Tom Krell wasn’t looking for a fight on Saturday night, but he wasn’t shying away from one either.
“Let’s make this really loud so the people in the back trading MDMA shut the fuck up,” he told his band between songs at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum.
Krell’s How to Dress Well was in town for the final night of the city’s Hopscotch Festival. Much of the talk surrounding the festival that day had been about Mark Kozelek, who snapped at a chatty crowd in the moments before Sun Kil Moon’s set the evening before, frustratedly referring to them as “fucking hillbillies” – a comment that did not sit well with certain members of the audience and subsequently sparked mild outrage online. This is where Krell – by all indications, an active consumer of information and social media participant – would read about it. On that same night, he had been in Louisville, performing in front of a crowd with disinterested and disengaged members of its own. Now Krell was in North Carolina, slotted between DJ sets by The Range and Jamie xx, and perhaps facing an uphill battle.
But some light murmurs in the back aside, the performance was magnetic: Krell and his band splashed with kaleidoscopic light against the museum’s white back walls, filling the space with a sound both intimate and booming. A tall and thin 6′ 3″, Krell’s frame is imposing, and he uses it physically in the live setting – steady movement and the occasional dramatic thrash paired with copious sweat. His band is staid but equally intense and focused – or, “dialed-in,” as he would describe them when we talked prior to the performance.
In person, Krell is an odd mix of amicable and distant. He speaks with disarming candor, but does so while staring off into the distance or checking his Twitter feed. We sat down to talk about playing live, Kozelek’s comments, and How to Dress Well’s stunning new LP, What Is This Heart?
“Luckily, the record is doing really well, so I don’t have to tour as much as I did on Total Loss,” Krell tells me, cracking a 7-ounce energy drink. A few feet away, The Range’s James Hinton blasts music through his headphones and looks intently at a laptop screen. “You working on the set, James?” Krell asks to no response. “He’s in the zone for real.”
Later in the night, I would see Krell in his own zone, slightly more unwound, crowd-surfing during Jamie xx’s set.
Is the act of performance enjoyable? Is it exhausting?
I love it, but it’s incredibly exhausting. It’s really the hardest job that I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was maybe a big mistake – I thought I was just gonna follow this out and have the easy path through everything, but it’s so much more than people really understand. It’s so much more exhausting. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three months. Every night after the show, there’s so much adrenaline, and you can’t really get to sleep. You’re on a bus and it’s bouncy and it’s loud.
I don’t let myself get too comfortable with performances. I don’t ever want to go on stage and feel super swaggery to the point of not caring intensely that we put on a great show. That care is quite anxiety provoking. I really want the shows to be something really, really special. I put that on myself. For me at least, being on tour is a lot of high expectations. That’s also a feature of who I am – I’ve always been a low key perfectionist. I want every single aspect to be so dialed-in. Luckily, the band has gotten really, really tight. I think they sensed very early on the type of pressure that I was putting on them and stepped up and do a really good.
Do you have bad shows?
Sure, yeah. It’s kind of a crapshoot. What makes a difference between a decent night and a great one is a gamble, you know what I mean? We could play a show with 3,500 people in a tent in Helsinki at a festival and have it feel like everyone is on the exact same page, and the attention is so perfect, and the reciprocity and the energy is just there from the start. And then last night we played to, like, 100 people in Louisville, and nobody gave a fuck. It was so bizarre. With maybe 30 people right up front, I could feel like they were pouring themselves out. The rest were people that go to see every show that comes through town. The night prior we played at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and it was a fucking masterpiece. The production value of that show so high. We had a very specific visual presentation – an IMAX sized screen. The sound was immaculate. The entire space was full of color. The focus was amazing in terms of attention from the crowd. We were firing on all cylinders.
So, it’s always unpredictable. I used to think it was smaller shows that were better and bigger shows that were worse, but it’s just not the case. Some of my most intimate moments have been, like, Webster Hall for 870 people. Something’s happening spiritually where you’re connecting with people.
It’s tough when your job is that unpredictable. I feel for Mark Kozelek. Honestly, that’s what I wanted to say last night in Louisville too – I’m just not established enough to do it. Luckily, he’s an old dude who can be like, “Fuck you!”
I used to be super antagonistic with crowds when they weren’t giving it. I’d be in the middle of a song and be like, “Stop. Stop the song… Really? This is your vibe tonight? This is good? OK, we’re done.” I walked off stage a couple of times in Switzerland and a couple of other places where people just didn’t give a shit. I don’t know if it’s because people are self-conscious or if it’s because they don’t have respect for what creative people are trying to do. Sometimes crowds just don’t care. I made a resolution with myself to be less antagonistic, and to try to be more open and sweet on stage, and to not be defensive. Because the 30 people in Louisville last night had a beautiful experience. And there were 170 other people who were dicks. I could have turned on them and went Kanye and ruined the show, but instead I was looking at the people right in front of me, like, “OK.”
How did you hear about the Sun Kil Moon incident?
I didn’t realize it was such a big deal, and I was there.
What was the vibe?
Well, first of all, the concert itself was amazing.
Yeah, he is a god. Period. Was it outside?
It was in Lincoln Theatre. There was an odd mix of people – I wouldn’t have expected a concentration of glow sticks at a Mark Kozelek show.
I think tonight’s going to be interesting, because there are going to be a lot of Jamie xx people. We did the show in Helsinki that I mentioned before with Jamie after us, and everyone was still in it. I always admire an audience that’s able to change gears. We like to bring out openers that are really surprising – either some super fucking heavy music or beautiful folksy guitar. When people have the flexibility to be like, “Oh shit, OK, now this… and now this,” that’s an assurance to me that it’s going to be a good show, because we like to do a lot of dynamic shifts in the set. We go from really loud to really, really plaintive and quiet and lovely. I’m just always surprised when people are oblivious and want to change gears.
There’s a certain sense of entitlement.
I think that’s what Kozelek was picking up on. It is entitlement. It’s like, “Dance, monkey! Dance! We paid for you to be here.” There should be reciprocity. That reciprocity means everything.
Did you have to grow into being comfortable on stage?
It’s actually kind of the inverse. When I was a boy – fourteen or fifteen – and started playing music live, I would just go H.A.M. The drummer that plays in the band now – he and I were in a band together when we were fourteen, and when we would play live, we just play the songs as fast as we could. I would just scream and hit my face on the mic and end up with a bloody mouth. It was really manic, kind of teenage vibes.
When I started performing for How to Dress Well, I knew I had to figure out a transition, and the transition meant, on the one hand, becoming more self-aware and controlled – to get a sense of what I’m contributing to the room emotionally and energetically. I wanted to get a sense of how my pitching is. I wanted everything dialed-in musically. I had to become more self-aware of that stuff. But I didn’t want to lose the unselfconsciousness of performance, which is fucking everything. Initially, it was like, “OK, I’ll just get fucking drunk.” But then I was like, “I need to be a little less totally unselfconscious.” That’s a cheap kind of unselfconsciousness – that teenage unselfconsciousness. I had to figure out how to win my way to a different kind of unselfconsciousness, which isn’t, like, oblivion. I’m still aware of how things are progressing. It’s more controlled, but still free and lost in the music. That’s been the challenge. The second you become aware of yourself on stage, it’s game over. It’s a delicate balance.
The main thing was the Total Loss tour. Me and Aaron – our multi-instrumentalist – did 180 shows together. By the end of that tour, I was just like, “OK, I know exactly what it’s going to be like to be on stage and be aware enough to control things and make things really, really, really beautiful and really, really perfect, and yet still exhibit that freedom that we call creative inspiration.”
Have you found ways to bring down that intensity and adrenaline once you come off stage?
Not really. [Laughs] It’s usually nice to talk to people after the show – people who are buying merch and people who are hanging out outside the venue. I don’t smoke anymore, except I have one cigarette after every show. That’s one thing. I change my sweaty t-shirt, put on a new shirt, I smoke cigarette, and say what’s up to some people.
I’d imagine that you meet people who have a very intense connection with your music.
Yeah, it’s cool. Sometimes it’s a bit much, but sometimes it’s really, really exciting. I just met these fifteen-year-old kids who are so weirdly precocious and cool and are really inspired by the shit I’ve been doing for the last four years – since they were, like, thirteen. It’s crazy. And that’s so tight. We got them on the guest list for tonight. I’m always happy to do shit like that.
You discussed the challenge of balancing the live show. I saw a recent interview where you mentioned trying to balance the sequencing of What is this Heart? What was your approach in arranging the record? Was it song to song or did you have a particular arc in mind?
I knew that I wanted “House Inside” to be the final song on the record from the second I demoed the song. And then the steps along the way were sort of song to song in terms of rhythm and the energy of the music. Pretty early on, I started to see that there was a lot more pop on the record, and so right away, I knew that wanted to put a song like “2 Years On” first. It’s a selective tool. It’s like: “If you can pass through these gates, then you get the pop, but I don’t want you to just get the pop and not know that the terrain is a little bit more serious than just your average pop record.” There’s nothing I hate more than fun that comes too easily or feigned emotion. The challenge was trying to figure out a way to sequence the record so that the fun doesn’t come too easy – so that the fun is won through the more challenging music. And I spent so much time tracking vocals, and just listening over and over and over again and really asking myself as hard as I could, “Does this vocal sound emotionally and energetically honest?” If I could feel even a moment of hesitation, then I would scrap it and start over. We did probably 120 hours of recordings of vocals for the record.
Are there other people whose input you value?
Most definitely. I have a ton of really trusted creative people in my life. My former label guy at Acephale Records, Patrick, is a very good friend of mine. He’s a ridiculous creative judge. He’s got great creative taste and judgment. He’s a trusted guy.
You sound content with how the record has been received.
Yeah, definitely. It’ll always be cool if the next single, like, hits. It wouldn’t make me mad if we put out a video for “Precious Love” and it gets 700,000 views.
You put a lot of thought into your videos.
This next one is a little bit looser, because the song is a little bit less serious. It’s “Precious Love”. It’s going to be really, really sweet.
But I like where everything is going. It feels really cool. It’s being weird of the level that I’m at. We do 1,500 tickets in London and then 60 tickets in Omaha. It’s pretty confusing, dynamic shifts.
So why play Omaha?
A couple of reasons. One is that I went to college in Iowa, so I know what it’s like to be in a town that doesn’t get music. I remember Xiu Xiu coming through Iowa City and just being like, “Yes! Thank you!” That’s one reason. Another reason is that if you play Los Angeles, you have to get to New York.