How to Dress Well premiers new songs, live band in SF

How-to-Dress-Well_postPhotos by Marc Fong // Written by Mike Frash

How to Dress Well & Forest Swords with EN //
The Independent – San Francisco
March 17th, 2014 //

Ambient, experimental production was the uniting factor for How to Dress Well and Forest Sword’s co-headlining gig in San Francisco on Monday, and the show turned out to be an album preview party for Tom Krell’s ironically-named outfit. How to Dress Well premiered eight songs from his forthcoming record with his new backing band at the Independent. The new material is more orchestrated and sophisticated than prior efforts (that were all excellent), overwhelming senses with intensity and precision.

As Krell aptly articulated on Twitter this past week regarding his new live band, “… it sounds massive! new vibes w like mt eerie swells & extreme beauty.” The man can brag because he speaks the truth — Krell and company delivered on this proclamation, signaling How to Dress Well is ready to break out to bigger audiences and rooms. Before the newly minted four-piece though, Forest Swords took SF on an aural journey.


Forest Swords, the production namesake of UK-based Matthew Barnes, procured a set that progressed in one direction, beginning with post-dub ambiance until the set capped with full-throttled noise. Methodically layering samples to build and decompose many tracks from Engravings, Barnes’ production revolves around a brooding tone that is drone-filled, experimental in nature and ultimately cinematic. Suitably subtle imagery and shapes projected over Barnes and his touring mate on bass, until a ghostly apparition of a girl, as in from The Ring, overtook the screen. Still though, the slow-moving image was looped with dissolves over and over, mirroring the repetitious audio conceit. As the sound became more menacing, the concept of repetition toward the point of catharsis became apparent — the idea of finding peace or harmony in terror and chaos.

Expectations are key when going to a show, and Forrest Swords gives a live performance in the vein of Boards of Canada or Actress. “Nobody’s happy here” and “anti-St. Patrick’s day show” were overheard from the crowd mid-set, and while this may look true visually when peering across the crowd, most folks were in their anti-cerebral mind palace. The epic finale acted as a crescendoing exclamation point, blowing the Independent and much of the surrounding neighborhood into the stratosphere, and as we later found out, wakened Tom Krell from a pre-show power nap.


There’s a lot to like about Tom Krell — his one of a kind falsetto, his warm and inviting banter between usually-sad songs, and the way he produces music that fuses R&B with elements of dance and hip hop. Krell’s instrumental backing, in the past, almost exclusively came from his computer. The move toward live instrumentation began last August at the Independent, where How to Dress Well stage-tested some new sounds with the aid of two different musicians (including Minna Choi from Magik*Majik Orchestra). Now virtually all production is created live — his band incorporates drums, keys, violin, background vocals and live sound sampling to craft a richer, more authentically achieved sound.

Krell appeared on stage dressed oddly in GQ office attire, announcing he had just promised his manager that he wouldn’t reveal the new album name or release date (for a moment it looked like he would break the pact). Launching into a (surprise!) sad song about his brother called “Two Years On”, the veil of costuming-evolution was torn from his chest as Krell threw the shirt to the floor, revealing his usual white t-shirt, signifying he’s still the same guy at heart. The difference, though, is that he’s now armed with his best batch of new material yet, aiming to unleash it upon he unsuspecting world.


How to Dress Well specializes in progressive R&B, using jarring glitches and minimalist drops to cut against prevalent ambience. There’s a hip hop cadence to vocals that are clean, crisp and swooning, and lyrics have always been predisposed toward personal tragedy. This is all still the ethos of How to Dress Well. But the new record looks to expand the subject matter, utilizing production that’s more upbeat, enveloping and awe-inspiringly fresh.

The only song that’s been released, lead single “Words I Don’t Remember”, is essentially a majestic post-rock masterpiece. Krell explained the song is inspired by Broken Social Scene’s “Farewell to the Pressure Kids” and the line “do things once, you know you’ll do it twice.” Many of the new songs follow same song structure as this track, offering extended bridges between sections that melds verse & refrain. The bridges in “Words I Don’t Remember” include vocal swells and beat-box breakdowns, and in the end, it’s all wonderfully woven together.

“A Power” is a song akin to “& It Was U” and it’s driving snap-beat. It ended with Krell repeating the phrase “I don’t have the power” as a sun set behind him on-screen, a memorable moment amongst many. Perhaps the best new song, “Face Again” upped the intensity ante significantly, circling around the line “I don’t even know what’s best for me.” The track included a sonic boom smack-to-the-face that stung for the remainder of the evening. Upon the end of the long, immersive song, Krell proclaimed “That was crazy!” It sure was. “What You Wanted”, described as a song about “reverting to being a teenager with your wants and desires,” included a key few lines about being “in love with the chase.” Another new cut, “Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay The Same)”, was introduced as a pop-emo-reggae Animal Collective jam, and it felt like some sort of rollicking, afro-beat conglomeration.


A handful of songs from previous records were elevated a couple notches with the full band. “Cold Nights”, which was written and produced with Matthew Barnes, got the “metal” treatment. “Suicide Dream 1”, “Set It Right” and “Decisions” never felt so full and satisfying. Krell showed some much deserved love for the staff at the Independent as well, saying “Thank everyone that works here. They are so nice” shortly before the end of the 80 minute performance.

Just as he’s done from the beginning, Krell sang a couple a cappella tunes for the encore, staying true to his roots. Before the last number, the audience became a bit unruly, attempting to request the last song. One person called out for R. Kelly’s “I Wish”, then Krell plainly stated “R. Kelly is a total rapist. You can’t sing along to that anymore…”, also mentioning that he can’t believe it was cool to be into the R&B star for a short while. While there were funny moments like this between songs, How to Dress Well’s new formation is performing incredible material that is more emotive, poignant and powerful than ever.

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