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How to Dress Well Tries to Breathe Under Capitalism

Tom Krell didn’t expect Los Angeles to feel like this. The 34-year-old songwriter known professionally as How To Dress Well is sitting cross-legged on his bed, struggling to describe the tension at the heart of a city he calls both “extremely beautiful” and “borderline psychotic.”

“I have a little yard and a nice house that I like, and it’s just a little easier to live out here in some ways,” he says from his home via FaceTime. “But then it’s vexing in equal proportion to that. For instance, the homelessness situation in this city is worse than anywhere I’ve ever lived. It’s just a constant exposure to the realities of capitalism.”

After spending roughly the last decade jetting between Chicago, New York, and Cologne, Krell seems shocked that a new city can still inspire such intensity in him, even after spending nearly two years there working on his new album. “I got to LA and I really had to reckon with the fact that the hell was completely inside me,” he says. “I was thrown into a place where all of the sudden, I was spending countless more daily hours by myself. I just poured myself back into the things that I understand, reading and writing poetry, and listening extensively to music.”

His new album The Anteroom, which arrives October 19, documents his transition to the city. It’s also an attempt to get back to the experimental roots of the How to Dress Well project after steering closer and closer to pop over the last few years. While his 2016 album Care found the vocalist working with producers like Jack Antonoff and dancehall auteur Dre Skull, Krell says that the music was always more about a “logic of infiltration” than any sincere attempt to crack the charts. “My dream was to have, like, Australian surf bros, arms up, singing a lyric about the unassailability of loss, or the brutality of the contemporary material economic situation,” he jokes. “I followed the lead of a lot of other people more than listening to myself. I still think it’s a very beautiful piece of music that I really cherish.”

With The Anteroom, Krell hones his focus on the textural aspects of sound at its most primal, working with Joel Ford, the studio wizard behind albums like Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica and Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety. Recent single “Vacant Boat (shred) | Nonkilling 1 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1” features jagged shards of smartphone-recorded vocal samples filtered through dizzying effects and reassembled into something harsh and uncanny. The track was soon followed by another artistic statement of intent called “Nonkilling 6 | Hunger,” a slapping, four-on-the-floor house track with powerful, posthuman visuals from a growing cast of collaborators affiliated with the Noh / Wave gallery in Los Angeles, an important part of Krell’s newfound community in the city.

Those collaborators, along with the album’s experimental sonics, reflect Krell’s renewed interest in underground music and arts. “I want to be putting my energy into a community of which I would like to be a member,” he says “I might really love to listen to the Charlie Puth record, but instead of listening to that, I’m going to disenthrall myself with the pop enterprise and listen to some new reissue on a sub-label of RVNG [Intl.] because I want those people to succeed. I want to help enable a community where they are flourishing.”

You worked with your Jack Antonoff on Care, your last album. Were you explicitly trying to make a radio-friendly pop record at that point?

Yeah, I had wanted cash in on this idea of making left-of-center pop music. I wanted to make money from music in a different way, and it felt like the door was open for that to be possible. I have a lot of people in my life who are currently dependent on me for their financial well-being, and everyone has different reasons for doing things. I’m politically and philosophically a critic of capitalism, but both of my older brothers are disabled and they work 40-plus hours a week and don’t crack the poverty line. My critique of capitalism actually has material pressures, which make theoretical consistency seem barbaric. So when people ask how I could make a decision as an artist that’s oriented towards money, it’s because I have multiple lifetimes of personal debt because of paying for medical costs for people in my life.

How has that changed with the new record? Have you stopped trying so explicitly to make money?

No, I still hope to make quite a bit of money off of this record. [Laughs.] The last record, thematically, was just limited. But it was a very important step in terms of music-making, and I think about how much I learned as a producer making that record. On my first record, I was just playing. I hadn’t even thought of having a career in music. And then my second and third records, I didn’t have my head above water in terms of myself as an artist. I was really working through stuff in my life using music. Care was the first record where I was like, “I’m an artist, let me figure out a terrain and make some claims and make some aesthetic gestures and try to make a statement or a move.”

This new record, however, came out of a different place. Making this record, I can’t tell if it almost killed me or it saved my life. Both I guess. But now I feel like—and this sounds hubristic—but I feel like I’ve finally actually hit my stride in a really fucking cool way.

It seems like there’s a newfound interest in sound design. Maybe I’m reading a lot into The Anteroom as a metaphor and the spatial focus on sound, but I hear a close attention to texture in a way that didn’t really exist before.

This is definitely the most sonically advanced thing I’ve ever done. I started to feel like I was losing my fucking mind. I started to pass into a space where making music—like melody and organization—was really being threatened by my experience of the material reality of sound. I would sing something and then I would listen back and could only hear timbre. I had the sense of falling into a space from which I could fall out of control. But then making the music, I was able to stabilize myself in that space. The beginning of “Body Fat” starts with this melody that I sang into my phone. A better recording of it takes over eventually, but I was doing this for three hours straight.

When you’re working on something, do you normally start with these vocal recordings, meditate on that, and determine how to proceed from there? Or how do you approach songwriting?

Yeah. It would be really funny to release some of the original things, because I always start with vocal recordings. I started recording myself making all these sounds with my mouth, looking at the waveform, and then plugging things in there to fit into the waveform, in this schizophrenic improvisational practice. What I like about starting with the vocal is that it’s material and personal—not my personality, but my person, my flesh. That opened it up to going beyond just writing melody, which is what Care was—pure, harmonious melody. But with this record, I discovered this new possibility for improvisation which wasn’t as wedded to melody.

The sound design came out of a need to match the chaos of some of these improvisational moments. You can do things with your mouth that have timbral dynamics that are actually very difficult to do with a single instrument. That’s why it started to become this really kind of mangled and shredded record.

There were a few lines on the album that seemed to be about AI and science fiction. What inspired those?

Yeah, I think I have a unique position on AI. I think in the next 75 years, we’re going to have artificial intelligences which are so much more intellectually capable, autonomous—so much more like the engines we think ourselves to be than we actually are. I actually find myself grieving for them because I think that by the time that human beings die off, we won’t have been able to muster the honesty and integrity to give the artificial intelligences the skills to understand the things that actually matter to us. We won’t have given artificial intelligence the capacity to understand why we loved, why we made songs.

I feel for AI the same way I feel for myself in relation to my parents, and my parents in relation to their parents. Our parents can’t give us care because they themselves did not receive care, and we can’t give to these AI what they would need in order to be able to understand us and their place in the cosmos. I worry that they will suffer from a melancholy which is an entire scale up from all human melancholy. It might not be experienced emotionally, but they’ll be extremely confused. I think that the degree of confusion is sad. It’s a real missed opportunity, but maybe it’s just not possible to not miss the opportunity.

Kind of on this note, I know you posed in a photo with Lil Miquela, the CGI Instagram “influencer” that’s been written up in places like Vogue and the Washington Post. How did that happen?

That was before I knew. I truly regret being involved in that in any way.

How did that come together? Do you know the person behind it?

Yeah, I know the person behind it. They were like, “Hey send a picture, this could be funny” and now, I get like multiple messages daily being like “Fuck you, pussy, tell us who the fuck Miquela is.” It’s very weird and they use a lot of slurs. But then additionally, the people behind Lil Miquela are just capitalists of the lowest sort.

I don’t know what their aspirations are for the project, but it seems like they’re trying to cross over and make music now, with Baauer. Did they ever reach out about potentially collaborating on music?

Yeah, they asked a couple times recently, but I was just like, “No, this is fucking stupid.” But I don’t know, I would do it because maybe it’d be a way to make some money.

For awhile you kinda got pegged as this alt-R&B guy. As that has changed, have you kept up with like SoundCloud rap, which has, in a way, grown out of that?

It’s interesting: I became aesthetically invested in R&B music because people around me really liked bands like Wilco. I always like my listening habits to have at least a shred of the possibility of completely disgusting people that I don’t like. Like I want the people who I don’t like and don’t think have taste to be shocked that I’m playing that at a party, or listening to that, or making music like that.

I was then associated with a group of people because of journalists. When I would do interviews around my first record, people would associate the project with acts like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. The reason I made Care as such a pop record and not an R&B record—because there’s this cool-guy aspect to R&B now that I’m really allergic to. I wanted Care to be like… Sheryl Crow, offensive ‘90s pop, not like some kind of emotional, Justin Bieber’s Purpose, R&B thing. I felt exploited.

When I first started listening to Young Thug, I was like, “This is so flamboyant and aggressive.” And now SoundCloud rap is just so neutralized. Even in its most extreme forms, I’m just not moved by it. Some of it is super sick.

Do you think a lot about how your new record is gonna received on the internet?

I was really fortunate to have the historical reality of the blogosphere to get a bunch of people who were deep in music discovery mode listening to my work, it’s priceless. It’s maybe the greatest thing that ever happened to me, the blogs.

I have friends who play in a band and their debut album got Best New Music on Pitchfork, and it doesn’t mean what it used to. We used to all support each other—we wanted these shows to be successful so that the musicians and their labels can be successful so that we could have a community we’re a part of and a world that we fit into. Now, the world that everybody’s bolstering is just the most banal form of capitalism, an a-communal world.

The clear distinction between counterculture as something specifically opposed to the mainstream has maybe faded in some sense.

Yeah, in a very dangerous way. I guess that’s also part of this record that I’ve made. I want it to land in a world that I want to be a part of. I want to be putting my energy into a community of which I would like to be a member. I might really love to listen to the Charlie Puth record, but instead of listening to that, I’m going to disenthrall myself with the pop enterprise and listen to some new reissue on a sub-label of RVNG [Intl.], because I want those people to succeed. I want to help enable a community where they are flourishing. I just started to realize that I have to reflect this will in my work. As I was working on the record, there were moments where I made decisions to push the record in one way. I fell in love with music because it was carrying a signal that I didn’t even know I needed to hear—teaching me a language of my own sadness and teaching the language of my refusal of this culture and system of oppression. I just wanted to become a signal-carrier again in the right way.