which is rare for a htdw show, cuz i have some super mellow, slow-burners. and some people don’t know how to handle lo-fi pop live—- the homies at the alibi were just straight up wild and so positive!

How did you get into making music?

i started singing as a little boy cuz my mom loves to sing and so she put me in lessons. then in highschool i made friends with two dudes who were in a punk band together, and they taught me to play guitar and we started a band together. but it’s always been about the human voice for me.

I love the intro to ‘You Hold The Water’, the first track on Love
Remains, with the audio clip of a suburban dinner conversation
eroding into distortion – like we’re being freed from the everyday.
Where did the clip come from?

ya, you know, i really love that reading of that intro—- it’s setting the stage for the break from the familiar i’m trying to affect with my music. that’s great. the clip, tho i probably shouldn’t tell you for copyright purposes, comes from one of my fave films, which is a really sick meditation of the meaning of anxiety, and the relation of anxiety to meaning-making more generally. it’s beautiful.

One of the things that’s so involving about your music is the
seemingly multiple stories, the layered vocals, the barely audible
murmuring in the background. Your biog talks of a desire to not serve
up meaning but to allow listeners to find their own.
‘Traditional’ (please excuse the clumsy labelling) R&B often follows
a set narrative, tells a very precise story, has a thematic message
that aligns with one of music/life’s big emotional themes. I like the
freeness of your music. When and why did you start exploring music in
this way?

i mean, i would be lying if i said “one day i self-consciously began exploring BLAH BLAH’‘—- it happened to me in a kind of fundamental way. i mean, i just started making this one song in september, called suicide dream 1, and i was singing a melody off the top of my head about a dream i had and heard myself cribbing r. kelly’s ‘I wish’ melodically and i really fell in love with the sound. then a bunch of songs just poured out of me. i started layering vocals a few years ago to make drone songs with really wild feedback and overtones and a really ghostly vibe—- then i just sort of found my voice, as it were. like all the stuff you know of as HTDW is really the music i started making when i finally felt like i had overcome a lot of anxiety about who i am as an artist, as a man, etc.

also, i should say: emotional life is never clean or unambiguous. affect is always at least minimally ambivalent, and more often that not it’s straightforwardly so. so i just try to be honest to that fact in my songs…

Who/what do you listen to? Whose music provides that kind of
freeness, that space, for you?

i love a bunch of music. lately it’s been a ton of nurse with wound, teebs, this record by teitanblood called ‘seven chalices,’ gucci’s ‘mr. zone 6,’ the newest coco rosie…. and a record i always return to, every summer, is ‘afro finger and gel’ by MU, so fun! also—- ‘superman high’ by kels w/ oj da juiceman is a sick summer banger.

I sometimes think we use music as a filter – as a way to refract,
reflect or reframe our emotions, to enable us to see/feel them more
clearly. What do you think?

that’s definitely one way we use music… i mean, i tend to think music is not really something we use, per se. it always exceeds it’s use-value….

Do you mainly work alone (is Decisions the only collaboration on the
album?)? Who would you most like to duet with if you had your pick of
anyone?

ha! google my collaborator on that cut ‘yüksel arslan’…. i would love to do a duet with antony, with the dream, with jamie stewart…. oh man, so many people. i’ve been thinking lately about how lucky we are to be alive with so many great people!

‘Love Remains’ evokes some very deep, sometimes painful, emotions.
But it ultimately leaves me feeling peaceful, hopeful. At the risk of
sounding corny (apologies if so), I completely agree: no matter how
hidden, love remains. Is this something you’ve always felt or a
feeling you’ve reached over time?

i wouldn’t quite agree. i mean, the emotional range of the album is due to a realization i had last winter, namely that love does not always remain, that love can be ruined, that we can be mindless of love and bring it to mere ruins or remains. in my case, my love for my girl made it through some negativity and grew to monumental new heights. for us, love remains, but this does not mean that love eternally abides, but rather that it must be worked for and cherished in order to remain a living love and not merely become the remains of love.

Will ‘Love Remains’ be released in the UK? When are you playing here
again?

ya the record will have big distro for sure… not sure yet who will be doing uk/europe, but somebody will for sure.

What are your dreams with How To Dress Well?

my dreams…. i don’t know. i just want to reach as many people as possible and make as much music as possible and love what i’m doing. it’s been so positive for me so far, i just want to keep that going. oh, and as i’ve said elsewhere: I WANT TO WORK WITH KANYE.

And, as an aside, is dressing well important? Why?

it is ya. i mean, you don’t have to dress like high-fashion or whatever (i don’t), and you don’t have to dress with trends or whatever, but i def think that humans’ dress is not some supererogatory or superficial phenomena.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to over the next few months?

really excited about my record (sept. 21) and my 7” with transparent records in august!