Q&A: How to Dress Well On Lo-Fi Bedroom R&B, Sampling Blackstreet, and the Meaning of the Phrase "Cock Dock"
How to Dress Well is the nom de R&B of one Tom Krell, a Cologne/Brooklyn-based bedroom producer whose weird, ethereal, indie-soul EPs have been rolling out all winter at the rate of about one per month. The alias has been around for nearly six years, and Krell has been making music for far longer, but it wasn't until the singer moved from Brooklyn to Germany and joined up with the equally mysterious cokc dokc--about which more in a second--that How to Dress Well really came into its own as a blurry, Kanye-covering, falsetto-cranking basement R&B outfit. Start with Five Souls, one of two EPs HTDW and cokc dokc have released this month: it's got everything from macho echoing house tracks to a take on West's "Welcome to Heartbreak" to sleepy slow jams that entirely HTDW's own. We recently caught up with Krell over the phone to discuss rap radio in Denver, gay sex acts, and why his band's not called How to Photograph Women Beautifully.
How long have you been doing How to Dress Well?
I settled on the alias in 2004. One summer I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I lived right by this used bookstore. I bought two books there; one was called How to Dress Well and the other was called How to Photograph Women Beautifully. The latter seemed like too long of a name and also a little misogynistic, so we went with How to Dress Well.
Is the band just you?
Yeah, I call myself How to Dress Well. I shouldn't even say that though because, it's a funny thing, like, some of this stuff is really old, some of it's really new, some of it's just me, some of it's not very much me at all.
So who else is involved?
And who is that?
Cock dock is a gay sex act.
You know what cock-docking is?
It's when...you should Google it. Google "cock dock."
You won't describe it to me now?
It's a somehow incredibly beautiful gay sex act where one man stretches his foreskin over the head of another man's penis.
No wonder that guy prefers to remain anonymous.
No, I mean, I don't know if he would; I don't think he cares.
Is How to Dress well the first musical project you've had? Have you been in bands before?
Yeah, I've always been in bands since I was in high school, nothing very good. I was in a bunch of hardcore and one kind of noise black metal band in high school. In college, I didn't do very much musically. I mean, I got so bored of the guitar. My musical development and part of the reason why the R&B sound is so important to us is that when all my friends were listening to Nirvana and stuff like that, I never related to it at all and much rather listened to KS 107.5 in Denver where I grew up, which is "today's latest hip hop and R&B," or something to that effect.
I always wanted to play music, I always sang so much as a little kid and in order to do so I had to learn how to play the guitar and be in rock and roll bands in some fashion or another. But I really grew in college to just hate the guitar and hate rock and roll music so much that I didn't play music for a long time. Then I started doing more drone and ambient stuff with my voice and vocal looping as How to Dress Well and just doing it live with friends in different spaces in Brooklyn. Then I moved to Germany and cokc dokc came about and, I don't know, something about this new setup has been really great for me. It allows me to do the music that I feel like I always wanted to do but never had a real venue for, either personally or publicly.
That's thing that first drew me to the stuff you make--how much rap and R&B is in it. Is that kind of music your primary passion?
I love singing and I love listening to singing voices. We have some good rock and roll singers, but not that many these days. It seems unfashionable to be a good singer in rock and roll. Maybe it's back in fashion right now for the first time in a while. The way we make music is not like this calculated, conceptual thing. Sometimes we'll have an idea that's mostly sort of affective and nebulous. Like the song "Ready for the World" came from this idea where we were talking about what it would be like to be a little boy and to have this downstairs neighbor who'd just gotten broken up with by his boyfriend and you can hear him crying though the floor and you can hear R&B music coming through the floor, and so we just started making the song in light of that. And usually we'll make a song and I will just open my mouth and sing. After the fact, I'll listen to it and hear words that I've sung and then kind of write something down, get something formal from that, still relatively informal. I guess I just sing R&B hooks because...I really think KS 107.5, man, the first music I listened to. When I open my mouth to sing, I sing these melodies.
Do you listen to a lot of R&B?
Yeah, most definitely.
Even now? Because I feel like a lot of the stuff that you guys are sort of riffing on is older, like Ready for the World or Shai...
Oh, but I mean that album from The-Dream this last year is the absolute shit, it's fucking so good. It's just melody after melody.
Definitely my favorite record from last year.
Yeah me too!
As you say, your recordings often sound alike they're coming up through the floor. Is that a technological limit, or are you just drawn to making your stuff sound kind of blurry and trashed?
That's a complex question, because at present, it's a technological limit. But based on the technology that we have, we try and make it sound beautiful. I really don't feel like we're a lo-fi band in the same way that some of the other groups are, maybe more self-consciously. We would love to do something hi-fi if we could. We just are broke so...
What do you guys make all those weird sounds with that you sing over?
The beat elements are primarily stupid shit, like banging on a desk or beatboxing, and almost everything else is a different voice.
Just looped and sampled and fucked with?
Yeah, and you'd be surprised how little looped and sampled and fucked with, too. Some stretching, like tempo stretching, we make a five-part harmony thing and then we stretch it so it lasts the length of a bar instead of just one second. There's all together not that much manipulation, sometimes some phaser or something , but usually only like at the beginning of a song.
So a lot of that weird noise is just you singing?
Yeah, you'd be surprised if you listened to individual stems--it's just one person being like, "[beautiful ambient falsetto singing]" and if you pile that on thirty times you get this really crazy gang feedback or you get this bizarro, like an overtone gets generated from that reverbing. Obviously its reverb. Reverb is our middle name.
You guys do a lot of samples too, right? You use Debussy and Blackstreet, which are two hilariously different things.
We don't like to disclose too much of that--we don't want to sound like we're trying to be clever. The difference between Debussy and Blackstreet is funny in its own right, but it shouldn't be the main attraction that we're both sampling Debussy and Blackstreet, I mean, we also sample over the more, kind of classic, black metal bands, we sample Ulver...and we also sample Coil. I don't know how I feel about that. It's question we ask ourselves: "Are we a sample-based group?" I don't really think so. I think that doesn't quite get it, you know?
What are your release plans? You did just something like five EPs in six months, or six in seven?
Yeah, six in five. Six in six. We're working on a seventh one that's pretty close to finished, too.
And what about the future? Do you think you guys will just keep doing it yourselves?
No, we have a range of pipe dreams, ranging from big pipes to small pipes. I had an idea the other day. You know our song, "These Visions?" And I had a dream there would be some way, like maybe in a Village Voice interview, someone would mention Kanye and Kanye would hear it and in whatever deranged state he's in at that time...I really love where he is right now by the way. He is totally a wild beast right now. But, I like this idea of him taking us under his wing, or bringing us into the lab to do something a little bit more hi-fi.