Nils Frahm: ‘It is inspiring to play the studio like an instrument’
The German’s music is fuelled by a love of traditional studio craft, from the Beatles to Miles Davis, and his latest work attempts to answer the question: what is left when all studio tricks are gone?
Nils Frahm: ‘It is basically the Photoshop generation; you can take a photo that looks shit and then after two hours you can make it look “perfect”. That’s also what has happened to music’
Nils Frahm performs live
I expect to talk to Nils Frahm from the environment of his “laboratory-like” studio in Berlin, but it turns out he is in Denmark. “Yes, it’s a rare case for me to be in Berlin these days,” he says. I am writing music for a theatre piece, with a company called Hotel Pro Forma.”
The piece that Frahm has been creating music for is Laughter in the Dark, directed by Hotel Pro Forma’s artistic director, Kirsten Dehlholm (“she has been around the block, from the late 1960s”), whose background is in the visual arts. For Frahm, there is much common ground.
“Creative processes have so much in common; if you look at an architecture office or a music production studio, it is a similar process, like any other kind of art,” he says. “I love seeing how people in charge deal with challenges and improvise and find solutions for tricky problems, like designing the narrative of a piece and aesthetics.”
Frahm is a gifted musician and composer, who has released several solo records since 2005, with 2009’s Wintermusik a particular highlight, as well as last year’s Spaces, a project that documented more than 30 live performances, stitched together to explore some of his constant themes: failure and imperfection.
“My inspiration usually comes from old recordings, made from times when they couldn’t edit things the way we can, and I find it very inspiring to imagine a record like [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue that was made in two days. It was such a success and changed many people’s lives, and brought so much mood and joy to us all.
“The big work was not about getting together and doing the session, it was in the preparation, which was a lifetime of work. It’s not just the skills on the instrument that need to be refined, it is the emotional content, so when the microphone is there and the recorders are running you can deliver that essence on the spot.
“This was also the idea behind Spaces – what is left when all studio tricks are gone? Many musicians have the possibility to go deep into their tissue of work, through editing, changing, and polishing: it is basically the Photoshop generation; you can take a photo that looks shit and then after two hours you can make it look ‘perfect’. That’s also what has happened to music . . . There is nothing wrong with the technology itself, but people do it as a reflex, a dogma, something they don’t think about.”
Preparation is everything
Frahm approaches music as a traditional craftsman might, with his studio as his workshop. “It’s all about the preparation. I might work eight hours just finding the right microphone or cable, so when I figure that out I can sit down and play for 10 minutes and it is done. I don’t start with recording for hours and fiddle and rescue after. Preparing the environment is everything.
“I think the most profound results you witness are when you have someone with both discipline and talent. If you read the stories about the Beatles recording Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney was spending hours every night overdubbing his bass lines until it was perfect, and had to do it in one take; if he messed up in the last minute he had to start all over again.”
This love of craft is something he saw early on, with his photographer father as a huge influence. “It is not interesting if someone doesn’t know how to work a darkroom. What it feels like to develop a photograph, how an image appears out of nowhere on the page – it’s a magical moment. I witnessed this with my father. He knows the history of photography, when the processes were developed, paper, chemicals, it all matters. He is like a sponge – he sucks in all the knowledge about photography, and that inspired me to do something similar with the field of music and the art of playing.”
Frahm is fascinated by the “psychology of performing”, and he invites audiences to sit throughout his concerts completely silently.
“I think we can try to create an experience where people don’t think it is super-challenging to witness something – my audiences have 90 minutes without a break. I want to give them a worthwhile experience for their patience, and for focusing, and my fans say it feels very short. I want to encourage them to try something like that more often. It is rewarding. Everyone who reads a book instead of watching television before they go to bed will realise that.”
Frahm mentions different languages in music, in particular dub, which has seeped into so much. “Dub is an influential musical genre for all kinds of musicians, and is almost as important as classical or jazz, because it opened up a completely different box,” he says. “Jazz is the main language of improvised music, classical is the main language of notated music, and dub is the language of engineers.
“It transformed the engineer to the artist, which was very radical: the musicians are not the main stars any more, the recording engineer is: the guy who cuts the dub plates, deals with the vinyl pressing, who decides what speakers should be used for the sound system.
“Today we know from electronic music, the DJ is the star, they fly on their own private jet, but the people who do the music often don’t. This would be unthinkable without dub music. It will always remain a main ingredient in modern music producing. It is a lifestyle and an art form, to play the mixing desk as you would the piano. It is inspiring for me to try to play the studio as if it was an instrument.”
Frahm’s work is also about stamina. “There is no idleness,” he says, and he mentions one of his heroes, the saxophone player Roland Kirk. “He reminds me of what I am trying to do these days. He moves me. He was a blind saxophone player who worked so hard on his craft. He found the limits of his instrument, but didn’t accept those limitations.
“On the saxophone there is a moment where you are out of breath and have to take a breath to keep playing, so he developed a technique of circular breathing, which was rare at that time. He then said that one saxophone wasn’t giving enough texture, so he learned how to play three saxophones at the same time, and played percussion with his feet. He was a physical phenomenon, so creative and so radical and full of ideas, so open-minded and such a big inspiration. He never accepted borders or fear. He went beyond.”