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Portrait: Nils Frahm

Portrait: Nils Frahm - Contemporary document

Published 11:01 am on Thursday 25th February 2021 by Beat Magazine

Beat / How are you? Has the current year hit you hard?

Nils / That‘s not an easy answer, but I think everyone is a bit surprised and irritated. I am trying to get used to the new normal. It is particularly regrettable that we as cultural workers are not “systemically relevant” in Germany. I think it‘s all very bad not only for professional reasons, but also for interpersonal aspects. It will lead to oversupply and increased competition. As an established artist, I‘m definitely not the first to throw in the towel. What is much worse is that artists who start over now have no chance at all.

Beat / Does the situation affect your further planning?

Nils / My agenda is currently empty and I‘m afraid that the concert situation won’t normalize the next three years. I can only recommend everyone not to be fooled by this. That‘s why I had to make the decision to give my team the opportunity to look for other jobs - even though I actually had very good offers for this and the next year. I no longer have any employees and everyone has to start from scratch. And I have to reckon with the fact that many of them might have changed fields when the situation has normalized. Maybe it is also time for me to learn something new.

Beat / At least you have the option to record albums.

Nils / Yes, but I always wanted to be an inspiration. And that includes doing things that seem difficult. For example, saying goodbye to the dream that we can all be rock stars. If I succeed in showing a new path, it may also be easier for others to gain distance. I‘ve always wanted to infect people, to be brave and curious and do things differently.

Beat / So your live album is sort of a relic from another time. How did it come about?

Nils / I think it‘s clever to document your tours, regardless of whether you use it later or not. So we recorded all the concerts in audio form, because you never know beforehand if there won‘t be the perfect evening when everything works out. There are a few concert documents on the internet from different times in my career. These were works by public television companies or people with whom we have nothing to do directly. However, since something - whether light, mix, camera or sound - was always not perfect, there was a longstanding desire to produce something ourselves. A hybrid of film and documentary. It should be aesthetically similar to my albums.

Beat / There were no video recordings on the whole tour?

Nils / No, we only did that at the Funkhaus concerts. Concerning audio, we also decided to use the Funkhaus recordings completely, because it is an amazing sounding place. Then we cut a film from four concerts, but you don‘t notice the cuts. It‘s practically one „more ideal“ concert .

Beat / Is the production of a live album as intense for you as a studio album or do you outsource a lot?

Nils / I mix everything myself and am also involved in mastering or color grading. But it‘s rather hard work, because it documents something you‘ve already done. And I find it more exhausting than making an album that is more of a step forward. A live document is about broadcasting a concert as naturally as possible and to create that impression you have to do a lot of mixing, cutting and fine-tuning. It was extremely exhausting and not easy for me.

Beat / Do you make a studio album more for yourself and a live album more for your audience?

Nils / You might think so, but I believe that it is also important for me to see such a recording later, when I am old - to understand what happened back then, because in your memory things change. So I would find it rather negligent not to do something like that from time to time and to record what my art is all about. Everything is very much convoluted in my work, from quiet pieces, solo piano to electronic pieces and collaborations. You can get confused easily. Unfortunately, when people asked me after a concert, which album sounds like the concert, I had to admit that there is nothing. So a live album like this is a very good idea. In addition, I don‘t make a studio album so that I can listen to it again and again later. When I mix a live album, I know the pieces by heart, and then having to listen to them over and over again is hard. It‘s like photoshopping a pimple off your face . But it would also be impossible for me to let someone else do it.

Beat / Nice comparison. How is the proportion of mere reproduction and spontaneity in your shows?

Nils / I am quite spontaneous as a person. Machines, on the other hand, would have to be reprogrammed first. Since many parts are synchronized via sequencers, there are parts of the concert that are the same every day thanks to the computer that provides the beat. When a tempo feels perfect, I don‘t change it anymore. The same goes for the keys. And then I just fill in the remaining elements. It can be compared to the freedom of a jazz pianist in a trio who do not improvise freely but stick to certain forms. Then a piece takes seven, ten or twelve minutes. It‘s comparable to speaking. If I don‘t want to learn a text by heart, I read it once and memorize what it says in terms of content and retell it in my own words. This is much easier for me than learning the text by heart.

Beat / What does your - visually stunning looking - live setup include in detail?

Nils / There are two central workplaces - a small upright piano and a grand piano. For me, an upright piano is a completely different instrument than a grand piano and is also microphoned differently. It has a felty, soft, matte sound. The grand piano, on the other hand, I leave it as it is in the store. Except that we put in a pickup. An electromagnetic pickup similar to a humbucker that puts a lot of volume on the PA, because otherwise you can‘t beat drum machines and synthesizers. I would like to have everything at the same distance around me, but that is not possible with so many keyboards. Hence the idea with the double U-shape, because if I were completely surrounded by instruments, people would no longer see anything. There is also a Rhodes, a Mellotron, several Juno synthesizers and also various Roland items, as these are very stable and superbly processed. Other synthesizers, on the other hand, are better left in the studio because they keep breaking. The Mellotron, in particular, is not a good touring instrument. We had to rebuild and secure a lot so that I could play it every evening. In addition, I had a self-built pipe organ with me on the tour, which was midi-controllable. It partly ran with sequences and partly I played it live. Sometimes I controlled it like a drum machine so that you only hear the brief blowing noises. Like a percussion instrument. The drummachines themselves were classics like 808 or Vermona. In addition, there are five to six space echoes that ran along at various moments - partly via the auxes of the console and partly via the direct outs of the synths. This was done via an analog mixer with six outputs so that I can merge reverb and similar effects into complex effect matrices. I‘ve always been on the classic road - lots of buses and auxes and then screwing everything together.

Beat / Which sequencer do you use?

Nils / Cubase on a laptop. On it I have sequences that are like loops. I‘m sure you could do that well with Ableton Live, but I‘m already in another semester and didn‘t want to learn that anymore. Back then I learned Cubase on an old Atari. That‘s why I get along well with it.

Beat / Has it never crashed live?

Nils / Yes, there was once a problem, but it was more due to the computer than the program. Computers are of course always a plague and something slips out quickly or there is a cable break. But if necessary we would have a second computer nearby with the same setup.

Beat / Do you clear your studio for each show or do you have a separate live setup?

Nils / I have an extra live setup, but I don‘t have everything twice, because different devices of the same brand are still different and then I just want to play the better one anyway. When the whole live setup is on stage, the studio is a bit emptier, but not completely, because when I‘m not there other artists record in the studio and they still need power strips, microphones and cables. It has been a few years of effort to put these things together, to set them up and to pay them off. It was supposed to be an analog workflow, which is also versatile and reliable.

Beat / Do you rehearse before the shows in the classical sense?

Nils / Sure. You definitely have to practice, practice, practice. But it does happen that I suddenly write new songs when I‘m practicing alone or that I am comparing sounds. There are some complicated part changes where I have to press a lot of buttons at once, and it‘s worth being able to do that in your sleep, because if you can do that without thinking about it, you gain new space to be able to design things. This is why the later shows of a tour are more intuitive. Without rehearsals I would spend the whole time thinking about which button to press where.

Beat / How would you describe the magic of the Funkhaus compared to your previous studio?

Nils / I‘ve been there since 2016. My previous studio was my bedroom. It was a nice bedroom, but it didn‘t have balanced acoustics or any great advantages other than being able to fall from the workplace into bed. It is something special to work in the Funkhaus. From an acoustic point of view, these are impeccable rooms that have been designed with a lot of understanding and taste that one can only marvel. If I play a note here, it gives me a feeling of, „You can‘t hear it any better“. At home, on the other hand, as a sound engineer, I was constantly solving problems that arose from the unideal acoustics in the room. I tried to compensate it with good microphones and a particularly close miking and learned tricks on how to almost eliminate the room acoustics. But then you have to bring this back into the music with reverbs. Here in the Funkhaus, you simply slide the microphone a meter further away if you want it to be wetter. You would never record a voice with just 20 centimeters distance. You can put it a meter away, whereas at home I had to clamp it right in front of my lips.

Beat / Does that mean you don‘t have to add artificial reverb anymore?

Nils / I have to, because the reverb time here in the hall is only about 1.4 seconds and that is rather the area of early reflections. For the decay there is still a reverb chamber, which we have also connected. This has about 4 seconds of reverb and blends well with the room. Of course, there are also other effects devices.

Beat / When choosing concert halls for a tour, do you make sure that they have good acoustics?

Nils / I‘ll leave that to my team. My FOH engineer Terence Goodchild is so experienced that he can work well with halls that are not acoustically optimal. But we also have the option of adding some reverb in a dry room. It is more difficult the other way round. As a result, the staggering of dry and wet sounds gets somewhat lost in some rooms, since there is still two to three seconds of reverberation in addition to all signals. Therefore we try at least to make sure that we are not playing in a church with an extremely long reverb time.

Beat / You make very sophisticated, partly experimental music that you wouldn‘t necessarily locate in the mainstream. Nevertheless you reach a huge, broad audience. What‘s your secret of success?

Nils / I don‘t know. I am wondering myself why the attention is so focused on me. I think I take what I do very seriously and have always wanted to break new ground. Maybe my music has a greater imitation factor compared to pure pop music? I am like a catalyst for some people. At least I hear often that people have bought a piano for themselves because of my music and started composing. Often people have the impression that I‘m becoming one with the music and the instrument at the shows. And that‘s what they want to experience as well. As a result, some people watch my concerts twenty or thirty times. I take that as a compliment, but it could also be understood that what I do always looks so simple and natural. Maybe people think to play a few notes - I can do that too.

Beat / And? Is it really that simple?

Nils / Not to write the songs, but when you hear the music it might just seem easy. There are albums like “Screws” where I played with nine fingers because I broke my thumb. I also composed little lullabies. But it‘s not that easy to play pieces like this, because you have to feel them too. My piano teacher said to me back then: I couldn‘t play Satie, but I could play Chopin. Chopin looked a lot more difficult to me technically. But he was right, because when you tell a kid to play Erik Satie it sounds like a cheap composition, but if you play those few notes with feeling, it‘s wonderful music. This makes it look simple on the outside, but it also contains an infinite difficulty inside. I like to deal with that, even if I can never finish it. But I still try to write simpler music.

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