The Blog

Meeting the Piano Man

Outside of the mainstream of music, away from the Jessie Jays and the One Directions of this world, there have always been little underground pockets of music. One of the poster boys for the movement is the German composer, producer and pianist Nils Frahm.

Daniel Cadwallader interviews Nils Frahm

Outside of the mainstream of music, away from the Jessie Jays and the One Directions of this world, there have always been little underground pockets of music. Scenes whose tastes are not dictated to by the media, but by a system of finding and sharing. These scenes have often been considered to be snobbish and stand offish against outsiders or those who move on of them to bigger success (and this is sometimes true) but each one has formed because of a deep love of music that requires an external expression.

One such pocket is the contemporary neo-classical scene (specifically based about experimental and independent labels such as Erased Tapes and Kning Disk) which delights in music that takes its queues from a combination of chamber music instrumentation, free jazz and film scores. Adherents to the scene are as likely to be searching vinyl stores for Michael Nyman's movie soundtracks as they are for recordings of Rachmaninoff.

One of the poster boys (an expression I'm positive he'd hate) for the movement is the German composer, producer and pianist Nils Frahm. An ultra-talented player, Nils has become renowned across the world for his beautiful compositions and fluid, emotive playing. Frahm has put out many releases of the last few years, and 2013 looks set to be a bumper year with the re-release of his Juno EP (a collection of synthesiser pieces and remxies) and a "live album" to potentially come out later this year.

When I meet the young composer in the London HQ of, his label, Erased Tapes he seems relaxed and happy. It's unsurprising given that he's just played his biggest London show to date St. John's Church Hackney, a beautiful vaulted building perfectly suited to his ethereal music. We discuss his work as a producer, as well as his own music and what the future has in store for him.

DC: You played St. Johns in Hackney last night how did you find it?

Nils: I think we at least met our expectations and I can at least say it was my best London show. I love playing in the UK. I mean it's always hard to get a foot in the door here; it's the same as America. When you're used to playing in continental Europe conditions are a little easier for smaller artists. That's why I've done 10 or 11 shows in the UK over the last 4 or 5 years

What were the kind of places you were first playing over here?

The first place was a church too; I think it was called St. Giles. I played there two or three times. I've played the Union Chapel, as well as some smaller clubs in support of the band Shearwater.

How do you find the audiences over here?

It's a really, really nice audience, that's what I really have to say is that the people are so warm and responsive. I really like to come here; I always know that the people here are a very warm audience. You can feel they are music lovers and they care most about the music.

You've done three shows in support of the re-release of your EP Juno as a 12 inch, can you tell us a little about the EP?

The EP kind of has its own life. It was a subconscious project because I never intended to release it. It was just some synthesiser jams that I did in between some other work. I was working on Peter Broderwick's album, Http, and we were overdubbing some synth for one of the songs. I think it was the first time he'd realised how beautiful the synthesiser is, so I was setting up some pre-sets and sounds and playing them to him. He got so excited by it and he said to me "man, I wish I could just have an album of just synthesiser from you". It didn't become a whole album because I think that's too much, But I played some solo improvisations after he left. I kept them for a couple of months did a bit of an edit and then at Christmas I sent them to Peter and said "here's your personal synthesiser record." He thought it was so good he said I should release it. I spoke to Robert (Raths, head of Erased Tapes records) at around the time we were releasing my "Felt" album, and we thought it'd be nice to have it as a little 7" for the tour. It's called Juno after the synthesiser. Soon after that a lot of more electronic artists gave us some positive responses. It's been played by Four Tet in his DJ set for example, and then slowly my label organised a couple of remixes. The first one was Max Cooper; he's already playing it in one of his sets, and says it's one of his personal favourites. We then got Luke Abbott and Chris Clark on board, which took way to long for some reason. Now we've done a twelve inch of the EP we can give it to a wider audience, and get maybe a little more interest. I'm not the biggest fan of remixes, I never care about remix albums and stuff like that, but I always thought that those songs (on Juno) where like solo tracks. That's where it started; I was playing one track from Peter's record to sit in the mix. In the same way you'd solo guitar, drums bass, that kind of thing. So to me the tracks feel like there should more of the song in the back ground, but it's not there. For me Chris and Luke have kind of completed the tracks. The imaginary bass and drums etc. that I would hear in my head are now there and that's the beautiful thing. I started something and released it un-finished and people can listen to it, and finish it themselves.

The release is dedicated to Peter Broderwick, how do you find working with him, do you have a close working relationship?

it's a very special one. I believe without Peter I would be maybe a mastering engineer, something like that. I definitely wouldn't be the solo artist I am now, because he was the one who discovered me and pushed me to tour and play concerts. I hadn't done any of these things before I met him. He got in touch with me in 2008 and flew over to record "the Bells" with me and it started from there. Really, I have the biggest admiration and respect for him because, not only is he one of the most talented musicians I know, also one of the most talented people I've worked with personally. He's just an inspiring character, and without him and his music and the music he introduced me to, I wouldn't be part of this scene.

You mentioned that without Peter you may have just been a mastering engineer, but you do work as a mastering engineer as well as solo artist. I know you're a huge fan of things like analogue and printing to vinyl. What is it about these techniques that still have a hold on you when you're recording?

First of all it's the sonic experience of old jazz records that gives me the chills. The experience of listening to those old records is something I miss in today's productions, because of the changes in circuits, electronics and new techniques everything has got so much cheaper, and you can relate it to any kind of production. It's like a car. If you go out and rent a modern car, take apart to see how it's built, its crap. Whereas if you take a car from the 60's or 70's it's built to last. I'm very nostalgic about this, I believe some things were better in the past, not everything, but I'm talking about specific items. We lack that sense of quality that was the motivation for people in the past to build something, they believed it should last. Now things have changed, it's all about marketing now. The industry discovered that if things break quickly then consumers will buy the same thing over again and they will make more money that way. Thing is, they are also creating a lot of trash as we throw stuff away all the time. That's why when I buy something I try to buy things that will last a lifetime. If I buy a microphone I'll buy an old one which my grandchildren could still use if it's maintained. That's why my studio is built like that, not just for sonic reasons but for these ethical reasons, around used gear. These are some of the reasons I love the old techniques, but I also believe you are faster with them, when you record on a 4-track you only have to work on 4 tracks rather than 24 tracks or 48 tracks, and people today are using 250 tracks or 500 tracks, and it takes a lot of time to mix a song with that many tracks. And you'd expect a song made on 500 tracks to sound at least 100 times better than a song recorded on 4 tracks but it's not the case. I think some people have to use the modern technologies because we've forgotten how to make music of quality with the limited possibilities of the old equipment. They had to work out ways around these limitations and part of me thinks this is why they were so creative. That's what inspired me, when they record Beach Boys songs on two tracks, with mixing done while they played; they had to be so professional, and so good at what they did. You genuinely have to be a master, and no one can do that today because people aren't as bold as they were then. It was such an insane knowledge that's been lost in today's recording techniques. I want to go back to the 50's and 40's, recording technique wise, and just learn how they did it, because then you can get a record done in 2 or three days, as they did.

The love of older equipment bleeds s a little bit into your life performances. I noticed that you have a fairly knackered old piano/keyboard on stage with you. Does having that slightly limited equipment inspire you when you're improvising live?

That thing only has one sound, it's a keyboard with a piano sound, just that, no organ sounds, no anything. But it does this one thing beautifully and I prefer one box for one thing done really well, then one box for ten things that sound only half good. That never helps the music. So when I want a piano, I need a piano, when I want a synthesiser I need a piano and a synthesiser. I can't just have one of these magic synthesisers that can do "miracles". It's so lazy. If you ever saw a Tangerine Dream set, they had modular synths on stage and they had huge EMT reverb plates, they really worked hard to achieve something incredible, and today's musicians are really lazy. They spend too much time marketing, not enough time practicing their instruments. That's what I try to do; I practice and try to get good enough to do everything in real time, with classic gear.

It's funny you should mention Tangerine Dream because obviously plying in a church brings them to mind, are that generation of musicians a big inspiration to you? Krafterk, Brian Eno etc.

Of course, but not as much as some of the more left-field artists from that period. I never cared for the stadium rock side of things, and I don't really listen to tangerine Dream a lot, I don't have a favourite record by them. From that time there were a lot of exciting stuff like John Abercrombie, stuff on the ECM label. John Sermon, he did a lot with synthesisers. I had early access to a lot of free jazz, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, as well as ECM artists like Eberhard Weber. I always knew what was possible in terms of audio quality etc. If you listen to stuff like Mile Davies, or even stuff like Duke Ellington when he was recording in the 40's, it's incredible. When I buy records I normally buy old records so I can work out techniques to fill in the gaps in my knowledge as to how they did stuff like that with say only one microphones, something just a bit better than that (gestures to Dictaphone) it's incredible.

You do a lot of work with the Erased tapes label, which has a strong family feel, is the mutual respect you get from them important to you in terms of working with labels?

The independent aspect of it is very important to me. I come from a bit more of a punk past, not punk in the traditional way, it's more the DIY spirit than the fashion. When I was 15/16, no one in my class liked my own music and no one understood what I was listening to. And I still did it as I believed it was good and despite having no support from my environment, I carried on until meeting Peter. He told me there was actually a small lobby for what I was doing; there is a family of likeminded people who can support you. Now we are, I and Erased Tapes, facing a different development with a lot of big labels are knocking at the doors and they want a piece of the cake, and that sucks, because it's just too late. I wish people like that would just do their job, see something good and build on it like Erased Tapes have with me. Robert took a huge risk releasing a completely unknown artist, but it was just because of his belief in it, and he deserves my love for making such a bold decision. Doing what he feels is right.

The next release you have coming out is called Spaces I believe, tell me a little about that.

Yeah well I don't really want to talk too much as I feel it's a bad omen to talk about unreleased albums (Laughs) but no, I've been working on this "live album" for about 2 years now. So far the work was only playing live shows and recording them, but now I've had to listen to all of them and select my favourite bits. It's more the idea of a field recording than a live record, it's not that I want to release one great show, for me it's more about hearing these songs that I know so well in different environments, different acoustics, different pianos and even different mind sets. The art is, or the difficulty is, to take the best bits and arrange it in a way that flows nicely, even though you're jumping from different spots and moments in time. I didn't wrestle it yet, I'm nearly there though, and then I'll send them the pre-masters in a few weeks. However if I feel that the recordings are not up to the right quality I'll dump it.

Do you give yourself quite high standards when you're working on your own material?

I can only realise stuff that I'm super happy with and feeling very confident about. I have so many unreleased albums where I feel it isn't good enough after several attempts. I'm my own worst critic I feel.

In terms of other peoples albums you've worked on do you have a particular favourite, or any particularly memories that stick out?

I really liked the work I did on Sarah Neufeld's album, she's the violinist for Arcade Fire, and she's just done her first solo violin record (out later this year). She came over to Berlin to record it, and it was really fun. We just walked around with my two track tape recorder and recorded in different locations, like parking garages and old abandoned warehouses. It was super cold and super rough, a really intense 10 days, but she's a really tough girl, a really fantastic musician and a brilliant performer who's really fun to be around. We started and finished it in ten days. This is exactly what I aim for. I don't really like these 50, 60, 70 studio day projects. When you're done you don't have any perspective on it, you don't know if it's any good or not. You've been working on it so long you can't just enjoy it for what it is because you're just tired of it. I've done so many records like that where I've felt worn out by it and then had to put it on my shelf for one or two years and then listen to it to think "actually that's kind of fun". I did a record with SleepingDog, she's a Belgian singer, which was seven or eight days, all live recordings, everyone in the room, and just two or three mics. These are the experiences where I feel like I can say "Ok now that I've done all these free tours and failed attempts, now I can get can get a little bit of control over what I'm doing it's not just trial and error". It's getting somewhere and I realised how much all the work I've done with other people has helped me for my own records. The only advice I can give to any musician is make music every day. Do research, do things that are uncommon for you, say if you're just a guitar player try to become something else as well, like an engineer and teach yourself about acoustics, circuits, mixing etc. Embrace everything from literature to conceptual art as it will always help you to realise your own projects, it'll give you a foundation. You can't just depend on luck; I think it's really frustrating as a musician to have to wait for the "good day". Even if you have a bad day there's still so much other stuff that you can do. If you can't write a song on Monday, do something else. Maybe clean your apartment, and then on Tuesday you'll feel better about things. I think this discipline to make sure you are always doing something is heard to learn. I learnt it from my first piano teacher, Nahum Brodski, who was a Russian pianist, and he said to me "the only thing you have to do is work hard". It used to be painful; you know piano practice isn't fun (laughs) it's more like a spiritual exercise. Monks did it for thousands of years; they would climb up and down stairs for no reason but to suffer. It's through sacrifice that you will probably reach a higher level of existence, and it's also good for your mind to sacrifice and suffer a little bit. I often get asked if I think it's important to be classically trained. I don't think it matters but whatever you do you have to make sure a lot of its uncomfortable because that's part of life. It needs to hurt a little bit. You only have fun and enjoyment if there's the opposite of it. All the beauty and harmony I can create in my music is because there's the opposite otherwise, you wouldn't detect it. It's important to appreciate both.