Stark white walls, a myriad of muted coloured vinyl and the most peaceful of acoustics, it can only be the Erased Tapes sound gallery. Situated in a quiet enclave of East London (just outside Victoria Park), last year marked ten years since the inception of Robert Rath’s acclaimed avant-garde label and almost ten since my interviewee for today, Nils Frahm signed there, his break-through album Felt delivering unto him a reverent following – and his trailblazing sound reaching audiences not often aligned with the genre.
Nils is dressed in all-black, with the notable exception of his coloured socks. He has newly shaved his head, a move that causes him, either intentionally or not, to exude a certain zen-like serenity before me today. He talks in a flowing, philosophical manner too, with glimpses of the images and ideas in his mind spilling out through his speech, the intensity he feels for his craft ever-present around him.
His new record, All Melody, out this Friday, moves away from the minimal piano sounds we are accustomed to with Frahm and conjures something much richer; a homage to his immersive, oceanic live performances. “It was making more sense to record the more electronic tracks I was putting out and presenting” he explains softly. “On the record, you find at least two of the songs we already know from YouTube videos or from live concerts. The people wanted to hear these songs, so I kind of collected emails and requests for these songs and so I was willing to formulate an album which was a much bigger sound picture [sic].”
“Some albums of mine are really small… tiny piano drops… and with those songs you don’t need a big sound, you just need atmosphere. For this record, I had to play so many different instruments. I had to build a studio first and then source the instruments and then the recording gear… it was a stressful year! I’d never worked so hard for anything in my life. But it was fantastic fun and it was really an album journey without any restrictions or any limits because I had a good advance, I was able to pay for everything. We did the mastering two or three times. Super luxurious, it was really nice.” Hearing Nils enthuse about the recording process like this is almost as much of a treat. If you’ve ever seen him live, or even just watched a recording of him in session, it’s clear how much of himself he puts into his work, no matter how minimal.
Those familiar with Nils will know he is prone to experimentation, whether by adding felt to the hammers of a piano in 2010’s Felt, using toilet brushes as drumsticks, or finding divine spark in the dripping of a tap. Nils looks for ideas everywhere. “I think inspiration comes from everything, even in the most boring, most banal moments. These inspire me as much as waiting in a security line at the airport. To me, that’s as inspiring as talking to a really interesting person. I could write a song about it but it wouldn’t be about the security line, it wouldn’t be about the person I’m speaking to… it would be a combination of those and I feel this is really what creativity is, it reflects everything and it is something that never turns off”.
At seventy-four minutes, All Melody is at times claustrophobic and at times heavenly, like being submerged in a lagoon after the hottest, heaviest of nights. Later, during the listening party Erased Tapes has prepared for the press, there is a moment when the whole room collectively holds their breath before exhaling loudly in shared relief. It’s le petit mort of musical experiences. If any fans had the impression that the title of the album is indicative of an easier listening experience, Nils soon sets that straight. “Unfortunately, the older I get the harder it is to make things easy listening because my taste in music and my ideas become more complicated (laughs). To satisfy me I put it all out there. There’s some tracks on there that are super easy to love but then there will be moments which make your heart beat faster, they will make you get into a cold sweat because it’s intense. It could be this or that but I think it’s like life in general, a journey and just the best relief is after you’ve been stressed”.
Perhaps due to the sense of isolation so often found in his music, it’s easy to picture Nils as a kind of insular and privately revolutionary creator – a quiet genius painting in a cave. However, this time around he had a large group around him in the recording studio, he calls them his “angels in the back”.
“They were people you could ask [for advice] but none of them would push me to do anything, they just felt whether I was happy or not and if they felt maybe I was too happy they offered considerations and I’m happy to take them coz they’re all really useful. I had about fifty or sixty ideas for this album process and I narrowed them down to 12 so…” he trails off, laughing. “At some point, you just like all your children the same you know and you just need somebody else. I had other musicians on the album which I want to mention because they changed it to something really different. Live I used loads of drum machines and things which I could program so they’re playing by themselves so I can loop or whatever but in the studio, I didn’t feel like these particular machines were the best for this particular kind of recording so I replaced these with a real percussion player. I had a choir on the record, a percussion player here, a bass marimba player there… I want to blur the edges of what you know about me and about instruments in general”.
It may be a cliché to liken live music to a religious or spiritual experience but it’s one that rings especially true where Nils is concerned. In his live shows especially, the group euphoria and intensity Nils creates with his work is at its most apparent. Talking about how he crafts these experiences, Nils becomes quietly animated. “I’m always looking for a mood that in one way feels human but also something you don’t really feel or something you don’t see every day. A little bit like a filmmaker wouldn’t want to film the most banal things in life, the filmmaker wants to get better images, images we could have never imagined or understand and so in music it’s the same. I don’t use lyrics so it’s all like imaginations, and the music, when you close your eyes, tells your story and something formulates. I want to do something which is familiar and at the same time absolutely different, so that was the All Melody in the title I was thinking. When we listen to the album it’s like we’re falling from one world into the next and then there is an open door like Alice In Wonderland and then you creep through a little tunnel and it opens up wide… I wanted to create a journey without a narration.”
In these politically charged times and with issues like Trump, Brexit and the ongoing refugee crisis dominating the news, music can seem like the only space we have to fully let go. It’s a chance to have an open exchange with an audience, the lack of physical, and in Nil’s case verbal, form rendering it an open plane, a space where we can project and explore whatever we desire. Yet even a master of the craft such as Nils can be frustrated by music’s limitations. “I’m thinking about politics a lot, and I often think I have so much more to say than I actually can with a piano” he admits. “What keeps me humble enough to kind of shut my mouth is that there’s no easy answer to anything. Every person has their own truth. No matter how crazy the person’s ideas are, they are pretty true and pretty real to them. These people really feel it and what can you do?”
“If you play music to all these people in one room, you address the unconscious of the listener, and the listener has an internal dialogue with it. I feel like this is what music can do. It can lift your spirit, it can lift your courage, it can lift all the good things in you, without needing formulated arguments and so it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s just so much easier for people to take it on when it’s themselves saying it to themselves. You telling yourself something you can take but someone else it’s harder to take, so music can really inspire people to tell themselves the “right” things maybe? That’s my hope.”
Later on, friend and BBC 6 Music presenter Mary-Anne Hobbs will take to the gallery floor, introducing the album to us with her trademark gentleness and enthusiasm. For the next hour and ten minutes, the room will be silent as members of the music press take advantage of the sound gallery’s fine-tuned acoustics to listen to All Melody in the closest thing to studio conditions. Nils’ work on the album is done, bar press and touring commitments, it belongs to the public now, and over the next few weeks and months, there will be plenty of dissection and discussion of it on their part. I ask Nils what his plans are now that the three-year journey has come to its end. He replies – in trademark low-key fashion – “I’ll just be practising piano”.