INTERVIEW: NILS FRAHM Loving Other People

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Posted on Oct 9th 2011 09:42 pm

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INTERVIEW: NILS FRAHM Loving Other People

In just a few years, Berlin-based pianist Nils Frahm has worked with the likes of Peter Broderick, Greg Haines, F.S. Blumm, Ólafur Arnalds or Deaf Center, but it is with his own work, released on Kning Disk, Sonic Pieces and Erased Tapes that he has gained recognition. With his new album, he explores a miniature nocturnal sound world where every sound of his piano is amplified to reveal its most minute intimate details. Here, he talks about his formative years, how it is easier to like the music created with others and the recording of his new album.

Nils, you started playing the piano from a very early age. Are you from a musical family? What attracted you to the piano in particular?
I started early indeed. My family was always listening to music and my father is a self-taught player. When I was five or six, we always jammed out together, him on the piano, me on the bongos, pretty hilarious. Then I got into banging on our piano, I probably drove my parents crazy, so they thought it might sound better if they would invest in a teacher.

You have received a classical formation in which I imagine you have studied many classical composers. Were there any particular composers who have influenced you in your formative years? Who or what inspires you to compose today?
I think I haven’t really studied. I had a couple years of good piano lessons, but I decided early that I don’t want to go the traditional classical way, too much pressure. Also I wanted to write my own music, so after studying composers like Chopin, Satie, Rachmaninov and others I wanted to learn more about jazz and improvised music. ECM music was an early inspiration for sure and also set a certain approach to music for me.

You released a couple of albums on AtelierMusik between 2005 and 2008, which have only so far been available on vinyl and digital download. Why did you choose not to release them on CD, and can you tell us more about the inspiration behind these records?
My good friend Arne Römer was one of the first people who encouraged me to work on my solo music. Back then I had no idea how to get my music out there, I think I didn’t even use the internet and I was really bad at networking. The typical nerd trap, but Arne was my ‘go to person’ to talk about my work and he still listens to everything I produce first. He is one of my main references. I think I wouldn’t hurt his feelings if I would say that he just invented the label to keep me working on my own work. He is really happy that I receive more attention since though, as he always believed that this would happen at one point, I think I didn’t. In those years I also never felt that my piano playing was worth recording, so I focused more on electronic music.

In 2009, you released a mini-album, Wintermusik, on Sonic Pieces, and an album, The Bells, on Kning Disk, both of which were later re-released on Erased Tapes when you signed with them. How did you get to work with Erased Tapes, and why choose to re-release these albums?
Peter Broderick introduced my music to Robert from Erased Tapes. I have to say that without Peter I wouldn’t be here now answering any interview questions. Robert liked the recordings so much and realised that there were more people out there who should listen to them. The initial releases were both limited and sold out pretty fast. Robert took over and invested in promotion and that kind of thing, which brought things to a whole new level. I am very happy with all the work Erased Tapes put into my music.

The Bells collects improvised solo piano pieces which were originally published as part of the Solo Piano series inaugurated by Peter Broderick for Kning Disk. Does improvisation play a big part in your work?
The answer is yes! Improvisation is the most incredible and fun part of performing music. It is like writing new songs on the move, all in real time and in the best moments improvisation puts you in an ‘ooooh mmm’ kind of feeling. I guess it is some form of meditation as it makes me feel good and balanced; it basically makes me a happier person.

These pieces were quite sombre in mood. What was your frame of mind when you recorded them, and what inspired you for them?
I think the church and the instrument added to the mood a lot, other than that Peter and I had a lot of fun these two nights. Two boys locked in a church at night for two days with a huge pipe organ and a piano, but I also remember feeling a little heartbroken and sad during that period. The beautiful thing about this album is that I never thought about it getting released while I recorded it. It was basically a long concert for Peter.

Last year, you released an album which you recorded with cello player Anne Müller, on which you brought together acoustic instrumentation and electronics. How did the project come up, and are you planning to follow it up with more music together? 
I met Anne in 2007 and we started thinking of recording something together as she’d heard my electronic music and as mentioned at that time, I wasn’t really convinced by my piano skills. So I would never really have dared to record a piano/cello album like I would be able to do now. The record was finished in 2008, but it took a long time until it came out. It was confusing a lot of people, associating me with piano music, which is great as I like confusion, it is the only moment we learn something new. Anne is not only the best cello player I know, but also one of the nicest human being on Earth and I will work with her again soon.

You also released a couple of albums with F.S. Blumm on Morr Music and Sonic Pieces. Did you know each other prior to working on these projects, and how did the idea of the albums come up?
I kind of stalked him. I doubt that there is a bigger F.S. Blumm fan out there than me, I love his music! I met him a couple of years ago in person, and he liked my piano playing, so after a few cups of coffee (I make a pretty excellent coffee by the way) we decided to work on collaboration. It is a pretty funny album, but I am so proud that he choose me to play along with him, it was one of my big dreams coming true. It all happened after I released Wintermusik on Sonic Pieces, so I knew Monique and her stunning label from that release. Since Monique is a huge F.S. Blumm fan as well, it was easy to talk her into releasing it.

You very regularly collaborate with other musicians, and have worked with the likes of Peter Broderick, Library Tapes, Greg Haines or Machinefabriek in the past, and were even part of a band, Übertonmensch. Do you see collaborating with other musicians an essential part of being a musician? What does it bring to you?
Well, the social aspect of making music is really beautiful, you meet up with people and play a tune together. It is a whole different experience on different levels compared to playing solo, and I like both for different reasons. One aspect which is so wonderful about collaborating though, is that you like the music you create much more than your solo work. It is hard to like your solo work, because you need to learn to love yourself first. Loving other people is much easier, so you are especially in love with the part of the other created when you work together on music and it might be the same for your co-musician. That makes it so much more compelling to work in a team. I am not really interested in forming a band though, it is better to have people come and go and work respectfully with them together.

You have a new album ready to be released, Felt, your first proper debut album for Erased Tapes. While the piano sounds on The Bells was very pure, you intentionally seem to place microphones as close as possible to your instrument to capture all the minute sounds made by the hammers, the strings, the keys, even your breathing. You’ve also quietened the sound of the piano by using felt in front of the strings. This gives the album a very intimate and organic feel. How did you get the idea to do this, and what was your intention?
My piano is pretty loud, so I can’t play it at night unless I dampen the strings with a piece of felt, then the piano is really silent. So in order to get some signal recorded you need to put the mics close and turn up the gain on your mic preamp. All my gear is way older than me and adds beautiful colour and fantasy-like sounds to the source, It is also very non linear and it adds a lot of noise so I decided for myself I liked this a lot and made a little concept out of it. Also thinking of the epic sounds of The Bells made it tempting to try something really different on this album. There will be more virtuous works in the future I am sure, but I always find it easier to make quiet recordings sound pretty.

Apart for the piano, you also use a few other instruments on the album. Did you feel the need to introduce other sounds on this album?
The idea was to play whatever I can play without using the computer or other musicians. I didn’t feel the need to keep it a solo piano record, I just wanted to bring to tape whatever sounds, beautiful and pure, so I allowed myself to use some toys (similar to Wintermusik)

On the liner notes, you mention that you favour keeping your music open to accidents and that you use this as a mean to experiment with new ideas.  How do you go about doing this?
The good thing about accidents is that they confront you with unexpected situations, this keeps us awake. I want to be awake when these accidents happen in order to analyse if I like them or not. When you record and your cell phone rings you usually would start over, just out of habit, but is it really that bad? I don’t think so. Is it bad if my record hisses? Or if you hear all the breathing and squeaking? I don’t think so either. They are like somebody else, another force collaborating with me, which makes me like my record more.

The music on Felt appears overall lighter than on The Bells, and more cinematic. Was it your intention when you started working on the album?
Usually I listen to every instrument carefully when I start playing and each piano tells me something else. One piano might ask me to beat the sh.. out of it and the next piano wants to be pet very gently, my piano asked me to be quiet and sensitive. It told me that if I would touch it softly that it would sound amazing and powerful and it kept its promise.

Again, in the liner notes, you recommend to listen to the album on big headphones as it was how it was made. Do you think you would be able to perform any of it live and retain the essence of it?
I don’t think about that too much to be honest. I don’t really think of my live performances when I record music. I also never performed Wintermusik live, since I can’t play all three instruments in the same time. I believe that certain things work great on a record and other things work best in a live situation. The purpose and intention is different, so the music should sound different too. People listen to the record and see the live concerts and have two very different experiences, I think that is fine.

You founded Durton Studio four years ago in Berlin. How did you get the idea of setting it u, and has it changed the way you approached music in any way?
The studio is pretty much my living room. I am obsessed with old crazy gear and the room is filled with wonderful microphones and mastering equipment, there is nothing more satisfying to see people be truly amazed by how something sounds. I am constantly looking for ways to make music richer and more beautiful-sounding and I love to share my place with my friends, to help them all to gain sonic joy out of their compositions. It started small of course, now I have to turn down a lot of offers and I am happy that I am also respected as an odd recording engineer.

How do you see your work evolve in the future? Would you be interested in composing for films for instance, or work on orchestral works?
My life is a miracle right now, I would rather not dream too much about the future right now. Things right now couldn’t be better and I am happy where I am. I just want to be close to my music, it is something which is very important for my inner peace and my fans give me the opportunity to just work on music these days, lucky me.

If you had to name five pieces of music, books, films or work of art that have been particularly influential in your life, which ones would they be? 
1. My parents and friends
2. ECM
3. Stanley Kubrick
4. Werner Herzog
5. Brother Grimm

Email interview September 2011
Thank you to Nils, Robert and Sofia.

Nils Frahm | Nils Frahm (MySpace) | Erased Tapes

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