Technique: How To Dress Well 'Total Loss' Berlin-based artist Tom Krell talks through his extraordinary, emotionally potent new How To Dress Well album with co-producer Rodaidh McDonald.
1. When I Was In Trouble
Rodaidh McDonald: This song perfectly encapsulates the overall vision we both shared for the sound of this record. Vocals right upfront / in your ear, crisp and fragile with the background elements continuing where ‘Love Remains’ left off. This way I think we achieved a level of intimacy that was out of reach in older How To Dress Well recordings. There’s a new directness and confidence that you can hear as soon as the vocal hits in this song – a more balanced and striking listening experience. For all the vocals on the album we used an SE Gemini II mic going into a Neve Portico II Channel. Everything was arranged, produced, mixed in Logic.
“I wanted to push the ‘Love Remains’ ambient, wintry heaviness but bring in the voice as an unrestricted emotional conduit.” Tom Krell
Tom Krell of How To Dress Well: I assembled this song on a train from Frankfurt to Köln. It’s about my mom. And ya I agree with Rodaidh—— this song is kind of an emblem of the step ‘Total Loss’ is in my evolution as an artist. I wanted to push the ‘Love Remains’ kind of ambient, wintry heaviness – super inspired by Basinksi and ‘Rhubarb’-era Aphex – but bring in the voice as an unrestricted emotional conduit, you know?
2. Cold Nites
Rodaidh McDonald: Forest Swords made the beat for the main part of this track. We added some other synths in Logic which I think we then reamped. Actually we didn’t get hold of this beat with the melodic guitar part separated so we really just cut this wav up, created a song structure to go on top of, then added a lot of other details and instruments – the kicks and subs, bass, horns, additional piano melody and other touches. The end section we finished a bit further down the line, sending ideas and references for this over Skype mixing sessions which we did A LOT of. We called these end ones the Clipse drums.
Tom Krell: Ya, Matthew [Forest Swords] came through Chicago in the September of 2010 and we discussed doing this track toegther. He sent me some beat parts and I wrote the whole melody and stucture—— then Rodaidh and I just brought it all together. The end part needed to bang—- like Grindin!
3. Say My Name
“Tom and I were talking about how developing these recordings was like ‘drawing’ since they were put together without a lot of instruments and without much linear programming.” Rodaidh McDonald
Rodaidh McDonald: Tom and I were talking about how developing these recordings was like ‘drawing’ since these productions were put together mainly without a lot of instruments and without much linear programming, and rather collaging and stacking details to complete the picture and fill in the spaces between the original crux sample and the vocal. Say My Name illustrates this well. There’s that piano loop holding everything together but with all these melodic and noise based flourishes that we’d add to keep the movement going. Listening to this now I’m just remembering that that trembling almost vocal sound in the build at the end before it drops just to voice – that’s actually this horn arrangement we made and ran through a really squared off tremolo roughly in time with the piano loop.
Tom Krell: I sang the final a capella portion quite sick and depressed—— I wanted to make a song to soothe myself, but I felt so weak and fucked up. And this whole song is about the possibility of soothing oneself, about how hard it is to really care for oneself.
4. Running Back
Rodaidh McDonald: This was the last song to be completed for the record. I was in Chicago sometime at the beginning of this year. Tom played a demo of Running Back and it felt so perfect. The beat that you hear was chopped by Tom at home. He send me the parts and I added that bassline, as well as the hi-hats and I mixed all of his guitar and vocal recordings together. You’ll hear a difference in the vocals as Tom recorded these in Chicago. He used his personal settings for the reverb which has a really distinctive and dark tone which is hard to describe.
Tom Krell: Ya, this song is just a real viber, a real earworm—- so soothing somehow. It’s about love, truly supportive love.
5. And It Was U
Rodaidh McDonald: The demo of this had a really soft guide vocal and the beat tapped out on a desk I think, with some finger clicks on top of this. It was exciting to build on this and to turn it from this underwater slow mysterious jam into the joyous house climax of the final version. We were listening to Moodymann in the studio, Aaron-Carl a lot too, however the main reference point for this, which came from Tom, was the Japan dub of Whitney Houston’s Thinking About You.
Tom Krell: Ya, my friend Claire [Grimes] sent me that Whitney dub and we were just talking about how brave it was. So I set my mind to developing a similarly brave, loving song. I dedicate this song to India Estelle, the lovely little daughter of my sweet friend Faith.
Rodaidh McDonald: The demo version of Struggle was multiple layers of synth, footstomps, and handclaps with a guide vocal of the chorus-y bit. We kept coming back to this one which was difficult as it started out as just those swirling synths going on forever. The stomps were in there but we cut this up, trying to shape in into a song structure. We tried a few things. In the end we structured it so the beat really builds and climaxes at the end whereas originally it had been in from the start and more uniform. The end had to be intense and there’s obviously elements of trap production in there with those snare rolls, and subs, but also we were listening and looking to to hardstyle tracks and really intense footwork sounds and patterns to help channel this energy. These all just come from EXS24 instruments I have – no hardware on this track apart from the swirling synth sounds at the start which I believe come from a microKORG.
7. How Many?
“This song is about how my damaged and abusive brother made me who I am by eliminating so many possible people I could have been.” Tom Krell
Rodaidh McDonald: I remember I had done this really intense and harsh mix of this. We had a studio in New York for one day near the end of last year where we went in and stripped this right back, created the drop where it just cuts out to the electric piano sounding droplets and just kicks/finger clicks at 2:20 before gradually bringing it all back in. One of the most beautiful moments on the album for me.
Tom Krell: Ya me too—— I love that moment. I love this song intensely. It’s one of the most personal songs on the record. It’s about how my damaged and abusive brother made me who I am by eliminating so so so many possible people I could have been.
8. Talking To You
Rodaidh McDonald: The vocals for this were recorded in my house along with vocals for another song Motherhymn. I think Tom recorded the original underwater sounding piano loop into a MacBook mic haha. Therefore there were lots of ringing harsh frequencies conflicting with the vocals which I spent a long time getting rid of. We had an idea of the root string part which we worked on with this amazing string arranger in San Francisco called Minna Choi. She elaborated on these then recorded these beautifully and sent back to me as stems. There was an extra section of this arrangement that ended up becoming an interlude on the album – World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem).
Tom Krell: This is among my favorite things I’ve ever done—- like lifetime achievements :+) inspired by Whitney’s I Look To You. I think of it as a duet with myself, about my conflicting desires, conflicting ways of life.
9. Set It Right
“There are so many beautiful details that we found come out in this sample loop if you listen to it for ages.” Rodaidh McDonald
Rodaidh McDonald: Those are real drums that you hear in the climactic section. There are so many beautiful details that we found come out in this sample loop if you listen to it for ages, a lot of these certainly informed Tom’s lead vocal melody as well as the details and additional instruments that we added to it. My favourite song on the record.
Tom Krell: I love this song too! The bridge section was completely freestyled—— we recorded this song on the one year anniversary of the death of my best friend, so the vibes were LIVE when I was singing. Super powerful song for me.
10. Ocean Floor For Everything
Rodaidh McDonald: The vocals for this had already recorded before our session and they sounded so perfect that we didn’t redo them. The end section drums were played manually in by us on either keys or MPC. I can’t remember…definitely not programmed. That buzzsaw distorted synth you hear in under the drum section at the end makes an appearance a few times throughout this record. Inspired by listening to Murderer by The-Dream at the time.
Tom Krell: Ya, I had worked hard on this song at home and in the studio in Chicago with my homeboys Supreme Cuts.