Nils Frahm Interview
Photo: Antje Taiga
A couple of weeks ago, I did a phone interview with Nils Frahm for WeAreNoise. He was in London, in the middle of a tour, which would take him on to Cork and Dublin later that week.
As with all the Erased Tapes artists, it seems, he came across as a thoroughly nice, rounded individual, genuinely concerned for and interested in the feedback and reaction of fans to his music. Interesting also to hear him talk about discovering something by accident (in rehearsal) but then running with it. I didn't get to see him play, unfortunately, but I believe it was pretty special.
First published at http://wearenoise.com/index.php/2012/11/nils-frahm-interview/.
Hi Nils, can I ask you first about your new EP, Screws, which you recorded while you had a broken thumb earlier in the year. How did you come to record an EP in that state?! It was against doctor’s advice to rest, wasn’t it?
Yeah that’s right. It wasn’t really planned to become an EP, I just thought I’d rather record everything I play. When I write music I press record. I listened back to the material and decided that this was something I’d like to share with my fans, and I didn’t want to charge people for it. I thought it might give a little inspiration for everybody out there and also something which shouldn’t be reviewed as a normal album of mine, you know. It’s more like a little gift card or letter you write to a friend, or like a concert you play for somebody at 1 in the morning. It was the most personal thing, and I was going back and forth between do I want to release it or not, and in the end I decided that I should.
It must have been very awkward playing piano with 9 fingers.
Well, as you can expect, it was a little bit frustrating at times, but rather than feeling too bad about it I thought ok, this is a challenge now and I have to make it work. It’s a little bit like if you can’t use your right hand for writing a letter, you try to use your left one. I found it was a way I can learn something, not only about my instrument but also how do I react as an artist to situations like that, and what does it do to my brain, my mind and overall condition. Is it possible that the world can beat me or am I going to beat the world? I didn’t give up. I conquered my…I don’t what it was, my fear. I think I won that battle.
I think it’s fair to say you did alright. I assume for a pianist, losing the use of part of your hands is pretty fundamental?
Yeah, I think going deaf would be worse but it is a scary thought.
And now there’s a reworked version of the EP in the pipeline. Tell me about that.
When I uploaded all the files, and posted the link on facebook to have people download it, already two or three hours later I had one or two remixes from people. And I thought, that’s great. And I realised that this material was pretty easy to remix, because it’s only a mono track, just one piano track, and when people download that they have all the stems they need to make a remix. So I thought, this is good remix material and I had in mind, I was curious to see how my fans hear music, how they listen to music, what are their musical aesthetics, how do they approach something like that. I wasn’t really surprised but still excited to hear all these amazing contributions.
I can tell you it’s quite insane. Some of them are a little odd, and of course not really polished, but some of the ideas and approaches are so bold and beautiful that I’m happy I got to hear all that. Because when you work with professional remixers, of course they’re going to master something for you which is great. But to have amateurs, in a way - I mean, of course some of the people who reworked it are also successful musicians but a lot of the people are just total hobby musicians, or not even musicians at all. And to read their e-mails and to hear what they did to the material is just so… heartwarming. I think that was the best idea I’ve ever had, to ask people to do that, and I think I got 80 or 90 contributions so far. That’s quite insane.
You’re associated closely with the Erased Tapes label, along with Peter Broderick, Olafur Arnalds, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and others. On the outside looking in, that seems like a label with quite a family atmosphere about it. Is that the way you experience it?
Well we’re all friends and working together very closely. I get 10 e-mails every day from them and I write them many back, and we call and we chat and we meet for dinners. We work very closely on everything together and they help me doing all this. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. They’ve supported me in the most kind and generous way. They give me direction when I’m lost and they have good ideas. They do good business first of all, and that’s what I appreciate because I want that my music gets listened to, and I like that they work so hard on it.
On the other hand they have in mind that they don’t want to burn the artist out. When they feel like somebody’s a little unhappy with things or overworked, they encourage me to take it easy, step back. They seem to see the overall picture. That feels really good. And that’s why I call them my friends, not just business partners. Working on that level of professionalism with your friends is something that I’m happy about.
And speaking of Peter Broderick and Olafur Arnalds, you’ve collaborated with them musically as well.
Yeah, Peter lives in Berlin. I help him on music, he helps me and we share the same musical language, so collaborating feels very natural. We’ve played many shows together in the past and we plan on playing more shows in the future together. And maybe even record some more material. It’s very inspiring.
You have your own studio in Berlin, Durton Studios. I notice that you do other production and mastering work for other people. How does that influence your own composing and recording?
It is (about) focusing my skills on the production end. I like to get better as a piano player and as a performer. But on the other side, my heart lives in the studio too. I started as a studio musician and playing live was more an accident. I never intended to do it to the extent I’m doing it now. So I told myself I don’t want to give up my studio passion, working the studio, working sound, only because I get many gigs right now. So I try to find the balance between learning in the studio, and as a mastering engineer this is the most interesting and most sensitive field, and I learn a lot doing that. This is something I’m really interested in, making good sounding records.
You mentioned playing live. I wonder do you come up against any issues in conveying your music in a live setting? Much of the Felt album, for example, has a very hushed and delicate atmosphere…
I would never intend on performing a whole album live. I think music works differently on records and in a live situation. Being well aware of that, I try to shape my live performances in a slightly different way than I shape my albums. I think albums should have a little more of a theme to them, maybe, they shouldn’t be a random collection of songs. A live concert always automatically ends up being that…when a band has three or four albums and they play a live show, they would also play their older songs and they’d play them in different versions. And I do that, quite drastically. I play new compositions. I play improvisations.
I don’t really see my concerts right now as Felt concerts. I play a live show, I do things in a different way. But there are moments where I go to that place, to that subtlety you can hear on Felt. But then there are other times which might remind you more of the loud parts on The Bells, or other records. Then you might think when you see a live concert that there are some pieces you’ve never heard on a record. And that’s true. I believe that certain things don’t really work when you record them, they just work when you play them live. And they should be heard in that moment and then forgotten, basically. I think being a studio musician too I learned that certain things work on a recording that you can’t do live; certain things you can do live, they don’t work on a recording. And so I try to not have that being in my way, to restrict my live concerts, (as if) because I did a quiet album, I can’t play loud.
In terms of your background, you were classically trained, is that right?
Yeah, classical music on the one hand. I was trained playing classical pieces, and I had piano lessons. But when I was a little older, I think I was 12 or 13, I changed teacher and took some jazz lessons. I was interested in improvising and music theory. I wanted to learn more about harmonic concepts and structures and I wanted to learn how to compose, not only to interpret classical pieces. So I left the classical field for the jazz field, because I thought jazz music is a good door opener to improvising and writing your own material.
Going back to the album Felt, for people who may not know the background, can you tell me how you modified the piano for that album?
You find some pianos pre-modified like that, when you put felt on (the strings) it sounds quieter. But people don’t really use that to record obviously, it’s (normally) just a piano modification for rehearsal pianos, not for concert pianos. From a piano builder’s perspective, that seems very odd. It makes the piano sound worse, not to my ears…certainly different. I thought it was a beautiful sound and I wrote all the pieces on Felt especially for that, I didn’t have compositions in mind before I started recording. I rather came from the sound and then when heard it I realised that certain compositions wouldn’t work for that sound, but others would. And so I focused on the ideas that would work with that set-up. That’s how I came about it.
I believe another reason for dampening the piano for the Felt album is that you were trying to make less noise while playing or recording late at night?
Yeah, that was a positive aspect of it, that I could record in the night – also the daytime but mostly the night – when it was very quiet. It was really convenient for me that way, because I could do it at home, I didn’t need to rent a bigger space with a grand piano in it. I just wanted to take all the time I want for that album. The concept was to do it on grand piano and in order to make my own piano sound interesting, I used the felt.
Thinking of the sound on that album, the piano seemed more ambient than usual, as if the action of the keys had less input on the notes, the notes seemed to blend together. And of course the close miking is another big feature.
Yeah. It gives more complexity to the sound. It seems there’s already a glitch noise track going along with what I play. It’s almost like I play with somebody else. And that’s what I really like about it because I’m also interested in electronic music and programming and sound design. I just thought it was an interesting sound and I’m happy that my ears appreciate things like that and that I’m not blocked by the idea of the perfect Steinway grand piano sound, which is the only thing which sounds beautiful in the world out there. But rather be open for accidents like that. It was a lucky accident for me so I took a breath and thought about it and worked on that idea.
You’re in the middle of the tour at the moment, how are the concerts going so far?
Good. I did a fun BBC session yesterday, today I have a couple of interviews in London, I’ll see some friends, and I’m looking forward to the concerts tomorrow and the day after in Ireland. I can’t wait.