In Conversation: Nils Frahm

Revered composer on new album 'Music For Animals'...

What is music for? A lofty question, perhaps, and one that for composer and musician Nils Frahm has always seemed sort of ludicrous. His latest record, Music for Animals, is a gorgeous, expansive ambient soundscape, spanning over three hours and while the name would suggest otherwise, he never really set out for it to serve a specific function. 

For Frahm, it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to conceptual albums of the 1950s and, perhaps more timely, contemporary playlist habits that ascribe function to music without consideration for an artist’s creative intent. While it was conceived with no specific purpose in mind, Frahm’s animal companions during the pandemic led to him assigning the album one, of sorts.

Following 2018’s ‘All Melody’, Frahm eschews his usual palette of keys and piano, opting for a glass harmonica, which features prominently throughout. Its ten tracks unfold at a meditative pace, creating an immersive experience that Frahm invites listeners to dip in and out of at their leisure. 

Clash found Frahm to be in fine form when Paul Weedon caught up with him via Zoom in early August. Speaking from his studio in Berlin’s Funkhaus complex, he reflected on the music industry’s continued emphasis on music with a ‘purpose’, the pros and cons of playlist culture and the listening habits of dogs.

‘Music for Animals’ is a beautiful, expansive record. Was it always your intention to do something of this scale?

There was a big deal of trust involved. I felt like the last thing I wanted to do – and people who follow me would want me to do – is do something “right” in terms of the next career step. With ‘All Melody’, I was trying to find a creative way to do two things: one, being an internationally successful touring artist and the other, really exploring the music I wanted to explore. I wanted to make songs that I could play live and I wanted to make a record including all the things I’d been working on my whole career. In many ways, All Melody felt like a platform and I could have chosen any direction from there. I was even considering if I ever wanted to put out music ever again after that, or if it was sensible to tour because I don’t want to wreck myself. I feel like what I’m doing and the life I’m living is quite intense. I want to live beyond 50, if possible.

So this was an opportunity to slow down?

I wanted to make music that lacks the intention of a person. I ended up with the idea of nature, because that’s what it resembles to me: watching a fire, or a waterfall or watching a tree shaking in the wind, or snowflakes falling down. They’re always the same, but always different… I’m trying to imitate nature, or a place in the world without human characters.  Then I imagined that we are part of that waterfall. We are all part of the creation. We are basically animals. By calling it ‘Music for Animals’, I wanted to make a record for people who care about music, but I also wanted to make something that doesn’t address any ego and hopefully doesn’t come from any ego.

The title is a nod to the commodification of music and the idea of it having a set function, right?

I kind of think it’s funny that music has to serve a purpose. You could instrumentalise music for many things. It can be positive things, like whenever I get fan letters from people who, for example, stayed in hospital for a long time and during their recovery they were listening to a song and it meant the world to them… In a way, I could say I’m not making one song. I’m making as many songs as there are ears and souls to receive it. Each song changes drastically in the mind and soul of the listener. The functionality becomes negative for me if it’s reductive – instead of revealing itself in infinite possibilities, someone’s ego or idea gets between the art and the listener. There’s an economical interest to put a stamp on a song and be like, ‘I chose that song for you so you can do your workout, guys.’ That’s really lame. If you really want to make a song where people can do that, then make that song. Don’t take other people’s songs and add labels and tell people ‘This is the song for that’. Bullshit. A song can be anything. Everything depends on the person who’s listening to it.

Your work spans many genres. Is it interesting to see how music platforms classify it?

I’ve been around long enough to remember how it was in the 90s and how reductive the 90s were in terms of genres. It’s similar, but different you could say. In the 90s I was fighting against the idea of a record shop being divided into genres. The classical section was as far away as possible from the punk section. It was like it should be in a different room, almost like a porn room, or something… What the press said about me 12-15 years ago, was that I was not respecting the genre… And for the most part, people were guessing, ‘What is the name of what Nils is doing? Finally, people could all agree that this is called ‘post-classical’, or ‘neoclassical’ or whatever. I was disappointed because, as somebody who never wanted to end up in a genre, dammit, I had to fit into one.

It’s almost like they had to create one for you and your peers.

That was a little bit frustrating, but I also felt like the more I tried to rebel against that, the more it would stick, so the only thing I could do was basically not to talk about it myself. Let people say whatever they want. I had this idea that it would be better if we overcame that. I’m not really sure why exactly. The same instinct kicks in today when I try to analyse listening habits, because now we don’t have the genre problem anymore… There’s no strict orientation like there was in the 90s. It’s almost like everything goes, but it needs to be in a favourite playlist. It still needs to be pre-packed and it needs to have some tags on it and then it’s easier to consume… I feel like what made the 90s so wonderful was the involvement of the listener to spend time on their record collection… That got replaced entirely by playlists, which update themselves while I’m sleeping. That’s a big plus for the consumer, because they’ve got more time for their own things, but not everything gets better if you make it easier, you know?

People still seek out music and share it with their friends. The sentiment feels like it’s still there, but it’s just executed in a very different way.

We called that ‘pre-selection’ in the record shop I worked in. But in a way, sure, some people were always pushing some records, and radio plays. A&R people were doing that and then labels were doing that. I’m not saying that music was ever free, or there was ever a time of pure and free, liberated creation for everybody… That’s another point of the whole internet music myth: the Napster times and “mp3 is gonna make us free”. The Radiohead record, In Rainbows, was marketed like this. There was a hybrid time where all of that felt very exciting. What could we experience artistically and musically if all these gatekeepers were gone? Artists can make their own labels now and they can be completely independent like that, but does it make more radical art? Does it make more free-spirited music, or is it just a little bit more of everything at this point?

I guess people still feel the need to fit into boxes to some degree, because otherwise they risk going unseen or unheard.

Yeah. You don’t need a person to put a gun to your head and be like, ‘Make that song more pop’. People have the gun at their own head all the time permanently, being afraid that their song won’t be listenable enough, or it’s too much this or too much that. In the end, we still have the same problem. We need a lot of courage to do what we feel is right.

I guess playlist culture has made it easier to write stuff off if it doesn’t fit in a particular box.

When people can go with their instinct and just click ‘Next,’ or ‘I didn’t like that for a fraction of a second, next!’. The creators have the freedom, the user has the full freedom, but yeah, maybe freedom is not so important. Maybe having a little bit of direction or guidance in discovering music or art is actually okay. When you go into a museum nobody will tell you, ‘Look at that picture for two minutes. Look at that longer!’ You’re free to leave, but since you went out of your way to go there and to spend money to enter, you don’t want to run in and out in three minutes and be like, ‘That sucked’. Even if you hate it at first, you try to get something out of it. I feel like that is a magical moment in encountering any art, be it music or other art. It’s very important to try.

Was it a conscious decision to distance yourself from the piano here?

I played the whole record with my wife and I wouldn’t have played so sparsely without her trying to play along. We tried a little bit of piano and glass harmonica. The piano by itself worked fine for me. The glass harmonica with the piano sounded like some weird cheesy film music, so we just left it out. There’s no take on the whole album where I was playing entirely alone. Nina was always there and I wouldn’t have played a single take in the whole pandemic without having her ears in the room. If it sounded alright, I wanted to keep that moment as long as possible, so she could enjoy that and experience it. When you play for somebody you know and you love, it’s always an incredible experience.

You worked on the album for two years. How does that compare to ‘All Melody’?

With All Melody, it took a lot of time to record overdubs, mix the songs and to sequence it. With ‘Music For Animals’, it took a lot of time to listen to these eight hours or nine hours we had done and to make edits on them. I would do that for a whole year. I would listen to the whole thing and then change the order of the songs, make them shorter, longer and shorter again… For me, making music is my public diary, and if I worry too much about that record being incomplete, I will lose the chance to work on the next one. At some point, I’m happy to give in and be like, ‘When I finish that one, I can do something new. That’s the good thing, but finishing never feels like, ‘Now I’m done’.

When you’re touring these pieces evolve too, because the way that you play changes over time, right?

Yeah, because I am changing. When I listen to Wintermusik from 2007-8, and the first piece, Ambre, I feel like, ‘Wow, why did I play it so fast?’ I was 27. Maybe time felt different for me. Back in 2008, it probably didn’t sound too fast to me. It sounded just right. Now when I listen to it, it sounds too fast. So what should I do? If I want to play that piece, which I don’t play live because I don’t feel it anymore, but if I were to play it, I would play it half the tempo or something, and then it would feel the same as I remember it. I just can’t listen to the record, because it sounds totally different than what I remember. So by changing my songs, I’m not trying to make them better, you know? I try to make them sound like I remembered them.

I mean, it’s a part of you, right?

Absolutely. I think it’s a failure if bands try to play their hit songs exactly as people know them from the record. Just play from your memory and if it sounds different to the original, it’s just a sign that you’ve changed. Embrace that you’ve changed, because it is impossible to hold on to that moment in time and repeat that moment… It’s an economical necessity. We play our hit songs because we make money by doing that and we need to live. So if you have to do that, and make an economical decision to play Ambre, because people love that song so much, then you can take the freedom to make it as nice for you as possible.

Could you tell me a bit about your setup at Funkhaus? 

In the middle of the studio we have the rehearsal setup for live. We have the glass harmonica and then, from the Technical Museum in Berlin, we’ve got a GDR synthesizer, constructed in Funkhaus in the beginning of the 60s. It’s pre-Moog, pre-everything. There’s only three that were made of this incredible concept. It’s 200 kilos and they loaned it to me because they wanted it to be back in Funkhaus and said I should experiment with it. I started getting offered a lot of instruments by museums and places. For me, it’s almost like a job in itself to look after them. 

Which of your animal companions appreciated the record most?

We have a little cabin in the countryside in Spain. I go as much as possible. No phone reception. No electricity. Water from a well. It’s all very rustic. And there, we were listening to the record. There’s two sheep, four chickens and one rooster and now we have five cats and one dog. The cats, especially, and the dog as well, love the record. It’s their favourite thing to listen to when they want to have a nap. I never had my own animals before and we now have a lot. Obviously, as a music nerd, I was kind of studying their listening habits, especially the dog, because the dog responds the most.

Dogs have their preferences.

Especially when you put on the wrong music. For example, Connan Mockasin with the phasey vocals? Dogs hate it. And everybody knows that dogs are racist, so whenever I’d play jazz or John Coltrane – the more outgoing, free-spirited jazz? The dog hates it too. It’s way too much. They love kind of conservative music and for that they love my boring record.

‘Music For Animals’ is out now.

Words: Paul Weedon // @twotafkap

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