With Sydney Festival’s packed 2015 schedule, hype is already mounting around certain acts. How to Dress Well is definitely one of them. Tom Krell is the man underneath the clothes. Based in Chicago, Krell produces ambient electro-pop, featuring floating falsettos that speak of love and loss. Krell has appeared in Sydney before, but January will be How To Dress Well’s first Sydney Festival set.
Krell is a man of few words. The words he does choose are curtly truncated; his Chicagoan drawl seems protracted – bored. Despite this tour-induced fatigue, Krell does his best to humour us on the phone from the other end of the world when we joke about what he’s wearing. Krell laughs awkwardly. “I’m wearing a bunch of cool designer clothing but I look like I’m just wearing sweatpants. Nikes I got in Berlin … these ACNE sweatpants and then I have on a striped T-shirt from APC.” Evidently Krell’s attire lives up to the stage moniker, although (unsurprisingly) he prefers to talk music.
Krell’s new record, What Is This Heart, was released in June and has catapulted How To Dress Well further into the public consciousness. The record thematically follows 2012’s Total Loss, but in sonic terms it’s pop-defying pop. The listener is whipped around different keys and time signatures, and unlike past records, Krell’s vocals is the focus. “I always feel like I’m kind of on a different page,” Krell says. “When I look back, I feel like I can see things are like chapters in a single work.”
How To Dress Well encapsulates a specific New York hipster milieu. His work has often been categorised – and criticised – as PBR&B, a combination of Pabst Blue Ribbon (the unofficial canned beer of Brooklyn) and R&B. But this classification is apparently a sore spot for Krell. “It doesn’t really play into my thinking about … anything,” Krell says, indignant. “It’s not illuminating to me. I don’t get it. I’ve never heard anyone say it, other than a journalist.” His resentment of blogosphere pigeonholing is understandable, but How To Dress Well’s SoundCloud mix tapes certainly conjure strong images of rooftop parties and facial hair.
This must be a perpetual frustration, because Krell’s work rejects any formal genre. When asked how he would try and define this sound, Krell answers, “It depends on context. Like an old person, I tell them that I make soulful pop music. If it’s someone that’s into music, I just talk to them about the music that I like and what different songs try to do musically.” Naturally there will be “old people” who are into music, and probably those who deeply appreciate Krell’s pop. When discussing some artists he’s currently listening to, Krell says, “I listened to this Ian William Craig record I really love,” he says. “Dean Blunt’s record is amazing … Grouper’s record is one of the best things I’ve ever heard.”
Krell’s love of boundry-pushers will make Sydney Festival feel like home. He hopes to get the chance to see a few specific performers, despite a hectic schedule. “Ben Frost should be amazing to see,” he says. “There’s some scenes down [here] that I don’t really get access to when I’m abroad.” Sydney in January will be a slight barometric shock to Krell’s system, but he’s looking forward to revisiting our sunny shores. “When I first came to Australia, I thought that I liked Melbourne better,” he says. “But actually, this last time I was there, we had a couple of days off in Sydney and I just totally fell in love.”
How To Dress Well is playing The Aurora at Sydney Festival, Friday January 23.