Doing Things Wrong on Purpose: The Nils Frahm Interview

Photo by Arne Römer

I don’t remember how I first heard of Nils Frahm, but his music engaged me deeply from the start. He is a consummate composer, making genius music that is never pretentious. He’s also in high demand as a sound engineer at his home studio in Berlin. In this interview, we talk about that and his most recent record, Felt, out now on Erased Tapes. Named for a piece of felt he placed on the piano, initially just to dampen the sound so as not to wake the neighbors, Felt is a record full of touching, somewhat improvised compositions. Other, more structured pieces were recorded in over 40 takes.

ELM: What part of Germany are you in? Are you in Berlin?

NF: Yes, I’m in Berlin right now. Where are you?

ELM: I’m in Wisconsin, in the States. It’s funny that I’m interviewing you today because I was just interviewing Peter [Broderick] the other day. I was talking to him about pianos and how every piano has its own personality, and I asked him what his favorite piano was, and he said yours was his favorite.

NF: *laughs* It is a pretty nice one.

ELM: What kind of personality does it have?

NF: Forgiving. It’s just a really beautiful in and of itself. A lot of pianos don’t allow you to express yourself because the piano is so selfish it only wants to express itself. My piano is very nice and it’s in good shape and you can play a lot of different material on it. A lot of pianos, you can’t do that.

ELM: Is that your favorite piano?

NF: Yes. Probably because I’m around it every day. Any other relationship, I lose appreciation, which I shouldn’t, but it’s a really beautiful instrument.

ELM: I was reading some interviews with you yesterday, and I read an interview where you referred to yourself as an “odd” recording engineer. What makes you consider yourself odd?

NF: Odd in liking certain things that most people try to get rid. There’s some lack of courage, often a lack of courage, in a lot of recordings these days. Once I get an idea about a recording, I want to dig a little further, dig a little deeper, and try new things and invent new ways of working on music. For example, recording piano with the damper felt on it, and things like that. Odd in a way because most people would only use it as neighbor protection. Often putting microphones too close and in the wrong position. I put the mics up wrong.

ELM: Is that how you managed to capture so much ambient sound on Felt?

NF: Putting the mics wrong? Yes, that’s part of it. I like to do things wrong on purpose. In a way, the technical details don’t really matter too much to me. Whether it’s my music or other people’s music, I care more about the general atmosphere. I record at my home, it’s like my bedroom, really. It’s pretty well-equipped for that. There’s something in this room which makes recording very easy. It makes recording nice takes very easy. It might have something to do with my coffee machine. Whatever it is, I don’t know really.

ELM: It’s funny you mention your coffee machine. In the same interview I read, you said you made excellent cofffee. What’s your secret?

NF: Oh, yeah, I think I make one of the best coffees in town. It’s a combination of beans and how to do the coffee mill and the machine itself and the kind of milk I use.

ELM: I know that you talk about working late at night when there’s silence. When you record other people, do you do that late at night as well?

NF: Yes, if they want to. I’m fine with it. Some people like working late. Some people get tired in the evenings. It depends. Especially at the nighttime, I feel music a little more than during the daytime. Listening to music, and making music too. For some reason, I get a little more focused and more concentrated the later it gets. At some point, obviously, I get tired. During daytime my rational mind is stronger than the creative, and when the day fades, my creative part of myself is stronger and pushes away the rational part. I enjoy myself more the later it gets. Usually I start working at 7 or 8 in the evening and work until 3 or 4. I miss all the opportunities of hanging out on people and having beers, but I get to make music.

ELM: How did you come up with the song titles on Felt?

NF: I wanted something short, but, if you read it in a row, it would be a confusing sentence. There’s one German title in it. I also think they sound so ridiculous to me because I never think [about it], and it is important to have them because of all the bureaucracy in the music industry. You need to have song titles so people can pay you royalties, so they know what they can acknowledge on the radio. And what some people do with improvised music is they just call it Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. I find it kind of boring, so usually at the end of the mixing process, I sit down and close my eyes and just write these titles down in two or three minutes. They don’t have a really special meaning for me or anything.

ELM: How much of this album was improvised?

NF: I would say fifty percent. The songs are just takes coming in that moment. Other songs are more composed ones; I shaped them more and took my time with it. Sometimes I recorded it forty or fifty times to get them the way I wanted them. Other songs, like the second one on the record, “Less,” which most people seem to like, was just a good moment. I like to mix those two elements together. And then the composed material benefits from the more loose, improvised material and the other way around. People never really know. It could be both.

ELM: Do you get any images in your head when you’re writing?

NF: I don’t have any. Most people say when they make music they see all kinds of pictures, and I’m like, ‘great, what are you smoking?’ Usually when I’m playing I’m so concentrated or focused I can’t watch a movie while doing it. I also don’t smell anything. When I see a photograph, I don’t hear anything. When I see a picture of a bird, I can imagine what sound the bir might make. But that’s a more active thing. When I listen to music or play my own music, there’s just a blank space in my head and I like to make as much space as possible for the music.

ELM: Do you remember your dreams?

NF: No, not usually. I sleep so deep that you could probably renovate my whole place and I wouldn’t wake up. Carry me away. It’s more like being half-dead every night. When I wake up, I don’t remember anything. Sometimes when I fall asleep in the daytime, I get weird, weird dreams.

ELM: Like what?

NF: The other day I was dreaming that I was dreaming that I was dreaming or something confusing. I got up and out of my bed—I have a loft bed–I walked down the stairs of my bed and I fell on my belly and I couldn’t move. I panicked because I couldn’t move and I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t say anything, so I panicked, and then I woke up. Very confusing stuff like that. Kind of annoying and very unnecessary.

Sometimes I dream of sounds. The other day I dreamed of an instrument I found somewhere. It was kind of a weird looking guitar kind of thing with a wool thread on it instead of metal strings. I played it, and it sounded like this beautiful, reversed, droney, music. I could also play it perfectly well. I was also able to play it perfectly. I was playing this mind-blowing, really cool music on it. I was like, ‘man! I need to get something like that!’ I woke up and I realized that the instrument doesn’t exist and the sound doesn’t exist. I tried to find the studio, just messing around with things in my studio. It was just too perfect to be true. It sounded too good. No speaker in the world can play something like that. It was very frustrating.

ELM: For some reason, I felt compelled to ask you this: have you ever been to a fortune teller?

NF: I’m not sure if I believe in any kind of esoteric things. But a friend of my mother’s, she read tarot cards, and I did it sometimes, and she alwyas had very interesting things to say. They might come true, they might not come true, but talking about it was always interesting. It’s been awhile. Sometimes I open my fortune cookie when I go to a cheap Chinese restaurant, and I like to believe it’s true. My dad read my horoscope for 2O12, and I liked it.

ELM: What music recommendations to you have for me? Are there composers I need to be listening to that I’m not?

NF: I just bought a few cd’s. There’s Bulgarian choir music, which you can watch on YouTube. It’s called New Voices. Then there’s a group called Gentlemen Loser. They do really beautiful, kind of mellow guitar music. Then there’s a band called Tape. Then there’s this piano player from Canada called Lubomyr Melnyk. Peter and I met him when we both played a show. He’s maybe the greatest piano player ever. The music he does is called continuous music. He just plays fast arpeggios that just go on for hours. It’s almost a spiritual experience listening to him.

ELM: One last question for you. Who are your favorite writers?

NF: I really really like Milan Kundera. I’ve always loved his books. There are many writers that I really like,but let’s feature him.

Nils Frahm Homepage


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: