Pianist and Composer Nils Frahm on Machines, the Pandemic and India
The German artist, whose new film and live album ‘Tripping With Nils Frahm’ is now streaming, looks back at four intimate shows at the Funkhaus in Berlin
If there’s one thing that German composer and pianist Nils Frahm is upfront about, it’s his ego. Early on during our half hour video chat to discuss his new film Tripping With Nils Frahm (out now on streaming service MUBI), the artist says he’s an egomaniac.
Frahm says this when he’s asked about making music during the pandemic, all cloistered as per quarantine guidelines. “I don’t want to see a change [in my musical output] because my big artist ego tells me I’m not changing for the sake of this pandemic,” he says. Vehemently set on not wanting to push out “pandemic music” or a “pandemic project,” Frahm agrees that this time spent indoors, without gigs is certainly changing him, but he’s not feeling creative urges to compose as much. “I’m still like, ‘What’s happening?’ Nobody really knows what’s going on.”
Belying his egomaniac artistic self, Frahm still points out that when their shows were canceled, he was most worried for his live production crew. He says, “I was so worried about what they would do. And now they have jobs which are not so interesting, but at least they have different jobs. They work for example, in theaters and in an opera house. It’s maybe not the type of fun rock n’ roll project we were doing but at least they have something and I know so many people who don’t know what to do.”
Berlin-based Frahm – amongst the most cerebral and emotive composers who often arrives at a glowing, inquisitive marriage of classical compositional elements as well as futuristic electronic structures – has been gaining global acclaim for about a decade now. Between records such as Felt (2011) and Spaces (2013) and 2018’s All Melody, Frahm found likeminded collaborators ranging from Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds to filmmakers such as James Gray for the soundtrack to Brad Pitt-starrer Ad Astra.
We get a glimpse into the psyche of a versatile mind, an emphatic performer and much more in Tripping With Nils Frahm, captured by French filmmaker Benoit Toulemonde at four shows in Berlin’s historied Funkhaus. The venue also hosts a studio space and serves as a broadcasting center from where Frahm recorded All Melody. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Frahm talks about the experience of performing at Funkhaus, emoting with help from an array of synthesizers and equipment, Indian music and more. Excerpts:
Over the years of playing in a space like Funkhaus Berlin, what have your changing experiences been like?
You have to imagine, I’m working in this wonderful broadcasting room and everything there is made meticulously perfectly for music, in the most sincere way. And I’m coming from a bedroom studio. So my whole way of working was absolutely punk rock.
I worked in my bedroom and when I recorded somebody and wanted to have good sound, sometimes I took my blanket and threw it over the person and be like, ‘Sing under the blanket!’ Because then we’d have no acoustics from the shitty room.
Then all of a sudden, you’re in this broadcasting studio, where Frank Sinatra or Michael Jackson could be recorded. And everything is so posh and you have to get used to this proper way of doing things. Before, in my little place at home, I needed to do a lot of things ‘wrong’ so they didn’t sound like shit. And now, I have so many options. I had to grow up a little bit more and stop relying on my tricks. I was just like, ‘Okay, now I can relax and really design the music’ before it fell into place.
When I went to Funkhaus in 2016, in a way that changed my work but I hope it didn’t change me completely because that was not the plan. Moving there made my life a little bit easier. When I was working at home, I also got into a fight with my neighbors. They were like, ‘Oh you’re a crazy man. You’re making music every day. Maybe you should rent a studio?’ And yeah, I kinda rented a studio (laughs).
Is there something you can recount about these 2018 shows in terms of what was going on at the time?
It was a funny situation, because it was in December 2018. It was after one year of touring, and it was towards the end of the year. So after the four concerts, we all had Christmas holidays. So we were all just a little bit tired. I remember this atmosphere of these four shows as, like, a showdown.
Since it was in Funkhaus, I was sleeping at home. I was basically already home, but I knew I had these four concerts left. All my family came and then you have to play these concerts. Everybody is celebrating. It’s just the opposite of what is happening now. It was like this insane get-together of friends and family celebrating. Everybody was just having a glass of whatever in their hand and smiling, cheering and I’m in the middle trying to focus. Like, [cheerfully] ‘Okay see you later!’ and [nervously] ‘I need to play.’ It was just like this insane energy of excitement and we needed to finish because we were falling apart.
It’s always interesting to see how electronic musicians interact with so many synthesizers and equipment on stage. What is your favorite thing about using machines for music?
They play little simple things without being bored. If you ask a drummer to play just [mimics one percussive hit] for one hour, they’ll just be like, ‘Oh come on, dude. Really? Why do you do this to me? Can I play a little more?’
You get bored when you play the same thing over and over and you want to have variation. You want to do a little build and that’s beautiful. But sometimes I’ll just be like, ‘No, no. You just need to do like [mimics same percussive hit] and I do all the rest.’ I’m having fun and improvising on top of that.
But on the other hand, machines are boring. That’s still a problem. Playing with men or women is not boring, but it’s also sometimes more difficult to keep things very humble, you know, because we as people have a big ego and we use ego to create a stage presence, it’s okay. But we also need to control the ego to make the music and not to produce the ego.
So machines have no ego and that’s the biggest strengths of machines that they can make music without their ego being always in resonance. But all the other things, humans do better because playing music always needs, for me, a human touch. I never liked the Kraftwerk concerts where they put the robots on stage. I think that was an idea I didn’t understand because it’s much more interesting when a living body is together with a machine than when a robot is working with a machine.
With you, the whole performance on Tripping is very emotional and it’s captured really well. What are you feeling on stage when you’re interacting with a really dynamic sound?
It’s a million feelings. When you compare it to so many ingredients in, like, curry, then you’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, it’s just this wonderful thing which comes together.’ Nobody really knows what all is involved, nobody can even taste all the different ingredients. It becomes one thing and you have to kind of accept it.
I describe it in a way where I feel like… I don’t want to sound too scientific here… But when I’m like a little measuring tool, and I’m a sensor for certain frequencies and when I get in resonance with certain frequencies, I stop there and I use that in my composition. I work so long on my instruments when I write music, I’m testing what the sounds do with me. Some sounds put my sensor in resonance and I get a strong emotional response. These are the moments where I hope that other people are also in resonance because we are the same and similar.
What was it like putting together something like Late Night Tales as a mixtape in 2015? Is it something you take on often?
I like doing mixtapes. I have my record collection, I have some vinyl and I have some old media and 78 [records] and old tapes from different locations. Some tapes are from my family’s car. My father had like a tape deck and I was rescuing all the tapes. They have such a weird sound because they were laying in the sun, in this hot car for 20 years.
I like using different types of media also just because they have a nostalgic sound. So on Late Night Tales, I was mixing a tape with a record and so you hear all the different types of distortion or ‘problems’ in the media.
Every year, I do a mix for Christmas. Because I think this tradition of Christmas music is very cheesy and very funny. And I was like, ‘Let’s make a let’s make a cheesy, gripping Christmas mix.’ So I’m doing something like Late Night Tales every year, on Mixcloud. There are seven or eight up there and there’ll be a new one this Christmas as well.
Since I’m calling from India, I wanted to hear about your interactions with Indian music as well as whether you’ve got an offer to play here sometime?
We wanted to go to India at some point to play there. And now this [pandemic] is all like, it moved away, behind the horizon where you can’t see really…
But Indian music is something which is incredibly inspiring for me. Especially when I was getting into jazz music when I was younger in school. I discovered Ravi Shankar and Trilok Gurtu and all types of musicians. I started understanding that, for example, the tabla is just a way of speaking, you know? You basically can speak with your fingers on the drum and you could make all different sounds with this little drum. It’s the most incredible way of using rhythm and space and openness in Indian music that it is not like in European music.
I don’t understand enough where it [Indian music] comes from but I love it. The way of using the overtones and how the harmonium became the national instrument in India, I think that’s fascinating because it has such a wonderful, meditative sound. It was so cool that Indians, when the English brought the harmonium [to India], they were like, ‘You English can go home, you suck but leave the harmonium here.’ [laughs] It was inspiring to me and the harmonium is one of my favorites.