An Interview with Nils Frahm

Berlin based pianist Nils Frahm, is nothing like the conservative composer taught in the purest Tchaikovsky convention. With his name in the Boiler Room and on the Nina Ricci A/W11 soundtrack, Frahm is quite the opposite of what the average youth would claim as boring, with an eclectic fan base ranging from a hip manager at Dalston's coolest fashion concept store to a film score composer. 

Raised on a musical background of classical and jazz, Frahm started his journey as a young student of Nahum Brodski, himself a student of Tchaikovsky's last protégé, who claimed that 'he was meant to play the piano'. STYLEFAN.NET got an exclusive interview with Nils Frahm, before one of his most lauded performances at St John-at-Hackney Church in London.


Nils Frahm at his concert at St John-at-Hackney church in London.

Nils Frahm at his concert at St John-at-Hackney church in London.

'I feel like most magical musical moments happen in the moment and it's good if you re-create that in front of people without any processing. Not letting techniques and the way of my music.'

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Tuck Muntarbhorn: How special was it to be taught by someone like Nahum Brodski?
Nils Frahm: Every teacher has their own techniques, styles and ways of doing things and I couldn't compare because he was my first teacher, so I didn't know what a normal piano lesson would be like. But when I found out about more moderate and generic teachers, I look back to that whole phase and smile and feel like I was blessed. But back then I hated him! He was around 80 years old, smelt like garlic, and forgot his teeth all the time. His German was so bad and he would yell at me when he got really moody but sometimes he got really excited! So I loved him and hated him. And after 6 years, I felt like I had enough.

TM: You tend to use your classical training as a springboard to explore a rich tapestry of sounds through the art of improvisation. How important is it to be classically trained?
NF: I think if you're ice-skating professionally and you want to improvise a performance, it is probably good to know a little bit about the techniques of ice-skating. So if you have never ice-skated and you want to improvise in ice-skating, you'll land on your nose! So I think a little bit of classical training is good. If you know your way around Beethoven, Mozart and the likes of some jazz pianists, then you are more likely to make it through an uninspired couple of seconds. I don't think training has to be classical; you could also be an experienced punk musician playing in a punk band for twenty years, but whatever makes you suffer helps you to a certain extent reach a higher level of existence and maybe even spiritualism. Exercise and training will always make you a little tougher and stronger; it prepares you to go through a hard phase, a creative crisis, or whatever it may be.

TM: You once said you are attached to old instruments and objects. Could you please explain? 
NF: I strongly believe that things that have been made in the past were built in a different way or in a different mindset. Back then the mindset was to make things which would last a long time. Then industries started to realise that they would make more money when they made things that break, so people would have to keep buying new things; you buy a computer which breaks after two years, then you buy a new one and you want it anyway because it has more features now. It's really all bullshit. When I can find something old like a record player, amplifier, microphone or piano, I'd rather get these because they have better quality. The pile of rubbish we create is unnecessary so I'd rather get something which already exists than wasting more material on making something new and throwing old stuff away. It's so interesting that we don't wake up and really analyse what they're trying to sell us. We are little lambs ready to get slaughtered. I think consumers are very naive.

TM: Does inspiration for your music come from other forms of art?
NF: Most of my inspirations come directly from music but there is so much more than just playing notes. There might be an artwork or a video; there might be things which you write in a booklet. When I watch a movie and I'm touched by it, it might inspire a song. There is also a connection between art forms but then it is not only art that inspires me; it's also travelling and seeing people or just going shopping, which could put me in a certain mood which helps me write a melody. I don't really separate from inspiring moments and non-inspiring moments. Even when I'm bored it creates a certain atmosphere and that atmosphere might be useful.

TM: How much of your life is reflected in your music?
NF: My life inspires my music and the music I play inspires my life. It's like a full circle; you give and take. I don't really try to make a difference between the way I'm having my breakfast and the way I'm writing music. I like to do things a certain way like the example I was talking before about trying to live sustainably when it comes to products; it all follows a certain path and a certain morale. With my music, I try to build it out of fragments of influences, ideas and something uniquely me. I think, for me, I treat everything the same. I want to cook my dinner in the same way as I make my music.

TM: You once said you believe that there is no distinction between sound and music? Why so?
NF: I have never seen a red line between sound and music. It's hard for me to say when the wind blows throughout your house and makes 'wooo...' *Nils whistles*; is it music or sound? Certain people may say music is only played by human beings and I'm like 'not really'. And when the machine does a certain rhythm and it inspires a certain piece of music. Why can't the machine be part of the music? There is no border between sound and music. If you lie down in this room and close your eyes, you would hear a million things in here that would inspire me. The noise outside, the waves on the ocean, it's all music and it is where our ideas for music comes from.

TM: Do you think the piano is capable of displaying as many emotions as vocal music? 
NF: Piano music is an extraction of vocal music. Vocal music is the roots of all music. There was probably vocal music before instrumental music and vocal music started in a very direct and deep way. It is really interesting that piano music is appreciated through all cultures and all over the world not like a traditional instrument like the wood guitar which is mostly played in Turkey. The piano became an important instrument for us to express emotions universally. The repertoire for the instrument is just stunning; they're just so many hits.


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TM: Songs from your albums 'The Bells' and '7 Fingers' (in collaboration with cellist Anne Müller) was the soundtrack of Nina Ricci's A/W11 fashion show. What I found fascinating was that 'Said and Done' has a pulse that bares resemblance to some of your electronic compositions played in the show. What is your relationship to electronic music? Do you bring these influences to the piano?
NF: It's an early love. I started listening to electronic music when I was fourteen/fifteen and fell in love with synthesisers. I was just curious of what's possible and what kind of sounds you can create - it has infinite possibilities. But then I discovered that the possibilities of creating sound were also infinite on the piano, so I came back to a traditional instrument like the piano. With the idea that the piano could turn into a synthesiser, electronic music inspired my acoustic music. Also, electronic music and the concept of having machinery being in perfect time or in sync changed my musical ideas and it would have also changed the ideas of Mozart, Beethoven and anybody if they had access to computers or even a metronome, something that is really steady. I think the whole idea of having a metronome or the machine doing 'tack tack tack tack' always in the same spacing changed the idea of music completely.

TM: Could you please explain your recording process?
NF: There's no certain way I do things. I'm still trying a lot of different techniques and every technique has its pros and cons. Sometimes I record directly to a tape machine (in an old-fashioned way like in the 50s or even earlier) and then other times I use digital processing extensively. But I don't think you need a computer to record, it's wonderful to just sit down with a tape machine because you do what you're capable of doing, and it's a good way to test how good of a musician you are compared to years ago when you just had a tape machine to record with. If you always need to edit everything on a computer to make music sound right, then you better get really good at it because I feel like most magical musical moments happen in the moment and it's good if you re-create that in front of people without any processing. Not letting techniques and the way of my music.

TM: What's in your mind when you play in a live show? Are you aware of what surrounds you or are you lost in your own world?
NF: I tend to use my emotional response to emphasise my music. Feelings like excitement, anger and sadness which don't really formulate into sentences. I kind of get lost in my own world, but if the people are not quiet I hear them because I'm listening. When I hear somebody kicking a bottle I say to myself 'oh, someone kicked a bottle!' and if a phone rings I would be like 'oh, a phone rang!' It's not necessarily a bad thing because knowing that there is an audience might change something in which you're playing which could be interesting. Since you are aware that there is an audience, you realise that 'you better do as good as you can'. When I play alone for myself, I don't really need to put in one hundred percent because it'll just be a little practice.

TM: Robert Raths (founder of Erased Tapes) describes Erased Tapes as 'a dialogue between two opposite poles, between traditional and contemporary, between digital and analogue.' How would you describe Erased Tapes? What differentiates the label from other music labels?
NF: A label is a very old concept for distributing music and there's nothing really evolutionary about the 'Erased Tapes' concept. The reason why I stick to them is because I have total artistic freedom and I found good friends. Everyone who's working here supports what I want and they work their ass off to give me what I need. This is all old fashioned because labels used to do this, but now they are more into safe investments and if they can see that they can invest good money in a guy or girl, then they do it, and if they don't see that the money goes right back to them, they won't invest. This is not the type of label I'm looking for, I was looking for people who like to take risks and are interested in artists rather than just making a successful and good-selling record. In the long term, it's more important to focus on making interesting art than selling records - I believe.

TM: 'Peter is dead in the piano' was one of the songs from 'The Bells', an album that Peter Broderick helped you to record. In turn, you helped Peter record his online album ''. What was it like to work with someone like Peter? Someone who says 'hello' in ten different ways to introduce his album?
NF: Working with Peter is always fun because he thinks in a way that nobody else can. He is a true artist, has a great character and is a wonderful friend. It's not always easy, but it was a wonderful challenge to make an album for him and it was a beautiful challenge for him to make an album with me and that's what we were always looking for, to try new things and see where the limits are and experimenting together. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's hilarious, sometimes it's touching, sometimes it's just rubbish and bullshit and sometimes it was deeply profound. So we went through all these things together and I strongly believe that in the future we'll create more beautiful things together.

TM: What is it like to live in Berlin? Has the city influenced your music?
NF: Probably because I have met people here I wouldn't have met anywhere else. What's really great here is that I have so many fans and I have so many great contacts here so I can keep a studio up and running with technicians and tapes machine experts. I can really do exactly what I want here, finding all the support I need which probably won't be possibility in a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. The city is very friendly in general and it's very liberal and open-minded.

TM: Where do you see Berlin in ten years?
NF: I'm not too pessimistic about the city getting more expensive, but the city will get more expensive and more desirable for people all over the world and it will, at one point, have similar structures to other big cities like London, Paris, New York or Tokyo. But I'm not really afraid of that because it will also bring a certain standard to the place. Right now everybody in Berlin pays cheap rent and has an easy life here and people are not so forced to do something unique to get by. It's very social and that's what I like about it, but a little more competition won't ruin the atmosphere of the city and it wouldn't hurt to have more great galleries and really good restaurants. It always strikes me that with New York, the quality of places, stores and people who work there are so high because it's quite expensive to live there and you need to deliver something quite amazing to make things work. I think in ten years Berlin will be a little more like that, and people who don't have something unique to say or do will get replaced by someone who does things really well. I don't know whether that is a particularly good or bad thing; what I can hope for myself is that I can do good enough work to support myself.

TM: Finally, what upcoming projects do you have for 2013-14?
NF: Right now I'm working on a live album and I'm also working with a cellist called Anne Müller on a new project. In September this year I have some more tour dates in the west coast and, in 2014, I'm working with a Danish theatre company called Hotel Proforma on a full-length theatre piece.


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Photographer: Felipe Enger