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Nils Frahm Music For 1 print c LEITER

Nils Frahm on his own terms

22 September 2022, 08:30

Nils Frahm tells Laura David about the freedom that comes with creating outside of the orthodoxy.

As a general rule, Nils Frahm doesn’t like doing a lot of PR.

“We are a little bit lazy on the promotion, but we are not lazy when it comes to producing our work,” Frahm says, leaning away briefly to light a cigarette. “And, anyway, my personal feeling is that it’s never a good idea when you promote yourself more than the work can promote itself.” Even after spending only a few minutes talking with the musician, it becomes clear that the approach to promotion he’s described is simply one emblem of his overall demeanour: pensive and purposeful. Naturally, his work lends itself to a similar ethos.

Frahm releases his new studio album Music For Animals this week – his first batch of fresh work since All Melody and All Encores in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Clocking in at a length of three hours spread out over the course of ten tracks, the work is expansive—certainly something to behold. The album, though, isn’t just a creative achievement, but arguably a philosophical one, too. “It seems like a big chunk of the industry makes its money on music we’re not excited about,” Frahm says.

In many ways, Frahm’s projecture is true. The Verge, for example, reports that songs are decreasing in length—they already have by as much as 30 seconds in the last two decades—a change precipitated by the incentive streaming platforms’ business models give artist to rack up massive numbers of repeat plays. This method of music distribution, in Frahm’s view, positions what should be thought of a way of communicating and a form of art instead as a commodity.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m part of that—these people who make music short so they can get more money per play” Frahm reflects, shaking his head. “If somebody wants to make a very short piece of music, that’s totally fine … [But] it doesn’t feel like the right decision for me. I don’t understand that source of inspiration.” You only have to glance at the track times on Music For Animals to be assured that Frahm practices what he’s preached. “If people want to listen to more music,” Frahm interjects, “let’s just make a 20-minute song—I can leave it unedited!” And, for the most part, that’s just what Frahm did. The album’s first single “Right Right Right”—a rhythmic piece that feels airy, hopeful, and optimistic—sits at seven and a half minutes. It’s next, the pensive “Lemon Day,” is 18, and the third, “Briefly,” is an astounding 27. Frahm’s work has been previously dubbed as cinematic in feel, but it’s perhaps the vastness of this new work that truly deserves the title.

Nils Frahm Music For 3 print c LEITER

On this record, as with most of his work, Frahm has placed himself outside of the voracious churn of the mainstream music industry. The idea of promoting a face or personal brand instead of creative output isn’t something that appeals to Frahm. “Maybe people like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, or Billie Eilish were really bringing these together … you know, like a genius kind of musicianship with the face,” Frahm remarks. “I’m kind of in a different galaxy—or, like, on the outside of that whole galaxy and in a different orbit.” But, the view from the isn’t bad. In some ways, it’s riding that different wavelength that has given Frahm the tools he needs to build his own universe. “I have a pretty nice view from that [outside] orbit,” he says, pleased.

Take Frahm’s creative process on Music For Animals as an example. Isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, Frahm’s primary credited collaborator on this album is his wife—who has no musical training whatsoever. As was the case for so many who released post-pandemic albums, Frahm hadn’t set out to record a new body of work. He was, for the most part, bored and alone. His initial goal had been to remodel his studio to resemble his live performance staging so that he could practice for the tour he’d had to hold off on and jump back on the road as soon as lockdowns ended.

As he tinkered, his wife, Nina, worked and wrote nearby in their apartment. “I invited her over [one day] just [to] have a little picnic and a bottle of wine. Then she saw the glass harmonica, which I’d just gotten in the studio. I showed her how it worked, and she played it without knowing music theory or anything … but she had a touch for that instrument.”

Innocently, he recorded that first interaction between her and the instrument. “She kind of got lost,” Frahm recalls. The next day, he listened to the recording in full, and made a small arrangement around her tape as a process. She was pleased with the gesture, and he was pleased with the result. So, they repeated again and again and again, week after week. “[Eventually] I realized, okay, this is probably better than just us jamming for ourselves … it speaks to me somehow.”

Without knowing what they were doing, the pair were able to lunge headfirst into a body of work that, according to Frahm, is some of his most personal. “I’ve played with a lot of other musicians, and a lot of them are highly skilled and trained and all that. And yet, it was never so easy to go into dialogue, musically, as it was with her.” A phenomenon documented and discussed by many creatives, what the two achieved together was the kind of output that really only comes from working with someone you know and trust on every level.


In some ways, Nina being a musical novice helped bring out this dynamic even more, removing the risk of conflicting egos that often comes with putting trained professionals in a studio together. “She was not in the logic of musician, really … But we would play for an hour and I only wanted to cut 10 minutes of it because the rest was just flowing … The flow of the whole thing felt like a different emotion—an emotion I rarely hear in music.”

That kind of flow and surrender is truly the underpinning of Music For Animals. If All Melody was a kind of forced stimulation for listeners, Music For Animals is a forced slowness. All Melody was about showcasing other musicians and collaborators, about trying out different dynamics and tempos and constantly bringing something new to the table. With Music For Animals, Frahm describes a completely inverted set of desired effects on listeners. Technically, it made sense for him to strip down Music For Animals more than his previous offerings. Where he might have once been able to bring in a full team of other musicians and aides to produce alongside him, he had to instead shift to working alone because of pandemic protocols.

These logistical constraints and forced solitude deeply informed the sonic direction his project took. With this record, he demands his audience to take a deep, slow breath, asking them to keep breathing and thinking slower until they feel they can’t. “Just when you think you cannot go any slower… at the point where it feels brutal to be going so slow … I’m demanding you to go half as slow as that.”

"I just wanted to make music as if it was a pile of leaves. But people usually want to see diamonds, you know?"

(N.F.)

In an era of short attention spans and the need for instant gratification, Frahm knows he’s asking a lot. But, that’s just his point. After all, he ultimately only wants to create for the most dedicated of his followers, those who will remove self-interest and truly immerse themselves in craft, experience, and the enjoyment of life and its offerings at their most rudimental—without pomp and circumstance, without asking for oversimplification, instead relishing the complex without need for explanation. “I don’t want to meet somebody who’s impatient halfway. When I feel I need to bend myself to meet other people’s expectations, I’m [just going to go] the opposite direction.”

For this very reason, even the extended period of break time that afforded him the space he needed to record Music For Animals was bittersweet. “I was a little bit bummed that I had to take a break, because I wanted a break [and had] already decided just two months before the pandemic that I wanted to take a break … but then needing to take a break was thrust upon me, and I don’t know what’s wrong with my head, but it felt like I would instantly rebel against someone telling me I had to take that break.” His sole focus became on “working harder than usual on music,” as signalled by his output in the last few years. Though Music For Animals is his first release of new solo work since 2019, Frahm has released a consistent stream of reworked and vault tracks, notably on Old Friends New Friends—a collection of his solo piano recordings—and 2X1=4—his fourth collaboration with F.S. Blumm.

Nonetheless, as Music For Animals came to fruition, Frahm went back to basics. Removing that desire for external validation, that ever-increasing and single-minded focus on plays and downloads, replacing it instead with a deep seeded and fulfilling contentment was the project’s guiding principle. “I just wanted to make music as if it was a pile of leaves. But people usually want to see diamonds, you know? They run around nature for that perfectly drawn, geometric environment. I just enjoy the bunch of leaves … It’s almost so wonderful if you can just like those old leaves. Maybe you’d be better off because you don’t have to look for the diamond anymore.”

Nils Frahm Music For 2 print c LEITER

As the body of work continued to come together, the pair played their demos and unfinished songs not for friends or executives but for the cats and animals that lived near the Spanish home they stayed in—hence the name—and they worked based on intuition more than anything else. “I wasn’t lazy on the technical side, but I didn’t want to [lose time] on it … I didn’t want to make the whole experience feel technical at all. So, before Nina would come in the evenings to the studio to play with me, I would organize anything technical on my own. Then, I would turn down the light to make it look cozy, hit record, and whatever was the moment would be the record—there was never a soundcheck or ‘test one test two’ or anything.”

Still, contentment doesn’t mean complacency. Anyone familiar with Frahm and his work knows the artist holds himself to a high standard both in his recordings and his live sets, the latter of which largely helped him establish himself as a serious name on the scene. He’s played sold out shows at some of the biggest venues in the world—the Sydney Opera House, Funkaus Berlin, and Disney Hall in LA—and released the concert film Tripping With Nils Frahm in fall of 2020, a tribute to and permanent documentation of his acclaimed performances. “My record playing concert is, I think, the foundation of what made my career because it’s an interaction with the people who support my work,” he said. With the world returning to normal, Frahm is picking up the pace once again. He’s already played a few shows in Australia, and has dates scheduled across Europe this fall. As he says, he’s “easing into a new normality” with his return to live performance. And though feels lucky that he was one of the musicians fortunate enough to have survived the shutdown, as we wade deeper into a cultural age increasingly defined by competition for attention, Frahm is okay if he emerges from the strife with only the most loyal few. “I make it extra challenging to love me—I only want true love. If you can truly love what I’m doing, I’ll do it forever.”

And yet, Frahm’s musings with a caveat. “When I say something about my music,” he says with a cheeky smile, “never take that too serious. You know, the music either says it or it doesn’t.”

Music for Animals is released on 23 September via LEITER

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