Nils Frahm - The Sound of Shedding Skin Interview | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Nils Frahm

The Sound of Shedding Skin

Nov 24, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


These days, the piano probably serves as an inspirational springboard for German musician/composer Nils Frahm as much as it does as a primary instrument in his work. Spaces, his 2013 live album recorded in multiple venues over the course of two years, offers a full range of Frahm's directions, from minimalist exercises to classically-influenced passages and lushly beautiful pieces. Moving between an upright grand piano, electronic keyboards, and a drum machine, Frahm accomplishes alone onstage what even loop artists might see as a challenge. As he explains below, a less-is-more approach has helped to bring into focus the ideas that have made him such a compelling performer. Nils Frahm just wrapped up his recent U.S. tour, which Under the Radar was one of the sponsors of.

Hays Davis (Under the Radar): Do you remember a point in earlier days that seemed to be the bridge from what you knew about how the piano had been used as an instrument and what you thought you might do differently?

Nils Frahm: No, not really. There was not a point like that, where I thought, "Now I know what I want to do." There's a lot of discovery where I still feel like I'm still in the midst of it.

Was there any particular catalyst that led to a change in your way of thinking?

Maybe my little break from the piano got me thinking about it differently. I was playing piano until I was maybe 16 or 17, and then I was more into electronic music. I didn't play so much piano, but after a couple of years I came back to it. I was hearing different things.  

There are pieces that go beyond repetition to dwelling on a single note. When moments like those become part of a composition, how important is it to you to maintain that finished composition when it comes to live performance? Do relax a little to where it's closer to being improvisational, or are you strict in trying not to stray from what you write?

No, I really try to keep it open for new ideas. Playing live means playing different every night. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to be to present all these ideas. I thought it would be nice to have a concept where you actually never really stop writing, never stop composing.

Other compositions have included more complex repetition. When working on that type of material, is the live performance of that composition a concern to you, where you want to ensure that you don't sort of compositionally paint yourself into a corner that you can't play your way out of live?

No. I'm curious to follow whatever drives me. A number of ideas I have in the studio, they can't be performed live and in one take. It only works with a band or just with playback. I can actually recompose the songs so it fits my live setup, or I can just play them like any song. It's totally something I think about when I make music. Just after recording, after composing, you wonder if it's something you can put onstage or not. 

Were there ways that you planned for Spaces to differ from usual live albums? I understand you used different types of recording equipment (including reel-to-reel recorders and cassette tape decks).

I felt it might be good to record many, many shows, take the best moments, and collage them together afterward. Most live recordings are just concerned around one show. I thought it might be more interesting if it's more like a whole recorded concept, so I picked all these different recordings and collaged them in a way that seems like one concert. Nobody really knows when and where it was recorded, and I kind of like that.

The video for "Hammers" has a group of stagehands putting together your concert setup. That seems to be an amazing amount of people and effort to prepare for one man's performance. What activity goes into all that work? What are some things that you require that may be unnecessary for other keyboard players? Not as though you're quite like many other keyboard players, of course.

I'm using analogue equipment, so most of that stuff is good for a museum but not really for a live concert stage, so I need help with setting up all these instruments. Even if we have three or four hours setup time, we're always cutting it short. I have a great team on the road. I travel with a party of 12 people, with a sound technician and a tour manager, and they all help to set it up, plus there's local support with people from the venues helping as well.

Other musicians would just travel with a laptop with a little carry-on thing with a MIDI controller. Maybe there's a projector where they project things from the computer as well. So they can run a pretty big and epic stage with just 40 pounds of equipment, and I can't do that. It feels like cheating to mejust too simple. I feel like the more my audience grows and the bigger the places I'm playing become, the more I need to risk and invest on my part to make it worthwhile for the people who attend the concert. And it looks like now people really acknowledge that, and they recognize it, and they see that this is a little different. But most important, it's how different real instruments are being amplified, giving you a real sound experience you don't really have if you just play on a computer. 

How would you describe the evolution of your work since your earliest recordings?

When I first started recording with a computer I was trying all kinds of things out. I was just basically learning what a computer could do. So, I was really curious. I was like a kid in a candy store, and all of a sudden I had all these amazing possibilities to process out. And then I slowly realized that I don't really actually like a lot of the things the computer would do to my music. I just didn't feel that these effects, or the possibilities the computer provides, would end up in results I feel like were timeless or also things I would like in 10 or 20 years. So, I was thinking more about ways of using the studio, and also the computer, and the whole environment, to create music which kind of sounds like it's trash songs, different-sounding, but in a way, I could also see myself liking it when I'm older. I always wanted to have these things I record age in a nice way. A lot of things I like tend to be musical, and a lot of these things don't really sound good anymore. I thought about how I could create work that I would also like in the future. Therefore, I reduced the amount of tools, the amounts of effects I was using to the very minimum. I became a lot faster because of that.  

Before I go on tour I have to fix all my instruments. I have to make sure they work and I put a lot of energy into maintaining them. I have to do all the things to prepare the gear. And the same in the studio. I have to keep them up to specs. I need people to service them. I need to put a lot of work into all the equipment. But when it's all working, the actual process of creating is really, really fast. This is also what I like. I don't want to lose time by crashing computers or by complicated plug-ins which don't seem to work, and all that. So I just kicked a lot of possibilities out, in the way of working, and I condensed this to a handful of tools I'm using, kind of signature tools.

I feel like this is a good way to start to execute more logically and really focus on a couple of important [things], and get rid of all the rest. People have, like, 500 plug-ins installed; I doubt that they really use it, but when they open one they have a hard time finding one that they want to use because they have so many others on the computer, so I would always tell people just delete it all and only install what you really need.

Is there a song that you enjoy playing when you have a couple of minutes to yourself that's completely outside your creative realm, whether it's a guilty pleasure or something that's just fun to play?

"My Funny Valentine."

www.nilsfrahm.com

 

 

Also check out our earlier joint interview between Nils Frahm and actor Cillian Murphy.



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