Tom Krell never meant to be an indie-world It Boy. Last October, when he started posting a series of free EPs under the name How to Dress Well, his blog at howtodresswell.blogspot.com was just an infrequently updated collection of short posts about music he liked (Bobby Brown, Fever Ray, Gorgoroth, Salem), consisting mostly of YouTube videos and the occasional spread of bite-size record reviews. That content provided some clues about what had inspired the music on Krell's EPs—ghostly, washed-out lo-fi pop shot through with a surprising streak of radio R&B—but otherwise How to Dress Well remained a black box. He didn't reveal his name or post a photo, and when How to Dress Well started releasing videos, he wasn't in them, at least identifiably. He barely referred to himself in his posts.
This approach didn't keep people from getting excited about the music, though. In April Krell gave his first interview for a Pitchfork profile, and since then the site has bestowed two glowing reviews upon How to Dress Well: an 8.0 for the April release Can't See My Own Face: The Eternal Love 2 (his seventh EP in as many months) and an impressive 8.7 for his first full-length collection, Love Remains (Lefse), which dropped digitally last month and comes out on LP and CD on Tuesday. Krell's more than a little ambivalent about the attention.
"It sucks," he says. "It's no fault of any of the people in the industry, but music is not the main focus of my life. I never really planned on it being that way. When I meet people on the business end of this music-industry thing, they tend to really gross me out. I'm not trying to make money through this."
Krell is a graduate student in philosophy, and he wants to keep How to Dress Well walled off from his academic career. But that's not to say he doesn't want anyone to hear the music. There's been a How to Dress Well account on Twitter since March, and in July Lefse Records hired a publicist to push Love Remains. He's got a few pages of free tracks up at SoundCloud, even though he pulled the EPs in August, apparently to avoid undercutting sales of the album, which consists largely of retouched or rerecorded versions of songs from the earlier releases. On Sunday he started selling the first HTDW T-shirts, and next week he's playing three shows at CMJ in New York, including parties hosted by Pitchfork and the Fader.
He's only played two other live shows, one in Sweden and one in Brooklyn. The band photo he likes to use looks like a black hole in the shape of a person cut out of a landscape. At one point during our interview he wondered aloud if I could write this profile without using his name, and when I asked how old he was and where he was from, his first answer was, "The question's whether or not that's relevant to my music, you know?" (For the record: 26 and Colorado.)
Krell took vocal lessons from a neighbor when he was five and six years old—the extent of his formal training—and started playing in bands at 15. But as he puts it, "I could never figure out what I wanted to do with music." One of his early groups, he says, was "like three acoustic guitars playing long, slow sort of three-note meditative-incantation shit." He had a hardcore band with the same members. In college he bought a four-track and a drum machine and started making what he remorsefully refers to as "acoustic house."
Krell's got a thing for making music out of nonmusical sounds: "rhythms generated by machines, cars, refrigerator hums," he says. The approach has roots in the musique concrete movement of the 1950s, but then again, he points out, it's increasingly evident in modern hip-hop and R&B as well. "It hit me one day when I was living in Brooklyn three years ago," he says, "and I put on Hot 97 and there was this crazy combination of air-horn sounds, recordings of car traffic—they just kept overlaying shit. I was like, This is crazy. It's become so weird."
"People are always like, 'You're the R&B guy,'" Krell says, and it's true that the R&B influence has driven much of the buzz about How to Dress Well. But borrowing those elements, he insists, was "not a conscious decision. I think the fact that it's not a conscious decision is betrayed simply by the fact that there's R&B elements in some songs but in a lot of them there isn't one."
To my ears, though, the R&B influence is responsible for many of the high points on Love Remains. Krell's songs are shimmering, phantasmagoric lo-fi soundscapes crafted from synths, submerged-sounding programmed beats, and his glassy falsetto; they're only occasionally built around a hook. They sound like someone erased all the lead instruments from the multitrack recording of a big-budget pop song, leaving just atmospheric layers of textural overdubs, all drenched in reverb. Here and there the spaciness coheres into something a little more solid and a lot more like R&B: "Can't See My Own Face," for instance, or "Ready for the World" (a version of "Love You Down" by 80s pop-R&B outfit Ready for the World). Those are the album's most interesting, satisfying moments.
Krell's murky recording style would keep How to Dress Well out of the mainstream even if his songs worked in more traditional ways, but his music is cozy with radio pop—current pop, like what you'd hear if you turned on WGCI right this minute, not the nostalgic kind more commonly cited by indie acts. This suggests an intersection between countercultural art music and the work of unapologetically populist producers and songwriters like The-Dream, Max Martin, and R. Kelly—territory already being explored by indie-pop acts like JJ and Beach House (both of whom have covered recent rap songs) as well as hardcore-derived groups like 3OH!3 and Brokencyde.
"Rock music has become so lame and facile and terrible," Krell says. "I haven't listened to rock radio in like ten years. Even indie rock sucks. The only indie rock I'm into is where people are doing pop music." He's not much kinder to R&B: most of it, he says, is "brutally superficial, fucking misogynistic, and devoid of content in any way, shape, or form." But he doesn't make music to explore genre hybrids or exploit the tiny frisson that artists can still produce with risque comminglings of mainstream and underground. "I want to transmit affect in some kind of way," he says, sounding every bit the philosophy student. "I want it to be richly emotional, but I don't want it to be representatively emotional—which is to say, like emo songs with sad lyrics. What I want to make are songs which don't on the level of content so much as on the level of form deliver emotion."
Doing so with the blogosphere looking over his shoulder is a tricky proposition. "Setting out to make music now, I can't help but think of my Pitchfork rating," he says. "'Do you think Pitchfork's going to like this?' What are you doing, man?"
Our interview—according to Krell's publicist, the first he's ever given in person—wraps up, and he's done, at least for today, with the business of promoting music. He's free to do what he really wants, but he doesn't leave the coffee shop where we met. He settles in and starts reading Hegel.