Interview: Nils Frahm talks synthesizers, asshole celebrities, and the humor in serious experimental music
Berlin-based experimental composer Nils Frahm will make a two-day stop in San Francisco on his latest tour at the Great American Music Hall on November 11-12. I spoke to Frahm on the phone in Berlin to talk at length about his writing process (it’s biological), his thoughts about experimental musicians in Hamburg (too serious), and the physical challenges of playing 12-minute songs (potentially injurious).
The Bay Bridged: I wanted to ask you about your song writing process and what it’s like putting together such long and complex songs?
Nils Frahm: They slowly develop, mostly like the world of biology. You have an organism with one cell then it divides and becomes two cells and that turns into four cells. As soon as you turn around and turn back, it’s a complex organism. Which almost feels like it’s detached from you and just exists in its own realm.
And then you start serving that new life form and songs like “Said and Done” or “Says” or any of these long, complex, multi-textured songs. They arose out of simple ideas that turned into more complex ideas after playing through them many times.
TBB: Do you use a lot of improvising?
NF: I would say all my songs come from improvising at one point. It’s not my style to think of a melody and take a pencil and write down the notes and compose on my table with a sheet of paper and a pen. I like exploring ideas while I’m playing my instrument. You might say that all my songs come from improvisations. But they are like memorized improvisations that are never really closed.
What’s exciting about my writing process is that a song is never done — there’s always a chance that the song can still evolve. Then I sometimes make recordings of them and then there’s a version existing almost like a freeze, but still they might develop after that point. Then you want to record them again but you shouldn’t
TBB: Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?
NF: I love music equipment but I think there’s not a single thing I like the most. It’s more all of them together become their own instrument. That’s what’s really exciting.
Maybe a generic synthesizer, a pretty generic tape delay, and you can buy another piece of equipment and these three pieces of equipment together they make like a completely new blend. It’s like pepper and onion and then with that special sauce it turns into an amazing dish but the sauce by itself and the pepper by itself and the onion by itself are not amazing.
So sometimes the combination and the way you use things really are what makes them special. I have the ambition to turn generic and classic pieces of gear into something they might have not been used to make before. My goal is to find different ways of using them, which inspire people to apply that method to anything they use and find in life. So everything can be kind of special.
I think I condensed that message the most in my piece “Toilet Brushes”, where I take shitty plastic toilet brushes from Ikea and use them in a pretty featured moment in my set and all of the sudden these toilet brushes become a little more than what they intended them to be. And I think this is my one guideline for my working process.
TBB: Can you name some artists you’re listening to now for inspiration?
NF: I Just bought some late 60s Miles Davis stuff. The more jazz rock type, which I think is fantastic. The stuff from Bitches Brew onwards basically to the 70s. In A Silent Way is one of my favorites at the moment.
Of course there’s some new stuff I’m listening to. I just discovered James Blake’s KlavierWerke EP. I love the Gentlemen Losers. They are Finnish brothers, and they make beautiful soundtrack-ish music — pretty backwards sounding in a way. All the songs remind me of found tapes from the 60s but arranged in this beautiful, almost contemporary, fashion. Gentlemen Losers are a big, big favorite of mine at the moment. Also Paul White, I just heard about them. I think he’s making some really great dub music. And I’m listening to a lot of rhythm and sound, speaking of dub music.
TBB: When I saw you play, the songs sometimes seem like a physical challenge to play live. Do you ever feel like you’re pushing yourself too far? Do your arms get really sore?
NF: [Laughs] Not really, I pretty much know where the limit is. I did hurt myself before, so bad that I couldn’t play the show the next day. I try to tame myself at certain points so that it’s a little more sustainable.
But I love the physical challenge, it’s almost like the machines need this human interaction to come alive. I like the challenge to make the music I’m doing live all possible via two feet and two hands. The physical aspect of the show and the whole conception of the show is an integral part of what I do. If I didn’t push myself to the limit physically, I would probably become lazy and play a lot of things as background tracks. So that I can push my limits and the limits of the music – I have to push myself physically. I have to not only practice my hands, but also my whole body to be able to maintain that high level of energy on stage, exhausting myself over 90 minutes. I had to build up the chops to be able to do it. It’s just one more thing where I find myself being in a rather unique spot – finding myself doing something which is – I mean I don’t want to praise myself – but at least it is something which is really hard to copy at this point [laughs]. It took me so many years and so many shows to be able to do this.
What I find personally really interesting about artists – the music they are doing is partially a result of their uniqueness. It could be how they work mentally, or how their character is, or how their body works. There are certain players like the saxophone player – shit, I forgot his name – he plays with circular breathing and he plays all these different layers at the same time. It’s really exhausting. It looks exhausting. And he’s such a big guy and he’s such a strong guy. And the music is just a result of his physical, mental, and artistic uniqueness. The more layers you include in using that uniqueness – everybody is different, every mind is different, everybody has different ideas – the more unique the music will be.
This is what I try to push as much as possible to counteract the type of preset culture, which is about to overtake certain areas of our artistic freedom. You install a music program and it asks, “Do you want to know open a piano track?” “Yeah!” And then the piano track opens. And then it says, “Do you want to have some chords to start?” “Yeah!” Basically, the program makes a song for you. That’s what Garageband wants us to do – to make professional sounding music without needing to be so creative.
For me, I’m trying to turn the opposite direction. To use many layers of my uniqueness – whether it’s my physical strength, or my chops as a piano player, or maybe my geekiness as an electronic musician – then the result will become more unique. This is another guideline of my writing process.
TBB: When I last saw you in San Francisco I was really surprised you told such funny stories between songs. Is it important to you to make a personal connection with the audience during your shows?
NF: To be honest, yes I think it’s important. I like it when I go to a show and people show some awareness that they are not alone in the venue. I’m not that shy kind of guy who hides behind his guitar and stares at the floor and looks awkward. I couldn’t really do it.
I thought maybe it helps the music and the performance if I mobilize the energy that is in the room and make it work in my favor. I realized that when you include people and talk to them directly and give them counterparts to all that rather serious music and intense music it’s almost like pushing an emotional reset problem.
It’s like a wine tasting – in between the different wines you need to eat something that resets the taste you had before so that it doesn’t clutter up. Maybe that analogy explains why I think it’s really important after a serious and intense piece to show some humor and irony so that people can include that layer in the experience.
Maybe it makes it even more complex because then they don’t really know how it belongs together. How can someone who writes such intense music and sometimes emotionally intense, also draining stuff, also make jokes? Maybe they start to cry or they have this feeling of catharsis. They’re going through something. After that, I think people deserve a break before we go into the next level or chapter. It’s also good for me to start a song with a smile. And then the smile turns into a whole different experience. And then ending the song with a smile. Because this is the most important thing to keep some humor and keep the level of irony high. Also it’s really confusing for people if a German makes a joke [laughs].
TBB: I was expecting silence between songs. I feel that a lot of experimental musicians go to that as the default.
NF: Yeah I hated that. Not experimental music, but I hated the whole fucking attitude of the experimental music scene I grew up with. The Hamburg experimental composers – they were all wearing black and they would all talk serious. Sometimes the music they were making just sounded like bad diarrhea. And I thought, man this is so funny it sounds like bad farting sounds, you know? Come on; don’t try to make me not see that. Don’t make me try to not have a laugh because it’s just funny. Experimental music can be funny. It’s allowed to be. If you have this bullshit attitude, “oh this is super serious”, the funnier it sounds the more serious you need to behave. It’s the wrong direction. It turns people off.
What I want to do is to connect these different worlds. I want to combine experimental aspects of music with popular elements, folk elements, jazz and classical elements. And connect people who come from all different types of musical backgrounds. They come to my show and old people sit next to young people, post-rock fans sit next to jazz nerds, and the jazz nerds sit next to electronic DJs.
I think what everyone can relate to is a joke. This is common ground. I try to be a host because the people came because of you. I learned growing up from my father to try to be a good host. You ask how people are doing. Basically the guest is a king. This kind of thing is in my blood. I really respect that so many people come to my shows. I want to make sure they have a great experience. I feel responsible for their evening. The music is a part of the evening but it’s only one part. I try to get better at being the man on stage who guides people through the night. The stuff in between songs and after the concert is part of that experience.
People might ask their friends about the night with Nils Frahm. And they might respond first thing, “Oh he’s a really nice guy”. They might not know how to explain the music but it’s really wonderful when people feel they have connected with you on a personal level. I feel that I connect with my fans when the energy is right in the room. This creates a positive cycle. I love being with my fans and I love playing for them. My fans love being in the room with me because I’m not awkward.
There are artists who do it in a different way – fantastic artists who made an attitude out of being an asshole on stage. Everybody knows it and maybe also wants it. I could name a couple bands but I won’t. Everybody knows these bands that everyone wants to see because they are such dickheads and we wonder what they will do next. But this is a really negative tendency. It turns some of these people into real assholes after awhile. I think this is a dangerous path to go down. I’d rather be the opposite and be happier the more fans I have and the more concerts I play.
TBB: Kurt Vonnegut has a quote about being careful about what you pretend to be because that’s what you actually are.
NF: Yeah, exactly. I am scared of playing a role that I could accidentally become without knowing it. So I decided I want to be onstage as I am backstage. Because then the chance of failing is smaller. I don’t need to change myself and put on a mask for the performance and play a role. You will become tired of any role you have to play once you realize you have to do it. You will fight against that. So I decided to use my real name, Nils Frahm, and I started as a punk musician with a rock n roll background and also a classical background with a love for electronic music. I try to combine all that – I don’t try to make a fuss or hide anything. Being as transparent as possible is a good security when you’re becoming better known. You can avoid it getting weird with the audience.
TBB: This US and Canadian tour that’s coming up — are you playing new music or did you just want to come back again?
NF: It’s still the part of the same set up I was touring with in March — the two acoustic pianos with electronic stuff in the middle. I am playing some new songs. The songs from last time developed quite a bit. I will still play certain songs from Spaces because it’s the most recent album. These shows might be the last shows for a long time before I really go back into creating a whole new set up and ideas.
I will hide in the rehearsal space and come up with new ideas and new setups and then tour with that in May in Europe. However, this will be the last time in the states for at least a year. But this will be the first time in the US that I am bringing the whole show. This year my light’s designer will be joining me, which is a big aspect of my show but I could never bring him because I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t want to miss out on closing out this chapter of the tour for Americans.
TBB: Do you have any specific plans during your two days in San Francisco?
NF: I plan to meet some friends. We always go out and have some coffee and take photos. I love San Francisco; it’s fantastic and very beautiful.