It had never even crossed my mind to go and see Nils Frahm perform live. For me, his music had always been best enjoyed post-midnight, sat in a homely nook with a short drink nearby. It was music to think to. Music to dream to. Music to get lost in. Not music to hear in a packed concert hall on a rainy Wednesday night in London.
I was so, so wrong…
That night, I realised that Nils Frahm is much more than a companion for late nights on the sofa. The physicality of watching this man bounce from one instrument to another—banging, throwing, caressing—helped me understand. The belly laughs as he regaled the crowd with a story about why he had given up dragging his full-sized organ from one show to another helped me understand. “I think it sounds just as good without the real thing.” And the humanness of his performance—both during the you-can-hear-an-actual-pin-drop, delicate piano pieces and the punch-in-the-face, faster, more robust, almost orchestral ones—helped me understand. You do not know Nils Frahm until you have seen him perform live.
Nils Frahm photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay
“and, now, having seen him live—I can practically hear Berlin by night: the chaos, the cold quiet, the creativity, the opportunity, the risk, the laughs, the people, the emptiness…”
Nils grew up in Hamburg, Germany, and in 2006 moved to Berlin to pursue his career in music. And you can hear it. Short drink or not, as you work your way through the Nils Frahm back catalogue, it is clear that the city’s after-hours have remained a constant. Listening to Screw, Spaces, Solo and All Melody—and, now, having seen him live—I can practically hear Berlin by night: the chaos, the cold quiet, the creativity, the opportunity, the risk, the laughs, the people, the emptiness…Watching the film Victoria<i>Victoria</i> (2015) is a frenetic and hypnotic German film that—with just one continuous take—invites us into the clubs and streets of Berlin with a mesmerising score by Nils Frahm., Nils’ score brings Berlin’s wee hours to life, capturing both the quiet contemplation of a silent street alongside the more radical elements of the night-time economy.
On the inside sleeve of his 2011 album Felt<i>Felt</i> (2011) is one of Nils’ most revered albums. He creates a wonderful calming effect by placing felt on the strings of the piano to dampen the sound. Nils Frahm writes: “It must be 3am, the only time everything in my house is silent and peaceful, allowing me to continue working on my almost imperceptible piano recordings. Originally, I wanted to do my neighbours a favour by dampening the sound of my piano. If I want to play piano during the quiet of the night, the only respectful way is by layering thick felt in front of the strings and using very gentle fingers. It was then that I discovered that my piano sounds beautiful with the damper.”
Years since arriving in Berlin, Nils Frahm has come to be an important part of the city’s fabric. But I wondered: what does this city, which I have explored at night many times, mean to Nils Frahm?
I want to talk about Berlin. Why did you decide to make music there?
I think it took me there for many reasons. Berlin had very big potential, especially when I was just finishing school, and it felt like it would be a waste not to move to Berlin. A new scene was being created there. It felt like Berlin was emptied out: a big construction site just waiting for people to fill it with life. I was always sceptical about the idea of rushing to New York and against the idea of going where everybody is already. Berlin was, for me, a fantastic place where a lot of things could be possible but were not happening yet.
Can you walk me through that decision to go to Berlin in terms of where you were in your life and what it was like in your earlier days?
The last days in Hamburg I was finishing school and after that we had a social service instead of military. I worked with mentally and physically disabled people for almost two years. It was a great job for me. And then my best buddy—he was also a member of my other band Nonkeen—he started to make a little studio with me in Hamburg. He was really good at programming and computers; I was good with keyboards and synthesisers. And he moved to Berlin because he fell in love and that basically ended our Hamburg-based music project. That was the main reason why I was looking at Berlin. Some other friends already went: probably, I just should try it and go there.
I worked in a coffee place at that time [in Hamburg] on the side and as a postman. I had a lot of shitty jobs. The list is too long to tell you all of them. But just imagine I was trying to scrape by and move over to Berlin. Berlin was also a sacred place because there you could find a flat for almost no money and we needed space for ideas and our equipment and all of our half-broken keyboards. So yeah, we just ventured out there and actually found exactly what we were looking for.
What year are we talking about?
2004 or 2005.
How did Berlin impact your work? Was it everything you wanted it to be?
Two things come to mind. Firstly, there were the physical spaces—like factories, warehouses, and illegal bars—with all types of illegal stuff happening. There was a place where we went drinking beer a lot. One huge bottle of beer cost basically one euro, and you would access it through a coal hole in the floor. It was like an anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist scene all over Berlin. People were improvising their life together.
Secondly, there was the non-physical space: the feeling of a city when it is full of people who just improvise around the shells of a broken society—Berlin was basically like this. The big leaders of the world had left and the city was left to the public, to celebrate and do whatever they wanted. All of a sudden, the American politicians didn’t need Berlin as a stage anymore, they didn’t need to do parades, they didn’t need to fly planes over it… All of a sudden, the simple, normal, generic people got their city back and they started to build something up. And I think that was the more interesting part than just the cheap rents: the feeling of that happening.
Nils Frahm photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay
That phrase “improvising life” is an interesting one, mainly because it makes me think of your music. How did the improvisational nature of your life, starting out in Berlin, affect your music?
There are multiple layers. A very clear connection was the love I had for certain musicians. I was sitting in Hamburg listening to music that was produced in Berlin, or around Berlin. There were the labels like Morr Music Morr Music is an independent record label based in Berlin. Founded by Thomas Morr in 1999, the label is known for producing dance, electronica and dreampop. appearing in the early 2000s and another label I dug a lot was City Centre Offices City Centre Offices is a record label based in Manchester, England, but with an outpost in Berlin as well. It was founded in 1998 by Shlom Sviri and Thaddeus Herrmann. , which had a strong connection to Boomkat Boomkat is a specialist, independent record store based in Manchester, England. This new electronica scene was very creative: electronic dance music on a slower pace. It was more focused on sound and ambience. It wasn’t like the “Brian EnoBrian Eno [1948—] is an English record producer, artist and musician known for his pioneering work in ambient music. thing” I knew already, it was something else. And I wanted to be part of it. I needed to contribute to that. I needed to go. I thought, “When I am closer to all these people, maybe I will just run into them in a bar; maybe I will just see them at the concert; maybe I can have a chance to talk to them.”
Sounds like an incredibly exciting time. How much of what you were greeted with in Berlin did you embrace, and how much of it was more of a challenge?
Everybody who moves to Berlin says that they went through a “hard winter”, as we call it. That winter wasn’t so hard for me: the weather wasn’t an issue; the language wasn’t an issue. For me, I had a very easy introduction into Berlin. I felt like the city was almost waiting for me. I felt not pushed or forced to do too many things that I didn’t think were necessary. Basically I lived in Berlin for over ten years for less than one thousand euros per month. I made 700, 800 euros working random jobs and had all the time I wanted to just sit in my place and play piano and record music. I made some really complicated works in that time: for example, the Anne MüllerAnne Müller [1979—] is a Berlin-based cellist who collaborated with Nils Frahm on 7fingers, an album where contemporary classical compositions collide with electronica. and Nils Frahm record, which I spent almost two years on every day, programming, cutting beats, making really complicated arrangements.
And now, years on, you’ve moved your piano out of your home and into Funkhaus studio in Berlin. What is it that excites you about that space?
I worked in a studio in Hamburg when I was thirteen. This was a studio of friends of my parents. He started that in the 70s or 80s. It was a fantastic place. It wasn’t internationally famous, but it was that type of studio you could dream of because it’s this wonderful dusty, woody, old-school place with a nice living room, big old BBC recording desk. All the good stuff! Instruments and harmoniums. All the things I’m trying to gather together now. And basically I walked into that perfect scene of creativity, of musicality, and decided that one day my dream would be to fly a spaceship like that. I never thought I would get there.
Then a couple of years ago I woke up and realised that I just have to grab it or just give it up forever. Now is the moment when I can do it. And I did. I have a similar place, probably even better than the one I remembered from the age of thirteen. It’s an important step towards professionalism and towards a better way of working and also to get a little bit of my private life back. I am married and I have a wonderful wife—she loves instruments and she is fine with me working at home, but it is so nice to just get home and recharge and the next day you can think about music again. Oh, and my neighbours—they had years and years of beating and they were always understanding. I told them for years that at some point I would find a professional space. I couldn’t push them much further.
Nils Frahm photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay
“Usually the most creative time for me is past midnight. There are a couple of hours where you're not so awake anymore... So I like the state of mind when I'm winding down in the evening. That's what I'm trying to capture in my music.”
So now working at the Funkhaus, what does a normal day in the life of Nils Frahm look like?
Usually the day starts in my home. I wake up pretty late, depending on what time I was working the night before. I sometimes work until four or five in the morning. The night is really nice because it is very quiet with less distractions. So I wake up around ten or eleven and then I do some office errands, phone calls, all the stuff you want to get out of your way. Then I drive a very long way through the city from one end until the other—sometimes on a bike, sometimes in a car. Then I go shopping for bread and milk. I probably grab some lunch, because I want to get the whole eating thing out of the way.
So I get to the studio in the afternoon, around two or three. It is a very charismatic old building. I open the studio and turn on the coffee machine. All the equipment needs about one hour to fully warm up and perform well. So I start all the machines and let them warm up. In that time I can do a little bit of cleaning or sometimes I just sit in the sun or I will walk down to the River Spree. Then, I will either listen to some music I recorded yesterday or go straight to the piano to warm up my fingers and rest my mind. And then, finally, I’ll start. Sometimes just by cleaning the place I will have an instant idea of what I want to try. Other times it may take longer. Then I’ll set up one synth, one microphone and one funky amp, and I’ll record for two hours. Maybe I’ll never use it for anything; maybe I’ll use it weeks later for something else. Later, I’ll usually drive out for dinner somewhere. And I stay in the studio until very late. Usually the most creative time for me is past midnight. There are a couple of hours where you’re not so awake anymore. I have a high energy level during the day and sometimes it’s distracting to be pushed by your own energy. So I like the state of mind when I’m winding down in the evening. That’s what I’m trying to capture in my music.
Do you think you would be creating a different sound if you were not based in Berlin?
Yes. We are a big team: there are twelve of us on the current tour. And I met all of them because I am here in Berlin. They all change the outcome of my sonic experiments so much. The space is important, in terms of what it does to me. But also, the music depends on the technicians who are involved. People have different topologies—fixing things, making things better. Your piano tuner has a different style of tuning the piano. Imagine, there are thousands of these tiny, tiny, tiny changes; in the end it would be a completely different sound.
I have no idea what it would look and sound like outside of Berlin. It would depend on who I came across. Let’s say New York: maybe I wouldn’t even have a place where it’s completely quiet and I would need to play more amplified music. Maybe I wouldn’t find the quietness I find in Berlin. Maybe I would play more loud bebop type of jazz because I need to be a little louder than the truck outside on the street. I think it has a strong effect. But it is impossible for me to imagine what albums I would have done if I wasn’t in Berlin.
Nils Frahm photographed by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay
And you’ve worked with a lot of different musicians in Berlin and outside. How do you work as a collaborator?
It has changed over the last twenty-three years. I am a band guy; I had my first band at thirteen. I had about twenty different formations before I left school. I was playing in Hamburg with lots of different people and had tons of projects going. So for me, making music from the start was always a dream… I started as a solo pianist. Imagine, the little kid sitting alone on the piano wanting to just play with his friends outside. It’s kind of a lonesome thing; you need to be very disciplined. So playing with friends, and being together in the room with them and having no parents there was liberating. Then the band thing got complicated because friendships break and things get stiff and sometimes really sad. I think I said at one point that I didn’t want to connect my biggest passion—which is making music in some way or form—with all my friendships. So I wanted to become a solo artist again.
So I made this whole spin from alone to band to alone again. And I learnt a whole lot. Then, I wanted to collaborate in a different way: more in a curious way, not in the way where people expect something from a band. I’ve seen many bands being destroyed because people have different paces: one wants more success, one doesn’t care, one wants to stay at home. Then all of a sudden it all falls apart. So whenever I collaborate I make it clear it has to just be an experiment: a workshop for the people who are collaborating in the moment.
One good example is when I worked with F.S. BlummF.S. Blumm [1968—], formally known as Frank Schültge, is a German author, producer and musician who collaborated with Nils Frahm on the album, Tag Eins Tag Zwei (2016).. He was one of those guys I moved to Berlin for. I was a big fan when I was eighteen years old. I knew all his records. I met him a couple of years later in Berlin and he remembered that we had met. Then at some point he called me and said, “Hey, can I record with you for an album I’m working on?” Then we started making music together which was, for me, a milestone. It was so fantastic to see how he worked. For years, I had imagined how he would make music, and to see him do it in front of me… It was an amazing process. I’ve also collaborated with people who were intrigued to work with me. It is still a wonderful process. I start to miss the human connection and the social aspect with my solo doings. Once in a while there just has to be something related to people. It is simply much more fun.
You are performing in Berlin at the Funkhaus on tour, within the same compound in which you write and record. This is not the first time you’ve played there… Why do you keep going back?
Even though it is in the same building, it feels like a completely different venue. For me, the concert place at Funkhaus is such a beautiful-sounding room that it is hard to beat. Also, it’s great to support the Funkhaus in general, with good programming. I think we need a little bit more support from the city in the future and I think my involvement in general Funkhaus terms could help. I would also like to be part of the rebuilding of Funkhaus, too. Because I am passionate about this topic and I know a lot about studios, I can help the owners of Funkhaus to shape the whole area in a certain direction, with a certain concept. It is a good idea to keep using the Funkhaus for sensitive productions and recordings. It is a fantastic space.
Berlin has its issues and supporting the Funkhaus is a good way for me to help. The main challenge in the city is that it is not very well run. The governance is not done as well as other cities in Germany, such as Hamburg, Munich and Cologne. These cities have better administration. So street works, city planning, the airport we cannot finish—all this is typical Berlin stuff. We all laugh about it but it is also disheartening and frustrating at times. The big potential in Berlin has meant that everyone has moved there and put money in the city. But the people of Berlin seem unable to spend the money in the best way. It’s kind of chaotic and I think the city needs more time to develop.
Where does music fit into the city’s issues?
Art is actually the best way to deal with these issues; art, for me, is the best way to protest. As an artist sometimes you have to simply do what you have to do.