Nils Frahm has been doing something with the piano that not many people for pretty much the past half-century have been able to do, and that’s get noticed outside of classical music circles. Nils has been able to play a variety of different venues, to very diverse audiences. We caught up with Nils to talk about the unique venues he’s played in and about some of his views on what it takes to carve your own niche in the music industry.
Northern Transmissions: On the current tour you played the Sydney Opera House, but you also played a lot of really smaller venues. How would you compare playing shows in completely different types of venues?
Nils Frahm: Probably what everyone could relate to, it’s like when you stay at a motel, it could be really charming, there’s a pub and the staff is really friendly, but then you stay at a 4 or 5 star hotel and there’s all of these luxuries that come along with it. With playing different types of venues, I think it’s a human quality to adapt to different situations in kind of an intuitive way, and without being able to do that it would be really hard to imagine doing my job. So wherever I am I try to focus on specific elements of the show. For example in a club venue where everyone is standing, that type of place asks for maybe a different type of energy on the stage than a place where everyone is seated like a classical venue. It might be a similar set, the songs would be the same but the energy would be different. I like playing rock and roll venues just as much as I like playing very luxurious and posh classical venues. Having the contrast is a very good situation for me because that way you never get used to anything and you stay fresh and healthy.
NT: You are a classically trained musician, so does playing the Sydney Opera House hold any special cachet for you?
NF: It’s exciting, when people tell you that you’re playing in a famous venue where everybody has played before, it makes you very proud and happy. The second idea is that you think “my god I can’t mess this up”. In the end it’s simply just another show because once you’re there, and once you figure out all the details and the sound check, you just treat it with love and care as with any other show. I’m not really too impressed by the venue, I think when I’m at the Opera House “there’s just a lot more people coming tonight”, and they’re just as important as the people in the rock venue.
NT: You’ve stated that you’re very conscious of how people listen to music. In this day and age music has become very functional. Are you like that when you listen to music and how do you see your music fitting in with people’s modern listening sensibilities?
NF: I don’t really separate music into different categories; for me there’s only one big category and that’s the music I like. That includes all types of music, energetic to softer and stuff from different origins. The music I’m making is basically echoing a lot of the music that I love. I feel like my interest in music is very wide, and all over the place. It would be very hard to imagine just making one specific type of thing. I was never really part of any scene or any school, I didn’t believe that music was about that. I felt that music is about as many things as possible and only that way can you experience all the flavours that life has to offer. When all my friends were isolating themselves, and some became the heavy metal type, and others became the drum and bass type, I didn’t really relate to that. They were gravitating towards other random people and musicians that liked the same style, but music has so much more potential than just that. Musically speaking, the most interesting part is trying to connect all these ideas and people. I feel that separation is almost all the time a negative tendency. Even politically speaking, there’s a lot of urge to separate space and it creates conflicts. It’s been really cathartic to meet and play with so many different types of people, and so far this is the most exciting achievement I’ve managed – to bring together so many different types of people.
NT: Recently there was an interview with Iggy Pop where he talked about how the music industry is bad for artists, but it’s also very hard to make a living as a musician so you’re forced to follow the industry if you want to continue to make music. Are the choices you make driven by that tug of doing what the industry wants as opposed to what the artist in you wants to produce?
NF: For me I never really expected or asked to make any money from playing music. My main goal was always to become a performing artist, so for me it would have been more than enough to be able to make money even remotely connected to music no matter what. I would have loved to have worked in a record shop as much as being an engineer. I worked in all jobs connected to music. In the end that was a good choice because I had so much time to learn how to play, how to promote, how to market it. When I started making my own music, I wasn’t green, I knew a good deal of how it would work, I had produced a lot of musicians already who had good careers, I listened to all their stories. I took it seriously, I probably changed professions every couple of years, and I thought maybe at some point that could be it. But I think the main quality of my work is that it’s not flashy, so when I started out it was like just a flicker of a flame and this is just the start of it all unfolding for me. I have a lot of plans to go even further and try more things. I feel like I’m on the crest of a wave right now. I learnt how to compose, how to play piano, and I find it all exciting. I’m 100% confident that I can maintain some kind of work, which feels really nice. In terms of the music industry, when Iggy Pop was making music things were a lot different, now you need to have a little more diversity, it really helps if you have other things that you can do to help you stay close to music whether it’s playing as a session musician or working as an engineer, and then at some point the opportunity will come up so you can make your own music.
NT: You’re about to go on tour in North America very soon, what sort of plans do you have for the new year, and perhaps some new recordings?
NF: After the tour of North America I’m going to take some time off until May, and then I’ll do a special tour of Europe, where I’m presenting some music based off new instruments other than the piano. I want to present some new songs and new material before I think of recording it, that’s kind of how I approach it. So recording the next album could take a little longer. But I’m constantly working on ideas, there’s an exciting collaboration project amongst other ideas. I wrote a whole bunch of music this year, but I’m taking my time with it until I’m ready to share it.