How to Dress Well Talks the Potential and Limitations of Pop, Weighs In on Emo's "Profound Lack of Subtlety"

How to Dress Well Talks the Potential and Limitations of Pop, Weighs In on Emo's 'Profound Lack of Subtlety'
A litany of adjectives are used to describe the music Tom Krell makes as How to Dress Well, but at its core, his music is pure pop. Nowhere is that more apparent than on How to Dress Well's upcoming third album, "What Is This Heart?", a record that Krell describes to Exclaim! as "much less cerebral" than the chilly murk of his debut.

"This record is a little more full-bodied," he explains, admitting that his debut, 2010's Love Remains, was challenging "from top to bottom." Still, "What is this Heart?" can hardly be said to give in to the lowest common denominator of mainstream listeners.

"There is a lot of pop and a lot of hope on this album, but I didn't want it to be won too easily. I find so much pop music disrespects people. It takes it as a given that you're no matter how old you are you're an emotional seven-year-old."

More experimental music, he says, reacts against that. "You end up with either Carly Rae Jepsen or Wolf Eyes. I always felt like there had to be some kind of middle ground." 

Krell goes on to say he wants listeners to earn that middle ground: "It's not enough to just have pop. You have to have something to give it reality and give it substance."

Krell recently created the SoundCloud mix No Words to Say: Songs for "What Is this Heart?", which pairs preview snippets from his new album with a diverse range of selections, from Tracy Chapman to dancehall artist Popcaan to Prince's "I Would Die 4 U." The mix showcases the musical worldview he inhabits, but it also serves as a guide for his own album, asking listeners to consider his music in a particular light.

"There's a difference between hearing Prince at a wedding, with your uncle drunk-dancing, and hearing Prince after a long-form, exploratory piece on Kodo," he says. "It's all about the context of the reception of pop."

No Words to Say also outs Krell as a teenage emo obsessive. Pennsylvania's the Starting Line make an appearance, as does Krell's cover of Taking Back Sunday's "You Know How I Do." Krell's music has always been intensely emotional, but few would call it emo. Yet he singles out bands like Alkaline Trio and Further Seems Forever as gateways to new emotional avenues.

"I learned to feel through listening to really melodramatic music," he admits. "I really love that music because it's so emotional, so intensely and explicitly emo, yet the forms are all about pop and simplicity."

Some of the music holds up today, but in his mind, like so much pop, emo's emotional palette is pretty limited.

"There's a profound lack of subtlety," he says. "You're going to lose people's attention and interest if you whack someone over the head with something, which is what emo does. It's about not treating people like they're dumb [and] letting people wade through the emotional territory on their own terms."

As previously reported, "What Is This Heart?" arrives June 24, courtesy of Weird World Records. Krell is in Europe first, but he'll embark on a lengthy North American tour starting in August. Find those dates below.

Tour dates:

06/13 London, UK - ICA
06/14 Brussels, Belgium - Beursschouwburg
06/16 Paris, France - Nouveau Casino
06/17 Amsterdam, Netherlands - MC Theatre
06/29 Berlin, Germany - Berliner Festspiele
08/21 San Diego, CA - Casbah
08/22 Los Angeles, CA - First Unitarian Church
08/23-24 Monterey, CA - First City Festival
08/25 Portland, OR - Holocene
08/26 Vancouver, BC - Fortune Sound Club
08/27 Seattle, WA - Neumos
08/29 Salt Lake City, UT - Urban Lounge
09/02 Omaha, NE - Waiting Room
09/03 Minneapolis, MN - Triple Rock Social Club
09/04 Chicago, IL - Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
09/04-06 Raleigh, NC - Hopscotch Music Festival
09/05 Louisville, KY - Headliners Music Hall
09/08 Atlanta, GA - Terminal West
09/09 Nashville, TN - Exit In
09/11 Columbus, OH - A&R Music Bar
09/12 Toronto, ON - The Mod Club
09/14 Montreal, QC - Le Belmont
09/16 Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall
09/17 NY, NY - Irving Plaza
09/19 Philadelphia, PA - District N9NE
09/20 Washington, DC - U Street Music Hall
09/22 St. Louis, MO - The Luminary Center for the Arts
09/24 Oxford, MS - Proud Larry's
09/25 New Orleans, LA - Hi Ho Lounge
09/27 Austin, TX - Central Presbyterian Church