Nils Frahm: “Everything can be used for the music”

Short Profile

Name: Nils Frahm
DOB: 20 September 1982
Place of birth: Hamburg, Germany
Occupation: Composer, pianist

Nils, what was the first instrument you fell in love with?

The bongo. It’s a very simple instrument, it only has two notes: bong and go! I used to play it with my father, who is a self-taught guitar player and pianist. I felt I was pretty good at it. I can’t confirm since I have no recordings of it —but I probably was.

When did the piano come into the picture?

Later on I started playing a few things on the piano and my parents were in awe and decided I needed piano lessons. That is how it started! But then at 13 I wanted to stop piano. I wanted to become a pilot, of course. My father didn’t like that idea. He’s an artistic guy and he felt like I should continue music. He put me between a rock and a hard place by telling me, “If you stop the pilot thing, then I’ll buy you a really good keyboard so you can play with your friends in a band.” That was pretty tempting, so I took the deal!

Do you still have that keyboard today?

I actually traded it. It was a digital piano and I hated the sound of it. I traded it for a Fender Rhodes piano, a Moog synthesizer, and my Juno synthesizer which I’m still playing with. That is when I fell in love with synthesizers, amplifiers, mixing desks, tape machines. I started seeing that the studio amplification of music is also an instrument, a creative source. Nowadays I kind of bring all of these things together. It all becomes music in the end.

“Ambre” is one of Nils' most beloved tracks and one of the first he ever wrote.

And now you’ve even started building your own instruments.

Yes, but it’s not easy. Especially when you like beautiful and delicate sounds. You can build little instruments all the time that make a funny sound, but if you want to build a piano it’s very different. I only started building my own instruments when I could also afford to get some professionals on board helping me with the realization. Piano builder David Klavins built this small touring piano for me that only has 64 keys and only one string per note and because of that it sounds a little different than a normal piano. Or for the last tour, I commissioned a pipe organ that is MIDI controlled and can pitch wobble, which no other pipe organ can do as far as I know.

It seems like you are heavily invested in creating sounds that no one else has.

Exactly. I want to make classical instruments sound unexpected. Constructing it yourself means that you don’t need to do so much so that it sounds like yours. You know it’s the only one. It’s yours. You own the sound. This is my biggest critique point against digital production: every plug-in sounds the same. The idea makes me uncomfortable because I’m fighting so much to have a different sound.

Do you strive for the same originality with your compositions as well?

With composition, I’m doing something I’ve learned from other musicians, I’ve learned from other artists, I’ve learned from life. Most of my musical ideas are coming from other people’s musical ideas. And so we are all connected. It would be silly to say that it’s all mine. Nothing really is mine. There are 12 notes in an octave. Was that my idea to use 12 notes in an octave? No, but I still use it. For me, it’s actually a comforting thought that I’m not doing something totally, totally unique. You only exist through all the beautiful music you’ve heard. All the boring experiences and all the beautiful experiences I’m having… Everything jumps in as a source of inspiration. If it sounds right, then I’m happy, no matter how I got there. I just want to make beautiful music.

When you play live that seems to be your goal rather than putting on a big show.

With my stage set up I don’t worry about the visual aspect too much. Form follows function. I’m a big lover of the Bauhaus idea. Let it be what it is. In that way, the decorative aspect of beautiful instruments is really important for me: instruments can look very beautiful, almost like architecture. I don’t like decoration; I prefer it when the things that are necessary are beautiful. My stage performance is really determined by what I have to do to create a certain sound: me sweating, moving around, leaning over to reach that knob. Sometimes I feel like a dancer. You can do a lot with very few things. For example, the separation between notes is what makes my live performances very thrilling.

“For me, music, playing piano equalizes my emotions. And the most beautiful thing is that other people tell me it helps them, too.”

Silence can be very powerful in a live performance.

Exactly. Sound and silence makes music complete. The use of dynamics in volume is a very important narrative element to a show. I really appreciate if a note comes out of silence and when it stops it goes into silence. Usually in my concerts, people are so quiet that this is given.

Is it important for you to exercise restraint as an artist?

I do really need a framework to not get overloaded with ideas and possibilities. It’s good to have a natural barrier, which you can move forward when you feel ready. What I can do at the same time with my hands and feet is in a way the framework of what is possible for my music. And this is the most inspiring idea: limitations. These limitations can be featured and as a side effect of hiding your mistakes or your weak points, something really unique can apply.

A track from Nils Frahm’s beautiful score to the 2015 film Victoria.

What do you mean?

When you think of Chet Baker, the famous jazz trumpet player, he was pretty much only using two octaves in a range when he was playing. I think he just didn’t practice so much, I’m not sure. But in these few notes, he played a lot. He told the most beautiful stories. And I think by avoiding his imperfections there, not being able to cover the whole range of his instrument, he accidentally developed this totally unique style. And this is really striking to me. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how technically advanced you are.

What does really matter in the end then?

It all comes down to realizing how good you are and really consciously working with that. There are a lot of music performers who try to really be technically advanced, and if they’re not 110% perfect, you can feel the stress, there’s something aching in the performance. All we want to have as listeners is someone being in total control. I think as an artist we always try to hide the imperfections. But the imperfections are there because we’re all humans, and this is what makes us interesting. It’s more about emotion than technical skills. Hate, love, happiness, depression, being bored, or being excited, everything together can be used for the music you do, and can help feeling all right about everything. For me, music, playing piano equalizes my emotions. And the most beautiful thing is that other people tell me it helps them, too.