Tom Krell’s new album as How to Dress Well, Total Loss finds him embarking on evermore troubled emotional journeys while expanding the palette of his mix of lo-fi R&B and indie pop. There are noisy obstacles, yes, but also Steve Reich-ian ecstatic patterns, shimmering synths, and a wider dynamic range than ever. Frequently the music is quiet enough for the small hours of the night, but it can quickly swell to overwhelming proportions.
Even with all these new techniques, it would almost too easy to put on Total Loss, rest your head on a pillow, and immediately sink cortex-deep into the sumptuous layers of his vocals. You would be forgiven for enjoying his records only for that simple pleasure, though you might be missing the point. As Tom described to me over the phone this past Thursday afternoon, patiently explaining his motives, its your attention to the details, indeed your attention itself, that he’s really after.
In a couple of other interviews, you’ve talked about using your music to create intimacy and community. What’s the process for creating intimacy through a record?
Tom Krell: Here’s how I talk about it, and there’s a lot more to be said than this, but... Everywhere you go in in the United States, everyone makes pizza in different ways, and every village in Germany has a different kind of local beer. But everywhere in the world there’s the same series of affects and emotional experiences, though they’re distributed differently because of our cultural experiences. But there is a universal spiritual register that we all experience worldwide and that we share, in spite of our differences. And no matter how hard we try to distinguish ourselves or make ourselves stand out as a special person, we’re all subject to the same affective experiences. These affects live in a realm of their own, and effect everyone. When you’re having an emotional experience you think it’s all something going on in your head, but I think there’s something universal and almost sacred affecting us in those moments.
So when I write a song, I write not about an experience I’ve had, but through the experience, reaching out to the universal affect. And If I’m successful, I’ll have created something that can work across cultural boundaries. But to create an experience is not the goal, not something specific to my life or America or the West, but to create something based on the universal affective experience.
It sounds like these ideas may have come from your philosophy studies.
TK: Not at all. I study History of Philosophy. People don’t realize that at a certain level philosophers are just doing bookkeeping.
You used the word sacred. Some people would think these sound like quasi-religious ideas.
TK: No, I don’t believe in God or anything like that, I’m not a religious person at all.
Then where did these ideas come from?
TK: A lot of it came from spending time around disabled people, people who never learned language and were incapable of developing human norms. I still witnessed them having intense affective experiences through art.
And these experiences were specifically art-related?
TK: Yes, I was working at an art-camp for developmentally disabled people.
Were you making music then?
TK: That’s when I was really starting to make the music you know as How to Dress Well.
So this epiphany came at the same time you developed this specific sound and style?
TK: I think so, yes.
If in your music you’re reaching out to these universal affects, how do you know when you’ve done it?
TK: I have to trust my gut and intuition. I don’t usually get that far if I don’t feel like it’s emotionally real. I don’t get past the first steps, because you can tell early on if it’s going to be powerful. So much of the songwriting process is about trusting myself, and just following where it takes me, trying to be emotionally honest. And if I’m being true to myself and the people around me, then I’m sure it will turn out as something I would like share. And when it doesn’t, I don’t share it.
I think that because of the way I was raised and the situations I’ve been in, I’ve been forced into a kind of spiritual sensitivity, which can be quite challenging in my day-to-day life but can be very powerful in making art.
This sensitivity, does it seem to you that some people have it and some people don’t?
TK: I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t have access to it. There are some people who have a defensive reaction against those feelings, and so they become a conservative or only listen to terrible, suburban music like David Guetta productions and other emotionally vacuous junk. I think everyone has the capacity for asking themselves where their heart and spirit are. But a lot of things keep people from asking that honestly: religion, conservatism, and so on. Some people have a special talent for creating things from that sense, but I don’t think anyone is barred from those experiences. Asking profound questions and having profound feelings and experiences are the basic technologies of the soul.
What would you tell someone before they’ve heard any of your music to contextualize it or get them ready for the experience?
TK: First off all, there are things that are immediately relatable—just the voice is something that anybody can get into. The challenge is that the music demands a different kind of attention. Walter Benjamin quotes a French philosopher called Malebranche in an essay on Kafka. He says, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.” That sounds potentially religious, but I actually think it’s the ultimate rejoinder to anyone who’s religious. He’s saying that attention is the passageway to collective experiences, and that has nothing to do with God or apologizing for masturbating or anything like that.
It’s paying attention. The music reveals itself through paying attention. If you pay enough attention to the details, then you can enter into the space of the emotional payload of the record. I learned this listening to Grouper. If you sit and patiently really listen to the details and textures and subtleties, you can have an experience almost like you took some kind of drug. You feel your heart whelm. If I could have a sign hanging over the gateway or entrance to Total Loss, I would love for it to read, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”