Nils Frahm: 'I was managing to run away from making a real album for many years'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 6 February 2019
credit: Alexander Schneider
With a world tour in progress, Berlin-based composer discusses his most impressive musical statement yet
Nils Frahm has always been drawn to the empty spaces that reverberate around us, forever finding the perfect cascading pattern or textural anomaly to paint the silence. From his 2011 album Felt, which involved him placing material over the hammers of a piano to mute the sound, to 2012's Screws, which he recorded with nine fingers as a result of a broken thumb, the Berlin-based composer has always succeeded in attaching concepts to blank spaces with a profound sense of ingenuity. For two years, he worked towards producing the kind of record that would achieve a balance between space and symphony, depicting his own imagination and internal musical dialogue without restriction. The result, last year's full-length release All Melody, is a product of time and patience and total immersion on Frahm's part in the idea of letting things linger.
'I was managing to run away from making a real album for many years,' Frahm explains over a phone call from his Funkhaus studio in Berlin. 'I was all over the place and basically entangled in all these one-off projects and it was all getting a little bit too much. I felt like the best way to get away was to just tell everybody that I wanted time off to make a big album. And that won me two years of time by myself so I could make music as I was making before anybody knew me, which was basically like being in solitude, having no stress and just experimenting.'
All Melody is a triumph in its overall ambition, with each contrasting idea and mesmerising build working together in a way that seems effortless. It's a record that was undeniably worth the wait, both for Frahm and for his audience who have followed each of his projects, mixes and residencies with great admiration. But with so much time to ruminate over each sound and loop, it was a demanding process, as Frahm explains.
'The most difficult part about it was that we were ending up with so many different ideas and it was a bit overwhelming,' he says. 'I had a couple of friends who were helping me go through certain ways of sequencing the material so it was really helpful to not completely decide that alone. It was nice to rely on people who have watched all of this for ten years or more who would then totally read my mind and help me untangle all that stuff.'
The untangling may have been arduous, but the outcome was exceptional for many. One such reason for this was Frahm's move to the Funkhaus studio where he is currently based, with the studio and mixing desk itself, which was created from scratch, becoming a key element of the album.
'In my case it's quite important how the set-up looks and how the tools are arranged, even the order of the keyboards,' says Frahm. 'Before I had a studio, I just had a small room at home. And then I had a shitty rehearsal room with a lot of hardcore rock'n'roll bands just next to me. So I was a little bit trapped in these circumstances and the studio now is obscenely grand and large. It made the whole production of All Melody what it is. It's all in one place now, it's all one factory and it's really helping the whole thing to be more professional than it ever was before.'
Frahm is able to look back at 2018 with a great deal of pride at having achieved what he set out to do: create an album that made a statement, with ambitious concepts and organic noises interwoven with unconventional instrumentation. So having completed a comprehensive cycle of shows to support All Melody and played to audiences around the world, does Frahm consider making changes to the material that he already knows inside out?
'Oh of course, I'm always wondering what could be changed because the most frustrating thing in life is not thinking about what is nice or what ideas are good but what ideas you didn't have. It's like in the casino when you've won three times, you might as well risk a little bit more. Every time I do make a little change and if the change is nice, it will stay and basically, the whole thing becomes a mutant over time. And I don't even remember exactly how I played the thing 100 shows ago to be honest but I think, in a way, this keeps it exciting.'
Frahm's upcoming world tour takes him from Berlin all the way to Chicago in the space of just a few months. 'The live team have quite a different set-up,' he says when asked about his live arrangements compared to the studio. 'Everything can be a little bit on the edge in terms of functionality in the studio; it doesn't matter if something crackles or something drops out because you can do it again. But in a live situation, you need to find a workflow where everything is as stable and reliable as possible. So it involves two completely different teams and it's nice for me to go back and forth between both worlds because I can learn a lot in the studio for my live shows and vice versa.'
The next few months may be packed for Frahm but this ambition is nothing new for the celebrated composer and producer. And naturally, he's already considering his next step. 'We have a lot of live recordings from the last tour and we also just filmed the last couple of shows here in Berlin. So I think that really makes me feel determined to work on some good mixes of live material. If the mood is right and we are lucky then there might be this live album in the future but, fortunately, I don't stress myself on finishing something which doesn't want to be finished. But if the material tells me it's ready, it will be there.'
Nils Frahm, SEC, Glasgow, Mon 18 Feb; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Tue 19 Feb.
Contemporary composer and pianist from Berlin.