Published Sep 25, 2012Right before the release of his debut album, 2010's Love Remains, Tom Krell (who records as How To Dress Well) lost his best friend unexpectedly. Krell used his music to help cope with the tragedy, resulting in his second full-length album, Total Loss. With help from XL Recordings' in-house genius, Rodaidh McDonald, Krell has enriched the scratchy, lo-fi production and avoided the fragmentary structures that typified his earlier releases. Using artists such as The-Dream and Whitney Houston as building blocks, Total Loss strips away R&B's stereotypical excess and presents its take, rearranging the genre through sparse measures and an avant-garde slant. Total Loss is a brave effort by an artist who's clearly not afraid to show vulnerability through risk-taking and soul baring. That these intimate torch songs are rife with hooks speaks volumes to his gift.
You've said this is an album about mourning. How difficult is it for you to get personal with your lyrics?
It can be quite difficult. Yes, the album is about mourning and the lyrics are very personal, but I don't find it hard. It feels important to me to do it ― to do it right.
Your voice sounds as though it has strengthened. Was that pushing it up into the mix or did you work more on vocals?
I'd say both. I mean, the more I sing in the studio, recording at home and on the road the stronger my voice gets. On the new album, my voice is more at the forefront, as opposed to it being a bit more buried on Love Remains.
Is there anything you hope the listener will take away from Total Loss?
I hope the album helps listeners to develop their own ways of mourning: mourning the loss of a loved one, love, faith, direction, etc.
The production on Love Remains was harsh, at times. Was there any consideration put into making this record sound clearer and more polished?
It's an intentional step up, production-wise, but certainly doesn't stray from the distorted perspectives on love that were strewn throughout Love Remains. I wanted the record to show not just sadness and depression like on Love Remains ― that record sounds noisy, suffocating and self-enclosed because I was trying to present the feeling of melancholy sonically. I can understand how some people found the production to be difficult to listen to. However, I do hope they recognize the intention. With Total Loss, I wanted to present not melancholy, but mourning, so I needed to develop a product that had these grinding, sad moments side-by-side with, like, "head above water" moments ― moments of clarity. Mourning is a more dynamic, affective situation than melancholy, which is why Total Loss needed that dynamism. It's about developing a balance of form and content, which I strive for in all my work. Plus, it's a bit more hopeful than the first album. Continuing the project of mourning loss is a thread between Just Once and Total Loss. There are even some string arrangements that continue that too. But, above all, the new record is about developing a non-melancholic relationship with loss ― facing total loss as an unassailable feature of human life ― and finding hopefulness on the other side of loss, through loss, not denying it.
What would you say are some of the other differences between Love Remains and Total Loss?
On the surface, it's the production, but more importantly, it's everything. Again, it's about mourning, as opposed to melancholy, and I hope that listeners can decipher the two. I leave it up to them, but I strive for unity of form and content in my work, and this takes different shapes on different occasions.
I hear many hooks on Total Loss, which I wasn't really expecting. How much thought and time do you put into writing hooks?
Well, I can't say I take the time to write hooks, per se, although they do come out. In my mind, a hook is a phrase that combines catchy lyrics, melody and rhythm. However, I shoot solely for melody from the beginning, hearing something in my head and finding the right way to express that with my voice. That aside, I'm very happy to hear you like the hooks.
Hearing these songs on the radio wouldn't surprise me. Is that the goal for you in the long run? How important is it to reach a wider audience?
Yes, in fact, radio has been playing it a lot: BBC in the UK, TripleJ in Australia, KEXP up in Seattle and many more. It's quite an honour, for me, because it does allow more people to listen to my music. And, yes, that is a goal, in a sense. I hope everyone can hear my music and I hope they enjoy it. But neither of those hopes will break me, you know? I'll continue to make music regardless.
Everyone seems to be name-dropping R&B as an influence these days. But HTDW is essentially R&B. How do you feel about this sudden embracing of R&B by all these unlikely artists?
Well, I don't really see it as being anything new. R&B is unbreakable ― it will never fade. It's been part of my life since I was a kid; it was part of my mother's life since she was a kid; and it's probably been part of your life since you were a kid. The way my first record clawed R&B apart might be something unique, but in the grand scheme of things, R&B is everlasting, in my mind.
What is the story behind the bust on the album cover?
It's actually a 3D rendering of my face ― it's a death mask. It feels ominous, yet peaceful to me.
How is the Ph.D going?
The Ph.D is going well. I'll be working on my dissertation over the course of the next few years, but I have finished my coursework, which is nice.