THE GUARDIAN Interview
‘The music I play inspires my life’
German musician Nils Frahm is bringing his neo-classical music to London, writes Rachel Wakefield.
Look how happy Nils Frahm is on the cover of The Bells – his second album released this week in the UK. The German pianist has a lot to smile about, “I feel that I have the great luck to be surrounded by some of the brightest and nicest human beings on earth.”
This happy quality shines through our interview as he explains his love for the piano. ”It’s a magical instrument; and I’ve loved it from the beginning.”
Nils’ love for the piano began, “as soon as my hands could reach the keyboard, I started wracking my parents’ nerves.”
Growing up in an old farmhouse near Hamburg, Nils had the good fortune to be taught by Nahum Brodski – a student of the last scholar of Tschaikowsky .
“My teacher was a very strict and humble person. He played big shows in Russia during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but then he had to leave his country for political reasons. Accidentally, he ended up in our small town and my father discovered him by chance.
“I think I became his favourite student and he tried to make a classical pianist out of me. He didn’t succeed. I learned more about jazz afterwards and started playing in bands.”
And that is how it would have stayed, if he hadn’t been discovered by alternative, acoustic folk musician Peter Broderick.
“Meeting Peter has changed my life a lot,” enthuses Nils. “Before him I was not connected to a musical scene at all. I played the same music and worked already as a session musician, but I never considered playing live shows or solo piano. The piano was a very private thing to me. I was working in a studio, recording and writing music. Playing piano was more of a little side project really. It was amazing to hear from a gifted guy like Peter that I should release my piano work. Until that point I had little confidence in my music. Without him my life would be very different.”
And, so it was with Peter’s enthusiasm and support, the pair collaborated on recording Nils’ piano improvisations on a Bösendorfer Imperial D piano for this album, The Bells.
“We rented this wonderful, old church in Berlin called Grunewald for two days,” explains Nils. “And the only thing I knew was that in those two days I needed to record all the material. So it was kind of thrilling. The atmosphere in this location was incredible. We recorded only at night. The acoustics and the place itself added a pretty serious and sacral atmosphere to the recordings. I left the church with five-and-a-half hours worth of music and started to select some bits with Peter’s help. The collection of these became The Bells album.”
It’s a beautiful thing and a great starter for overcoming any prejudices you may have about classical music. It’s not bland, it’s not aural wallpaper, and it’s definitely not hard to listen to. All you need to do is shut your eyes and listen.
“Hopefully I can take people away on a little musical journey, or a journey inside,” explains the 28-year-old, neo-classical composer about his music. “After shows people tell me that listening to my sets is like travelling. I like that and I hope that I can repeat the trick also here in London.
“My aim is to improvise from the album as much as possible. You never get stuck when you improvise, it is just important to keep yourself entertained and in a joyful mood.”
And when I ask him what inspires him musically, his happy feelings start shining through again. “I think the life I am living inspires my music the most; and the music I play inspires my life. I am a lucky fella.”
Nils Frahm with Simon Scott (ex drummer of Slowdive) at the Union Chapel, Compton Avenue, Islington on Saturday, May 22. Nils Frahm with Heather Woods Broderick at Café Oto, Ashwin Street, Dalston, on Tuesday, May 25.
Q&A WITH NILS FRAHM
Q: What is your motivation behind your tour and what do you hope the audience will experience?
NF: Hopefully I can take people away on a little musical journey, or a journey inside. After shows people tell me that listening to my sets is like travelling. I like that and I hope that I can repeat the trick also at my London shows. Also my wonderful label Erased Tapes is based in London, which makes the city a special place to perform in. They actually added a third concert at Café Oto for the 25th, so people who are interested in seeing my show have to decide which venue they prefer. The show on the 27th is already sold out I think.
Q:You will be performing with Simon Scott on May 22 and with Jóhann Jóhannsson & Greg Haines on May 27. Can you provide me with a little background as to how you met these esteemed musicians and what you like about their work?
NF: I haven’t met Jóhann Jóhannsson yet but I love his music. I admire his genuine compositions and his overall aesthetic. Simon Scott and me already worked together on a 7”, which will come out on the Sonic Pieces label at the end of the year. I have seen a few shows of his and he makes some of the best drone music I’ve heard so far. He’s a really gifted and talented musician. Greg Haines is also a good friend. He actually lives in my room while I am on tour right now. So you could say that we know each another. His recent album Until The Point Of Hushed Support is undoubtedly a masterpiece. I can’t believe how good it is. I get so inspired by the music of my friends. I am a lucky fella.
Q:How did you go about deciding on which work to use for these series of concerts?
NF: I usually make up my mind before I go on stage and try not to think about the show too much. My aim is to improvise the set as much as possible. Sometimes it is really easy to do that, and I am able to develop new material only for this one night. At other times I end up playing more songs from my two recorded albums. Usually it is a mix of both.
Q: Performing for a UK audience or performing for a European audience – what’s the difference for you?
NF: I wish I had more experience, but from what I have seen so far every night is different. It is not so much about the country you are playing in, but more about the vibe of the venue. I think that people in the UK are a little more outgoing and interactive than most of the European crowds.
Q: Can you explain the story behind The Bells and your collaboration with Peter Broderick?
NF: Peter became my closest friend over the last year and meeting him has changed my life a lot. Before him I was not connected to a musical scene at all. I played the same music and worked already as a musician, but I never considered playing live shows or solo piano. The piano was a very private thing to me. I was working in a studio, recording and writing music. Playing piano was more of a little side project really. It was amazing to hear from a gifted guy like Peter that I should release my piano work. Until that point I had little confidence in my music. Without Peter my life would be very different and I am so thankful for all his help and support.
Working on The Bells was indeed really different from working on Wintermusik[Nils Frahm’s debut album]. Before we started I talked to Peter Broderick, who produced the album, about a possible approach. And finally we rented this old, wonderful church in Berlin for two days and the only thing I knew was that in these two days I needed to record all the material. One rule of Kning Disk’s Piano Series (the album was first released by Kning Disk in Sweden and is now part of Erased Tapes’ catalogue for the UK, Ireland and North America) is to not add or edit the recorded piano material. So it was kind of thrilling. The atmosphere in this location was incredible. We recorded only at night. The acoustics and the place itself added a pretty serious and sacral atmosphere to the recordings. I left the church with a few hours worth of music and started to select some bits with Peter’s help. The collection of these bits became the album.
Q: Why did you choose the Grunewald Church as a venue for the recording of this album?
NF:This place just seemed incredibly special and nice sounding to me. And when I listen back to the recording with my eyes closed, I can travel back to that very place and relive the experience.
Q: What instrument did you use – was it the church’s own organ or did you bring in your own keyboard?
NF: Actually, the instrument I used was a grand piano – a Bösendorfer Imperial D.
Q:Can you tell me about any difficulties you had in recording the improvisations and how you overcame them?
NF: I can’t think of any major difficulties during the recording process. You never get stuck when you improvise, it is just important to keep yourself entertained and in a joyful mood. When you messed up a part or hit a wrong tone, you can’t just re-record it, because you just made it all up. Then you have to try something else and be able to let go of the previous take. I love this way of approaching a record, but I also like the process of writing pieces.
Q:How do you get overcome your nerves before a performance? Do you have a routine that gets you motivated?
NF:I have to say that I am nervous before every show I play. It is a nice feeling that I never want to overcome. Playing my music for an audience is the most personal and delicate thing. It is nerve wracking and wonderful and I try to take good care of it, so that it never becomes just a job or routine.
Q: Where do you rehearse?
NF: I have a piano at home, but also a rehearsal space with some amps and drum kits. I play with my friends there. It is fun to play loud music once in a while.
Q:How would you describe yourself as an artist?
NF: This is a hard question to answer… I guess I am an experienced musician who can produce interesting music. But I don’t know if that makes me an artist and I also don’t really know what it means. I follow my intuition in any aspect and this is all I can do and all I would like to say about that.
Q: Who inspired you to become a pianist?
NF: I think the piano itself. It is a magical instrument. And I loved it from the very beginning. I started to wrack my parents’ nerves as soon as my hands could reach the keyboard.
Q: How long did it take you to master the piano? And what is the highest grade you achieved?
NF: I don’t know much about grades, but I basically studied my whole life. I had lessons for about 9 years, which helped me a lot.
Q: Your biography states you were taught by Nahum Brodski – a student of the last scholar of Tschaikowski – can you provide me with some background as to how you caught the ear of this teacher and became his student?
NF: My teacher was a very strict and humble person. He played big shows in Russia during the 60s and 70s, but then he had to leave his country for political reasons. Accidently he ended up in the small town I grew up in and my father discovered him by chance. So it was big luck. I think I became his favourite student and he tried to make a classical pianist out of me. He didn’t succeed. I learned more about jazz afterwards and started playing in bands.
Q: What other instruments do you play?
NF: Not too many, I worked on electronic music for quite a while and learned that every item can be used as an instrument. But I never mastered any other instruments.
Q: What inspires you musically?
NF: I think the life I am living inspires my music the most and the music I play inspires my life. It is hard to tell where music comes from. You might say partly from listening to music. Here is a list of musicians who have a big influence on me: Arvo Pärt, Chopin, Satie, Valentin Silvestrov, Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Moondog, John Surman, David Darling, Bill Evans, Philipp Glass. But also more contemporary artists like: Peter Broderick, Greg Haines, Dustin O Halloran, Machinefabriek, Heather Woods Broderick, John Convertino, F.S. Blumm.
Q: What’s your favourite piece to perform on stage?
NF: Right now I am working on a pattern piece, which has no title yet. I perform it every night right now and it is very satisfying to play this piece. It puts me in this meditative mindset. I will try to record a version of it for my next album.
Q: What’s your favourite piece to relax and play at home?
NF: I play sheet music from all kinds of composers. I think Bach pieces are my favourites, but the easier ones. I also like to play jazz standards.
Q:Can you provide me with some background information about yourself?
NF: My father works as a photographer and my mother as a family councillor. I grew up in an old farmhouse near Hamburg. My mother plays the piano and so did my father. They were both into music and art, and I had the great opportunity to go through their wonderful record collection whenever I wanted to. My brother played the flute for a while but he didn’t keep it up. I always knew that I wanted to be a musician and it is so fulfilling to be able to make a living with that now. My parents are very happy although not too surprised by my ‘success’. They always had confidence that I would be able to work as a musician. So I grew up in Hamburg but I moved to Berlin four years ago and I love this city. It is a wonderful place for all kinds of artists I guess, because the rents are cheap and every day new amazing people join the city. It feels like an El Dorado for art.
Q: After these concerts in May, what’s next for you?
NF: I am looking forward to recording my next album on Erased Tapes. I am so excited to be on this label, it’s an honour to be represented by them. Also I will release two collaboration records this year and work in the studio together with bands like Deaf Center and Grand Salvo. In autumn I will be on a European tour with Rachel Grimes, which is a huge honour as well. She just released a wonderful solo piano record called Book Of Leaves. I am also a big fan of Rachel’s.
Q: If your life was a musical note what would it be?
Q: If you were shipwrecked on a desert island which one composer’s work would you like to have to keep you company?
Q: What was the first album you ever bought?
NF: The Offspring (haha)
Q: What’s on your iPod at the moment?
NF: Too much I would say, but I love the solo piano record from the composer and pianist Valentin Silvestrov.
Q: Can you tell me about the best concert you’ve ever seen?
NF: I have seen Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in Baden-Baden a few years ago and I had goose bumps over and over… maybe my favourite piece of all times.
Q: Who’s your favourite musician – and why?
NF: I have so many, it never feels right to make a top list of artists. One day I think ‘this guy’ is the best musician the next day I feel that ‘she’ has written the most beautiful song…
Q: Who’s your favourite author – and why?
NF: I am in love with Siri Hustvedt’s book What I loved.
Q: What electrical item couldn’t you live without?
NF: I wouldn’t like to live without my studio. Recording music needs power and I hope that they will never cut it off.
Q: What was your favourite lesson at school?
Q: What did you learn at school outside the classroom?
NF: That it is not always easy to make good friends.
Q: Where are you most happy?
NF: Sitting at the piano? Nooooo, in my bed I would say.
Q: How would your friends describe you?
NF: Some say I am patient, but I am not. I feel that I mellow out a bit and I have the great luck to be surrounded by some of the brightest and nicest human beings on earth. They say I am a loving person.