(Editor’s note: This interview contains some strong language.)
Tom Krell could be called the thinking person’s pop artist. The 29-year-old, better known by his stage name, How to Dress Well, makes fuzzy-edged, neo-R&B tunes that, even when upbeat, are suffused with melancholy. His songs attempt to shine a light into the dark corners of the human experience, tackling such subjects as mental illness and the death of a friend in ways that feel at once widely relatable and deeply personal, all anchored by a falsetto that evokes neo-soul artist the Weeknd. His experimental sound has earned rave reviews—The A.V. Club called his debut album, 2010’s Love Remains, “an immersive experience that transcends its chilliness (and speaker-crackling sonic limitations) through pure emotion”—and he continues to push his boundaries with his third EP, “What Is This Heart?,” released on June 23.
Krell, in interviews, is as analytical and unapologetic as his lyrics would suggest, taking a microscope to his songwriting methods and influences with an academic detachment that befits his PhD student status. He’s currently on tour, including a stop at U Street Music Hall on Saturday, September 20; we caught up with him by phone to talk about his new album, his “dumb” approach to music, and striving for the perfect live show.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going very well. We’re in the thick of it; it’s been a long one. The sheer mileage of it is . . . hard. If I was in one city and I did 30 shows in 35 nights it would be tiring, but wouldn’t be exhausting the way this is exhausting.
Have you developed any strategies for dealing with that?
No. There’s no real strategy; you just gotta do it, and then you sleep when you’re dead, I guess.
Is there anywhere you’re especially excited to go on this tour?
I was really excited to go places i haven’t been, like Atlanta. LA, Chicago, and New York are always sick, Portland is always amazing, Seattle, Vancouver; we hit all the same places and then added some slightly more eccentric spots—we’re doing a show in Hamilton, Ontario, in a couple days, and Louisville [Kentucky] and Nashville.
It was during an interview in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been performing, and he got mad at the crowd, and that interview got picked up by Pitchfork and Stereogum and shit. The tweets were mostly just me saying to these old dickheads who are diehard Sun Kil Moon fans that they need to stop tweeting at me.
With so much interaction possible with fans now, thanks to social media, do you ever feel like it causes problems for you as an artist?
The social stuff is not the problem—it’s always the big publications who are bored one day and decide to make a headline out of some shit so they can get the search engine optimization going. That’s what it comes down to: Some douchey 44-year-old diehard Sun Kil Moon fan from wherever, like, Iowa City—he doesn’t change anything, but then Stereogum posting some inflammatory headline bumps their place on Google News. It’s the big publications that have the control still. Social media is kinda fun and cute and doesn’t really do that much.
So do situations like that make you feel like you have to be on your guard when you’re doing interviews?
No . . . not really.
Moving on: Your new album has gotten some great reviews.
I’m really happy the album is doing as well as it is, just because I worked really hard on it and I care a lot about it. In my mind, it’s less personal than my previous ones; Love Remains is an album that I made in a personal way that a select group of people connected with very personally, but “What Is This Heart?” is more open and general and has a much more universal side to it.
Why the quotation marks in the title?
The way I write music and lyrics is very freestyle; I get a song started, with maybe a loop or something, and then I go in over the loop and freestyle stuff for a long time, and then listen back at what I said and try to let the music bring something out of me. When I was looking back at a lot of recordings, weirdly there was so much dialogue that came out of these free-associative monologues. There were so many things I said to people that I didn’t understand the consequences of or that I wish I hadn’t said or had said differently, and so many things people said to me that I didn’t understand at the time but now I see what they were trying to communicate. The idea of quotation and living communication—not like lyrics that I wrote in my diary, but things that happened in life—really stood out to me almost on every single song. So I started to think about what that was all about: what it means to have one free-associative inner monologue so full of scenes from other people, what it means to talk to other people, and how much that sharing with people constitutes who we are as individuals, so that was the vibe with the quotation. I think every single song has some kind of quotation element to it.
When you transition from that free flow to polishing and editing songs, do you feel like you lose something?
No—it’s really strange to say this, but I learn so much about myself through my process. I don’t really believe that introspection comes from, like, asking yourself, “How am I doing today?” You don’t have that much access to yourself—you put up all these blinders, all these mazes and traps for yourself, that you don’t really get a sense of who you are. So this is a really weird process by which I do learn a lot about myself and about where I’m at. Like what I said about the quotations—I’d just be freestyling, and I’d be like, What the fuck? My dad said that to me when I was 15, and I thought he meant this, but he actually meant that, and I spent the last ten years assuming he was trying to do one thing but was maybe trying to do the exact opposite. On another song, I was just singing, and all of a sudden I realized I totally mishandled certain aspects of relationships in the past, and I’d never really been honest with myself about how badly I’d mishandled them.
It’s like how you can look at yourself in the mirror and find your good angle and make your cute face and shit, so you think you’re seeing a reflection of yourself, but it’s a very controlled reflection. You know how sometimes in a hotel there’s a corner mirror and you see two different sides of your face, or sometimes you flip an image, and you think, “Oh, shit, that’s what I look like? That’s what my hair looks like?” The songwriting process is more like that than like the “get my cute face on.”
Is it the same way when you’re performing live? Do you discover something different every time?
Performing is almost like a sport—you just try and, like, do something really beautiful spontaneously in front of people. I’m focused on trying to make every show really perfect. I mean, we’re constantly refining and changing and rearranging stuff on the live show—one day we’ll try something really minimal and find it’s way more effective than another arrangement, so then on the way to the venue you spend three, four hours trying to rewrite. It’s always so hard to tell what’s gonna touch people and what’s not.
The idea of perfection in a live show is interesting—have you ever seen it?
Frankly, no. I don’t really know anybody who’s doing what we’re doing. I’ve seen Antony and the Johnsons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a full orchestra, and that was amazing—so refined, so extremely beautiful, but then it had this academic, kind of austere sort of exclusive feeling, which I hated. And then I’ve seen Grouper play for, like, ten people in Portland, and it was so quiet and so beautiful that people were holding their breath the entire time, and it was amazing, but it lacked this really strong muscular thing. I still love going to concerts and being bowled over by sound and the physicality of the performer; that’s why it’s dope to see, like, ASAP Ferg or something, but then that lacks that beautiful live, fragile aspect. I never liked shows where there’s choreographed dancing or some shit like that. Trying to do something that’s really refined and really raw and really tender and really muscular all in the same 70 minutes is really challenging, and frankly I don’t know anybody who does it. I’m trying to do something I feel like I haven’t had the privilege of seeing.
People talk a lot about how you’re pursuing a PhD in philosophy—do you think that has any effect on your writing?
I have an effect on my music, which seems trivial to say, but I’m always super confused why people don’t get this. You know Action Bronson? He’s a chef and a total crazy eater, so all his raps end up being about preparing food and eating food. And I am who I am, so my music has a certain inflection to it, which is me. Ever since I was young I’ve really been interested in literature and poetry and thinking, but I don’t have a philosophical approach to music; I’m pretty dumb and raw, and kind of intuitive, but there’s a common element, which is me thinking that is doing music on one hand and thinking about philosophy on the other hand. So it’s all my life.
How to Dress Well performs at U Street Music Hall Saturday, September 20, at 7 PM. Tickets ($15) are available online.
Now that we’ve all shared a collective sigh of relief that this summer will not be devoid of the Fort Reno concert series, following an agreement between the show organizers and the National Park Service, we can focus on what really matters: the music.
This year’s concerts run Mondays and Thursdays from the 7th through the 31st, beginning with the Captivators, a ska band, and art rockers Malatese from Harrisburg, Virginia. Also on the slate are punk ascendants Priests, Title Tracks, and Protect-U. Once again, there are no Fugazi reunions planned.
As always, the shows run from 7 to 9:30 PM, weather permitting. Bring snacks, friends, dogs, and babies. Leave the glass bottles and alcohol at home; you can always go to Guapo’s after the show.
See the full schedule below.
Monday, July 7
Thursday, July 10
- Peanut Butter & Dave
- Golden Looks
- Calvera Skull
Monday, July 14
- Baby Bry Bry
- Tiger Horse
Thursday, July 17
- Puff Pieces
Monday, July 21
- Alarms & Controls
- Talk It
Thursday, July 24
- Title Tracks
- The Effects
- Myrrh Myrrh
Monday, July 28
- Black Sparks
- The Raised by Wolves
Thursday, July 31
- Protect U
The annual summer concerts at Fort Reno Park will take place after all, after organizer Amanda MacKaye met with officials from the National Park Service and US Park Police. MacKaye said last week the shows would be canceled after the Park Service insisted the shows cover the cost of posting a Park Police officer at each event, but an agreement was reached at today’s sit-down that will allow MacKaye to stage the concert series this year.
“The shows will go on,” DC “shadow senator” Paul Strauss, who brokered today’s meeting, tells Washingtonian.
Fort Reno concert-goers will still see an increased police presence at this summer’s shows, and MacKaye is still on the hook for covering the expense, but Strauss says the arrangement reached today does not require MacKaye to pay up front, as the Park Service initially asked. MacKaye said last week the Park Service’s request would have more than doubled the concert series’s shoestring budget. MacKaye stages the Fort Reno shows on about $2,500 a summer. Bands perform for free, and crowd management and cleanup are handled by volunteers; the biggest expenses are a sound engineer and portable toilet rentals.
The Park Service and Park Police had also said the need for increased patrols was because their “primary concern is public safety,” but Strauss says Monday’s meeting largely mitigated concerns about any increases in crime around the Tenleytown park.
“There’s a understanding that giving young people something positive to do probably prevents more crime,” he says. “They conceded there’s not a real history of security problems.”
While there will be more cops on duty at Fort Reno when shows begin, Strauss says the policing will not be intrusive.
“I think you’re going to see a transition away from vehicles driving on the lawn to more foot patrols and bike patrols,” he says.
MacKaye, Park Service superintendent Tara Morrison, and Park Police lieutenant Allan Griffith appeared on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show to announce the settlement. Griffith said part of the reason MacKaye is on the hook for police expenses is because officers from the Park Police’s Rock Creek station now get overtime pay for covering Fort Reno shows. It was a change officials saw coming last year, and Griffith and Morrison conceded they should have approached MacKaye sooner.
Strauss says MacKaye will be able to pay for the added police expenses in installments, and that there has been “a lot of goodwill pouring out.” (Don’t worry, scenesters: MacKaye said in her radio appearance that Fort Reno will never be sponsored.)
Besides the apparent support to help MacKaye pay these new costs, the temporary plug-pulling generated a widespread outburst of emotional support. A change.org petition collected more than 1,600 signatures and statements from many DC punk luminaries including James Canty, Eli Janney, and John Stabb. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland also made inquires to the Park Service asking for a speedy resolution.
This year’s Fort Reno shows are tentatively scheduled to begin next Monday, July 7.
Your summer concert schedule is about to get more packed. Jiffy Lube Live, the outdoor music venue in Bristow, Virginia, turns 20 this year and is celebrating by offering discounted tickets to a baker’s dozen of its upcoming shows. The discounts—only available now through Sunday, July 6, at 11:59 PM—get you lawn seats to see acts such as Kings of Leon, James Taylor, Aerosmith, and more for $20 flat, no extra processing or convenience fees involved. Tickets are available online on a first come, first served basis while supplies last. Check out the full list of applicable shows below (all shows are at Jiffy Lube Live unless otherwise noted). Happy concert-going!
Goo Goo Dolls and Daughtry
Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd
KISS and Def Leppard
Wiz Khalifa and Young Jeezy
Under The Influence of Music Tour
James Taylor and His Allstar Band
Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival
with Avenged Sevenfold and Korn
Rascal Flatts and Sheryl Crow
Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden
Linkin Park and 30 Seconds to Mars
Kings of Leon
Aerosmith and Slash
Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line
at Nationals Park
$20 reserved seats (subject to per-order processing and delivery fees)
There may be hope yet for DC’s treasured summer concerts at Fort Reno.
Amanda MacKaye, who organizes the annual music series at the Tenleytown park, will meet on Monday with officials from the National Park Service to try to find a solution that will allow the shows to go on. MacKaye informed Fort Reno’s fans on Thursday that she canceled this year’s shows because the Park Service insisted that she pay for a US Park Police officer to be posted at the twice-weekly concerts, an expense that would have more than doubled the concert series’s shoestring budget. MacKaye, the sister of Fugazi and Minor Threat singer Ian MacKaye, spends about $2,500 a summer on the Fort Reno shows.
Monday’s meeting comes about thanks to Paul Strauss, one of the District’s “shadow senators” and a former Fort Reno organizer, Washington City Paper reports.
Pleas for Fort Reno, which has hosted summer concerts every year since 1968, also reached real members of Congress. Representative Chris Van Hollen, whose Maryland district borders upper Northwest DC, received a flood of correspondence after MacKaye posted her note, his press secretary, Ian Janetta, tells Washingtonian. Van Hollen also sent a letter Thursday evening to the Interior Department’s liaison on Capitol Hill, asking for a reconsideration of the decisions that led to MacKaye canceling this summer’s lineup.
The Park Service also issued its own statement late Thursday:
“Today, the National Park Service (NPS) was notified by the permit applicant for the Fort Reno concert series that she intended to postpone the concerts. The United States Park Police (USPP) reached out to the applicant today. The NPS and USPP are reviewing the details of previous permits and previous law enforcement needs related to the concert series. Our primary goal is public safety. Both the NPS and USPP recognize the importance of the concerts to the community and look forward to further discussions with the permit applicant.”
Here’s a bummer for music fans of all ages: The annual Fort Reno concert series in Tenleytown’s Fort Reno Park has been canceled. In a memo on the festival’s website titled Where’s the Schedule?, cofounder Amanda MacKaye writes, “Around the time that we should have received our finalized permit for this summer, the concert series was informed by National Park Service that U.S. Park Police was imposing a requirement that we pay for an officer to be posted on site at each concert.”
The new requirement, she says, would “literally double the VERY small budget of the concert series” and would limit the scale of the series, which in years past has included sets by local heavyweights such as Fugazi, Dismemberment Plan, and Ted Leo.
MacKaye expresses frustration with the policy change, writing, “U.S. Park Police cited differing reasons as to why this had come up after all these years. The reasons felt vague and when asked for specifics, none were given.” We’ve reached out to both MacKaye and NPS and will update when we find out more.
Read MacKaye’s full note below.
Where’s the Schedule?
Around the time that we should have received our finalized permit for this summer, the concert series was informed by National Park Service that U.S. Park Police was imposing a requirement that we pay for an officer to be posted on site at each concert. Inquiry with our ranger led to me placing a call to U.S. Park Police.
U.S. Park Police cited differing reasons as to why this had come up after all these years. The reasons felt vague and when asked for specifics, none were given.
I requested a sit down meeting with NPS and USPP with the hope that our long standing (very good) relationship with NPS coupled with people seeing that we are just folks having a small community related event would bring about a better understanding and resolution.
Two messages to schedule went unanswered and when I did reach someone, a meeting was scheduled for the next morning (yesterday). The meeting happened but none of the invitees attended except myself and one extremely kind NPS employee who works in the office where meetings are held but despite being familiar with the park and the concert series as being an annual event, knew nothing about why the permit was being stalled.
So as it stands today, not only does the concert series not have the funds to cover this cost at the last minute but we don’t feel we should have to do this without just cause. Our feeling is that if something had changed within the operations at NPS or USPP regarding public events since last summer, there was ample time to inform us. NPS has all of my contact information. And this is not a little cost as USPP seems to think. It will literally double the VERY small budget of the concert series. It will affect how many shows can happen because the money must be paid up front. I didn’t even bother to get into what happens if we are dark due to rain…
That all said, with the heaviest of hearts the decision is that the concert series will be dark for 2014 in an effort to resolve this for the future. I hope it goes without saying that this is not the outcome we expected and certainly don’t want.
With love, gratitude and sincerity,
The electro-pop duo ASTR might currently be best known for covering someone else’s famous song: They first performed their rendition of Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home” live last year, and the track appears on their first and only EP, Varsity, released in January. But Varsity’s other five songs are well worth a listen, too: Singer Zoe Silverman and producer Adam Pallin’s sound ranges from sparkly and upbeat (“We Fall Down”) to the moody, beat-heavy “Operate”—all united by a distinctive blend of house, pop, and hip-hop. The New York duo play 9:30 Club on Monday, June 16, with the Knocks—and we’re giving away a pair of tickets to the show. To win, tell us in the comments section what your favorite cover song is and why. We’ll announce the winner at 4 PM on Monday. In the meantime, read on for a few more things to know about ASTR according to frontwoman Zoe.
On the band’s experience at this year’s Sweetlife: “Dude, that was so fun for us! That was our first festival, and now I’m obsessed. I want to do all festivals.”
On their chameleonlike sound: “We’re both very passionate people—the dark we experience in life is very dark, and you can see that on the album. When it’s dark it’s pretty dark, and when we’re happy it’s rainbows and passion.”
On choosing to cover Drake’s song: “I saw Drake do ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’ at the VMAs before it was big. No one knew what that song was, but it struck something in me. I thought it was amazing and so different for Drake. We were going on tour and needed one more song to have a complete set, and we hadn’t even recorded it yet—we didn’t record it until after the tour.”
On pre-show rituals: “My new thing is playing mantra—classical Indian music—it’s very calming and relaxing. I love hip-hop, and when I’m going out to parties I play hip-hop to get ready, but for a show I do the opposite. I want to slow my mind down so I can do the opposite onstage.”
On what’s coming up next: “We’re gonna release an album next year. We’re trying to take some time off after the tour but also write while we’re on tour. Neither of us are crazy partiers; we try to stay as grounded as possible, so if we can write while we’re traveling, that routine will help.” More immediately, “We’re putting out a music video for ‘Blue Hawaii’ in the next week or two, so stay tuned for a very summery vibe.”
Want to see John Legend in DC? You could wait for the next presidential inauguration—or you could head to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, May 28, where the multiple Grammy winner performs in a special concert, YouTube Onstage Live From the Kennedy Center. The free performance is aimed at “bringing popular artists from the digital world to the stage” and features Legend, as well as “dubstep violinist” Lindsey Stirling (who joined Legend for a version of his song “All of Me” that’s gotten more than 20 million views on YouTube); French hip-hop act Les Twins (a.k.a. brothers Larry and Laurent Bourgeois); Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox, a group that covers contemporary songs in a variety of vintage styles (check out some of their cool videos on their website); and other acts that have made a splash on the digital music scene. The concert will be filmed live and uploaded, naturally, to the Kennedy Center’s YouTube channel.
The show begins at 7:30 PM; tickets are limited to two per person and will be distributed starting at 6 the day of, at the entrance to the Hall of Nations. If you’re unable to get tickets, the performance will be simulcast on the Millennium Stage screens in the Grand Foyer. Visit the Kennedy Center’s website for more on the featured acts.
The fourth annual festival put on by Sweetgreen on Saturday brought its usual spate of lively music acts and tasty food offerings. Here are a few highlights.
The Treehouse Stage brought the party
While headliners Lana Del Rey and Foster the People drew the largest crowds of the day to Merriweather’s main stage, the Treehouse acts definitely brought the rowdiest. At times during 2 Chainz’s performance, the audience drove the show, singing along to every word while the rapper watched from the stage. St. Lucia’s upbeat indie-electronic tunes paired with matching floral outfits were a refreshing addition to a warm, damp afternoon, and we loved watching Capital Cities’ trumpet player, Spencer Ludwig. The best dance party of the day award goes to electrofunk duo Chromeo, who kept festival attendees who forwent Del Rey’s more mellow performance, happening at the same time, on their feet. (Bonus points to ASTR, whom we saw dancing and singing along to Chromeo in the audience.) That’s not to say the crowd wasn’t involved over at the main stage: Lana Del Rey posed for selfies with front-row fans, and Bastille’s Dan Smith donned a hoodie and ventured into the crowd (who then followed him up near the lawn seats) during the band’s performance.
Food trucks reigned supreme
One of the best parts about Sweetlife in the past has been the many food options available, and this year was no exception. Local favorites including DGS Delicatessen, Rappahannock Oyster Co., Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, and Roofers Union served up their specialties to festival guests. We spotted the longest lines of the day at the Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken truck, which served strawberry and crème brûlée doughnuts and a fried-chicken BLT that looked too good to be true. Pho Wheels, TaKorean, Big Cheese, and DC Empanadas were also part of the food-truck fleet. Just like last year, we only saw a few people actually eating Sweetgreen salads, although serving the salads in cups this year was a smart choice.
Someone is always watching you . . . probably
Sweetlife attendees, take note: Whatever you did Saturday is most likely on video. A drone flew overhead throughout the day taking shots of the crowd, who loved every minute of it. We have no idea where the footage went, but we’d love to see the view from above the smoke-covered audience during 2 Chainz’s performance.
You can’t go wrong with a good cover song
Fitz and the Tantrums’ version of “Sweet Dreams” got the audience on their feet, and ASTR’s performance of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” was a welcome and unexpectedly emotional addition to their set. Our favorite cover of the day, though, was Bastille’s “Rhythm of the Night,” which reminded us why we still love the ’90s so much.
People love body paint
As expected, festival attendees spent a good portion of the day covering themselves in body paint, with designs that ranged from hearts and stars to words such as “blessed” written across people’s chests. An oversize Twister game, yoga classes (watching people do yoga in NBA jerseys and floral headdresses was a first for us), and live painting by District-based artist Kelly Towles were just a few of the other activities available between sets.
Jorts aren’t going anywhere
We spotted the festival staple on everyone from dads supervising their teens to headliner Lana Del Rey. With so many different versions these days (we were most impressed by an unlikely lace/fringe combo), it looks like they’re here to stay.
Last month, on Earth Day, the National Zoo and indie band Portugal the Man announced the #EndangeredSong campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the critically endangered Sumatran tiger through a special song. On Monday, May 12, you can hear that song and others for free when the band perform a concert at the zoo’s band shell at Lion/Tiger Hill. The “stripped-down” show starts promptly at 6:30, and while the concert area holds about 1,500 we imagine you’ll want to get there early for a good view. Registration is available through Eventbrite.