Berlin composer in conversation…

Clash recently went to Sweden, for the Way Out West festival. It was alright, likes. While in Gothenburg, we trekked across town in the absolute pissing rain to meet Berlin-based, Erased Tapes-signed, super-acclaimed composer Nils Frahm

We didn’t really have all that much of an agenda, so just talked in his hotel bar about scoring films, playing festivals and the problem with digital downloads. And some other stuff. Because it’s nice to meet people, isn’t it?

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Nils Frahm – ‘Toilet Brushes – More’ (from the album ‘Spaces’, live in London)

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On bringing electronic elements into classical composition…

“I’ve always worked with electronics, with my modular set-up. I just recently got some synthesizers working that I’ve always wanted to have – old ones, classic models. I love that stuff. Now I have the time to do it, and I’m working on some film music, too, it’s a good chance to try new sounds. Since I’m always working alone, it can get quite old, always using the same sounds. I have a style where it could get a little unexciting, if I’m not careful.

“I’ve always played with electronics – since before I was playing piano live. Nobody really knows about that. So I can still surprise people.

“I think if I only played a small banjo, but did so with technique, and skill, and love, and spirit, then people wouldn’t be bothered by the size of it. I think nowadays people have learned that there’s a craft to electronic music – otherwise, everyone would be able to do it, as it’s not like everyone doesn’t already use a computer. Doing something in real time, with electronics, has real value.

“When you think about Aphex Twin, he changed the world for so many people. He really sat in front of things, and turned numbers into music. And when you look at Jon Hopkins play live, he plays his Kaoss Pads almost like a piano. But there is a connection, I think. It’s wonderful that people use technology, but artists need to make it their own. That can be old technology, new technology – but if you surround it with your uniqueness, you can transform it into something completely new. Whenever that happens, it makes people excited.

“And if you’re just using Fruity Loops and standard beats, you’re never going to stand out. That’s depressing.”

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On playing festivals, where the crowd isn’t necessarily your crowd…

“First of all, I’m a musician and a composer – on the other, I’m touring, first because it’s fun and second because it’s my job. And when a festival pays good money, and tell me to do whatever I want to do, I’ll do whatever I want to do. But, I have a customer-pleasing attitude inside me, somewhere. I get paid to entertain. And I don’t really need to think about myself too much – I should think about the audience.

“I’ve been to festivals enough to know what it’s like to play on a Sunday, when everyone has been partying for two days already and now it’s raining. Whereas I know, too, how it is on a Friday, with the great weather. These are both festival slots but with very different atmospheres. They matter. You talk to the people, from the stage, and while talking to them you realise what potential connection you can have. I don’t need to go to the tents and introduce myself.

“I don’t think that festivals are always great places for music. They’re great places for having a great time. So, I take that into account. It’s not about the details – it’s more about creating a certain energy. People are kind enough to pay for my life, but they’re also kind enough to develop my act. They also put me on the spot. People ask me questions, and I reflect upon them.

“My first festivals, that I played, were interesting experiences. I soon realised what new material I needed. You go to the US, and they always want the louder electronic stuff, because the piano is too quiet. It’s total fun. And by doing that, by preparing material for festivals, I realised I wanted to do more with synthesizers. So these things are really motivating.”

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Of course I would like to do some quality Hollywood stuff, but I wouldn’t want to do some teenage vampire movie…

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On writing music for film, and what if Hollywood came calling…

“I’m working on something right now. I think it’s kind of okay to talk about – we didn’t sign a contract or anything. But I’m working on this small film in Berlin. It’s a one-shot movie, and it’s very improvised. We’ll set up my stuff and I will play to the big screen.

“There are always conversations [about me doing bigger films]. Creative people want to work with me, but they have executive producers who don’t know who I am, and just want reliable people. They don’t know where Berlin is, as there are all of these composers in Los Angeles already, and the Mafia. You know how it is with the Mafia – he gets this job. It doesn’t really matter what the director wants in Hollywood, unless you are Stanley Kubrick or someone like that, like the Coen Brothers.

“Of course I would like to do some quality Hollywood stuff, but I wouldn’t want to do some teenage vampire movie. I also don’t think I could even please them, with what I would offer. I’m into working on films when there is some real creative collaboration. If there’s no target – like, no pressure to make $200 million back. If you need to do that, don’t ask me to make the music.”

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On a follow-up to his last album, 2013’s ‘Spaces’…

“There are a lot of things going on. I think I have five or six potential albums right now. I’m sceptical about discussing release dates, but we’ll have to wait until the mixes are done and the test pressings are right.”

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On the ‘right’ format to listen to his (or any) music on…

“People pay good money to get albums on vinyl these days, more than CD copies. So it’s important for them to get it right. If the vinyl doesn’t sound as good as the MP3s even, then people will stop buying vinyl, and with good reason. I’m a vinyl lover… Maybe I’m too kind in this respect, but I want people who listen to my music that way to get the best from it.

“I buy a lot of old vinyl because it sounds amazing. Most new releases, they don’t sound as good. Some are horrible, totally unlistenable. You can play Frisbee with half of the vinyl releases that come out today. Oh sure, the cover looks good, but the quality is poor.

“Vinyl is a marketing tool. Labels love it these days. Five, six years ago, they didn’t care, and wouldn’t risk putting records out on vinyl. They would only ever barely recoup. Now, it’s the must-have item. Artists put their deliveries up on Instagram: ‘Oh, our vinyl has arrived.’ And then they Twitter that shit. You need something real in the world.

“[In terms of downloads], I delete anything that comes to me at 192khz or under. But people today don’t really know these numbers. I’m 31 and I know MP3 khz rates, but ask someone younger and they won’t. That’s fine, maybe they shouldn’t. The whole digital format war is still going on, with these various formats that only work on certain things. Like AltaVista fought against Yahoo, and now Google is the one player. We have to wait for the one player [in digital music]. MP3 is good to go, but all of this ‘remastered for iTunes stuff’, it’s just to bring those vinyl heads in, to buy what they have again. People don’t see ‘new’ though, they see ‘better’, because that’s how people think.”

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On a song, right now, that he doesn’t like, at all…

“‘Happy’ by Pharrell. I like him, he’s a good guy. But when I hear that song, it hurts. How ironic.”

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As told to Mike Diver
Photos: Michal O’Neal

‘Spaces’ is out now on Erased Tapes (review). Nils Frahm tours Australia in October and the US in November – check his website for those dates. UK tour dates, as follows:

24th – Tauron Nowa Muzyka, Poland

26th – Epic Studios, Norwich
27th – Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
28th – Royal Northern College Of Music, Manchester
29th – Barbican, London (sold out)

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