How to Dress Well's Tom Krell on Los Angeles, Patreon, and the 2010s Indie Bubble

How to Dress Well's Tom Krell on Los Angeles, Patreon, and the 2010s Indie Bubble
Photo by Jenny Farman
Photo by Jenny Farman

I've always loved talking to Tom Krell and listening to his music. We caught up late last year amidst his tinkering on new projects and talked about his experiences in the music industry as well as what life's been like over the past few years.

You've lived in Los Angeles for six years now. How's that been?

It's been a mixed bag. I think I landed somewhere different than I thought I was going. I'm enormously happy to be living here—I love my partner, my friends, my life—but I definitely passed through some real storms.

It's really vexing. The first winter I spent in L.A., I was dealing with these confusing natural experiences where it's 74 degrees and sunny, but it still gets dark at 4 p.m. So it's not only feeling normal amounts of seasonal affective disorder, but also feeling ashamed at feeling upset when it's so beautiful. It's an interesting place to be miserable—a very different dynamic. In a classic way, I learned that wherever you go, there you are. It's much starker when you have nothing to complain about because you live in a yard with beautiful foliage.

The thing about L.A. is that you end up somewhere extremely beautiful in any direction, so it's unjustifiable to be miserable here. You can't blame anything. I lived in Chicago prior to L.A., and I was like, "Okay, I'm miserable because the city sucks, the weather sucks, there's no one cool here, etc." Then you get to L.A. and you're like, "Ah, all my cool friends live here, it's beautiful here, I have everything I need, I'm still a shitbag, still miserable, I gotta face that internal hell."

How has it been in terms of the pandemic?

I've had a very lucky and safe pandemic. I didn't lose anyone really close to me, and I made changes in my life the year before the pandemic that allowed for me not to have the ground fall underneath my feet the way it did for a lot of my friends who are like I was for ten years: Reliant on touring for my income.

It was a real sorting mechanism. Of my 50 friends who are professional touring musicians, I'd be like, "Oh, this person is still going on little vacations and stuff. I guess they don't need touring for their income. And they don't have another job, so I'm not sure how they're pulling this off." And other friends were like, "Dude, I'm fucked. What the fuck am I supposed to do?" The touring industry isn't coming back in the same shape that it was in. It's very difficult for musicians right now.

But I had real financial stability and beautiful new relationships enter my life. L.A. was already a quarantine lifestyle pre-pandemic. You're in your house, you get in your car to go to a set destination for a set amount of time, you park, you go into the restaurant, you meet your friends there, you get back in your car and back on your freeway back to your home. It's a suburban lifestyle, plus very easy outdoor access—which made the pandemic here relatively low-impact.

Of course, it was still terrifying and awful in every possible way, just awful. But even in the absolute thick of it, I was going out for a hike with my dog a couple of times a week. I have a house with a yard, and it's very private. When it was really bad, there was a lot of helicopter traffic, which was frightening in its own way. Are you in New York still?


So, New York in the first part of the pandemic, we didn't have that—that dreadful, trapped, death-filled experience.

Tell me more about the changes you made pre-pandemic.

For The Anteroom, I was doing a solo performance for the first time since the first record, which I didn't tour with any real severity because I was deep in the coursework for my PhD. I'd be in classes Monday-Thursday, do New York-Toronto-Montreal Friday-Saturday-Sunday. It wasn't until Total Loss that I started doing these 180-show years where I destroyed my life and mind through touring my music. Doing that solo for The Anteroom was pretty painful. It's a tortured record—the energy is chaotic, a lot of psychic breakdowns lyrically—so doing 150 shows on that all alone was really tough and physically demanding, because I was carrying two suitcases, a backpack, and two Pelican cases of gear.

When I got back from the Europe dates, I was physically and spiritually broken. And playing these shows was a great experience in my life! But I hit this wall where I was like, "I'm 35. Do I envision getting rich off of touring?" The National are out there with their children backstage and shit. How many tickets do you have to sell to pull that off, and what am I gonna have to do to sell those tickets? I needed to be more realistic about what it was gonna be.

So I started putting feelers out about what I could do professionally—a friend is pitching a show to Netflix, so I get to be paid as a consultant for the art direction for two weeks, or another person pays me for a branded content consulting spot. Basically, corporate creative shit. I did my first job in that world, and it paid me in two weeks what eight weeks of spirit and body destruction through touring would've earned me. It changed my relationship decisively with the record I'm making now, because I don't have to think how the music connects with capital streams.

My worry with doing other work was about authenticity as an artist. "I should really be a road dog, grinding it out." But that also means you have to do Modelo ads for a thousand dollars to pay rent. That doesn't feel authentic. I wanted to get myself in a position where I could be fundamentally guileless with my art production. It's made my music income much more interesting to me. I'd been doing this Patreon that I got burnt out on, so I put it on pause—but it was this unique opportunity, where I could pay an artist $2500 to make a video for me for Patreon.

When you're under the gun as a musician, you're always trying to figure out what the lowest possible amount you could pay your best friend to make art for your thing. That's such a bad feeling. I like to be able to have capital that's at my disposal, rather than some budget that's overseen by some loser telling me that I shouldn't spend x amount of money on tour visuals because they need to spend it on social media marketing.

Tell me about how the Patreon has been going.

They came to me and said, "We think you'd be a great artist for Patreon," because of my broad interest and weird skillset. The deep fans of my work see the broader philosophical scaffolding as a point of pride in my work, but there's never been a place to engage with that. This guy at Patreon was a fan of that aspect of my work, and he said, "Let's get a Patreon going." It was advantageous for me in a number of ways, and they waived their fees. I did "The Program," as I called it, for eight months, and then I paused it. I might just call it an eight-month thing.

My first post on it was a longform post about my worries about the platform, and my aspirations to flag those worries and dodge them. I felt like people were buying a portion of my creativity in its potentiality phase. "I haven't made anything yet, but now you own a part of my soul!" It's like a Subway restaurant, where they can pop in and be like, "I really liked what you were doing last month—can you do that instead?" I didn't want to play into those dynamics.

I wanted to provide real valuable shit through Patreon, but I didn't want it to be these people going, "I'm paying you, so you have to do x, y, and z for me now." It felt like it was working, and it also felt like it wasn't really working. The amount of shit that I got to put out and do was really awesome. It gave me an occasion to do shit that I wanted to do for a long time.

One of the months, I focused on all the work I'd done with Josh Clancy since Total Loss and built out this three-part archive of all this collaborative work we'd done together that never saw the light of day. I got to do a bunch of really cool work with my brother, who's a janitor and artist in Boulder who's disabled and doesn't have capital flows that would attach to that project. The personal capital flows from my patrons allowed me to do some work that I felt was really significant.

Once a month, we did a "program meeting" where we met in Microsoft Teams, like a chat room, and talked about philosophical shit, and sometimes it felt like the community I always wanted—and other times it felt a little forced, and that's fine. I'd also never shared music in demo phase, so that was really cool, and I made another record called Pathologies of the Digital for Mark Fisher's birthday, and I released this composition I made for the Getty Tram in 2018 called Passing Into | Passing Out.

The coolest thing about the Patreon is learning that everyone in there was an artist—but not a commercial artist. One woman had a couple of kids and was working through her own loss by painting, and I was like, "This rules. This is my shit." But other times I'd feel bad that I wasn't contributing enough to the Discord. I'd be like, "Let me find some cool links to post to the Discord," and then I'd be like, "No! I don't want to do that!"

Antonin Artaud thought of his creativity as something he could whip, like flesh—you can strengthen a muscle. With the program, I'd be like, "OK, I gotta whip myself to do this," and I didn't really want to do that, so I just put it on pause.

Your career kicked off in the early 2010s, a time in which left-field acts like yourself could enjoy a level of success through corporate avenues. That's kind of died off a little bit these days. What was it coming up through that era of indie?

I started reading Pitchfork and TinyMixTapes in the late '90s-early '00s, and the model that they brought to the internet was a holdover from the Gen X model. When they got bisected by capital streams, artists that Pitchfork put their stamp on became extremely successful. Arcade Fire is the peak example. They're one of the biggest bands! And we're talking about records that came out in 2004. My first record came out in 2010, when we were already talking about Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the Grizzly Bear waterfront show. I was downstream from that shit. I was able to get a lot of attention, but the stakeholders had already choked off the capital streams.

I didn't get rich off How to Dress Well. And some people at that time still made it out and got rich—Tame Impala-type acts. With a very different monetary structure behind him, James Blake is doing the Hollywood Bowl thing, making terrible music by my estimation. I was just making my music, and then I met people like Robin [Carolan] from Tri Angle, who was like, "Hey, I love what you're doing, and it connects to a broader thing that's happening, where the underground and the mainstream distinction no longer holds water."

There was a bit of naïve optimism about that meaning that the underground was gonna have access to capital streams. With my first two or three records, I had experiences where I was an interloper in scenes of unbelievable wealth. I was in a room with Nicki Minaj and Rihanna and Ty Dolla $ign, and the producer was playing them Love Remains. It was like, "What's happening? How is this minimally possible?" Of course, I thought this meant I was gonna be an enormously successful musician, and so did people around me.

I had a manager, we had a business plan, we were gonna get Domino to give us a six-figure marketing plan. "Jack Antonoff is really interested in working with you! He's a hugely successful person." "We're gonna get you writing songs for Maroon 5." I went into all these experiences pretty money-hungry and burnt out on the idea of being an authentic musician. I was like, "Yeah, cool, let's break down the difference between mainstream and underground. I'm tired of not making money on any of these records, let's do it." I have to pay for my family's bills. I have different "why"s than other people about wanting to get rich.

But it didn't work. And it just became clear to me that we do not have the lever. I don't hold it, Domino doesn't hold it. The indies are trying to play a game where, just by sitting down at the table, they've given up their entire purpose and value. I wish that I could remove a handful of songs from Care on streaming services, and if I were able to re-mix it, I'd do so very differently.

My manager was like, "Look, we need you to sell 2,500 tickets a show in New York in L.A. How do we do that? We have to make the music sound more approachable." At that point, I was going through a pretty difficult phase in my life. I was blasted on anti-depressants and going through a breakup, so I was like, "Fuck it, let's do it."

I made a record, once again, for an underground audience that sounds like it was made for a mainstream audience. It's like this weird mutant. There are moments on that record I'm really proud of, but now corporations are actually interested in our underground aesthetics. The mainstream and the underground aren't so sequestered from one another anymore. It quite quickly became clear to me that it was just a way for the creative power brokers of the world to devour our best ideas and not compensate us.

We let the richest people in the world eat off our plates, under the pretense that they'd have the good will to provide recompense, and they didn't. The biggest thing I had come out of my songwriting career was a big paycheck for Maroon 5 to own a song that they never recorded. It's just shell game shit from billionaires and millionaires.

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Jamie Larson