The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Nils Frahm

leave a comment »

Interview with Nils Frahm.

Nils Frahm is at the forefront of the neo-classical realm of modern music. His output on the awe-inspiring Erased Tapes label is quite staggering. With each compelling release, new possibilities are attained through Frahm’s endless exploration of sound. The German composer’s piano compositions are works of tender beauty encompassing a spiritual realm steeped in cinematic wonder. ‘Screws’ is Frahm’s latest release and what a beautiful work of art it is.

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

The album ‘Screws’ was recorded whilst Frahm was recovering from a broken thumb, that resulted in four screws being inserted into the injured limb. Using nine of his fingers, Frahm  wrote a short piece on his piano. Using a single, dynamic microphone close on the piano, the music was recorded. The album was given wings and soon nine pieces were written and recorded. ‘Screws’ is divine piano music. Each note of every chord transports you to another dimension of unknown pleasures. The piano pieces have shades of spiritual jazz, classical and ambient spheres of sound. The spirits of Thelonious Monk, Claude Debussy and Philip Glass swirl magically inside the cosmic space. The album itself is a “special gift” to his fans, that will be released on his 30th birthday in early December on Erased Tapes. Nils Frahm’s music is just that, a “special gift”. From 2009’s ‘Wintermusik’ and ‘The Bells’, to last year’s ‘Felt’, Frahm’s music consistently transcends space and time. From his Berlin based Durton studio, some of the most interesting and compelling sounds in contemporary music has been created, and continues to do so.
I had the great fortune to recently have a conversation with Nils Frahm by phone, from his Berlin apartment. Fresh from the previous week’s Erased Tapes Anniversary sold-out tour, Frahm performed alongside labelmates Ólafur Arnalds, Anne Müller, A Winged Victory For The Sullen across Europe’s finest venues. During our conversation, Nils discusses his new album ‘Screws’, his love for jazz music, collecting musical instruments, his fascination with recording and the ease in which he finds his way around in sounds.

Hi Nils. Congratulations on your new album. I love ‘Screws’, it’s really beautiful. It would be great if you could talk about the recording of the album.

Yes, of course. Well, I had this accident where I broke my thumb and I went home and figured that I probably can’t play the piano and I tried anyway. Then I wrote a little piece, and because I was still handicapped, instead of putting up six, eight microphones and making a big deal out of it, I just used one little, dynamic microphone, like a really old, crappy one and put it really close on the piano somewhere and hit record. It’s all recorded in mono just maybe because out of laziness. But I really liked how it sounded. The sound of that recording was something I’ve never heard from the piano before, and I recorded ‘The Bells’ on that piano and all kinds of music so, I know it, I know it very well. But this particular sound really inspired me to try a few more pieces and so every other day I would leave the microphone where it was and just hit record and play something. In two and a half weeks I had all the songs and mixing was easy, just one microphone you know, it was really, the most easy-going project you can imagine, so it was really for the fun of it. My main intention was to just keep writing anyway, just because it helped me to stay in a good mood you know, because it felt like I’m still able to do what I want to do and it helped me to not feel too sorry for myself.

The first album I heard from you is ‘Felt’, your previous album.

‘Felt’ was recorded in my studio too, on the same piano. But you can tell like, how different it sounds, depending on what microphone you use or what strategy of recording, production use of instrument and it really changes its whole tone. It sounds like a different piano to me. I found it very interesting and I felt like the style of compositions that I played really fitted the old tiny sound versus old jazz record. I was listening to a lot of Thelonious Monk but also Jan Johansson, and I think there is quite a bit of Jan Johannson in there too maybe.

It’s funny a friend of mine was telling me how your new album ‘Screws’ reminds him of Keith Jarrett and Debussy, mixed together.

Yeah, it really has a dreamy jazz feel to it, but it’s definitely not too jazzy. I think it’s just because it is more like what you would call in jazz as spiritual; like there is some kind of jazz spiritual thing to it, I think. That’s a part of my musical background too-I listen to a lot of jazz music.

You must have a certain few names that you always come back to?

Yeah, I really like Gerry Mulligan on the saxophone. I’m quite obsessed with Roland Kirk, he’s also a great saxophone player. I really like, well of course John Coltrane, Miles Davis, but also very old stuff like Teddy Wilson-piano from the 40’s, he’s amazing. Clare Fischer, a piano player I really like too. Let me think, I’m a big fan of Horace Silver. Horace Silver is a great piano player and of course Bill Evans and the likes. But yeah, Gerry Mulligan, like I said is really my favourite saxophone players. The other famous saxophone player is John Surman. He’s on ECM Records. A lot of ECM stuff like Eberhard Weber. I really like Art Blakey especially his weird stuff, like his drum solo stuff is amazing. Johnny Hodges-the horn player. Johnny Hodges played the saxophone with Duke Ellington. There is so much man, I can’t think of everything right now.

You’ve produced a lot of albums and musicians in your studio. The most recent album I came across is Birds Of Passage.

Oh, Birds Of Passage I just did the mastering for.

What does the mastering entail? I’m interested to know.

Well, mastering can be kind of almost mixing in some cases. I think in her case I did quite a lot in terms of adding the right reverb and messing with the sound to a degree using old tape machines, maybe take some digital edge off. It quite depends on the material I get sent but often I do quite a lot because people kind of, don’t get to where they want to go in the mixing stage, and for me to take it to a different place.

It must be interesting because you’re at a different stage of the music, where you’re at the end of the stage of the song.

Yeah, usually in the mastering you don’t do too much. People say good mastering if you don’t hear what you change but it sounds better. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes you really have to change it, in terms of making it sound better. So, when I get a really good mix where I feel like someone really knew what they wanted and they got there and then I would just check everything; polish it a little bit, pull one frequency out, and that’s it. But I think in her case, I went quite wild with the weapons that I used.

Because the album is cinematic, it feels very intimate listening to the recordings.

Yeah, I think she was very happy with the result. It sounded very different before. I have more like a creative approach to mastering and I think people also ask me to master their records because they’d like my sound and the sounds that I capture here. So, I allow myself to do more like a creative mastering than just the technical insurance. It depends really on the artist and on the project.

You had the Erased Tapes Anniversary tour recently. That must have been amazing to play with all the different labelmates/musicians.

Yeah, that was fantastic. The whole tour went really well. All the shows were sold out. We had such a good time.

Staying on Erased Tapes, I love all the collaborations you have done, like for example ‘oliveray’, which you did with Peter Broderick. I have that on vinyl. It’s really magical. I love your covers of Efterklang and Tiny Vipers. As an artist it must be great to collaborate with like-minded artists.

Oh yeah, it is a blast really, as you can imagine. We just have a good time and trust each other. We really just are able to always really do what we want to do, no compromise and that’s quite fantastic. That’s what I really like about the whole scene that’s it’s just about music and nothing else, you know.

The way it should be.

Yeah, a really romantic kind of situation.

You’re living in Berlin. Does the city itself and living there inspire you as a composer?

Well yeah, I mean I’m not sure when I went here first, the first two years I hadn’t the easiest time to write music for some reason. But after a while, when I settled a little more, it really felt like a good place. I think it has more something to do with the career I have here, which I really love and yeah, the environment I can work in here is quite magical and for some reason make interesting music.

And your studio itself Nils, when did that come into operation? When did you start recording?

Actually when I was 13, 14 I started collecting musical instruments and from that point on, I was really fascinated by recording. I had school bands where I was always the guy who was being in charge of the tape machine, recording the band rehearsals. Later on, I got a computer and recorded on computer and I was quite stunned by the possibilities. The kind of possibilities to just multi-track, overdub. Yeah, I was really a big fan of that, so I really kept developing my skills and trained myself, like did a lot of listening and comparing. For some reason I find my way around in sounds very easily. I can always tell the difference. I can always hear pretty much everything well and can understand and also maybe talk about it or when somebody has an idea, I might know like, what they want. A little bit like understanding what is an 80’s sound, what is a 70’s sound, what is a dirty sound, what is a clear sound, what is a clean sound, you know like all this vocabulary and the way you need to communicate in music production. It feels quite natural for me, quite easy. So yeah, I was just really, really obsessed with studio equipment like microphones and all that to capture for me, what I would call an ideal tone, you know.

You said Nils that you started collecting instruments. I wonder what were the first instruments that you collected?

I had Fender Rhodes at one point when I was 13 and then I bought a Moog synthesizer and some old Roland Juno 60 synthesizers and I used it in a band and then I took it out of the rehearsal room and set up a little studio at home and that was basically the start of it.

How is your hand now?

Oh, much better, much better.

I wonder in terms of your next projects, what’s your next album going to be like?

Well, I’m not quite sure but I just bought a grand piano and I would really like to see how that sounds and probably I will build an album around it. The new piano, it’s a very special instrument. It’s a grand piano but it has felt to dampen the sound and it’s the only grand piano I’ve heard of and seen and my piano builder too. It’s quite a fantastic instrument. We had a little battle with different kinds of musicians. Dustin O’ Halloran wanted to buy it and Olive…but yeah, I was the lucky one.

I’m sure there will be a beautiful album soon with that so.

Yeah, I hope it will sound good. I have the feeling it will.

What is the music that inspires you?

I think my favourite album these days might be Walter Fähndrich, it’s a very very unpopular album. It’s on ECM, it’s a solo viola piece. It’s a viola player playing solo and it’s quite stunning. It’s really hard to describe. It reminds me of hearing ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ the first time, like some music where you just can’t believe it. I’m also mixing a song for Colin Stetson, he’s a saxophone player and I’m pretty amazed by his work too. It really is one of the best music I’ve ever heard. I really like Gentleman Losers. I have two albums, one is called ‘Dust Land’ and the other is self titled. They both came out on City Centre Offices. And there is one really, really great release from Tape and Bill Wells. That is one of my favourite things in the world. The album is called ‘Fugue’. You have to get it.

I will.

Really good, really good.

It was lovely talking to you Nils. Thanks for your time.

Oh, thanks for the great questions. I will see you at the show in Cork.

Nils Frahm performs at the Half Moon Theatre, Cork on Thursday 22nd November and at the Unitarian Church, Dublin on Friday 23rd November

‘Screws’ is available now as a free download. Physical edition of ‘Screws’ will be released on the 9th December on Erased Tapes.

Written by admin

November 13, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: