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Q&A: How to Dress Well on Boy Bands, Emojis, and Radical Tenderness

Tom Krell is not a self-help guru, but not because he’s unqualified. The 32-year-old delayed finishing his philosophy dissertation to work on being a pop star. As How to Dress Well, he’s just released his fourth album, Care, a radiant, breathless record with zero emotional inhibition. In song, Krell is anxious, horny, devoted, devastated, and brighter and more charismatic than ever. It’s a stance complemented nicely by his online persona, which is bubbly, gracious, and loves emojis. Krell isn’t one to spill details of his personal life online, but he is super-sincere about emotional sincerity.

“I had an interaction on Twitter the other day where someone was like, ‘I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy the earnest, sentimental-guy thing,’” Krell says over the phone. “I was like, ‘What don’t you buy? You don’t think it’s who I am 24/7 behind closed doors?’ Like, of course not.” Artists don’t always tell the truth, he argues. He traces it back to the ancient Greeks. I trust him completely.

I called Krell on the road and caught him loitering outside of the Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ahead of a recent Monday-night show. His band was soundchecking, and strains of his own music wafted in over our conversation. Even under the circumstances—distracted and probably a little under-slept—he was erudite and disarmingly hip. We talked about pop music, the intolerability of the present, and how to love your haters.

What are some of your favorite boy bands?
I grew up in the central era of the boy bands. Obviously, I was a massive Backstreet Boys fan, and ‘NYSNC and 98 Degrees. Lately I’ve been dipping in heavy to the stuff that came before, the first generation stuff I was not alive for, like Take That and New Kids [on the Block].

What is it about that music that you admire?
Well, vocally, it’s fucking perfect, you know what I mean? That’s the main thing. But it’s just incredibly pure commercial music. I don’t admire it like I admire fine-art music. But in terms of the purity of the melodies, and the sentimentality, and the performance of emotion—it’s so overblown and beautiful. There’s a goofiness to it, which is not even the goofiness of pointing at it and laughing—it’s in it. They way they are jovial with each other and roughhouse in the videos and shit, it’s so sick.

Judging by your Twitter, you seem like you’re in a really emotionally healthy place right now. Is that the case in real life?
Partially. I don’t think people always understand that I’m an artist. There’s a performative aspect to it which is really important to recognize. That doesn’t cheapen it or anything. There’s something like performance of affect that I’m really into and interested in. I can affect my own mood by creating an avatar which is like, ideally tender and ideally sentimental. And then literally I’ve been able to change my life through doing that.

Do you think being happy is a decision you make? Or a series of decisions?
Both a decision and a consequence—oh my God! [Reacting to a wild puppy that’s appeared.] Such a cute puppy! Oooh. Goddamn, a little baby husky. Literally the size of a volleyball. Oh, it’s so cute.

I think one of the most essential things to being happy is unburdening yourself of certain cultural expectations about what happiness is supposed to be. But it’s also an extremely important virtue to not be happy, so long as you do it in the right way. We live in an extremely bad situation right now, like we have this [first presidential] debate tonight. When you look at that, you ought not be happy. But that unhappiness shouldn’t produce a passive nihilism or a cynicism about things. Happiness and unhappiness as an experience of intolerability of the present aren’t mutually exclusive.

Do you feel like your music is radical in any way?
I think that tenderness is a quite radical affect because it involves an admission of need and frailty that binds you to other people. Our contemporary atomized way of conceiving of ourselves and others is allergic to [that]. I didn’t set out to make anything radical. I was just making what I was feeling, what I wanted to see in the world, and then I started to find, “Oh damn, some people really have an allergic response to this.” I started to notice that I can predict pretty quickly the vibe and specifically the sex and sexual orientation of people who have polarized responses to my music. It’s not that all heterosexual men have an allergic response to my music, but among the people who really find it polarizing or disgusting, it’s predominately heterosexual guys.

What do you think those guys are reacting to?
I think they’re reacting to the fact that we are told that you’re not supposed to … It’s unbelievably sad how we’re disciplined into a hardness and a rigidity and anti-sympathetic relationship with other people on so many levels.

Are you saying that’s part of conventional masculinity?
It’s definitely part of conventional masculinity/patriarchy/the liberal subject/European modernism/contemporary capitalism, etcetera, L-O-L, and so forth. End quote.

What’s our best chance for resolving some of those issues?
Caring for yourself in a fundamental way and caring for others from that is probably the path. The way that I think about care as a concept, if you’re engaging in care for yourself, there’s a weird, miraculous moment that happens. If you really engage in care for someone else, or for yourself, it unfolds like a domino effect. If you’re really caring for yourself, that means a certain sympathetic relationship with others, which then opens you up to experience political effects which makes you engaged in all types of important ways.

To wrap up: What’s your favorite emoji?
Right now, I think it’s the upside-down smiley. To me it’s like, “I’m happy, but what do I know?” You text somebody you have a crush on and you hit ’em with the upside down emoji after saying something romantic. It’s a way of being like, “I just met you / And this is crazy.”