Name: Nils Frahm
Occupation: Composer, producer, performer, pianist
Recent release: Nils Frahm's Music for Animals is out via Leiter.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nils Frahm and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Soundcloud, and twitter.
This interview was originally conducted for German magazine beat around the release of Nils Frahm's album All Melody.
Over the course of his career, Nils Frahm has collaborated with and appeared on releases with a wide range of artists, including Anne Müller, Chantal Acda, Greg Haines, Heather Broderick, Machinefabriek, Dustin O'Hallaran, Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Hauschka.
[Read our Anne Müller interview]
[Read our Chantal Acda interview]
[Read our Chantal Acda interview about Collaboration]
[Read our Greg Haines interview]
[Read our Heather Woods Broderick interview]
[Read our Machinefabriek interview]
[Read our Rutger Zuydervelt of Machinefabriek interview about cover design]
[Read our Ólafur Arnalds interview about Scoring for Film]
[Read our Max Richter interview]
[Read our feature about Max Richter's Four Seasons]
[Read our A Winged Victory for the Sullen interview]
[Read our Dustin O'Hallaran interview]
[Read our Dustin O'Hallaran interview about his creative process]
[Read our Hauschka interview]
In your music, I feel as though you can really hear the space the music was created in. On All Melody, which was recorded in your new Funkhaus studio, it creates this very tangible sound world.
Really, that's because of the studio. It vibrates along with the pieces I play here. I would never have thought that it would make such a difference. You typically focus on the instruments you want to record first. But later, when you listen carefully, the room is there as well, always.
It was also a conscious decision to leave the Durton studio.
Why is that?
I just always wanted to do something different. But you know the way it is, if it works, it works. And then decide to do one more project there. But I've been virtually choking there for 12 years now and the neighbours have had to be very understanding for far too long.
And still, many of the musicians whom you recorded there, spoke highly of Durton.
The Funkhaus studio can be a bit intimidating. First of all, you have this glass window [points to the studio window]. So that creates distance between yourself and the performers. If you put someone over there who doesn't record that often, it can make the first day in the studio difficult.
But my focus was to fulfil the dream I've had for so long: to build an awesome studio here. I've had that ever since I was 13 and went to a big studio for the first time.
Which one was that?
Not a well-known one: Studio Ougenweide in Hamburg. It's quite an interesting studio. They do theatre music there and it had a sort of a Tom Waits vibe about it. From the 70s mixing desk to fat old Neumann mics to the harmonium, or celesta they had.
It's a bit like this place, really: Real instruments everywhere and wood, wood, wood. And air and microphones. For me, it was the first time I saw something like that in these dimensions. It felt unbelievable. And that's when I thought: okay, all right. This is my thing.
How did you get in?
Through my family. My parents and friends had connections. It was a complete coincidence.
What did you want to do with this incredible new studio space here at the Funkhaus?
I just wanted to record, and record, and record some more.
Most importantly, I wanted to learn something as a producer again. I haven't produced anything again for so long now, I've also had less time for studio work. And that hurts my soul. I get bored and that's why it was really about time to work in the studio again, just like I did when I was a student.
Back then, I came home every day and did things on the computer, or on the synthesizers or on the tape machine. Not a day would go by without discovering something.
So I take it you had a lot of material to go through?
In the beginning, there was just this one piece, "All Melody". I ended up formulating about 60 ideas over many weeks and numbered them and labelled them and made a huge folder and listened to it over and over again.
I had already planned a record that was even longer and then I shortened it a lot ... I had about 5.6 hours of demos. And it already felt like I had to throw it all away.
Hemingway said: Editing is the only part of the process where you really notice that something is getting better.
Yes, just by throwing things out.
You could compare it to a bad piece of meat. It may look pretty tasty and big at first, but then you realise it's all flubb (laughs). It can also be frustrating because you thought there was more in it. You have to tell yourself beforehand that it's like an artichoke. It's basically all rubbish and you have to get to the heart. (laughs)
What's your take about the relative importance between perfection and spontaneity?
Over-editing is a drama. From a sociological point of view, I ask myself the question: how does an artist construct a problem? (laughs) And that's when I realise that I still don't have an overview of how exactly the whole thing happens: How does something like this actually come about exactly?
It's a subconscious process. All your neuroses come into it, all your half-baked personality traits, all your great personality traits, the things that make you who you are. You tap into all of these things.
Does producing mean keeping things simple and reducing complexity?
Not really. I keep being surprised about how many different layers you can include in a single piano take.
Of course, since a lot of my gear is analog and all elements correspond with each other, all of the effects I want to apply to the music can quickly be implemented manually. Every piece of equipment influences every other one in some form. And that's something I could never get done with plug-ins. If I put a digital delay on a looped, four-bar beat, the delay will simply repeat itself. But when I send the same loop through a billowing tape-delay, it will sounds slightly different on each cycle.
So, in a way, this set-up is creating complexity without me having to force it. To me, this is just the way nature works: A wave on the beach, the symmetry of a tree, the symmetry of your face. The studio sounds different each day.
You once said: Manipulation is an essential part of the process, but I don't really care why the manipulation is taking place.
It is spherical manipulation. Not purposeful manipulation. I don't want to move you exactly six inches to the right. I want an earthquake in all directions and if you shift a little bit in the process, that's okay. And if you don't move at all, that's fine, too. It's just a possibility.
You can either get caught up in this music completely and then it will drag you along and drop you off someplace else. Or you can decide that it's not for you and that you don't want to go.
And I don't think you have that choice with films. With films everyone has to be there, otherwise you go out. Either you are there or you don't look at all.
Many people have likened your compositions to film music. Do you think you could have become a good director, painter or writer?
I do believe I could get involved with other media. I used to paint quite a lot as a child. I was sure that I would become a painter or a photographer. My father actually was a photographer. Everything visual comes very easily for me. I can design very well, you can see that a bit in the studio.
My father has great eyes, he is a great aesthete. He trained my visual sense a lot as an artist. I think my senses are quite well honed. Only my nose works very badly, I would probably be the worst perfume maker in the world (laughs). That also makes me curious about maybe doing something else at some point.
Funnily enough, I have now met a great gallery owner who has offered me the opportunity to exhibit in his gallery.
What would you have him display?
I don't know. He simply said: Nils, you're an artist, you need a gallery owner. I found that quite flattering and cool. Clearly, he was already thinking one step ahead!
What would have happened at the time of your album Screws, recorded after badly injuring your hand, if you had never been able to play music again?
Then I probably would have used the computer even more and included even more technology.
And I would have tried to write a story for a film that goes something like this: a creative person has a severe stroke of fate that prevents him from doing everything he wanted to do. And now we watch him make the best of it.