Nils Frahm: Just don’t call his music ‘chill-out’
German pianist and composer is a true crossover artist, creating haunting scores via grand piano and genre-pushing ambient and electronic works
Nils Frahm: ‘I became such a strong musician over the last decade because I played for people and didn’t just sit in the studio’
The pianist and composer Nils Frahm doesn’t describe his craft like many other musicians.
“Imagine a crystal, perfectly symmetrical, next to a pile of dried leaves,” he says, as I dutifully close my eyes. “If you walk through the forest and everything is random and green but inside that forest you see a diamond; something in our brains is really attracted to that. As human beings, we detect symmetrical things. I think this is why I make the music that I make; I’m walking through a pile of bright cosmic dust, trying to make symmetrical diamonds out of it.”
Written down, this might seem like the patter you’d get off someone in Arcadia trying to sell you wind chimes out of a battered pram, but coming from the Hamburg-born Berlin resident, it doesn’t seem quite so fizzily demented.
At 35 years old, Frahm is a rare example of a true crossover artist, one who crafts plaintive, spare and haunting scores via grand piano, and genre-pushing ambient and electronic works, with a dazzling array of synths and drum machines.
His work has proved particularly popular with that intangible demographic quadrant that was once termed – with the sort of light innuendo that stopped 1990s broadsheet scolds from asking too many questions – the “post-rave” crowd.
Now, as the mass media-led culture of radio-approved playlists has given way to Spotify and YouTube playlists of downtempo quasi-classical works, artists that once carried the “chill-out” designation are being flocked to his work, and that of other neo-classicists like Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Johan Johansson and Dustin O’Halloran, in droves.
Though releasing music since 2005’s Streichelfisch, Frahm broke through with 2011’s Felt, and cemented his position with 2013’s Spaces, on London’s go-to stable for unapologetically beautiful and challenging classical works Erased Tapes. The latter LP featured standout pieces like the propulsive Hammers, and the utterly anthemic Says, a heady swirl of nectar-tipped arpeggiated synths, that unwinds in a coil of near-intolerable delicacy. It speaks to the breadth of Frahm’s appeal that the two occasions I’ve seen Says performed live – at the Royal Albert Hall and in a Roman coliseum at Croatian electronica festival Dimensions – it seemed perfectly at home in both.
He has since released several compilation albums, two film scores, a collaborative project with the aforementioned Olafur Arnalds, and an album with his decidedly dancier side-project Nonkeen.
In conversation, Frahm is passionately earnest, but not pompous or worthy. Peppering his soft-spoken speech with self-deprecation and intriguingly baroque turns of phrase, he also shows a willingness to puncture myths about himself, such as when I inquire whether his fondness for performing wearing only one shoe has its roots in some fanciful superstition I can reveal to the world.
“Um, no,” he laughs, “that was to make it easier for me to use a pedal. I’m not a voodoo guy. I can sometimes come across a little crazy, but I’m actually pretty pragmatic”.
Much of this pragmatism has recently been directed at building his studio, a process which appears to have been exhaustive, to say the least.
The best situation for a musician is to play for people because it makes you give everything. You find your home in that music
“I’m pretty single-minded about sounds and production techniques, so it was a bit of a tough half year,” he says of the enterprise. “There wasn’t a lot of music; just construction, planning, buying shit. Fortunately, everything worked out in time and I was able to return to writing the album”.
His new album All Melody may speak to the efficacy of those labours. While its name might recall the slightly beige background music so beloved of YouTube compilations titled “Best Lo-Fi Chill Out Anime Rhythms to Study & Nap to Part 16 (4 Hours, 2015)”, this is a rich, multi-layered record, one that teems with knotty textures and hidden depths.
“I wanted it to be more like a difficult album,” he says, “but I also wanted to kill the dragon in the end. I’m happy people have noticed how much hard work and detail it has but, also, spontaneity; it’s not super-styled and polished. Achieving that was the hardest part, the thing I wanted not to miss”.
Tantalising artefacts are to be found everywhere on All Melody, buried deep beneath the imposing, chanted grandeur of Momentum, and the grinding, accelerant punch of Sunson. Some songs have the uncanny sense of being scores to imaginary films, like album standout Human Range which, with its echoey choral refrain, and horns pitched toward whale song, would perfectly soundtrack a noir flick about an underwater private investigator.
“Music doesn’t really trigger images for me,” he says, although I fancy he’s deeply upset he won’t be sharing in the profits of my aquatic gumshoe franchise. “I don’t have any synaesthesia with it, but it triggers a whole suite of other feelings. Music is a little bit like architecture; if you want a roof, you need things underneath it. Music has a similar physics – certain intervals create a nice symmetrical shape, and other tones create random shapes that look like nothing”.
“Whatever I think is beautiful, I will formulate out of the white noise all the possible notes combined. All the sounds are there as the starting point, and then I cut everything out like a sculptor until, in the end, you’re just left with these things that seem like diamonds; things you want to keep”.
But the things he cuts are not, he says, those which might be unsettling or difficult for people to hear, leaving audiences with frictionless “chill-out” soundscapes. “I don’t really like to hear my music referred to as music for escapists,” he says, “just for listeners who dream themselves into a more pretty world. I don’t want to be that guy who cuts out the salt and bitterness just to leave people with sugar, I think this is not to be confused with my work.”
His music, nevertheless, strikes a chord with people who see its emotional expression as deeply cathartic. His Dimensions performance, viewable in full on YouTube, is notable for showing no small amount of trendy young techno fans in shut-eyed admiration, with one or two appearing to cry. Why does he think his music has the ability to draw fluid from such unexpected ducts?
“I think the question is what does crying really mean,” he replies, “why do we need it at all? I think it always has something to do with imagination. People get reminded of something, and that gets released. They’re just being for a little moment, and in that moment they allow themselves to do that. It is also, I think, our wish to cry because we do it too little.”
Having finished his album, he’s mainly delighted that he’s now able to play live more often, after too long a break in dampening the cheeks of tender youths. “I’m there for my fans now,” he says. “I had two years where I was really there for myself and for my family and friends. For my own sake, I was trying to be very regular, a normal person doing a normal job and now I handed myself over to the public and that’s also great. We basically have touring possibilities for about 20 months now and we’re just starting that adventure now.”
Was the transition back to performing jarring? “Well, for the first couple of night it was a bit strange,” he says. “I basically didn’t have an adrenaline rush for two years. Before the first show, I couldn’t do the whole set in one go. It was too long and too complicated and I had to make breaks and worried ‘did I age a little bit too much?’. I hoped I could make it through just one night without needing a break or a sleep or a cigarette or whatever, but then when the first show came and the adrenaline arrived, I did the set three times as good as I ever rehearsed.”
“I became such a strong musician over the last decade because I played for people and didn’t just sit in the studio; the best situation for a musician is to play for people because it makes you give everything. You find your home in that music, but I’m not making a home for myself, that’s the wrong formulation. I’m making it for everybody who wants to be here, and luckily it’s not a home that will become too packed once more people come inside”.
Nils Frahm plays the NCH, Dublin on February 26th. nch.ie