How To Dress Well and CFCF Break Down I Am Toward You

Tom Krell and Michael Silver talk YouTube Virtuosos, “genre exercises,” and the new HTDW record.

How To Dress Well is Tom Krell, a singer-songwriter, producer, and multimedia artist based in LA; CFCF is Michael Silver, an electronic producer from Montreal, and now based in LA. Tom and Michael are longtime collaborators, including on the new How To Dress Well record, I Am Toward You — out this Friday on Sargent House. To celebrate, the two hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Tom Krell: I feel like this would have probably been more productive if it was someone I didn’t know and I had to, like, make conversation. 

Michael Silver: Yeah, I mean, you actually have to talk about things. We can do literally 40 minutes without discussing a single—

Tom: Exactly. The problem the faithful reader doesn’t understand is that I’m in constant communication with you.

Michael: Literally every day. Two different group chats… about sandwiches and such. 

Tom: I guess that we could tell the the reader, of course, that we both live in LA. I kind of was part of a group of people who bullied you into moving to LA. 

Michael: Yeah, very much so. 

Tom: Ultimately, much to your own detriment. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. It’s not been going well. 

Tom: [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t know that I would agree exactly. 

Michael: No, I mean, it’s going well. But I was living at your house for about 30 days while we were working on this record together. 

Tom: It’s interesting, because I don’t really remember when it became OK to fly again, but I feel like you were the first person I knew who flew. 

Michael: Really? 

Tom: Yeah. Because it was pandemic as hell, and then it loosened a little bit, but it was still scary. It was pre-vaccine and shit, right? 

Michael: Yeah, there was no vaccine yet. It was still scary. I think the whole thing was, the border was closed between Canada and the US, so the only way to get into the US was to fly. You couldn’t go on the land crossings. Definitely I was taking a big risk — a risk of death to be with you there in Los Angeles. 

Tom: It was a perilous sojourn, some have said.

Michael: Well, I got sunshine and some friendship out of it. And I think by the end of the month, we were pretty much well and good sick of each other. 

Tom: Yeah, and it was time for you to leave. You came to LA and I had, like, 21 songs. 

Michael: We had done a bit of work on them in January right before the pandemic when I was in town.

Tom: Exactly. That was when I was first structuring, I don’t know, a hundred samples into what ended up being 20 or 22 songs. 

Michael: Yeah. One of them literally was “New Confusion.” Because I remember doing some of the little synth sine wave blips.

Tom: Yeah. “New Confusion” was one of those first ones. So was “Crypt Sustain.” And then you came through, in the night during the pandemic as a stowaway, and you stayed with me and we put guitars on everything. That was basically what we did when you were there. I had you play acoustic guitar on every single song.

Michael: Pretty much, yeah. With “Crypt Sustain,” we did more production on that one in particular. Also, “Song in the Middle,” we kind of figured out what— 

Tom: We built it. Because basically, up until that moment, that song was a narrative I had written. It was a text. 

Michael: It didn’t actually have music. It just had a concept, you know? 

Tom: Yeah. There were two samples — there was the live drum sample, and the acoustic guitar sample that’s at the backbone of it. And all I had done was build a low-pass filter that comes off and low-pass filter that goes on at the end. So I built the song in the middle, but we hadn’t done any of the—

Michael: The melodic—

Tom: Yeah. The thing about that song that I think is so cool is that the primary aspect of it is almost like a design of an experience, a sonic experience. We weren’t sitting there being like, “Hmm, we need a killer middle eight.”

Michael: Yeah, no. Your concept was that it was like the spatial experience of walking into a venue or a rave, or even a church or something like that, and then walking out.

Tom: Exactly. The annoying, like, metaphysical metaphor of it for me is… The most flamboyant way to put it is like the Ocean Vuong title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I had this idea of a song that described the taking place of something stunning and confusing and with energy, in between two voids. That ended up being this song with all these samples and this soaring guitar work. Like Durutti-meets-Broken-Social-Scene kind of swag. 

Michael: There’s a lot of Durutti. I mean, there’s those two tracks also that are built on the things that I wrote way before you even started the record. I was just doing these little sketches at home in Montreal in, like, 2019. [It was] just me kind of playing and writing guitar tunes in the style of The Durutti Column. 

Tom: Yeah. Do you remember — was the drum machine that Roland drum machine that is in so much of the the early ‘80s British stuff?

Michael: Oh, like the CR-78?

Tom: Yeah.

Michael: I think it’s a DR-55. That’s a BOSS. 

Tom: Oh, OK. I was thinking about it the other day, and I looked up that Roland drum machine and all the songs that it’s on, and I was like, Oh, crazy to have this one entity become the drummer for, like, every band and every good song for five years

Michael: Especially Phil Collins. What’s that album, Face Value? Half the songs on there have that on it. I mean, that record I did, The Colours of Life, was conceptually inspired by Phil Collins using the CR-78. It was just like, “I’m going to make a whole album of stuff like that.”

Tom: Crazy. I had no idea. You know that Face Value was the reference for the What Is This Heart? album cover?

Michael: Oh, wow, crazy. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know there was so much Collins worship…

Tom: I mean, I’m not actually a Collins fan. I’m more of a part of the Gabriel—

Michael: We went to go see Peter Gabriel together in this in October, at the Forum. It was great. Still got it. 

Tom: He’s amazing, man. But back to those two songs — “On It and Around It” and “A Secret Within the Voice” are the two songs that you sent me these song sketches. “A Secret Within the Voice,” you sent me this thing and I immediately heard a song on it and sang it. And I remember you saying to me once, “Crazy how you wrote an R&B song on that.” 

Michael: Yeah, yeah. 

Tom: I thought that’s what you wanted me to do. I thought that’s what you were sending me, because I heard it immediately. 

Michael: I think what’s funny is that I’ll do these sketches and demos, and you’ll ask me to send you them, and I kind of don’t even realize that you’re going to do anything with them. Especially the first time that we did songs together on What Is This Heart?“What You Wanted” was built entirely around this instrumental demo I sent you. And when I sent it to you, I just thought you liked it. Then you came back with this finished song that you had done in the studio, and I was just like, “Oh, crazy, OK!” And that demo was me trying to sound kind of like later Massive Attack, like “Paradise Circus.”

Tom: Yeah, for sure. That is a thing, too, that happens, where I’ll be listening to a song that I really like — I’m working on something right now and I took this little sample from “Thanks A Lot” by Raffi. My baby daughter—

Michael: Oh, literally Raffi the singer.

Tom: Yeah. There’s a song called “Thanks A Lot,” which is the most sick, profound shit ever. It’s like a North Americans guitar with him singing like, “Thanks to the sun, thanks to the animals.” It’s a very profound song. And Jenny found it and she was like, “This is a song that you and Patrick from North Americans should cover together.” I’d never heard it before, but I started this weekend — my new favorite studio tool is a lightning bolt iPhone  quarter inch cable, and I just have it plugged into the loop pedal by my guitar. 

Michael: You just have your phone plugged into a loop pedal? 

Tom: Yeah, and I just play a sample into the loop pedal. And then I look for other sounds that harmonize well with it. 

Michael: I think we did that a lot for this record. Like for “Song in the Middle,” I think we were looking for a sample, and I remember you going on Spotify or YouTube and just screen recording it and sending the screen recording. You’re a notorious voice-to-texter, and I feel like just the way you live with your phone is really funny to me. [Laughs.] You’re so much more enmeshed in it than any than anyone else I know in the sense that you find these little weird hacks and workarounds, just using your phone so that you don’t have to go in your computer and do it properly. 

Tom: Exactly. I’d rather do it in the loop pedal off of Spotify through this cable that I bought than spend any time looking at Ableton. The second I look at Ableton, I’m frozen. I’m just like, This is so fucking boring. Literally, I hate it. When we were first working on this record, when you came, I wanted you to help me reimagine how to set up a studio so that I could work without having to look at a computer. 

Michael: You’re not alone, I don’t think. I think there’s plenty of musicians who specifically work in a kind of more analog—

Tom: I feel like most of the people who do that are either synth guys, or they’re virtuosic guys like, “I want to lay it straight to tape, man.” That’s not what I’m doing.

Michael: Yeah, but this record, you’ve got some virtuosos on it. I mean, I know in our group chat, we share a lot of this stuff, like videos of Chapman Stick players and Windham Hill world, virtuosic, soft guitar players and such. 

Tom: Yeah, I mean that stuff’s extremely sick and definitely a huge influence on this. 

Michael: This is, I feel like, the most I’ve heard you incorporate that sound into the record.

Tom: Yeah, for sure. It’s a hard dive into that sound. What’s interesting though is, “New Confusion,” which you would think it has the kind of Windham Hill-y dynamic to it — the main riff of the song is from a YouTube video I ripped in, like, 2016. The name of the video was like, “Do You Know How Many Harmonics a Guitar Can Play?”

Michael: Oh, so it’s literally from a kind of informational guitar—

Tom: Like a Musician’s Friend, Guitar Center demo. [Laughs.] 

Michael: There’s interestingly probably a lot of stuff to mine. I mean, people who — I suppose they’re like some mix between hobbyists and virtuosos, but it doesn’t really result in art, so to speak. More performance and displays of virtuosity, I suppose. 

Tom: Yeah. But usually when they’re doing it, it’s like the shittiest thing imaginable. 

Michael: Oh, exactly. There’s no depth of feeling. It’s just noodling or whatever. But especially with things like that, where they’re really trying to ape or achieve a certain sound, there’s probably a lot to mine there. 

Tom: It’s interesting — it’s been such a big part of my music my entire career, from the first record all the way through now, of taking things which aren’t artful and then figuring out how to make them artful, whether it’s hold music or instrument demo stuff. My first record, I used a lot of the sounds that just were on my MacBook — I would just search “hi hat,” and there would just randomly be something that was from a GarageBand packet or whatever. And then on the other side, also taking music that I think is art but it’s not recognized as such. Like there’s this James Knight sample that’s a big part of the second record. It’s kind of the main motif of the instrumental music in the middle of that record. He’s just a weird YouTube guy that people would be like, “This is shit,” and I was like, “Oh, no, this is beautiful.” Obviously that’s a sort of similar gesture —so much of your work is sort of this recontextualizing gesture. I mean, at least your last couple records.

Michael: Yeah, it’s definitely something like you said, taking things that are kind of maligned and recontextualizing or repackaging them in a way that’s a little bit more… not even more thoughtful, but rather just with your own personal…

Tom: Yeah, you’re not taking the toilet and putting it in the gallery vibes. 

Michael: Exactly. It’s like, “This thing that you’re maligning or whatever is actually beautiful.”

Tom: And if you put this chordal dynamic over it, it shows how much is actually going on in it, and building from that. 

Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I think we both, in different ways — because obviously I think when I’m left to my own devices, what I do is a bit more genre exploration-based. There can be deeper concepts that I’m trying to lay on there, but a lot of the time it’s really just me pushing into and blending different genres. You do that, but then there’s a whole other songwriting aspect to it that you’re trying to bake in there as well. 

Tom: Yeah. For me, especially, the last two records, there’s such an intense focus on finding this middle point between extremely evocative singing — so really bodily, not cognitive, not conceptual — finding where that intersects with the most dense poetry. Every word is so meaningful on the last couple records. But it’s funny, so much of the critical reception of my first three records was about a genre exercise, like “He’s taking R&B, and da da da,” and literally it didn’t even cross my mind that I was doing a genre exercise.

Michael: Yeah, I never really thought of it that way, to be honest. When I listened to Love Remains, the R&B thing always felt very hidden and obscured. It really just to me sounded like a cool ambient pop record. And “pop” — using that term with a lot of breadth, in the sense of something like Disco Inferno or Bark Psychosis. It feels like a post-rock record in many ways to me.

Tom: For sure. I mean, the strangest thing to me was, when my records first started getting attention as R&B music, I just never separated R&B and Bark Psychosis and post-rock and noise. I listened to it all. Because the crazy thing is, when I was a little boy, I listened to the oldies station; I listened to KS107.5, like hip hop and R&B; I listened to alternative rock radio. I just loved it all. And it never occurred to me that the a lot of the music critics when we were first coming up were still guys who were like, “Anything but R&B. Rock and techno, but I will not listen to Whitney Houston.”

Michael: Yeah. And then when you got to that era, critics were like, “Woah, R&B can be cool.” It’s really wild to me. especially. Your music just had never struck me like it was doing this weird R&B flex, you know? I felt like it was just you doing your version of what you think pop music is, plus just a deeper exploration of the themes that you’re constantly interested in.

Tom: Exactly, that have defined my life. 

Michael: Yeah. And the music tends to be a reflection of where you are in those periods in your life, the genres.

Tom: Whatever I’m obsessed with listening to, literally. 

Michael: I mean, it’s natural. I think most of us as musicians work that way. 

Tom: I think I’m confusing to music critics. And I know I’m really confusing to the playlist people, because they’re like, “OK, Tom made The Anteroom, a record that mixes electronic sounds and pulsing rhythms with catchy vocals — I know the playlist for this!” And the next record is all acoustic guitars and noise and samples, they’re like, “What? I can’t put him on the same playlist. I have to think of this again!” I can’t make the same record. 

Michael: It’s not possible. I always think it’s insane when an artist is able to do that. I’m not hating or anything, it’s more just like, you spent a year, two years, three years, however long, on a record, and then you’re finished and you’re proud of it— 

Tom: “Let’s do it again!”

Michael: Yeah, “Let’s roll it back, let’s do the exact same thing again.” I guess when you’re in a band, there’s a certain way that the people in the band play off each other, and that results in a certain sound, so it makes more sense in those cases. But when you’re a “solo artist,” quote-unquote, like us, or even just a duo — I just don’t see how you can reproduce. You’re going to have to naturally change and grow with each record. 

Tom: I don’t put out a record unless I feel like I’ve finished the exploration.

Michael: Yeah, but there’s a backside to that, which gradually is really funny — over my career, with all the different sounds and styles I’ve done, the unfortunate thing is that I’ll be obsessed with a genre of music and I’ll be like, “This is what my next record is going to do.” I’ll finish the record, do all the marketing, and then I’m done with that style. It takes me, like, 10 years to be able to go back and listen to that music. Ever since I did Liquid Colours, I barely listen to jungle anymore. It’s like, I need a break from that, I’m going to try to explore something else

Tom: I mean, I have the same thing. One thing I think about a lot is that most music listeners, the data shows that they basically listen to new music until they’re about halfway through college, and then they listen to what they’re listening to then for the rest of their lives. I completely overhaul my music listening on at least a two-year cycle. 

Michael: Yeah, that’s true.

Tom: There are some things that stay — I’m always going to relisten to Joy Division, Durutti, Burial. I have the 10, 20, 30 albums that are lifers, but then everything else is in a constant reactive flux. I only listened to harsh techno for, like, a full year because of how it made me feel, and now I listen to it and I’m like, What was I so obsessed with? Still amazing records, but yeah. 

Michael: Exactly. But I like the idea that in one little window of time, you have completely different thoughts and ideas. You shed that skin gradually, and then those things are kind of a part of you, but you also kind of expel them through the act of creating.

Tom: This is interesting too — I’m getting old enough now where things are coming back into my life. Like I realized like a couple of years ago, I’m always talking about Freud, but I was like, I haven’t read those books since 2007. So I reread Freud and was like, Wow, this shit fucking rips

Michael: [Laughs.] “Freud rocks!”

Tom: [Laughs.] So I’m getting into a point in my life where things are returning. When you’re in your 20s, and your 30s even, it’s still just new. It’s just like amassing novel stuff. And now things are circling back around. One of the things that I feel like is the cursed side of this for my music — and I think it’s probably the same for you — I feel like someone will be like, “Oh, I heard about the record,” and they’re either like, “I love it,” or they’re like, “Oh, yeah, whatever.” But you’ll be like, “But what about this? You might have liked this more!”

Michael: No, it’s true. It’s kind of hilarious in a way — obviously both of us being the same age and relatively online, it’s easy to see things that people say about you, even if you’re not really looking for them. With my music, people are always like, “Man, he can do so many styles!” And that’s really nice, but it’s funny to me because it’s like, “Yeah, what do you think music is like?” You can listen to anything you want on any given day, and you can make a little Spotify playlist with, like, 10 different genres. I wouldn’t say that there’s any genre that I have mastered, but it’s all there for you to play with in a way. I don’t really believe that anything is necessarily off limits.

Tom: Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is: we’re both these kind of postmodern pastiche guys, pull from everywhere, reinvent new combinations and defy logics like, “You can’t sing like that over a beat like that!” But then one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that, in the present — and I mean, maybe this is especially intense because we live in LA and we, every once in a while, have to bump up against the pop music machinery. To me, the sort of last ditch effort of conservative restriction of where music can go is pop. It pretends like it can devour everything — it’s like, “Pop today is so all over the place! Beyonce did a house record and a country record!” But it’s all still filtered into this one, very deliberate… A big part of this record for me is letting things be dynamically totally chaotic. Like if something’s supposed to get noisy, let it get so noisy that it overwhelms the melodic. Like, we can bring noise in, but let me compress it so it’s kind of just there alongside a beautiful vocal. 

Michael: Very true. I think we were both talking about this when we were working on this in November 2020. Because I was working on memoryland and we were working on this together, and we were both trying to figure out different ways to use dynamics in music — and I don’t think I really achieved it on memoryland, in the sense of what we’re talking about. But I think what you do hear is, with the limitations of a mixed piece of music in terms of a stereo mix or whatever, how do you bring in true chaos in a way that isn’t just going to pummel the listener? There’s different mixing techniques with loudness and stereo placement and stuff like that, but it’s very difficult to achieve, I find.

Tom: For sure.

Michael: What I find really does achieve it is Brazilian funk music. 

Tom: Oh, yeah, dude. That does it so aggressively. You’ll be listening like, Oh, I know what’s happening. And then something comes in—

Michael: Absurdly loud—

Tom: In a totally weird spatial—

Michael: It’s so great. It’s such a new idea of how everything should be arranged for the listener. 

Tom: You know what else I think does it really well is the Tirzah album Colourgrade. There’s some songs where I’ll be in my car, it’ll come on and you’re like, Damn, this is just so nice sounding. And then you’re like, Why is that so fucking loud?! You turn it down and you realize the song is actually supposed to be quiet.

Michael: I see what you’re saying. I was trying to figure out with the last track on memoryland how you can kind of have a denouement, where you’re in the end credits and this track should be quieter than everything else. But it kind of doesn’t work. I didn’t do this, but you would need maybe some sort of spoken word or sound design aspect on top that is much louder to situate the music. But I didn’t really want that. I just wanted you to just have the music, but be left with a more subdued feeling. 

Tom: What’s interesting on that level is the Mk.gee record that came out. Sick record. But it also feels to me like a record that’s really even. 

Michael: Yes.

Tom: There’s one song I was listening to this morning that clearly has an iPhone video recording of some sirens, some ambient sound, and it creates this weird tension. I had the sense of listening to it like, Oh, cool, there’s multiple spaces. And then I listened a little harder and no — they’re all brought into this really thin spatial sonic band that’s very poppy, ultimately. I think that’s why when I first heard it, I was like, Oh, this is session pop. And then I listened over and over and realized it’s actually a lot more than that. A really interesting record. But even still, how sick would that record be in a much more dynamic mixing? 

Michael: Yeah, with a more spatial sense. You should do a spatial audio version of the new record. 

Tom: We’re going to do a gallery thing, I think, around the release of the record in 12 channel with the video stuff. 

Michael: Amazing. That’ll be great. 

Tom Krell, an ever-metamorphosing artist whose work has taken many forms over his now 14+ year career. On May 10, 2024, Krell will release his 6th LP, I Am Toward You.

Krell lives in Los Angeles. In 2022 he completed a PhD in Philosophy.