As a child, Nils Frahm inspired the other boys to drop their plastic guns by showing them how to make sparks rubbing stones together – it is that same pioneering spirit which keeps the German composer at the forefront of the neo-classical genre that he first brought to the mainstream.
Even though he has now fulfilled his lifelong dream of creating the perfect, bespoke studio at Berlin’s former GDR broadcast centre, he can’t stop pushing his mental and physical boundaries. Here we talk with him about the inner process that allows him to keep forging deep bonds with his global audience.
Nils Frahm will do anything for his music. Whatever it takes, no matter how impossible it might seem, he’ll do it. If his piano doesn’t sound quite right, he’ll fix it with his own hands. Better yet, he’ll just build a new one. (He’ll even teach you how to build one, too; the instructions are in his second book of sheet music). The compositions from his last album, All Melody, won’t work in a live setting? No problem, he’ll spend six months rewriting them. A friend wants to construct the world’s tallest piano? Great, he’ll get to work raising funds for the project. His home studio is no longer cutting it? Fine, he’ll design and build a bespoke recording space in Berlin. No one is more committed to sound than Nils Frahm – but ask him about it and he laughs as though his effort is the most normal thing in the world.
On the day that we meet at his studio space deep inside the belly of Berlin’s Funkhaus, the GDR-broadcast-centre-turned-concert-venue that overlooks the Spree, Nils, 36, is making a mixtape. It’s the second time I’ve interviewed him and he greets me like an old friend, alternating between rolling cigarettes, making coffee, and swapping out the CDs for the mix. His laptop whirrs with the effort and he apologises for the distraction. “I started uploading these mixes on Mixcloud and now I can’t stop it; everyone’s become addicted,” he says, pushing the CD drive closed. “They’re already bugging me on Facebook, like, ‘Where’s the mix?!’ Mostly I use music from old records, damaged vinyl from flea markets. They all sound really crackly and nice.”
Nils may be one of the world’s foremost contemporary classical pianists but he hasn’t lost his love of the simple things. A crackly vinyl. A strong coffee. An easy conversation. An effortless piano riff. For all its grandeur, even his new studio has an ease that is quintessentially Frahm: the small side room that we’re sitting in is panelled in warm wood, the chairs are minimalist, perhaps Scandinavian. The sink is makeshift, just a metal pail strung from the ceiling by a chain. An espresso machine, the room’s only extravagance, gleams on the counter. This side room connects the two main spaces of his studio: the small booth with custom-built mixing board and an impressive recording space with gloriously high ceilings and an array of pianos, from a harmonium to a Juno-60 keyboard and a sleek grand piano. In one corner atop a worn Persian-style rug are a stack of microphones and cables.
I started uploading these mixes on Mixcloud and now I can’t stop it; everyone’s become addicted.
The idea for this custom studio space had been ruminating with Nils for years. At the age of 13, he and his father, an architecture photographer and music lover, visited the studio of a family friend who was a sound engineer and theatre composer in Hamburg, where Nils grew up. “It was this impressive moment of a school kid feeling for the first time that you’ve found what you want to do in life, what you’ve been dreaming of,” he recalls. There’s a long pause as he contemplates this. “Maybe like when you’re a kid and you sit with the pilot in the cockpit of a plane and you realise you want to be a pilot. The studio was such an impressive space, full of dust and creativity. I wanted to know everything about it. I never forgot that; it’s been haunting me ever since.”
Nils has always been a builder of sorts: as a kid, he would collect the corks from wine bottles and turn them into boats, houses, skyscrapers, and even entire cities. As he got older, his attention turned to instruments, particularly the inner workings of the piano. “I have so many instruments in my studio that I end up re-working with different people. They are the jumping point for me because I end up wanting to know everything about their passion and what they think about the instruments. These conversations lead to making plans on how we could change things,” Nils explains. “Then we make a project out of it.” Most notably, Nils worked with instrument-maker David Klavins to construct the M450, a 15ft-tall piano that had been Klavins’ fantasy project for years. Nils declared 29 March as Piano Day, releasing his 2015 album Solo for free and asking for donations to help build Klavins’ dream piano. The finished product is, of course, staggering.
Buying a new instrument is a compulsive process for Nils. He brings it home. He takes it apart – down to the last screw – and teaches himself the intricacies. There are no secrets between him and his instruments. As he describes this process, he imitates the particular sounds: “puuuuhhhh” for a straight pipe-organ tone, “vooooo” for the vibrato effect created when he adds some extra holes and a magnet to the pipes. “Now the organ sounds like nothing else, just because of that little trick,” he says, concluding the lesson by lighting a cigarette. “I’m basically a little bit arrogant at not accepting that somebody else invented it right. There’s always something you can do.”
This obsessive quality is something Nils says he has always had. He laughs, suggesting that he would make the perfect knitter because he has the patience for these things. “I really like to vacuum,” he explains. “I like to clean the sink or my coffee machine… I want to do all kinds of different things: I want to have conversations, do photo shoots, help with the mixing and mastering, build things. I don’t want to just become the classical pianist who only plays and practises piano for the rest of my life, you know? I want to engage all my senses.”
The physical aspect of his work as a pianist – not only the dance-like movements inherent to his performance but the building of instruments and even the act of touching the keys – is central to his love of the medium but, he says, just one sense alone is worth nothing. “What I love about music so much is that it only completely blocks one sense, hearing, but you still have all your other four senses free for whatever you want to do with them,” Nils says. “I like that kind of art. The most fantastic art would be probably if all the senses were incorporated.” Another long pause before he cocks a sly grin. “But that is not called art… that is just called life.”
When Nils moved from Hamburg to Berlin in the early 2000s, he was still daydreaming of that perfect studio, like the one he visited as a boy. “I chose the city for a reason. Thirteen years ago, Berlin was very cheap. I found a small studio for €150 a month; I had very little money but I was making music every day. So Berlin has been a great place for me in that respect, but I always remembered my impressions from that studio in Hamburg and I couldn’t wait to challenge that.” And so he got to work. After contacting the owners of Funkhaus, he conducted the entire renovation process, from floor to ceiling. The renovations included the installation of new walls, refurbished electrical systems, new wooden floors, soundproofing, and the construction of a woodworking shop.
The Funkhaus space is the manifestation of his memory of that studio in Hamburg (“Maybe even a bit nicer!”) and now that it’s complete, he feels a bit wistful, like he has lost the dream he spent half his life working towards. The challenge for him remains, however, in the music. Now that Nils has built the perfect studio, he is feeling the pressure to live up to it. “The more unideal the framework is, the more you can do as a persona, as a human, to make it sound better,” he says. “Whereas here…” He trails off, unsure how to put it. It’s the only time he struggles to explain himself during our conversation. There’s near silence for a few seconds, just the whirr of the laptop between us. “What we don’t want is a record of the studio. We still want the record of me. It’s not easy to be satisfied here because you have the feeling that whatever you do in here could be perfect.”
He taps his cigarette to ash it, and through the quiet, it’s clear we’re thinking the same thing: that’s a lot of pressure. But he also seems happy – at peace with the way that All Melody, his highly anticipated album recorded here at Funkhaus and released by Erased Tapes, has turned out. After years spent honing a particular sound and putting out critically acclaimed albums, it seems hard to believe that this artist has any magic left to give. But All Melody is stunning in an almost entirely new way. For the first time (thanks to the new studio), his work welcomes new voices, like the chants of a 12-piece choir that drift in and out of the tracks like ghosts. The album also makes use of the space’s natural reverb chambers – just another example of how fruitful this studio has been.
When I’m on stage, I’m fighting. There’s a catharsis, a pure human struggle happening in front of people
It is a deeply collaborative album for Nils. On ‘Human Range’, all he contributes is a few effects and a little bass, providing the space for his friends to express themselves. It’s a beautiful reflection of the scope of sound and dynamics of the new set-up. Funkhaus also contributed to the album’s overall aura: Nils gave every collaborator a tour of the building, from its cavernous, incomparable main studio, to the stark sound chamber, and the light-filled hallways with views of the Spree outside. “For a musician to be in the main studio, it’s this feeling that this space was built just for the music,” Nils explains. “You feel like, ‘I’m so appreciated here.’ Just seeing this place, something changes. Hearing people play after they have walked around the building is just such a different experience from anything else.”
A few tracks on the album, such as ‘Sunson’ or ‘A Place’, could almost be dancefloor numbers in another world. ‘Fundamental Values’ brings in an unexpected smattering of trumpet riffs, the piece itself like a ticking clock at times. But still, the ease of Nils’ playing is a welcome familiarity in this new soundscape; the lightness of the melodies, the effortless narrative, the uniqueness of each tone. The sounds of the keys bouncing back up or the creak of his stool as he leans towards the piano are still audible.
It is these small details that give Nils’ sound its singularity. Nils muses that the nicest comments he receives about his music are that even if the listener closes their eyes, they can still tell that this is him playing – and this has always been a goal for him. As he puts it, if you start off wanting to sound like someone else, you’ll never be original. Sure, the hand-tweaked instruments or custom-built pianos help, but there is a distinctly Nils Frahm sound to Nils Frahm’s sound, something even he can’t quite put his finger on. “What is in there? Is it just calm piano pieces? No, there’s more. There’s also anger and aggression,” he says, rolling another cigarette. “I’m trying to tell a bigger story about being human. We can surely say that all pieces of music that last are truly human. I think my music is looking for what is lacking to describe the human soul – or to describe my soul.”
I don’t want to just become the classical pianist who only plays and practices piano for the rest of my life, you know? I want to engage all my senses
This fearlessness about baring his heart has been central to Nils carving out a niche for himself. Back in 2005 when his debut album, Streichelfisch, came out, he was one of the only young pianists actively releasing albums. He relates the experience through an odd but apt childhood analogy: when Nils was a kid, all his friends were playing with toy guns that let off tiny explosions. No one would let him try out their weapons, so he sat down with a couple of stones and knocked them together to make small sparks. “They had the stupid guns and I had my stones. Five minutes later, the guns were forgotten and everybody was kneeling down with me and hitting stones together,” he says, laughing at the memory. “And so maybe this is what I achieve with my music: hopefully an inspiration for others to also hit stones together.” And he certainly has. Nils has been one of the architects of a new wave of classical artists, one of the first contemporary artists to bring piano music to a wider and younger audience. He continues to explore what others have forgotten or dismissed (like the harmonium, for example), setting the pace for a genre that has been dubbed neo-classical and which is thriving. What was the stone has become the gun.
I’m left wondering if Nils will move on to something new. While he insists he is content in the world he has helped build, he is still seeking new challenges. Since the release of All Melody in January 2018, this has come in the form of live performances. Because of the album’s collaborative nature, he needed to spend a couple of months reinventing the tracks before the accompanying solo world tour. Nils kicked off the dates with four sold-out concerts at Funkhaus when the album launched and since then, the tour has included a range of sold-out events in Europe, Australia, North America and parts of Asia. It is scheduled to continue until at least April 2019. And true to form, Nils has been intent on pushing himself to the limit with the tour. “I at least have to suffer physically by making sure that I’m not lazy about any of this,” he explains of his strenuous schedule and complicated live set-up. He tires easily of musicians with their songs on backing tapes. “The success I’m having is built on passion and discipline and on courage, of course, but it’s also built on the fact that I’m risking so much with my set-up. No artist in my league would really like to take these risks to their instruments without a back-up plan or a computer. When I’m on stage, I’m fighting. There’s a catharsis, a pure human struggle happening in front of people. And this energy exchange is always part of a great concert.” For all the risk, he’s not worried. After all, for Nils Frahm, the fight is half the battle.
Keep up to date with Nils Frahm’s live dates and releases at his website.