Genre-bending composer and pianist Nils Frahm on how his new studio at the Funkhaus inspired his latest album All Melody.
Born in Hamburg but based in Berlin since 2006, Frahm has done everything from helping to build the world’s tallest piano to creating never-beforeheard sounds with toilet brushes. After releasing a string of solo piano and synth works, he crept into the spotlight with 2011’s Felt and 2013’s highly acclaimed Spaces before gaining nationwide fame with the score to Sebastian Schipper’s Berlin insta-classic Victoria. His new album will be released on London’s Erased Tapes on January 26, just after a string of four sold-out shows next to his self-built studio at Schöneweide’s Funkhaus.
What were you up to during your touring hiatus in 2017?
A combination of travelling, making the new album and sitting in the studio. I talk to my friends and they’re like, “What’s new?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” Every day it’s just the same smells and sounds of the studio – it’s a time capsule. When can I apply for another job? I can’t wait to tour.
How will this live setup differ from your last proper shows in 2015?
The toilet brushes were one example of how I tried to use simple objects to create something completely new. This time round we’ve built an organ, a mixing desk and a new harmonium to tour with, so we’ll have more new sounds. The 2015 tour was just a test run to see whether we could move two tonnes of fragile equipment across Europe. What we’re planning for this tour would have seemed impossible back then.
This album feels more electronic than your previous works.
I tried to make the record which was missing from my own collection. For me, it’s all music, regardless of whether it’s acoustic or electronic. Songs with drum machines alongside piano solo tracks shouldn’t work on paper, but I thought if somebody was going to try it, it should be me. For more opinionated fans, it will be a tough one to swallow, but people who respect me as a musician will hopefully like it. This album is bridge-building for me.
We know the rich history, but what makes the Funkhaus so special to your sound?
The studio is an integral part of it. I’ve been here since September 2015, spending the first six months setting it up and building equipment, and the rest recording. Every room has different acoustics, and infinite unwritten songs within them. It rushes me to be faster, telling me gently, “Use me, do more!” I’m like, “Okay, I will!” I spent almost every day here, using every minute.
How does it compare to your previous studio?
The location changes the music, which you could hear already on Spaces. After 12 years in the studio at my Wedding flat, I began to feel like what I was creating there didn’t matter as much. It was low-key, I could do my laundry whilst making a mix, and I should have celebrated it more, but I didn’t because it felt like washing my socks. It gave everything an understated quality. Here, everything feels overstated.
Why do you feel so connected to Berlin?
For the first eight years I was here I lived off €800 a month – where else could I have done that? That’s why I’ll never say a bad word about this city, but I’m just glad I came at the right time. It’s ever-evolving, and definitely going somewhere, I’m just not quite sure where. Yes it’s inspiring, but I’m not here for the culture, I’m here for the experts who understand my philosophy.
And we all know that Germany has a solid reputation for delivering a quality product?
I’m a recording geek, I love the history. The 1950s were about functionality and quality – one amp would have cost as much as a car, whereas now you can buy one for 10 cents. Music used to be for scientists; people were walking around here wearing laboratory coats. Germany wanted to set broadcasting standards. It makes me proud to be here. People who spend €100,000 on speakers… they don’t believe in God, they believe in music.
Let’s talk about genre. Your name seems to come attached to the ‘neo-classical’ label.
Yes, but you also have Chilly Gonzales, Hauschka (see page 32), Max Richter – they made some of the first records of this ‘new’ movement, playing the music I always wanted to make. Society was stuck in this cycle of turning music up, from glam rock to Eurotrash. Around 2006, these composers began to turn down the volume, playing quiet songs in venues where the fridge was louder than the music, and I thought, this is so cool. But the genre itself is old. Penguin Cafe, Roedelius… I was confused when Peter Broderick said, “Nils, this is new!” I didn’t invent anything, I stole from the artists before me.
Is the younger generation getting more interested in classical music?
Teenagers are going to philharmonics to see us play, they sit down during concerts again… I hope that we’ve opened the gates to these spaces. We miss our past and want to reconnect again. I’m trying to build a bridge between people who love Mozart, and those who think John Cage is a genius. Music allows me to do this.
Nils Frahm Jan 22-25 (sold out), Funkhaus, Schöneweide