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Interview with Nils Frahm

img  Tobias Fischer

An outwardly inconspicuous apartment building in a grey and rainy Berlin-Wedding byroad. I ring the bell at “Frahm” and walk up three flights of stairs. The door’s ajar. As soon as I’ve entered, Nils appears from the preceding interview in his studio, smiling, shaking my hand, inviting me into the kitchen, promising coffee, disappearing again. While I wait for him to return, I notice how quiet it is here, the washing machine filled but not turned on, the muffled sound of conversation in the room next door, the strange, comforting silence of Berlin backyards trickling in through the half open window. After a quarter of an hour, Nils is back and his guest takes leave. We talk about his Pavoni coffee machine ("They’re great, but unpredictable. No two machines are exactly the same.") and where to get the best beans (DoubleEye in Schöneberg). The Pavoni drowns our conversation for a minute, enveloping Nils in a screaming cloud of hot steam, as he leans into the pressure lever as though he were trying to push the roast through a plate of metal. Then we get up, pass a big tape machine in the floor and are finally inside Durtonstudio, a small but airy space - half of it taken up by his piano - framed by a UFO-like structure at the rear wall housing analogue gear with giant nobs, and cables dangling from the wall in carefully arranged bundles. The coffee tastes great and sixty minutes of pre-arranged interview time quickly turn into one and a half hours - judging by his albums, many may expect Nils to be an introvert, but he actually loves talking about music, taking me from his early years at two Hamburg studios to his personal recording philosophy. I quickly give up on my meticulously prepared interview questions and surrender to the flow. Nils speaks at length about his passion for the art of great albums, his relentless drive to keep progressing, his ambition to create timeless art. There is a fifteen minute long passionate monologue about his disgust for commercialism and the pervasive trend to just copy others, culminating in a perplexing realisation: "The greatest challenge is how to grow old with your art."

Later, after the interview has ended, over fried egg rice in a tiny Vietnamese place near the now dark subway station, I imagine just that: A grey bearded Frahm sitting inside Durtonstudio as an eighty-year-old, still coaxing fresh sounds from these machines. It doesn’t seem odd at all.

Your first recording spaces were the Hammer Versteck Studios and the Börnsen studio. What were they like?
I was still going to school back then, so there wasn't much of a budget. The Börnsen studio was located at my dad's house, where we had a small attic. It was a cool room, located two stories above my parent's apartment in an old farm. Together with my friend Frederic, we constructed our own little world there and realised out first digital recordings. Before that, we'd used the cellars of some of our mates, where we'd jam, playing funk, jazz and whatever we felt like. And I'd record these sessions with a tapedeck. So it was a pretty big thing for me when Frederic arrived one day with a computer and told me we could use it for recording. Suddenly, there was this whole new world, everything sounded clear and great and just the way you'd know it from CDs! That's how I got into this recording thing. I started asking myself questions like: How does a sequencer work and what can you do with it? It was pretty much the best time of my life. Every day, I'd learn something new, learned how things worked. On the one hand, you'd marvel at yourself for these achievements. On the other hand, it demystified things to a degree, former mysteries reduced to nothing but a few small tweaks. After I'd gone through these experiences, I would never listen to music the same way.

The Hammer Versteck was also set up by Frederic and me and a mutual friend of ours. After finishing school, we moved to Hamburg and rented some pretty crazy rooms right beside the water. The name of the studio translates to "Hamm Hide-Away“ and it refers to the fact that it was located in Hamm, an industrial part of Hamburg and somewhat hard to find. It was situated in a basement. It was dark there, you'd walk through a pretty shady corridor, with water dripping from the ceiling. Then you'd open a metal door and there'd be the studio. It was always a bit damp in there and run-down. But it was exciting nonetheless, something was always happening. We were recording non-stop. This was three years before I moved to Berlin.

What's your take on the recordings you made during that time, which you released as Streichelfisch on the AtelierMusik label in 2005? They still sound great, but it's fairly obvious which plug-ins you were using.
You're right, you can hear the equipment we were using as well as the kind of music we were listening to: Matthew Herbert, Jazzanova. Also, it's clear from the music how limited sequencers were during that period. Today, almost everything sounds cinematic. But to arrive at those results back then … It's hard to imagine the things someone like Amon Tobin would do, the sheer work he'd invest in his productions! Most people could just about get a single loop done in those days.

For all of these reasons, I'm not exactly proud of the material we produced. Really, it was all about finding out what you could do with the equipment you had at your disposal. I would also start investigating how you could, for example, get a piano to sound great on a recording. Or how to make a recorded voice sound as incredible as Nina Simone's. I started playing the piano more and moved into a different musical direction, working with less cuts and very little editing. I gradually realised that things sound better if you don't cut them up, but instead record them in a single take. And I found out that this approach would yield results more quickly than spending three hours humanising a hihat track over a glass of red wine. It simply seemed more interesting to me to focus on the human aspect of music.

Regardless, however, I still listen to acoustic music with electronic ears. I still love electronic and experimental music and love treating acoustic music as though it were electronic and vice verse.

That seems only logical, since even your first acoustic recordings were after all sent through a lot of processing on the computer.
For a while, I simply did what worked. When recording the material for Streichelfisch, I started to consciously limit myself. When you're working as an electronic producer, you don't want all tracks to sound different. You want to find a sort of sonic signature. From time to time, you'll get things right and find just the sound you were looking for - but the moment you try to pick things up again, you just can't get back to it. In a bid of changing that, I allowed myself to be inspired by Matthew Herbert's manifesto of creating everything with your own hands. I wanted to find out if that would help me create a more coherent sound. So I began working exclusively with a Wurlitzer, a modular synthesizer and one or two effect devices … That's why Streichelfisch seems like a self-contained world. For the first time, I had the feeling as though I did not have to reinvent myself with each new piece.

I understood that you have to limit yourself in order to be creative. In itself this is not a particularly spectacular insight. Lots of other musicians have arrived at the same conclusion. But it has remained relevant for me to this day. Before I start working on an album, there needs to be an idea, a story. There are literally hours of beautiful piano music, all nicely archived in the vault. There's no need on my end to release this music, since these compositions are unrelated. Whereas, on an album like Felt, there's this unifying narrative with the muting of the piano, the hiss, this specific way of using the microphones. Unfortunately, there are very few albums – including those of well-known artists – which are more than just two hits and a bit of filler. As a positive example, take a work like Four Tet's Round. Everything on that record flows perfectly, it's like a concert, it's like a band or an orchestra playing.

So does producing mean keeping things simple and reducing complexity?
Not really. I keep being surprised about how many different layers you can include in a single piano take. Of course, since everything is analog and all elements correspond with each other, all of the effects I want to apply to the music can quickly be implemented manually. Every piece of equipment influences every other one in some form. And that's something I could never get done with plug-ins. If I put a digital delay on a looped, four-bar beat, the delay will simply repeat itself. But when I send the same loop through a billowing tape-delay, it will sounds slightly different on each cycle. So, in a way, this set-up is creating complexity without me having to force it. To me, this is just the way nature works: A wave on the beach, the symmetry of a tree, the symmetry of your face. The studio sounds different each day.

It's also a very personalised space. You even built some of the gear yourself.
I like to buy big, old pieces of equipment and will work on them with a soldering iron. It feels like working on an oldtimer: If something gets damaged, you simply build in a new part. Whereas, with a new car, if you can't find the identical part, you can throw away the entire thing. And of course, by working on these devices, I am personalising them. They'll sound like nothing else. Later, I'll combine them with other equipment built in a similar way. Like my piano which I've adjusted again and again over many years. That's nothing you could achieve by installing Ableton, loading a preset-reverb and using preset-samples.

You're closer to the actual music.
Yes, but even more importantly, I think you're more alert. Once you've patched everything up in here, you can't trust it to work. You'll have to continually check on things. With a computer, things either work or they don't. With analog equipment, there's this unique phenomenon of things almost working. And it's precisely this zone between the perfect and imperfect which interests me. Sometimes, a part within one of the machines will be broken and the music will sound distorted. But it will sound incredible at the same time! So that's why I'm a big fan of allowing coincidences. If you take this thing here (walking to a tape machine) … you have tape revolving inside of it and if I stop the tape, I can cause it to waver by moving my finger. I'm literally inside the music, this is my finger, my thumb. The music is moving through a body, through a brain, in real-time.

I've always been impressed by craftsmanship. My father used to take pictures with an old analog camera. He would stand somewhere, wait for two minutes until the image was finished and then he'd know, without looking into the visor, without looking if it was sharp, that everything was just the way he wanted it. What this means is that you don't even get the chance of obsessing over a track for ages. Once I've recorded something and think it's shit the next morning, I can either re-do it from scratch. Or I can do something else completely.

Why is this so important to you – not being able to go back?
Because if you're working on something for ages as an artist, you will come to hate your own music. You won't want to listen to it, no matter how perfect you made it to be. Simply because you had to fight for for years to get it right. To me, it's a lot better to stay in the flow. When I finish a piece, I don't even really know it myself. Some of my favourite jazz albums were recorded on two afternoons. And they probably mixed those in real-time as well. They just put up the microphones, recorded the music, cut it on the spot. And later, the artist would get the finished record, and he'd think: That's pretty cool, what did I play there? Let's see …

Also, if you have to pay 200 Euros for half an hour's worth of tape, you really need to twink twice before recording something. To me, it's not about the sound of a tape machine. If you have a high-end model, it will be almost indistinguishable from a digital one. What really matters is the workflow certain equipment suggests. What matters is not having too many parameters. My friend Lupo, who works at Dubplates and Mastering, likes to talk about the phenomenon of "contemporary parametritis". What he means is that devices these days tend to have a thousand knobs and you'll turn them and nothing will happen. If I take one of these, however (pointing to an analog device), you have just one or two big knobs, but they'll have the most insane effect … you can make it sound completely normal, or you can make it sound fucked-up or crazy. To me, that's wonderful.

Your music certainly sounds pretty organic thanks to this approach.
My albums have rough edges. I have a very clearly defined concept of where to make a cut and where not to. And I think more people should start thinking about that, too. To me, it doesn't seem right if the drummer plays a take in the studio and even before you've started working as an engineer, your protools assistant will already place the drum beat on the click, so it sounds tight. That's simply the way it's done these days and it has created a mood where every one's afraid of doing things differently. Whereas I may like the first, unedited take, just the way it was performed in the moment. Or at least I find it horrible if people don't think these things through and simply take them for granted. You need to stay alert, you need to do things consciously.

Unfortunately, a lot of the popular music produced today is simply uninteresting, it gets squeezed through a computer and when it's spat out on the other end, it doesn't have anything human about it anymore. And strangely enough, it all sounds the same. Which is why I feel a strong affection for the times when none of this was possible, when you didn't have a fucking machine erasing all the differences. When you look at contemporary mastering, it's pretty much the same problem. Originally, mastering was only about adjusting the frequencies of your recording so it would sound good on vinyl. Today, you enter the mastering studio with a dynamic and powerful sounding mix and you leave with a product which is exactly the same as what everybody else has. Every bassdrum, every kick, every hihat sounds the same on the radio after it's been mastered.

It's not about liking or disliking a particular kind of music. It's perfectly okay to hate one of my pieces. But at least, when you're looking for something genuinely new, it'll be there, waiting for you. When was the last time someone mustered the courage to compose an eighteen minute track and master it really quietly? It won't sound great on an iPod and it will sound shit on YouTube and maybe I'll even have to leave my sofa and turn up the volume on my stereo. But who cares! What I am looking for is a catalogue of music which you can still listen to in twenty to thirty years and which you don't have to feel ashamed for. That's why I am constantly looking for possibilities of including something 'innovative', something that won't sound dated in a few years.

A while back, beatport selected the one hundred best dub tracks. And someone cut out the breaks from all of these pieces and edited them together. Amazingly, they were almost identical. There's this huge fear of standing out. As soon as someone scores a hit with a track, it's instantly copied and no one bothers to add anything personal to it. For me, this is one of the reasons why I have lost interest to a degree when it comes to electronic music. At least in the old days, experimentation and a sense of pioneering were always part of the equation – partly because you had to be a nerd to make things work, to synchronise a synth with a sequencer. Today, your song is already half-finished as soon as you open your preset-window. And although that may reduce the work load, the result is mostly boring. Most of what's played in the clubs no longer has a face of its own. And almost nothing will make you think about new concepts or re-think your existing ones.

I wish I could do more in this regard. Unfortunately, I don't sing or write lyrics. But what I can do is to create a kind of music that will make people realise truths about themselves. You can close your eyes and by looking inward, you'll discover things you didn't know about yourself.

Ultimately, our bodies are unique, we are unique combinations of talents and mistakes. I want to find out what I can do with these talents and mistakes and how I can use them to create something special. And to me, every success, no matter how big or small, is a reason to feel happy.

Nils Frahm interview by Tobias Fischer
Nils Frahm portrait photo by Michal O'Neal
Durton Studio photos by Alexander Schneider

If you enjoyed this interview with Nils Frahm, why not check out an earlier interview with him about the recording of his album Spaces?

Homepage: Nils Frahm
Homepage: Erased Tapes Records