When something sparks Nils Frahm’s ire, he responds with incandescence. The globally renowned musician and composer finds it difficult to explain exactly how he feels about making money from art, but occasionally his thoughts sharpen to a diamond point. NFTs – the latest phenomenon gripping the industry, in which tokens proving the authenticity of digital artefacts are being auctioned off for millions in cryptocurrency – are, he says, “the most disgusting thing on the planet right now”. He shifts onto his haunches, the peak of his flat cap lengthening into the screen as he leans forward. He describes bitcoin mines in Iceland with contempt, and despairs that “even some of my heroes like Aphex Twin are selling, sorry, crap for 130,000 bucks... It’s unforgivable to participate in something which is so bleak and wrong,” he says.
Frahm is in Berlin, at his Funkhaus studio, peering into a webcam. He sits shrouded in the studio’s muddy brown light, his sharp blue eyes dulled to grey by the computer screen beaming back at him. It’s a position that’s at once deeply familiar and singularly uncomfortable for Frahm: he’s spent most of the past 12 months holed up in this studio but does almost anything he can to avoid being in front of a computer. As we talk, he gradually lowers the brightness on his screen and tilts a warm yellow lamp-bulb towards it instead, so as not to succumb any further to its glare.
The dim lighting and Frahm’s studied appearance – woollen jumper, flat cap, and a steady chug of roll-ups – belie the grandeur of the wood-panelled setting. He spent two years constructing this space and then recording his 2018 album All Melody in it. Even when touring the record, which he did pretty much non-stop for the two years following its release, the studio (including, I’m told, his coffee machine) would come with him: broken down, packed up, and hauled off after each enormous concert-hall show.
The imposing Funkhaus building once housed the GDR’s broadcast facilities (in German, “funkhaus” means “broadcast centre”), before being adopted as a nebulous art space until developers moved in in around 2015 – at which point Frahm was asked if he wanted to set up a recording space. By that point, he had established himself as one of the world’s most well-known and highly regarded pianists – though not in any traditional sense. He had found himself, along with others like Olafur Arnalds, ambient duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Peter Broderick, forming the vanguard of a group of musicians reshaping the traditional sounds and parameters of classical music with elements of techno, jazz, and experimental ambient techniques.
Two solo piano works in 2009 (Wintermusik and The Bells) had been eclipsed by the extraordinary success of 2011’s Felt, named for the material Frahm placed over the strings of his piano – at first to allow for late-night home recordings, but later because he liked the sound. The album was released by Erased Tapes, which had fast become a stable for artists of Frahm’s ilk. His following grew with a collection of live recordings, 2013’s Spaces, which showed off not only his virtuosity but his candour and humour too – including an “Improvisation for Coughs and a Cell Phone”, and Frahm’s now-signature deployment of IKEA toilet brushes to strike his piano strings. Tour tickets released with the announcement of All Melody in 2017 were snapped up before any of the music had been heard in public.
The tour took in the Barbican in London, Sydney’s Opera House, the Rubloff Auditorium in Chicago and countless other grand old halls in cities around the world. Four shows back home at the Funkhaus in December 2018 were recorded and stitched together for last year’s live album, Tripping with Nils Frahm, and accompanying concert film (exec-produced by Brad Pitt). Frahm was on course for more locations – he mentions Iran, South America, and Mexico – before the coronavirus pandemic brought things to a juddering halt. But the moment’s pause hasn’t been entirely unwelcome.
Today he’s releasing a surprise new album, called Graz. It’s named for the city in Austria where all nine tracks were recorded more than a decade ago, in 2009, when Frahm was 26. Most of the record has remained unheard since it was first laid down over three intense days of solo sessions. Frahm, isolated with just a grand piano and space to breathe, says that he was determined to make something of the opportunity to be alone with his instrument and a raft of quality microphones. Fans will recognise “Hammers”, which has taken on a life of its own as a live track, but otherwise these plaintive, delicate solo pieces will mostly be new to the listener – even if the stir of melancholy in Frahm’s sparing strokes of the keys on tracks like “Crossings” and “Lighter” might sound familiar.
It’s a strangely fitting time for the album’s emergence: almost a year to the day since many countries around the world began to lock down, and isolation (and living via computer screens) became a daily norm. Many are now beginning to peek out at the possibility of a return to something like the way things once were. Others seek new beginnings. The moment is not lost on Frahm. In December last year, he said: “When you read my eventual biography, it will start at 26.”
Listening back to Graz, recorded at the time he now recognises as the beginning of the rest of his life, he’s enamoured by and contented with the delicate grandeur of the album. “It feels like it’s coming out now in a moment where I just completely forgot how I felt or how it was to be there,” he says, recalling the draw of writing music for music’s sake. “It’s so long ago that when I listen to the music, I’m almost a little bit in awe at how good some of these moments were, like, emotionally.”
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This pursuit of emotional connection, however, is perhaps at odds with some of the most prominent places you’ll find Frahm’s music. Spotify listeners have discovered his output in functional playlists with names like “Music for Concentration”, “Songs for Sleeping”, and “Classical Sleep”. Other streaming services are littered with similarly curated collections, and there’s a whole subgenre of YouTube channels out there that play endless streams of music designed to melt into the background and/or boost listeners’ productivity.
How does Frahm feel about this? “It’s just a bullshit pop phenomenon,” he says. “It’s like the trend in America for food supplements, you know, where food can’t just be food – it needs to also, like, make you more smart or whatever you need to succeed.” He shifts to sit up on his haunches again. “I’m very surprised at how functional music has become: the music needs to be as boring as possible, so people forget about it,” he goes on. “Because if it gets drastic, people might just not feel in the mood for it and skip it, and the algorithm [dictates that] a track which is skipped more than it is not will disappear into the void of nothing.” Such banal systems, he says, make him “want to do the opposite even more”. Which is perhaps why he’s happy for so many of his songs to stretch out beyond the 10-minute mark, or why he remains so dedicated to the album format (he’s written more than 20 full-length records since 2005) despite its incongruity with streaming playlists.
Yet Frahm finds himself in the curious position of benefitting from so many of the technological power structures that he, at least in conversation, rails against. A constant presence on popular playlists is one of the few ways artists can earn a consistent income from streaming. He says he and his team have spent many hours over the years debating how they should engage with the likes of Amazon and Spotify. In 2019, Frahm started removing himself from social media sites (he remains on Twitter, mostly retweeting stuff, but does most of his communication via an email newsletter). These platforms, he said at the time, “have become unwanted companions in my life despite the opportunity they are giving me to promote my music.” Ultimately, though, he says that earning a living from music inevitably involves compromising on some of his values.
This inner struggle is just one of Frahm’s many defining contradictions (the other main one being his technophobia, despite an outsized interest in studio gear and an early career as a technician). He’s at a point in his career when balancing his deep-rooted and self-professed communist “hippie” views with his enormous global success has become cripplingly difficult.
For the most part he chooses not to engage, for fear of being consumed entirely by it and losing his ability to use music as an escape. He invokes Buddhist ideals – “That’s karma,” he says, more than once – and talks about “yin and yang”, and capitalism’s dependence on endless cycles of steady growth and devastating crash. His conclusion, at least today, is that nothing ever truly changes. Much like his music, it’s not clear whether his views are fiendishly complex or simple to the point of potency – but he’s beguiling nonetheless. Some things he’s clearer on. Productivity-boosting playlists are bullshit, but something he feels he has to compromise on. NFTs make him “want to live in the forest and never see another human being again”.
All of this is making Frahm’s desire to retreat away and into himself – just as he did in the recording rooms where he wrote Graz – even stronger. It’s not an unusual feeling for him, either: if you trace the ebb and flow of his career you’ll notice periods of fervent activity – albums, tours, and movie scores – followed by extended bouts in which he all but disappears, slipping into the background like a sleep-aid playlist.
The coronavirus-enforced pause has been serendipitous in this way. A timely excuse to withdraw. Frahm is acutely aware that he might not have been so lucky had the virus struck mid-tour – “I would have been bankrupt,” he says – and he recognises that the pandemic has laid many issues in the industry bare. Beyond the live sector, the debate around streaming remuneration is currently the focus of a parliamentary inquiry in the UK. But he abdicates from commenting on possible solutions. This can be frustrating, even though his reasoning is broadly sound and clearly something that’s occupied his mind for a long time.
“From a very humble standpoint, I don’t think I know how things should change,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of people think they could decide what’s best for others, and that’s the biggest arrogance of all leadership. This is where all leadership basically fails; it doesn’t matter if it comes from Trump or from Confucius.”
Yet Frahm undoubtedly (and knowingly) wields huge influence. Hyperbole trails his every move. In 2018, veteran broadcaster Mary Anne Hobbs described Frahm in a New York Times profile as “the single most important artist in the world right now”. A 2015 appearance on the cover of Crack magazine had already installed him as the “leader of a quiet revolution”. Frahm believes artistry and leadership are incompatible. He takes great care when sharing an opinion on matters great or small.
In that same New York Times profile, Frahm said he was already considering a role change: “I will cut myself down and something else will grow,” he said. He uses the same metaphor today, in the middle of another screed about the endless greedy march of capitalism. He wants to plant more trees, cut fewer down, let things grow.
Frahm isn’t planning on retraining as a forester, or at least he doesn’t say so. But he is preparing for a shift in focus. In November, he and his long-time manager, Felix Grimm, signed a partnership deal with Sony-owned BMG for their new production company, called Leiter. The new venture will let him put his energies (and cavernous Funkhaus studio space) towards nurturing new artists. This will mark a new era for Frahm’s creative output. Yet even here, as he plots a possible slide into the background, there’s contradiction. The word “leiter” has a few meanings in German. It can refer to a ladder, or a scale. Most commonly, though, it means “leader”.
‘Graz’ is out now
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