“Okay, I guess I’ll do the breakfast beer,” Tom Krell sighs. “And a coffee as well.” It’s 11:00 a.m. in Vancouver, British Columbia and Krell—aka How to Dress Well—is my unenthusiastic drinking buddy. “Thanks for playing along,” I say. “What do you do if an artist doesn’t drink?” Krell asks, half-sarcastically. “I don’t think it’s a prerequisite,” I reply.
Krell released his latest album, The Anteroom, in October of 2018 and the album marks a departure from his pop-forward 2016 release, Care. Care, with tracks produced by Taylor Swift’s hit-maker Jack Antonoff, aimed to deliver pure R&B pop tunes inspired by the bedroom-pop that Krell broke through with on his 2010 release, Love Remains.
The Anteroom is a departure again—attempting this time to create a noise album from Krell’s bedroom crooning. Krell combines weaving, heavily-textured pop hooks with distorted synths and the tempo is gruellingly slowed to a crawl. Krell, who is currently working on his PhD in Philosophy, is adamant too about packing in the references. He cites the likes of Coil, Prurient, Gas. and Grouper as musical inspiration. Poets Li-Young Lee, Ocean Vuong, Anne Frank Bidart, and Sexton are featured as well. Krell is nothing if not ambitious.
Over two pints of jet-black Three Bears Breakfast Stout and three coffees, I caught up with Krell between tour stops to muse about the little things in life like posthumanism, Nihlism, and drug-induced revelations—and for the duration of our conversation, Krell didn’t touch his beer.
If I were making music in the sixties, I would be making folk music and telling everyone that folk music is dead.”
You last album was full-on pop, how did you find the results of doing that compared to what you were expecting, or did you have expectations?
Every record has been so different from every other record, it’s a weird way to have a signature because the logic of the signature is that it’s supposed to be the same every time, that’s why they have you sign your passport and your signature, but my signature move is to make completely different music every time I start out which is a blessing and a curse, I guess. Oneohtrix just put out Love in the Time of Lexapro, but I've been saying for a few years now that Care was my Lexapro record, my antidepressants record and I do think that it shows a psyche that is being shaped by antidepressants.
That kind of makes sense when you transition into your newest record, the kind of themes of posthumanism, or technology adding to the body.
I’m less interested in posthumanist stuff than when I was younger, there's like one lyric about technology on this record. I’m interested in technology now, because I think it’s pathetic.
Your work seems to always be centred loosely around the internet, starting from bedroom pop and now your last album about the data-driven dissolvement of the individual. How has the internet changed the way you make music?
It’s a really good question, but I have no idea of how to answer it. I had, what for journalistic purposes I’ll call a journey, almost a year ago now where I suddenly felt in it for several hours and I was like, ‘I’m going to check my phone’ and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ and I felt just how actually foreign it is. I had this experience where I had been living in this kind of amnesia. Imagine flying in a plane for so long that you lose the feeling of the ground and I could sense outside of technology, outside of the insistence of the internet. And then I thought about all of these children—the deep, deep digital natives—and I felt overwhelmed by the sadness of all of the children who have lost the ground because of the way that we have structured society of completely simulated lives. I don’t know what value the outside has.
You’re very critical of pop music, as a genre. Why do you choose to operate in pop music still? Less on this album, but one could say still.
I don’t know, it’s just the time. If I were making music in the sixties, I would be making folk music and telling everyone that folk music is dead. Pretty classic trope guy move, Dylan did it [laughs]. But I do think that there’s a deeper, more philosophical answer to this. I wrote a tweet recently [laughs] that the consequence of having neurodivergent people in my life is that I’ve both seen the outside and seen the way the inside works through classification, bullying, medication, and criminalization. So I have this love outside for the inside and this hate for the outside, but also have a fetishistic desire to be normal and well adjusted. My whole life, I think, has been in this weird dialectic between mainstream society, pop culture, and consumer culture.
You’re doing your PhD, how does that play specifically into your music? Do you feel your academic work informs your music?
I’ve always found that my music-listening and -making habits and my different kinds of study and research—whether it's reading poetry and fiction or reading philosophy for school—all of these things inform my life and it's kind of like an ecosystem, and in that sense anything that grows out of the ecosystem is going to be effected. Philosophy is a very boring but extreme way to use your imagination, and music is a less boring and non-extreme way to use your imagination.
You study Nihilism?
My dissertation is on 19th century stuff around the problem of Nihilism, and overcoming Nihilism in metaphysics, that’s the task at hand in a lot of system building that was happening then. My masters was on Kant and the advent of biology and the consequences of that for our understanding of thought.
You’ve likened the performance of this album to something like Chris Burden’s “Shoot”. I’m wondering, is this function of having you so personally involved in this work?
The performance is really intense. It's a solo performance, and it's really dynamically intense, it moves from chaotic noise, kind of metal and transitions into me singing really beautifully. I think of it as kind of avant-hypnosis, blasting strobes. After I do that i stand there and speak about things and joke, and there’s this gesture of standing there and being really intenses and being really normal, kind of what i was just describing. I think of it kind of like the Burden piece or [Marina Abramovic’s] “The Artist is Present”, showing my body in space and really refusing to seperate myself from the crowd, getting names from the crowd and turning the lights all the way up so I can see them and they can’t see me. I guess it’s kind of confrontational but it’s not confrontation for confrontations sake—it’s trying to build community and connections.
Yeah, it’s an intervention.