By Garrett Strickler
In light of his recently released deluxe edition of “What is This Heart?” featuring bonus songs and remixes, I caught up with multifaceted songwriter Tom Krell to talk about new collaborations, new fans, not being a “true pop” artist and a potential How To Dress Well hip-hop record.
Garrett Strickler: I would describe“What Is This Heart” as essentially a pop record. Where else do you see current or previous examples of pop music that’s not uncomfortable with challenging ideas like disillusionment, sacrifice, etc.?
Tom Krell: It’s hard to say. I think any time pop music takes on real life subject matter it runs the risk of not being pop music because pop music is all about turning away from our sh*tty lives and just escape. So to try to use pop and not escape, it runs the risk of failing to be full pop. I mean, it’s important to me that the record in certain moments fails to be true pop. This sounds like a d*ckhead thing to say, but I fully endorse the consequences of this: I want some whack-*ss people to hear my record and be like “Eww, what is this? Its so sad, its so… eww, just put the whatever back on — put the Disclosure back on.” Like, the influences aren’t the new Rihanna album, it’s more like Arthur Russel.
GS: So are you comfortable with that position in the industry, being the influential guy who’s not necessarily on Letterman or playing Austin City Limits?
TK: It’s hard to say because, I mean, a lot of people like to talk about how there’s no difference between the underground and the overground anymore, like “Jay Z and Beyonce went to a Grizzly Bear concert” or whatever. I hate that example, but at the end of the day, the way you get on those TV shows and ACL and sh*t like that is money. And the music I make, because it’s not bullsh*t, it’s just not as marketable. It’s much easier to sell sugary bullsh*t to sh*thead people. And that’s a path. And I know a lot of people who take that path and they just want to make money. And I want to make money, it’s just not, to me, spiritually satisfying enough to have that be my primary aim. I’ve just been around too many people whose lives wouldn’t be saved by money. People who are broken, disabled, and so at a certain point the idea of doing something exclusively for money becomes like a joke to me.
GS: Do you still find yourself writing ambient music anymore?
TK: Yeah, I mean that’s how a song like “Pour Cyril” was written. I don’t really know what’s next for me, but yeah, I do. It’s predominately what I listen to.
GS: Speaking of what’s next for you, your recent R.L. Grime feature almost felt like a linear extension of the path you’ve been on the past few years, vocally speaking. Is that the case or was it more spontaneous than that?
TK: It was more spontaneous than that. Henry’s a friend of mine and he doesn’t make music like How to Dress Well, he makes like EDM. So it’s just about context. I’m not gonna go on that and do like airy-*ss vocals. Songs are really holistic organisms, you know? In nature, mutation is extremely limited. Like, there’s a reason no human beings are born with 50 ears on their face because they die before they can pass through an embryonic stage. So I couldn’t go in on that song and just make it a mutant hybrid. It’s like also I have this song with Major Lazer…
GS: Woah, when are we going to hear that?
TK: I hope very soon. I mean, I don’t know what their plan is for the record but I think it’s a great song. It’s like a low-key reggae song produced by Diplo and the Picard brothers, so it’s kinda got that chill, airy vibe but it still bangs. I think it’s a hit. And not to sound arrogant, but I do feel like I’m a really versatile songwriter. Like, I still don’t think people know exactly what my signature is because I’ve made so many different kinds of music. But I think I could make a really compelling record with an acoustic guitar just as easily as I could make a hard record that’s like industrial and heavy, or I could just make a rap record.
GS: Are we ever going to hear you spit?
TK: Just wait, brah. *Laughs* I don’t know, I was talking about this with a friend, I would put out a track with me rapping on it if the rap was so good, if I were able to just feel it so much, that the talking point was what I say in the rap and not the fact that I rap.
GS: So that hasn’t happened yet?
TK: No, even though I do rap a lot. There’s a lot of demos, a lot of songwriting.
GS: Well we have to know who your rap influences are. Who are you channeling?
TK: Style wise its probably like Eminem, just ’cause he’s the god, he’s the greatest rapper of all time. And a litte bit of Future. But not like “Blood, Sweat, Tears” Future, more like “Tony Montana” kind of Future. It’s pretty controlled, it’s pretty wordy. Actually, that R.L. Grime song is closest. That first verse is pretty close to rap.
GS: For so long you’ve had the R&B tag attached to you, is that still accurate?
TK: I’m cool with that tag so long as people realize “Oh, yeah I guess it’s not exactly R&B ’cause he has folk songs and he has a whole ambient record.” I do believe what keeps me doing it is that I feel like no one else is doing anything like what I’m doing. So if people want to be like, yeah, “Autre Ne Veut, How to Dress Well, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean,” that’s cool, I mean all those guys have their own thing going.
GS: What is it about How to Dress Well that connects with the fans throughout all of your different releases?
TK: I think it’s the willingness to engage in emotional depths but not want to just (stay there). Like, instead of How to Dress Well, you could just listen to noise music, or just listen to Grouper or misery music. But my music has aspects of joy, fun and celebration in it, which proves that it’s not an either/or kind of world. I mean the people I meet who get it, I feel like that’s the vibe. There’s a lack of fear about going into those depths but then also a willingness to come back out.
GS: Do you think How To Dress Well fans latch on to an “outsider” aspect of the music?
TK: Sometimes, and sometimes not. I mean, that’s originally where I come from. Like, I never was going to be able to go so deep into it that I was going to cut off from the inside with my outsider sh*t, but like, some people heard a song in H&M and decided to check it out and then have like five or six songs that they like. Other people came up from Love Remains all the way through everything and that’s cool. Obviously as an artist I’m much more pleased by that. But I get a little annoyed after shows when someone comes up to me and they’re like, “I just heard your collaboration with Ja-kwez Greene,” I’m like, “Cool…” I mean I’m always happy to have new fans, but it’s just a very different kind of relationship I have with some of my fans as opposed to others.
KTSW loves How to Dress Well more than DJ Khaled loves to hear his own name.