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Talking to How To Dress Well about pop music and not staying sad forever

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On his new album Care, Tom Krell tries to subvert your expectations of him

Ben Tricklebank

Tom Krell’s first full-length album as How To Dress Well was called Love Remains. That 2010 album — a collection of lo-fi home recordings — features the track "Suicide Dream 2," in which Krell sings (though you can barely hear him through the song’s murky effects), "What would it mean to live a life that wasn’t like this?" It’s a deeply wounded moment, and one vulnerable enough to capture the attention of listeners who would stick with Krell through two more albums of lush, if sometimes painful, experimental pop. Now, Krell might have found the answer to that question with his new album, Care.

You might even get away with calling it joyful

Care is How To Dress Well’s fourth LP, and his most buoyant one to date. While 2014’s What Is This Heart? saw Krell moving into more forgiving territory — its single "Repeat Pleasure" is a sweet, jittery love song — Care is his first album that you might be able to get away with calling joyful. Its 11 tracks are mostly interested in tender feelings, of romance, kindness, and acceptance. Krell recently called its opener "Can’t You Tell" a "consent-pop" song; on "What’s Up," he sings "I said I love your thoughts / The way they wander with such energy" and then, "I also love your thighs."

Krell told me the album’s sound is a reaction not only to listeners’ perception of him, but to what he sees as a lack of pleasure in current pop music. Pleasure has always existed somewhere in Krell’s work: pleasure in misery is pleasure nonetheless. But with Care, Krell makes the point that exuberance — and not just abjection — has a place in serious art. "We tend to trivialize happiness, even though, in fact, happiness is an extreme kind of labor," he told me.

Krell and I talked about Care, his progression as an artist, and why it’s easy to hold onto sadness.

What was your thought process going into this?

I don’t really do a lot of thinking. That’s not really my vibe with the art. My vibe is more just, I love playing around and making these songs. So I’ll play and play and play, and then eight months later I’ll be like "Oh, shit I have like 35 songs And then I’ll realize that 16 of those 35 songs are the same thing, and maybe there’s one good part in one song that I’ll transplant into another one. I know now more clearly what I was up to than I did then. Then I was just feeling big feelings and making them into songs, and now I’m like "Oh of course, you were going through this, the two-year anniversary of this when you wrote those songs," and so forth.

Were there any specific sounds you were interested in this time?

A lot of heavier sounds. For me, making music is always related to listening to music. I don’t know if you’ve seen this playlist that I have on Spotify, it’s pretty cool for me because every time I have a reference, it’s just deposited in that playlist, and if you take it all together you can hear what was going on for me referentially. Sort of one of the essential references from the start was the song "Dream Baby Dream" by Suicide. That’s a weird one because they’re such freaks and they just smashed out this pop-punk song and somehow it was the most punk thing they’ve ever done. It was really inspiring to me where I was like, "This is so melodic, and chipper, and happy, but it’s so surprising for them." I was like, something about this feels so charged to me. Our biggest pop stars right now are making such difficult music that almost as a reaction I started getting really into music that was a bit more interested in happiness and pleasure and less interested in trying to be serious art. Because I really think that part of the importance of pop music is that it’s an oasis in the desert of contemporary life. It’s not a coincidence to me that pop music as we understand it now emerged about the time that neoliberal late-stage capitalism starts, roughly in the early ’80s. And pop music becomes this thing where material life is a complete fucking nightmare, globalization, total destruction of all social safety nets. While those safety nets are falling apart, this pop music pops up that’s like this weird moment of relief that’s so charged by the desperation of daily life. And when I listen to serious music from pop stars I’m like, Wait, you’re supposed to save me from this, not contribute to it.

"Pop music is a weird moment of relief that’s so charged by the desperation of daily life"

Can you give me some examples of who you’re talking about?

I mean, all of them. I don’t wanna talk shit about anyone but all the pop stars who are prized the most right now are making concept records. Or trying to make bodies of work that are... I don’t know, artistic on a level that’s... it falls flat. Rihanna doesn’t make art albums, she makes "Umbrella." And the moments on that album where she makes "Umbrella" are amazing, but the rest, I don’t know.

You didn’t like "Higher"?

I love "Higher." "Higher" is sick.

I feel like your album’s a lot more buoyant this time around. Its structure feels like a collection of micro-songs, or songs within songs. It reminds me of Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, very orchestral in a pop-ish way.

It’s funny, a friend of mine mentioned Age of Adz to me the other day. I haven’t ever listened to even one song off the album. I’m gonna dig in today.

I think there is a certain point when listeners start to expect certain things from a particular artist, and with Care it’s not what I was expecting.

For sure. That was a big thing for me. I’m always a little bit reactive. I made my first record because I felt like everyone was making the most boring, stiff indie rock. And so I made an ambient R&B record. And then, some of the sounds that I’ve generated in the past five years or so just became sounds that you heard in everything. Everyone was just doing reverb-y vocal R&B stuff. I was like, "Okay well it’s time for me to do something new again." But that’s how I approach every record. I definitely think that this record is completely... it’s confrontational how different it is, almost. It kind of forces the listener to mentally reorient themselves. Did you feel like you also had to perform this mental reorientation while you were writing it? Yeah 100 percent. I mean, that’s why I did it. To return myself to a place where I was really playing freely again. I would be like, "Okay I want to do this, but that doesn’t work on this kind of song now." You have to reexamine old instincts and find new ways of moving in the songs. It was so much more labor because I didn’t rest on my laurels or whatever.

This idea of micro-songs is really interesting, and it really resonates with me. I didn’t realize it, but, instead of just writing one 3-minute gauzy sound, I tried to treat every little scene like it had its own organic integrity. Every time a scene changes, it’s like in a film, you don’t have time to let the camera linger on something unless it’s really purposefully doing so. And I just tried to be really purposeful with every sonic choice, every arrangement.

There are specific parts on this album that really remind me of hip-hop. There’s a specific part in "What’s Up" that reminds me of "Panda," and "The Ruins" reminds me of Migos.

It’s just a relationship for me between listening to and making music. Listening to music is in the laboratory of my creative process — it’s not a separate thing. And so listening to Migos and 21 Savage and Yachty and Uzi Vert and Future and Young Thug, they live in my brain now. They live in my creative heart, or whatever. I think that’s what makes your sound really hard to pin down. How would you describe it to someone who had never heard it? Each of my records is always a pop compendium. Obviously I’m doing 21st century pop music, which means a certain kind of pastiche, a certain kind of collaging of elements across the pop spectrum. Pop just means anything that’s popular at any given time. So what’s pop now is anything from Top 40 country music, to Young Thug, to Taylor Swift. If you listen to Kiss FM, the Kiss FM template since like 1990 has included literally every genre of music. The Kiss FM template from 1990 to present has house music, drum and bass, really aggressive techno, folk, country, alt rock, rap, trap.

There’s always the outliers, too. "Steal My Sunshine" by Len was a track I listened to a lot while making the record. It’s just so weird to me that that was a No. 1, you know? It’s so sick. It’s this really annoying sample with a male / female rap part, and then at the end there’s this hip hop breakdown that’s not on the radio edit, but it’s like (sings), "ROCK ROCK to the beat." It’s so cheesy.

Because you don’t feel like pop music is doing what you wish it was doing right now, do you feel a responsibility to fill in that gap?

Yeah definitely. On all my records I feel like I’m honoring a gap that I perceive between things. My first record was literally like, "What if I made a link between music for airports and The Dream’s Love vs. Money." So I just stretch my arms across that gap and see if I can help people get across it.

Have you ever seen the movie Mommy by Xavier Dolan? There’s this amazing scene that I was trying to honor on this record. The movie’s about this really troubled boy, like ADHD, maybe somewhere on the autism spectrum, quite aggressively angry, and his single mom and their travails together. It’s a very anxious movie because whenever he leaves the screen you always expect him to come back in a rage. And there’s one scene where he comes back and he sings an entire Celine Dion song into a hairbrush. And Xavier Dolan is famous for playing full pop songs in his movies, and so the song starts playing over the performance of it, and you’re just basically watching this long montage to "On Ne Change Pas" by Celine Dion. And it was kind of the moment when I realized what I was talking about earlier, which is that pop music is related to desperation in life, and how it’s important to my mind to have an utopian kind of thinking to show us a path out of the present. And I think even though pop music is maybe now more connected to current events, it doesn’t really show us a path out. I want to make pop music that’s a protest against the drab, gray, depressed monotone of neoliberalism.

"I want to make pop music that’s a protest against the drab, gray, depressed monotone of neoliberalism."

I’ve been thinking a lot about being sad recently, like the mental state of being sad. It kind of becomes a default. It’s the easiest emotion to feel. Then, while listening to this album I realized that it’s an entirely distinct action to try and become happy. And it’s almost more difficult to make happy art, while at the same time there’s a weightiness that’s always given immediately to sadder art.

This is literally 100 percent what I was thinking about when making the record. We, as a culture, we only allow truth in art if it’s connected to what I now perceive as a fake-serious, faux-serious profoundness. We tend to trivialize happiness, even though in fact happiness is an extreme kind of labor. And it’s easy enough to fall into some kind of bullshit New Age happiness, but whatever true happiness would be for you — it’s gotta be quite individual, quite deep, profound, not a shallow thing. Contemporary society flourishes when the worker is depressed and abject and has nothing pulling him or her towards something more compelling than working at a fucking Chipotle for minimum wage. If they can keep us depressed, they can keep us manipulable.

I think happiness and pleasure and joy are really explosive political affects. And if people start to pursue them, they become less docile bodies. And I was definitely starting to write music again after What Is This Heart? like "Ugh, I don’t want to just write another fucking sad song." It’s so easy, and so juvenile. When you’re a teenager and you start to realize that you can be sad, it feels so thematically rich and almost philosophical in a way where you’re like, "Wow, I’m a full person out of nowhere." But it just gets tiring. I’m 32 now, and I don’t just want to rest on my sad teen laurels. So I wanted to see if I could do something that connected truth to goodness, and truth to happiness, instead of just despair.