Everyone has been 14 or 15 and wanted to kill themselves.
When you think of Berlin, you don’t associate it with a blissful melancholy or dark introspection, you think of modern-day hedonism or its suffering over the 20th century. However, one young composer who has emerged in the last few years has taken it upon himself to mould a new soundtrack for this broken city, one with a more sensitive and conscious tone.
Talking to me from his modest apartment in Treptow, Nils Frahm shifts between two points of focus, one, his hypnotic-like operation of rolling cigarettes, the other, staring into the camera uncomfortably opening up to me. If you have followed Nils’ work over the last 10 years, you will have noticed his steady but meteoric rise as a distinguished composer. Mixing vagaries of classical music with pop, effortlessly. The missing link between the elite world of ECM, (his father, Klaus Frahm a designer for its records) and the ambience of Berlin’s electronic scene.
With his big blue oceanic eyes, you’re sedated by the inherent beauty of his music. Listen to ‘Our Own Roof’, from the Victoria soundtrack, a dark and poised statement. Or ‘Says’, one of the great musical contributions of the 21st Century. These are incredibly ambitious pieces which makes me want to get inside the head of this humble Berliner. As expected, he is a sensitive soul, someone who struggles with the madness of the human experience. There is no room for bullshit here; he is upfront about every flaw in his body and cannot understand why people won’t change their ways before it’s too late for us as a species. In this divulging interview, Nils Frahm talks about the ills of capitalism, his struggle with depression and why seeking the truth doesn’t interest him.
Let’s talk about your spiritual home, Funkhaus, your studio is based there and the place where you recorded your latest concert film, Tripping with Nils Frahm. I lived in Berlin for many years, I spent time at Funkhaus, during 2012 and 2014, and I met some fascinating characters there. One of them was this eccentric almost mystical artist, Anthony Hequet, he had one leg.
With the long hair?
The guy who basically lived in Funkhaus and was the spirit of Funkhaus?
Yes, indeed. But I have to tell you Nils, it was quite sad because I remember walking through Funkhaus, it felt so raw and had this strange energy. I went to poetry slams there back in the day. I also remember at a point when developers took it over around 2015/2016 and just kicked a lot of the artists out there. Are you aware of that period before the developers cleaned it all up?
Sure, I’ve known about Funkhaus since 2006. I managed to keep in touch with people who were based there, and I remember you couldn’t touch anything because it was all protected. With the new developments, certain things got better and certain things got worse. That’s obvious. But trees were growing out of the roof, and the building was not staying in shape. At some point, it needed a restart, and I’m afraid, you can’t please everyone.
I managed to transform the building from a musician’s perspective, I was able to advise the developers to respect certain aspects of the building. The reverb chamber, for example, is the most amazing sounding room for a music studio – they were using it as a storage space. I said, “Guys, do you even know what this is?”
Interesting. So, shifting gears to your music, I feel when I listen to your music you have an innate understanding of the human condition.
Well, thank you.
"I was always laughing, thinking ‘this is going to end really bad’ [...] and I felt crazy too. Now when I have conversations, I say see, look everything is going to shit."
Birds eye (c )Leiter-Verlag
What comes to me when I hear your music is a degree of understanding that you do not shy away from. You’re ready to deal with the rainbow of human emotions. There’s a bliss-like sadness and euphoria in your music at the same time. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, it sounds like my life. It’s a conversion. I think we are pretty similar because we come from the same roots, and there’s red blood in all our veins. I imagine that certain things we can experience in music are similar to a lot of people. That even though we don’t understand each other’s languages, we know sad and happy moments. We understand music in a more fundamental way. Sometimes when you hear a piano, you might think it’s a conversation between a woman and a man. The woman is the right hand, and the man is the low hand, and they start talking. At the same time, it can hint at shapes of the universe and describe how a black hole looks. You can make sounds that have no relation to anything we can measure. Language is more rational.
It’s definitely a filter. You’re saying that you see yourself as a conduit, so the music, wherever you get it from, can go right through you, essentially?
Well yes, I don’t try to make my own music, I try to experience something in the world of sounds which maybe I’m channelling and selecting. But I do not feel like, here’s the material, I need to get it from here to there.
That sounds very mysterious and inexplicable. I’m interested to know a little bit more about you. We know all about your music because we read your interviews, we can hear it on record. But I’m interested to know a little bit more about where I can find you in the music. Because to me, your music, it’s incredibly melancholy and sad. Can you talk a little bit, maybe about your experiences growing up? Any experiences that left a mark on you?
I think everyone has been 14 or 15 and wanted to kill themselves because everything sucks. But you’re young, and maybe everything was fine. I come from Europe growing up which had no wars; there was no harm; there was no danger. There was nothing special going on. I had loving parents who were respectful to me, and I treated them respectfully. I made friends, I was a normal guy in school. But, I was a little small, and I was never a leader, I was more by myself. When it was a sports game, I was the last one who was voted for the team. I stood on the sidelines, but I was never bored, I wasn’t suffering if somebody didn’t want to play with me. But I think I felt a deep melancholy for my whole life, and maybe it came with my genetics.
Towel & Back (c ) Leiter-Verlag
Have you ever suffered from depression?
Yes, I think there were times when I felt I had no clue what I wanted to do, and I had no motivation, and I was wasting my time. When you read my eventual biography it will start at 26. Before that, I was definitely on the search for something meaningful. Something that I could imagine doing my whole life. I was never confident in my music or my art because it was very obscure and experimental. I thought I would never make a living from that.
I was hiding from that moment. I didn’t want to join the world of the adults, and greed, and capitalism. When I was still in school, I was convinced we were going to hell, and that everything was going to pieces. Then I experienced Portishead when I was maybe 16, it felt they knew exactly what I feel.
But back in the 90s, there was a sense of euphoria, people felt we had overcome history, and we had put all these wars behind us, and now we can go to H&M and buy clothes for two Euros, it’s amazing.
You sound like a real Berliner.
Well the Wall was down, we felt we could do anything we wanted – I did not believe that. I never felt that’s right. I felt that in the future, we would have to pay for this. I felt very conservative in one way because it was all so obscene. The way we treat nature, the way we over-consume, it’s so obscene. It’s a sin. We need someone to tell people to stop. We need a revolution, or a dictatorship of the good.
I was always laughing, thinking ‘this is going to end really bad’. I got into a lot of fights with my family. They thought I was negative; they thought I was depressed; they thought I was overreacting. I felt crazy too. Now when I have conversations, I say see, look everything is going to shit.”
You’re quite political?
Yes, or social, I think.
"When I was still in school, I was convinced we were going to hell, and that everything was going to pieces. Then I experienced Portishead."
It’s true; a lot is happening in the world. But I don’t blame people because they’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes for so long. I guess that leads back to your music because you offer the service of helping people feel naked and raw? Just shifting gears, do you know the story about the Voyager in the 70s? Based on a NASA project where they collected all types of paraphernalia from the human species, and put it in a spacecraft and sent it out into space where it remains floating.
Yes, there’s a record on that right?
Yes, they call it the Golden Disc. When I hear your music, if they were to redo this record in 2020, I would put one of your songs on there. Your music is celestial, dimensional, and beautiful. What do you think of that?
I think it would be a USB stick at this point.
[exchange of laughs]
But I would be honoured. I think it’s a beautiful story, but also it is a little bit funny that we think if there is life out there, then they probably have a record player and could listen to it. They’re so smart. They must be a million times smarter than us.
Yes, so true. I think if they were to really listen in on what our civilisation feels as a species, your music could come close. You’re interested in the truth perhaps?
That’s a strong word, truth. I have thought about the concept of truth in the last few years. I’m not as interested in defining it anymore. It’s a vague state which is always changing, and my truth is different from yours and so on. Defining truth is nothing I can do as a musician. I can inspire serenity sometimes because I think it’s lacking. If you say my music is sad or introspective, I would also like to make music which is outgoing.
What art humbles you, Nils?
Wow, I mean music plays a big part.
(c ) Leiter-Verlag
Judging from your music taste, it feels like we share similar music tastes. One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘In a Beautiful Place Out In The Country’ by Boards of Canada, which incidentally was on your Late Night Tales mix. That is the most astonishing piece of music.
Yes, it’s a killer. You have to listen to Valentyn Silvestrov. I tell a lot of people to listen to him, he’s almost 80. He’s a very humble composer. A very spiritual person but obviously non-religious. I think the path of humbling leads to the widening of everything. And the opposite is basically what makes you small and what makes you tense and vulnerable. Humbleness is the natural state, the awe of all the things you cannot understand.
I’m interested to know when you play live and thank the audience at the end, you have this enormous smile. You have sweat dripping down your face, what is that moment to you? And to add to that, as an observation, behind all of that equipment, 12 keyboards or so, you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. You’re totally enveloped in this mysterious unit and that you are in a zone, that euphoric, hallucinatory zone.
That smiling moment is thanking people for trusting me on this experience because they give me all this freedom to do this. It’s a wonderful collaboration between the listener and in the end myself. Even with my eyes closed, I can feel if people are a good audience if they are aware and being humble, and if they are investing themselves or not.
In that mysterious unit you reference, with my back to the audience, I learnt that from Miles Davis. He started playing with his back to the audience, facing his musicians, it impressed me. My father told me this story when I was small, and I thought it was right to do that. Because why would people expect all these musicians to look at the audience?
Miles Davis made a PR decision for the sake of the quality of the music. In contrast, other musicians who are a little older than him were trying to be very friendly to the white people. For example, Black musicians like Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis called him ‘the smiling nigger’ because he was always trying to do what the audience expected of him. Miles learnt from that, and he said no, you could not do that, you need to stay true to yourself and make the people admire it. That made sense.
"Humbleness is the natural state, the awe of all the things you cannot understand."
I’m not sure I totally agree with Miles Davis, I’m watching an eight-part series about the history of jazz by Ken Burns. They go quite deep into Louis Armstrong’s life. They give a slightly different portrayal of him actually. But to finish up Nils, what happens to a person like you? You’re obviously very sensitive. You have a body of music that’s wonderful. But at this moment, how do you feel about the future? The destruction of the world and equally, how can you respond to it with your music?
Well, first of all, music can only exist if people listen to it. Without ears and the mindset, the music itself is non-existent. I don’t think it’s right to plan for the future – I have no overview. When I studied history, I thought, why didn’t people see what was coming? Now that we are in a similar moment where we all feel something drastic is happening, it’s very humbling. For the sake of being honest, I don’t know the answer. My strength is to find a quick response to things; that’s the essence of improvisation. I think as a solution that should be taken seriously because we are not good planners, If we can become accustomed to improvising then I think we’re good.
Thanks for your time Nils.
Feature image: Manuel Wagner
Tripping with Nils Frahm is available to watch now through Mubi