This summer, for instance, Frahm's itinerary takes in performances at festivals such as Melt! and Lovebox as well as a debut at the London Proms, a bastion of establishment classical music. It would be no surprise to find Frahm playing solo piano pieces to the ravers and prickly techno at the Royal Albert Hall to equal acclaim. Since his breakthrough success with Spaces, a run of albums, including Solo and his latest, the soundtrack to the film Victoria, have seen Frahm emerge as a significant cult artist, treasured by fans for the playful nature of his live shows, his bravura musicianship and the rare emotional intimacy of his music. Frahm has always been obsessed with nailing his own sound and, in 2015, even his critics would have to concede that he is one of the most distinctive artists in modern music. I phoned him at home in Berlin to explore how this oddball musician became an outsider hero.
Your father was a photographer who worked, among others, for ECM, the pioneering German experimental jazz and classical label. Were its records a key early influence for you?
I was lucky that my father had quite good taste. He was very close to art, liked beautiful furniture and had funny ideas about decorating the house. He was a kind of free spirit and had a really great record collection: a lot of free jazz and classical. For me, ECM was the soundtrack of my life. Music was ECM music. I used to listen to long tracks, and my dad told me what improvisation was when I was five. Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarrett—this shaped my idea of music.
You've talked about loving the "brutal honesty" of those ECM albums. What did you mean by that?
[ECM founder] Manfred Eicher was so radical in expecting something unheard and unknown from musicians. This is where he's honest: this is my taste, this is what I want from music. You can get a headache from it, hate it, love it, find it exciting, but it is what it is: a big chunky piece of rye bread with so much in it. I found that very inspiring.
You studied piano under Nahum Brodsky, a former student of Tchaikovsky. We non-classical fans might be wowed by what you do at the piano, but technically, are you a good pianist?
I would have a hard time getting accepted in the jazz or classical conservatoire. Not because I'm bad, but because I have wrong finger technique and do unusual things. I don't want to compare myself to a genius like Thelonius Monk, but if you asked him to play a classical sonata he'd probably fail terribly, because he couldn't read sheet music well. But what he did really well is play his own stuff. So what is a good pianist? Is a good pianist the one who plays in the hotel lobby, or is it somebody who expresses something that opens people's hearts?
How would you describe your playing style? It sounds quite exploratory and expressive to me, tentative, as if you're feeling your way through the music. Is that an acknowledged classical style or something that you developed?
[Laughing] I don't even know what the playing styles are. Classical musicians need to change style every two or three bars. I have never found a name for my style. I worked on, maybe, wrong techniques. But to find a place in piano music where even if people don't know the song, they'll say, "That must be Nils"—this is a combination of touch, finger technique, how I mic the piano and prepare it [augmenting the piano's mechanisms]. I like building stuff, and I'm quite good with tools and wood and also shaping your mental apparatus and your heart.
From a lot of angles I approach the piano differently, which results in a sound only I can achieve, at this point. This is the most important thing. I'm obsessed with jazz, and nobody sounds like John Coltrane but John Coltrane. And when Bill Evans plays I can tell immediately, even if I don't know the song. This was so clear to me: I wanted to have my own style. Now, years later, even though it's maybe not as good, at least it is my own style. That is the big achievement. It doesn't matter if I can play classical music well or not.
In Hamburg, you were playing in jazz, punk and electronic bands from your teens, and you were an amateur sound engineer and producer for friends' bands. Were you rebelling against classical music at that point?
There was never rebellion, but other things moved into focus. When I was 13, I got into early '70s fusion jazz, late Miles Davis electrified jazz, and this is what I wanted my band to sound like. Then, I had a more hip-hop project with friends—Hamburg was a good place for hip-hop—and around 1995, discovering Portishead, Roni Size, Massive Attack, DJ Die and 4 Hero changed my life. Two Pages, the 4 Hero album that has string sections on it and real drums and double bass playing drum & bass beats—that was really cool. I thought my band needed to sound like this: drum & bass but with real instruments.
Then, around 18, I discovered the computer. Before, I was recording on tape, buying a little amp here and a little mic there for my rehearsal room, and it always sounded shit. I had no idea how people would make clear recordings until I started recording on a computer. It blew me away. I took all my synths and started building a home studio, just doing electronic music. I have many, many, many bad songs from that time.
Did you go out clubbing much? Elements of your music—"Says" is the great example, the way the pianos come in at the end—sound like they were made by someone who has definitely been on a dancefloor late at night and experienced that kind of euphoric epiphany. Was that part of your youth?
Of course, I was partying hard. But I was always there for the music. I wasn't dancing so much. I was the nerdy fan trying to read the labels on the records, trying to understand why [the music was] so good. Before the internet, if you wanted to hear new music you had to go out every weekend.
There were lots of great places in Hamburg and some illegal parties: Mojo Club, Golden Pudel (which is a small venue quite famous for really radical music) and Hafenklang for drum & bass. There was also Beta Lounge, where they would stream live DJ sets online like Boiler Room. I knew the Beta Lounge guys, and that was the highlight every month, because the biggest names in electronic music would play there and we were there, little kids still at school.
When did doing your own music become a full-time thing? You had various jobs—postman, cleaner, working with the disabled—and then freelanced in film/ TV sound production. Was moving to Berlin and establishing a studio there the point you began to take your music seriously as a solo project?
No, I never took it seriously [laughs]. It was always an odd hobby. I did Wintermusik in two days, The Bells in three, Screws in ten. These were holidays from my usual work of fixing instruments and building things for the studio, organising paperwork and office stuff, doing production and mastering, as well as production in external studios for other bands and advertising jobs or editing sound for documentaries. I needed to make money, so I was travelling and doing any and every sound-related job. The studio in Berlin was always in my living room, but I'd say [to bands/ musicians], "It's cheap, it works, trust me." I could offer a really good price, because I was working where I slept.
I moved to Berlin in 2006 to work as an engineer. I felt that I wasn't a musician who could make music anyone would care about, but I could wire a studio—I'm a gear addict—and I could help people make their music, so I focused on that. I was living off €700 a month for two years. My big aim was to not spend anything and not work too much, so I could practice piano and experiment.
It became more serious in 2008, when Peter Broderick heard it and said, "You need to make a solo piano record. I want to produce it." This is how The Bells shaped-up. It was released on a small Swedish label, Kning Disk, and at the same time Wintermusik came out on the Berlin label Sonic Pieces. These two records were the turning point. I toured with Peter for five or six weeks in my little Volkswagen doing a purely improvised set because I didn't really have any songs, and I realised people liked what I am doing. It was insane. I always felt like I was cheating or taking the job of somebody who is much better. It's only now I slowly see that it's OK. I am actually not that bad.
I think a good thing, and part of why I'm successful, is that I don't take myself that seriously. So many kids ask me, "How do I get to this label? What can I do to get a bigger following? How do I get a tour?" I don't know what to tell them; I never asked. I would sit and wait until someone asks you. Concentrate on the art. Get better and better and better and wait until someone recognises how good it is. It's much easier that way. I was never eager to go out and play tours; it was only because Peter kept bugging me. When I got a booking agent, I told him, "I only want to play if someone invites me. Don't ask for shows." I don't want to use the piano as a money-making machine. This is what I tell my whole team: when someone asks, be nice, but don't try to push people with my stuff.
Do you see your solo piano work as distinct from your more electronic music or the collaborations you undertake? Or are they all interconnected as part of a wider creative process?
They're all interconnected. For me, the piano is my drinking buddy—we hang out sometimes and have a good time—but there are many other things I am interested in. The piano is a big, crazy sound machine, like the synthesiser or the computer. I don't take one more seriously than the other. Maybe this helped define my piano sound. I listen to the piano as an electronic musician and the synthesiser as if I am a classical pianist. I try to have a very open mindset when I approach any instrument. I don't want my preconceptions to take away from the possibilities that these instruments offer.
I'm still a big fan of experimental, glitch, click & cut music, like Alva Noto and the early stuff on City Centre Offices, and my record Felt was an homage to how clicks & cuts and glitchy the piano can sound when you play and mic it in that way—when you include all these accidental noises from the hammers and mechanics. In my early electronic experiments, editing the shit out of hi-hats for days was really boring, but this felt so good. The piano was doing all these glitchy things I wanted to hear without me intending it. The piano is much more than a piano. It can be a very interesting musical machine.
The tracks on your albums are essentially the edited highlights of hours of improvisation. You even have to relearn them to play them live. Some of these—for example, "Immerse!" and "Four Hands" on Solo—are moments of incredible emotional intensity. When you sit down to play, what is the process?
You need to warm up. It takes at least half an hour to arrive at a point where you're in the music, in this mindset where all the ideas come from, where you don't think too much—you simply feel. The piano is my therapy. I let the piano heal me. I don't hide it. Without it I would be horribly depressed or in prison. It is something I have to do and the more I do it, the better I feel. Synthesiser or piano, it doesn't matter: get the aggression and emotion out, start fresh. It is hygiene for my mental state. It doesn't come quickly. I need time to get into this world, and I can't really describe exactly what is happening, but sometimes it brings me to tears. Not because it is beautiful, but because sometimes it's good to cry. And I see it in others too, at the concerts. They need an output.
"Immerse!" is a big example of that beautiful dialogue in my music between the darkness and hope inside me, the ambivalence of my soul. I am always telling the same story, even on a piece like "Says." I am always balancing out anger at what we are doing as mankind, depression, all that's negative in me and the total opposite of beauty, joy, inspiration. The dialogue between those different viewpoints of how or who you are, making these two things dance together, is at the core of my better works. This is what music can say that words can't. Music is so complex, so wonderful at incorporating ambivalent things into one, and this is what I try to do. I try to arrive at this point where all the paradoxes of what we experience are in unity, through tone and music.
You play big festivals and seated concert halls, club-orientated sets and solo piano pieces—not always in the obvious setting. Do you have a preference between the two, or do you relish moving between these worlds, spaces and audiences?
I am offering an experience. It's up to the audience if they want to take it. I will never tell people to shut up from the stage. I want to learn how to calm people down without saying that. If you play the right thing, the music can do that even in a busy club environment. For me it's important to have a mixture of all these different events to experiment with the music and the environment. Spaces was called Spaces because it's about the different rooms and contexts I was playing in.
There are songs that are better for a seated audience or a club audience, but I like that it's never really perfect, that there's not the ideal venue for my music. I constantly have to change my set and my approach. Every show gives me a different challenge. I can adjust to the acoustics, the audience, change the arrangements, do what's needed, on the spot. This is important to keep me excited. It is a waste of time to play the same set every night just to make money.
You won't use computers and loops when you play live. Why?
If I have an arpeggio or sequence running [on a synthesiser] I use a computer to keep my synthesisers in sync, but I don't use loops or sampled playback. I always have this limit that I have two hands and two feet. I want to have the sound in my hands all the time. I hate it when you make a loop and press play. It is out of your control, you can't really shape it any longer. When you have the sequence on the synthesiser looping, you can still change the filter, the modulation, all these little elements, so it will never sound the same. It is a little difference but, for me, important.
How has your work been received in jazz and classical music circles? Do you care? Is it ignored?
I'm not ignored. Or I'm as ignored by classical people as I am techno people as I am by rock & roll people. I am ignored and appreciated in every circle, in the same way. There is always a small proportion of people from every scene who turn out to be Nils Frahm fans. But there's no genre or group totally into it, because I don't do something you can obviously tag with a name. People have called me "neoclassical"—alright, do whatever you want. But if people disliked it because it is not classical music, that would make me very sad, because I have never tried to make classical music. I never tried to make techno or jazz, either. I try to make music that I don't have on my record shelves yet.
Talking about your music collection, you have a Late Night Tales mix coming out in September. I was quite surprised, because I had read that you don't tend to collect and listen to music for pleasure anymore, but more as a technical exercise.
There are definitely phases where I don't listen to music. If I become a fanboy of what's recent and cool, there is that danger I will get too excited and try to sound like that. But I like making compilations. I do my little Christmas mix on Mixcloud each winter, and Late Night Tales is a good opportunity to let my fans know what I'm interested in.
Do you listen to much new electronic music?
I listen to a lot of very obscure music these days. I get my inspiration from flea markets and old experimental records. I am listening to a lot of jazz and, in the summer, dub. Bullwackie from New York, he's my favourite dub producer.
I don't want to say what people are doing now is bad, but there is now a lot of [electronic music] which sounds super-squished and compressed, sidechained and in-your-face, where each sound is evenly loud and banging. Maybe my ears are too old for that, but it does not make sense to me. Perhaps I'm missing the charm of the early electronic days, when things were less heavily compressed and electronic music was not so much part of our pop culture. I'm a big Matthew Herbert fan, for example. I really liked what he did with this performance approach and the political edge. His manifesto about not using samples and recording your own sounds was so inspiring to me. A lot of electronic music feels too easy, sitting there with a laptop, a sample library and a big kick drum. You can get tracks built so fast, and I always doubt that something is rewarding when it is easy. I try and make things hard for myself.
What was the challenge with Victoria? I was surprised you hadn't done more soundtrack work before.
The challenge was it was my first film score, but, also, I did Victoria because I could do it on my terms [as a collaborative improvisation], which made it really exciting. I could never work on a film where people expect me to MIDI-layout everything first before they trust me. I waited until somebody said, "Nils, do whatever you want, you're the artist," which is what [director] Sebastian Schipper did.
You have put out a large amount of music in recent years. You just toured a new show and have multiple festival dates booked this summer, and you play at the Proms in collaboration with A Winged Victory For The Sullen in August, not to mention Late Night Tales. Most people would find this an unmanageable workload. Do you worry about burnout?
I'm bad at saying no. I will have to gear down at some point, but I feel we're so close to, for me, a monumental achievement. And I'm blessed that I don't work on this alone. My team work as hard as I do. Everyone is a friend, and I leave space for the other artists in this little Nils Frahm company to get creative. I can comfortably give big tasks away. Torsten Posselt is my designer, and I say, "You do the artwork, do your thing, I trust you." And I mean it. They're better at it than I am. I curate the process, but I don't do it all myself.
Crucially, will you get a chance to play piano today?
I played already. I play for an hour or so before I shower and have breakfast. It's the best way to start the day.
Nils Frahm plays live at Lovebox, which takes place at Victoria Park in London on Friday, July 17th and Saturday, July 18th.