Tom Krell of solo formation How to Dress Well tears open the packaging of a Milky Way. He is hungry, and above all, angry. He felt it immediately this morning, as if that emotion was already in the air like an inevitability, ready to be breathed in. His taxi driver underlined this suspicion by getting into a fight with a passer-by. The loudly talking fellow passengers on the train from Amsterdam to Utrecht also sounded so angry afterwards. Tom shares being wary of encountering even more of that anger. I smile kindly and say I am in a positive mood, hoping to lighten his mood, but his serious look remains fixed, leaving my attempt unanswered. We look at each other as he chews on his candy bar and very carefully I ask him about the nature of his anger. It turned out to be the only question I had to ask.
Written by: Joris Talens
Photos: Bart Leguijt
As How to Dress Well, the American has been releasing music since 2010. His oeuvre ranges from experimental pop to r&b to danceable electronica, but his vulnerable vocals are always central. His latest work The Anteroom takes some steps on the dance floor, but according to Tom it is above all an exploration of his loneliness. An uncomfortable and heavy subject. During our conversation, Tom calls it a theme with “a little too much truth to be liked”. Compared to his previous work, he says he did not want to please or try to uphold any pretensions. “By only focusing on myself this time, I feel like I've created something real. And somehow, by studying my loneliness, I hoped to alleviate it somewhat.” The opposite takes place: the concert halls he plays are not so full and by touring without a band he confronts himself with his loneliness. At the start of the tour it didn't feel right to take band members along and to let them play keys, strings and drums for sounds that came from his own, personal, individual, deep seclusion. Now he does everything himself on stage, just like in the production process.
"Taking care just doesn't fit with the prevailing cowboy mentality: if you have destroyed a village, you don't rebuild it afterwards, but simply move to the next"
“Yes, that anger, it also comes from loneliness. Giving in to how inescapable it is feels like a struggle that, if I'm not paying attention, makes me angry. The album couldn't possibly be about anything else." Once before in his life he felt as alone as now and that was during a ten day Vipassana silent retreat. This Indian meditation technique aims to promote the art of living through disciplined attention. “I was expected not to speak, not even through body language, and to spend the days frugally without any distraction in a daily schedule that consisted of eating, sleeping and meditation. And especially meditation. The imposed rest and the lack of external input caused my brain to work overtime internally. It was ten days of weaning off stimuli and the craziest things happened in my head because of it. So for a while I was constantly thinking about Britney Spears and she wouldn't stop singing either, and I mean it even though it sounds funny now, but I honestly couldn't stop my own flow of thoughts. My head was full of 'Toxic', 'Toxic', 'Toxic' until my head exploded. I realized then that there is still a huge space behind the daily distractions in the foreground of your thoughts. As we live now, we are addicted to those quick trivial distractions, every thought that presents itself has to be confirmed immediately - like a kind of constant stream of push notifications. And all that distraction softens, but also creates a cloudy view and a lack of real attention to experience life. I prefer to have a sharp eye after the retreat, although I don't always succeed. I now realize that loneliness will never go away as long as skulls can't grow into each other. In your mind, in your body you are always alone in the end. You have to accept that. The head is just a skull.”
In addition to his music, he also uses the acuity he now has to support his family financially. “As the youngest child from a poor family, I received less attention as both my brothers are autistic in need of help. I don't blame my parents, although acknowledging a certain lack in my youth is a permanent inconvenience. Fortunately, my brothers are doing relatively well. I filled the time that was not used for me with fantasizing - actually a kind of prelude to my education: in addition to being a musician, I am also working on a PhD in philosophy. It is a field of oppression: especially in Trump's America, anti-intellectuality is a quality, the cowboys are taking over. I also notice that in the care, in fact my brothers are completely dependent on their own social network, there is no safety net. You work in healthcare, right? If you did that in America you would earn next to nothing, it's not a real priority. Taking care just doesn't fit with the prevailing cowboy mentality: if you have destroyed a village, you don't rebuild it afterwards, but simply move to the next village. In that area I feel more at home in Germany, where there is a real tradition of both critical thinking and social responsibility.”
Tom is now talking a lot and frequently switches from a personal to a social perspective. "I worry. For example, about whether young people are still able to dream now that the neoliberal society teaches you that you are only worth something if you yield something. As a result, there is enormous pressure to perform on people and young people in particular. There is no time allowed to figure things out or stare ahead. And if you are dreaming, this should be made public to see what impact it has, as if every thought is a pitch of a business plan. Having the space to dream without direction is essential to get to know yourself and to be able to make choices later on. But how can you make choices if you are forced to distrust all information from the start? I think the amount of fake news will only increase, producing it has proven itself profitable. It is crude, but simply believing conspiracy theories now also brings a person more, because then you at least belong to a group. Terrorism arises exactly that way. Being a part of something you collectively believe in can be a kind of safe substitute for your own dreams. A kind of religion. It's understandable, it's also attractive to believe something absurd if the reality is unappealing or you don't like it. It is a form of controlling your world. It is very tempting to be naive.”
As far as I'm concerned, he describes the exact opposite of how he comes across. The detailed way in which he presents his point of view and comments on it seems to be the scientist in him. His anger doesn't change that. Something about his story also feels like the running of a faucet while I'm, quite irreverently, the well. The information density in his sentences is high and I struggle to keep up with him. Tom has other concerns: “Ultimately, 21st century humans will have to find something to resist tech giants like Amazon and Apple. They are already collecting information and user data from birth to death. But there is no adequate counterbalance to their power. There is no opt-out. It is a form of optimized capitalism from which there is no escape. It is, as I see it, a kind of spiritual colonialism: if your wish is to participate in the world you will have to accept an inevitable lack of freedom. As a result, human lives are reduced to the input of algorithms to promote buying behavior and thus exploitation. This will lead to increasing inequality. Ultimately resulting in slavery. There are already more people enslaved in absolute numbers today than ever before.” Serious eye contact.
“I would rather be a painter who can exhibit his work without having to constantly stand next to it.”
Like a whirlwind, Tom shares his vision of the world. The level of abstraction transcends what I had in mind. I fold my preparatory work, put it in my pocket and decide to drop my expectation of the conversation for good. Talking about music feels downright banal after I nodded to his statement that everyone is guilty, that everyone has blood on their hands. He points to my clothes and confronts me with the possibility that they were probably produced under appalling conditions. I know, I know, I know. And it's just as true for him, he nods, probably trying to ease my discomfort. “My music career presupposes that I have to play my work locally. That's how I earn. But that means flying, driving and consuming on a scale not strictly necessary for survival. I would rather be a painter who can exhibit his work without having to constantly stand next to it. But the only thing that drives me is the hope that I can do something good. Everyone experiences some form of loneliness sooner or later. What could be better than to bring about a form of togetherness that keeps us together rather than drives us apart. Skulls in close proximity to each other. Maybe bodies can't blend into each other. Being close to each other is the best alternative.” A surprisingly simple, hopeful wish.
Later that evening during his performance, Tom admiringly thanked the community called EKKO, a stage that relies on volunteers. A mutual applause. Is music therefore actually an answer to existential concerns or precisely that noise of distraction? This question only arose when I was in bed at home. At least we were together for a while. The air did indeed feel heavy. The next day, a terrorist shot and killed four people in a tram.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.