Nils Frahm interview, part 2 – Latter i Mørket (Laughter in the Dark)

30 maj 2014 by Søren Lund Korsgaard, No Comments »

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Her følger anden del af mit interview med Nils Frahm i forbindelse med hans involvering i Hotel Pro Formas teaterforstilling Latter i Mørket, der kørte fra den 3.-24. maj. Nils Frahm komponerede musikken og spillede live til samtlige forestillinger.

I denne anden del kan du bl.a. finde ud af, hvad det er ved gamle musikinstrumenter Nils Frahm godt kan lide, hvordan han komponerede musikken til forestillingen,  hvorfor han godt kan lide at musik ikke er “perfekt”, og om han kunne finde på at bruge en sanger eller sangerinde i sin musik? Og så kan du blive klogere på hvad Nils Frahm har af fremtidsplaner!

Jeg har placeret nogle numre fra Nils Frahms seneste fantastiske album Spaces undervejs i interviewet, som du kan lytte til, mens du læser.


Nils Frahm inter­view, part 2

(read part 1 of the inter­view here)

I know that you like old instruments. Can you elaborate on that? 

Yeah it’s almost cliché to like old stuff nowadays. It’s part of the hipster culture. But I’ve always been that way, even when I was very young. I didn’t feel that the new synthesizers I could buy 10-15 years ago in a store sounded good. But the synthesizers they build in the 1970’s sounded really amazing! I was lucky because 15 years ago the old stuff was really cheap since people always wanted the new stuff. So that was great! I could have the cheap old “shit” they didn’t want anymore! Now it is inverted. A high end Zoom recorder doesn’t cost much while you pay way more for an old recording tape machine. So there has been an inversion of mentality.

The times were more naive 40-60 years ago. The companies actually wanted to put out a product that was superior, lasted long and made the customers happy. The old stuff is simply build better. Today they don’t care that people get annoyed that it breaks after the warranty expires. And it’s the same with musical instruments today. It’s cheaply made and it sounds bad to my ears. That’s why I’d rather buy the overpriced Ebay item from the nineteen sixties.


So yeah I like old instruments! I get nostalgic about that time. Not because everything was better back then. It wasn’t. The 50’s in America was horrible. There was racism and all kinds of bad things. But the instruments they made, for instance the guitars, where absolutely mind-blowingly good! And they last still. They’ll last 100-200 years.

It’s the same with old cars. You can always change a fuse on an old car because it’s made of very simple materials. You can always fix it. But a new car with all the computer technology will never become an old timer because in 30 years all the electronics will be fucked and nobody will know where to get the parts for it. The old computer chips is not build anymore so you won’t be able to fix it and start it. That makes me sad! We are now at a point where there won’t be old times like that anymore.

I can’t imagine that my car, which is pretty new now, will look appealing in 30 years since it’s all made of plastic. By then it won’t drive because it’s broken and nobody wants to repair it. They would rather buy a new one.

So of course that’s also my political idea about my whole live setup – that you can reuse things. I also buy all my records on the flea markets. The few new vinyls I buy from artists I like…I feel almost bad. I’ll be like “oh new stuff..lots of waste platic and so on”. But if you find a great record on a flea market which was already produced, which was already bought before you had it… There is something beautiful about that, I think!


Let’s get back to talking about the music of the play. In the process of writing the music for Laughter in the Dark, what inspired you? If you are even aware of that?

I’m not really sure. I think it’s the overall atmosphere when you sit there on stage and the actors act. Then it’s time for your musical cue and you play something. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just a belly feeling. There is on one hand the “Mickey Mouse way”, you know? Where you put everything on the movement to underline it. And then there is more like the Stanley Kubrick way where you use musical contrasts. I’m probably somewhere in between that. The quality of music for theater or film lies, I think, in supporting the emotion. And sometimes the music should add something which is not there yet.


So you composed the music on stage?

Yeah, all on stage. All on the same PA system. Always the same volume. All in one setting. That allowed me to really figure out how to tune the details to the room and the stage. I helped me decide for instance “okay, here I only need this bass note which makes the left corner of the room rattle.” I would not have come up with that in the rehearsal room because I don’t have the subwoofer set. Then I would have had different ideas probably. That’s why I think it’s good not to prepare sometimes. Not make up your mind and have an idea when you arrive already. Then you want to hold on to the idea because you put work into it even though you realize it’s not the right direction. That way it might end up like a big waste of time. You have to start over and you are frustrated to start with.

I’m not sure it works for everyone but for me it really works to not worry about the next tour in 6 months, to not worry about the next big collaboration and so on. I start to worry about it when I’m there. Then I have time for it and I dedicate myself only for that. It helps me to stay focused and everybody I’m working with can be sure that I’m fully with them.


Human imperfections seem to play a big part in the story of Laughter in the Dark. And I know you like imperfections in music as well as in your own. What is it about imperfections that attract you?

When you don’t use playbacks and when you do everything at once there will always be certain things where you think “okay, on the grander scheme it was good but there were 3-4 notes which I didn’t hit right. They rang out too short or too long or were too loud or too quiet. Or they were not there at all. But overall it was a good atmosphere.”

This is what musicians had to accept for so long. Especially when they recorded on expensive tape back in the days. On a big roll of tape you can’t cut a little hole here and there. You can only cut the whole thing! So if the trumpet was really good but only the drummer messed up, then the drummer would say “cut it” and the trumpet player would say “I want it!” and the band would agree “let’s keep it”.

They played a 10 minute song and then the drummer messed up one fill in the middle and for the rest of his life he would need to listen to that messed up fill because it was simply not possible to change it. People got tired of that understandably. Because they didn’t have a choice.

Today we have the choice. We can change it. We can record it digitally track by track. So without changing track 1 we can change track 2 anyway. We can leave it in or leave it out. That gives us lots of responsibility and people are not really aware of that, I think. I don’t want to blame everybody but I think people should try to be more aware that it is sometimes good to leave it (an error) in and that it didn’t destroy music culture in the last century.

There is a good Fleetwood Mac song where the guitar player is a little bit off. But would it make the song better if it was perfect? That’s the question. It might be good for the song! Sometimes we are very dogmatic and react to a failure with a desire to fix it. But we are dealing with art and we have to ask ourselves “why do I want to fix it?” Is it really a good idea to fix it? It’s often really hard to answer these questions so it’s sometimes easier to not have the choice at all.

This is in live concerts very easy. I can’t turn back the time. If I mess it up I mess it up. It’s not that bad, the world keeps spinning! In that way I feel like all the human imperfections on recorded music didn’t do any harm to the music. They are good actually! Isn’t it much more interesting if people get used to certain imperfections? Then the more often you listen to this song the more you notice these little things and you come to like them because you feel they add character. It’s like some actors put on a birth mark on their face to add something to a perfect face. It’s a bit like that.


There is a strong sense of some sort of narrative in your music in general; it has a very cinematic quality I think. Is this more in focus when you are scoring for a piece where there is already a story line?

Probably. I have much more the feeling of something fragile going on (in the scene) that I should not destroy. While when I’m alone on stage I’m often like a bulldozer: “Yes! It’s my stage, I do what I want!” I’m trying to find my place here and not overtake anything since I’m used to entertaining the whole crowd myself. But I should not do that here. I should only add where it’s needed and take out what’s too much.


Is this the first time that you composed for somebody else or have you scored for theater or film before?

I’ve done low budget things. Film, documentary, theater plays, dance performances, etc.


But it hasn’t been published, right?

Nope! I’ve never put out a score or something like that. If I would put out every little side project I’m doing, it would be like 3 or 4 records a year. It would be too much. When I put out a record the music on it has to be interesting of course but also the whole story behind the record needs to be something I want to tell! It’s almost like putting out a book. Spaces has a story; recording all these shows on different places. Screws has a story; it’s a record about a broken thumb. Felt is a record about preparing your piano and playing the quietest possible music ever.

So every album kind of has this little narrative around it. And I only feel like “this is a release” if I see the story which connects the music. I write a lot of music but for me to be happy about a release it needs to have a little more focus than just like “10 more piano pieces”.


So there is no plan of putting out the music you play here (Laughter in the Dark)?

No, but I’m already thinking for myself it would be nice to put out an album with some of my favorite commissioned works. It would be nice to go back in my archive and remix or rework some of these ideas. Say like, “okay this is music for something else”.


That could be the title…

Yeah! (both laughing)

I feel like this could be beautiful. This is a nice little idea. If I have an easy time writing the A4 page of liner notes for it then I would put it out. But I’m not sure yet. I do record all the music here (for Laughter in the Dark), that’s for sure! I make recordings of the pieces and put them in the archive.


Have you ever considered working with a vocalist like your buddy Ólafur Arnalds has been doing recently with Arnór Dan (listen to an example  here) or do you prefer to let the piano and the instruments speak for themselves?

I think I would work with a vocalist but I would not work under my name. I would work under the vocalist’s name to help the vocalist make their music. If let’s say St. Vincent asked me to produce her new album I would be like “yeah, I like your music a lot. Let’s write music for it. Let’s play the piano.”

But I think it shouldn’t be my album then. It should be hers. I would just help.

The vocal is so strong. Singing is so strong. It has to be the “headline”. I think with Ólafur, it’s interesting because he still puts his name on the record and have a featured artist sing on it. It’s not the first time it ever happened but it’s not something I would do.

How do you like it? Do you think it works (with the vocals on the Ólafur Arnalds songs)?


I’m not sure actually. In the beginning it felt cheesy somehow. I’m not sure why but I wanted the vocals to be gone so I could just listen to the instrumental version. But I don’t know, it has grown on me. Yeah, I think it works better now, but I’m not sure why. I think it needed some time to grow on me.

Yeah, I think I know what you mean.

It’s such a powerful thing to include a vocalist. I would have a hard time finding the right singer, I think. The singer would probably be so famous and well known already that it would make more sense to put the record out under her or his name.

I think for me – with the music I’m creating, my biggest challenge is to create a movie without showing the movie and create a narrative without giving away the narrative. So when you listen to Familiar (track from Felt) today your mind will wander into certain directions. You will have a certain association. But in 20 years you will listen to that track. And you already changed so then you will put some other narrative into the same track. It gives more space and it makes a track timeless.

 Nils Frahm – Familiar

This is why I Iove old jazz recordings. You know, some old Miles Davis ballads. Kind Of Blue for example. It would be bad if there were all these vocals on. It’s simply beautiful with just the trumpet telling the story. No matter when I listen to that album I always have different ideas. It’s more liberating and more creative that way for the listener to find its own place in the music and not be told like “this is the story of the song”.

And if you want that, then listen to Bob Dylan because that’s really good stuff. Or Neil young. Then it’s about the words, it’s about the message and so on. It’s really important that there is singing in some music. But if it’s just like this techno DJ who has some featured vocalist…just to go into pop music territory, you know. Why? Like all these featured vocalists on the 90’s jazz scene with subgenres like dub, chill out and electronic loud stuff. They had 5 different singers on one album. They all sing quite well but it’s not particularly interesting. It’s just vocals for the sake of vocals – for the sound of vocals.

Jean Michel Jarre got away with no doing that. He just always played synthesizer music and he’s one of the biggest French national heroes of all time! So I think you can reach a broader audience with just instrumental music.

To use vocals is kind of like the last big thing you can do to try to become a bigger artist. I’m not saying Ólafur did it only to sell more records but of course he wants to develop and grow as an artist. And he felt at that point it would be a good idea to put some vocals on. But I would personally have said “try without that. Keep that thing for later. Try to make something catchy, appealing and beautiful with just the elements you already use and develop them further! You are not at the point where you need to put vocals on”.

Nils Frahm – Hammers


What are your plans after Laughter in the Dark?

I’m going on tour. I’m having so many concerts this year. This year Spaces still needs to be performed.


And after that? An EP or album or an album of commissioned work, maybe?

I have a couple of albums already in archive. So if I can’t think of anything new, I know already what I wanna put out (laughing)! No really, I told everybody that the next thing is that I’m just gonna be in the studio and be doing many albums and then afterwards decide what I wanna put out. I just wanna make everybody certain that I’m serious about hiding away in the studio at home – maybe for a whole year or something. I wanna go back to that place where you just only make music because you want to. That’s how I started making music and it would be good to back to that place.

Now I’m working a little bit too much. It’s good work, you know, it’s fun work but what I sacrifice is these 3 or 4 days in the week where I don’t need to worry about anything else but just play with my own ideas. So I think after this year – next year I will start cutting down on concerts – and just explore!


Nils Frahm kan næste gang – og formentlig sidste gang i et godt stykke tid, opleves i forbindelse med Distortion Festivals nye satsning på klassisk musik (ja, du læste rigtigt!).

I samarbejde med Wilhelm Hansen Fonden præsenterer Distortion Wilhelms Scenen – en gratis 6 timers lang udendørs, klassisk koncert i Enghaveparken den 5. juni. Nils Frahm spiller til sidst kl. 21.30 i et program der også byder på bl.a. Nightingale String Quartet, Christina Åstrand, Ars Nova, Juliana Hodkinson og Messerkvartetten

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Her er en trailer for eventet:


Og så slutter vi lige af med denne magiske live-opvisning fra Nils Frahm, der i den grad demonstrerer hans enestående tilstedeværelse på scenen!

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