Before his brilliant show at St John-at-Hackney Church a few weeks back, I caught up with Berlin-based pianist Nils Frahm to ask him about his creative process. Between mouthfuls of carrots, houmous and chocolate brownies (not combined fortunately) he gave me an insight into how he approaches recording, the difference between the studio and performing live and what last made him stop and stare.
You are a solo performer, how do you find the the process of ‘letting go’ of your music? Your recent record features other peoples’ remixes of your own work, is there a sense of unease in letting others use your work?
Yes definitely. You want it to be good. You don’t want to write to a respected artist like Chris Clark and tell them that what they did sucked, but then on the other hand, the label chooses wisely. I am really happy about those particular remixes (Juno Reworked).
There is music where it is a really good idea to remix it, and there is music where it is not a good idea. For my solo piano work; I am very much a perfectionist and there is a reason it sounds like it does. So when I hear the word ‘remix’ I think, ‘well, I mixed it properly so it doesn’t need to be remixed! But, with the Juno remixes, it felt like they were soloing a great part of the songs. They have taken a different turn but they feel completed in a way.
How do you approach writing? Do you have a concept for a record before you write or are they a natural, evolutionary process?
Usually halfway into recording, I get this kind of idea of what it is all about. Finding a theme is important, but it doesn’t work for me to decide at the start what I will do. I start with whatever compositions I have in my mind. The compositions come from somewhere, and sometimes I just record them. That’s the magical side of things; I don’t know where they come from. I listen back and I hear certain things behind the scenes or something particular about those ideas, and I conceptualise them. These concepts help shape the record.
I like to write instrumental music, and the thing I find the hardest is knowing when a piece is finished, or when to end one part and start the next. As a minimalist composer this must be very important for you. Do you have a particular method when it comes to ‘self-editing’ your work?
For some reason I always know whether a chorus or a section of a song is too long or too short. Me: Is it an instinct? Yes, but it is also based on the music I listen to which has become part of my aesthetic. It is always about finding the most economical way to go. If you draw a straight line from A to B and you can walk it, walk it! If there is a rock in the way, try to find the shortest way around it, or kick it away. If you can record a song with one microphone why record it with eight?
How about Felt. Where did the idea of dampening the piano come from?
Well I was recording at nights and because of the neighbours I had to do it because I wanted to record all those ideas, and I got used to the sound. At first I wanted to take the ideas and record them in an amazing studio with a beautiful piano, but I felt, ‘well, this is actually just right, I don’t want to record them any differently’. Its all about a certain timing, and a certain flow. I want to do it in a time frame which allows me to still like it at the end.
On Screws you were restricted by your injury (a broken thumb). Do you think musicians can benefit from self-imposing restrictions? Can it help you approach writing more creatively?
No dogmas! Its good to be in good shape and be fully capable of playing your instrument. If someone is not technically good on the piano it can be a chance [to be creative]. It all depends on a certain touch. When you are good at one instrument, such as the guitar, then there is a good chance you can sit at the piano, and just because of your musicality, you may come up with something that is pretty genius. There are many examples of this. Daniel Johnston is often quoted as someone who is not a technically gifted musician but when he hits it, he hits it.
Its about hiding how good you are. There is no need to show off.
Your choice of venue is often grand and opulent, aesthetically and acoustically, and it seems at odds with your recording style. Why do you choose to play your music in venues that give your music such a different feel?
They are different things. There is a different situation in the live environment. Live, people will listen to every note I play without being distracted and this makes it an entirely different situation. It’s a rare thing for someone to put on the vinyl at home and listen without being distracted. So my weapons of choice live differ from those in the studio. In the studio I am making a record that is only going to be part of someone’s life. So I don’t think they are comparable things.
Do you get equal satisfaction from playing live and recording?
Yes! That is why I am recording a live record at the moment. I am recording all the shows [from this tour]. This way I can combine studio work and live work. Hopefully you can have dinner with a friend and listen to it and enjoy it, I don’t know!
What was the last thing that made you stop and stare?
(Musing) The last thing that made me stop and stare…probably my hangover today. I was sat down before sound check just staring at the ground.
You can see my review of Nils’ show here.