Nils Frahm is a German musician currently releasing on Londonbased label Erased Tapes. Having learned the piano from a former student of the last scholar of Tchaikovsky, he took to the piano from an early age, but his first releases were more electronically inclined. After putting out music on Kning Disk, Sonic Pieces and AtelierMusik, Frahm joined Erased Tapes in 2009, re-releasing his Wintermusik EP in 2009 before more classical material in the form of Unter/Ãœber (2010) and Felt (2011).

There is little difference between traditional classical music and what some journos like to call ‘modern classical’, except that it represents a convergence of a number of different musical sensibilities, including classical, ambient and electronic. Frahm is a good example of someone who shirks such definitions in favour of what works best. Felt is a delicate, hushed record in which background noises like the mechanics of the piano and the breathing of the musician become just as important as the notes themselves.

Filling his time and supplementing his income through Berlin’s Durton Studio, where he works with likeminded people on mixing, mastering and collaborations, Frahm comes across as a committed and passionate workaholic who lives and breathes music.

What have you been up to recently?

I had a bit of a holiday break during Christmas and New Year. 2011 was pretty massive for me. Most people probably don’t know that my main job is working in the studio, mastering and mixing and all of that, so that is usually pretty time-consuming, but on top of that lately I’ve started playing more live shows – 80 or 90 a year. I’m also getting some collaborations ready for release – 7-inches, 10-inches, all kinds of stuff.

How did the European tour go late last year?

That was my best so far I think. It was not exceptionally long – I think it was only 13 dates – but most of the venues were sold out and I was headlining the whole tour, which is also not common because I’m used to playing support. It was nice to realise it has all been worthwhile.

Let’s talk about your latest album Felt. Did you cover your piano strings in felt just to keep the neighbours happy?

Obviously it wasn’t just for the good of the neighbours. I just really, really liked the atmosphere of that particular sound, and I did a lot of experimentation with microphones – what to use and how to get that particular sound for my piano. It is also me trying to get the best out of a pretty standard piano. I felt like I should try and get a unique sound out of it, maybe something that might inspire people in a different way, to think of the instrument differently. Also, probably to try to make some kind of a statement. My last record The Bells was pretty epic at times and kind of extroverted, so I challenged myself to strip everything back and keep songs kind of spacious and fragile, not too composed but also not too messy.

How have you approached performing the material on Felt live? Because to me it feels like an album best experienced on headphones.

I don’t really think about it that much. I’ve done a lot of records so far and people should prepare to hear a mixture. I don’t really see why I should promote my album in the rock band kind of way – release the album, now we play the songs and one or two others from the old record and that’s it. I don’t really care about that rule, so live I play whatever I feel like that night, and whatever the piano and atmosphere inspire me to.

Do the majority of your ideas come from improvisation or are many pre-conceived, so to speak?

I think on this record maybe half of the songs are improvised takes, where I just set up all the microphones and played a little bit. I didn’t work really hard on the album. Sometimes I’d come home at night and not be tired, so I’d play for an hour and in the morning I’d search through the takes. Other songs were a little more work, like the last one ‘More’, which is a little more epic. It’s an adaptation of a piece I created in a live show once. People asked me about it so I thought it would be nice to put it on the album, so I worked a bit more in a composer manner on it. It was the same for the first piece ‘Keep’, but for example the second song is just improvisation, and other pieces too. Some came out of nothing and I decided to keep them like that. Others were a bit more developed.

Juno is noticeably different to your other releases. Do you have more plans to use electronics and synthesizers in your music?

Yeah, I mean I come from that music really. I did electronic music for most of my life, but most of it wasn’t released properly. It’s really something I have a lot of fun doing, but it’s limited I think. It’s not that acoustic music is superior in any way, but in the end it remains more rewarding and probably easier to create something people will enjoy listening to in 20 years, whereas electronic music maybe less so.

It is a little more efficient for me to use a piano for expressing something meaningful. The translation between yourself and what’s coming out of it is more immediate. Electronic music always has a brain component to it, which is interesting to work with but can also be a very time-consuming, frustrating process. You don’t really feel like you’ve nailed anything because it’s all open.

Erased Tapes strikes me as one of the best labels to be releasing your music. How did you get hooked up with them?

It was through Peter Broderick, who gave Robert from Erased Tapes Wintermusik and The Bells, which were already released on Sonic Pieces and Kning Disk back then. He really liked them and got in touch with me and offered me this complicated deal for three albums. It all sounded very serious to me and I wasn’t sure if I should jump into something so ambitious. But Robert is successful because he never gives up. If he wants something, he gets it. I signed the contract and it was a good choice for sure.

Do you draw as much inspiration from traditional classical music as you do from more contemporary influences?

Right now, I think I get more out of old music, but it changes around a lot. I am grateful for all the contemporary music that is coming out, but I really like to catch up with the roots of music. I listen to a lot of music on ECM, because the level of quality that label has is amazing. It’s a big inspiration and a big influence, because they just release beautiful artwork and really thought-through projects. These days I’m really into old Vogue records too. I try to not just listen to the latest Pitchfork recommendations, let’s put it like that.

Are physical releases important to you?

A musician is always flattered to see an actual physical item which is an imprint of what he created. It may be a minor fact but it is an important one to me at least. When the postman comes and I open the package knowing that my vinyl is in there, I am obviously very excited. It’s a little more exciting than getting sent a link to the iTunes home page. You can’t see it, you can’t feel it and when you shut down your computer it is gone. It’s so much nicer to have something that ages in a real way. In 30 or 40 years, my records will be yellowish and rough, and they might be sold on the flea market. Somebody might play them and think, “That’s amazing – it’s from the beginning of the 21st century!”

Putting out vinyls is definitely a big motivation for me and always has been. Now that it happens on a pretty regular basis I feel very happy about it, but I try to not let it be more important than the music on the record. I feel there are musicians out there who are too much into gimmicky, special collectors, super special numbered… whatever. If the music isn’t as special as what people put around it then it becomes a gimmick.

Do you have any upcoming projects at Durton Studio that we should know about?

Plenty! I just finished an album for a singer songwriter called Grand Salvo, who releases on Preservation Records from Australia. That was a long process – it took about one and a half years. I also just finished working with Peter Broderick for about three years on his big new album for Bella Union, which is out this month. So that was exciting. I also do a lot of mastering. I finished Deaf Center’s Owl Splinters a couple of months ago. I do all the mastering for Sonic Pieces and Miasma.

In the next two months, I will also be working on an album with Anna Müller, a soundtrack that will also be a theatre piece, like a performance-oriented score. I’m working with F S Blumm on our second collaboration and just finished some mixes for a potential record with Ólafur Arnalds. I’m also working on the new Efterklang album.

That’s a lot of work.

[laughs] Sometimes I don’t have time to sleep!

nilsfrahm.de

Interview by Sam Walby.