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The refreshingly unconventional Nils Frahm on his go-to music gear, scoring his first film soundtrack and the challenges of constructing a four-metre-tall piano
Nils Frahm is a magician. Not only because he leaves people at his live gigs wondering “How on earth did he do that?!”, but no other piano player around today can fuse so seamlessly ‘straight’ piano composition and a complex weave of digital loops, tape echo and analogue warmth. Nils talks to us about BBC6 asking him to play a special Proms night at the Royal Albert Hall, his first movie soundtrack, and exactly why he loves his Roland Juno synthesizer, Chorus Echos and JC-120 Jazz Chorus. And if you get the chance, see him live. You can thank us later!
How did your relationship with Roland start?
Nils Frahm: “My first product was a Juno-60 that I bought when I was 14. [Before that] I was a schoolkid and I had a master keyboard. My father thought it would be good to play with my friend, who just started to play drums. Obviously, a normal piano was way too quiet, so we needed something amplified. I had no idea about keyboards, [but] my father did some research and was told he needs to have, like, an 88-key master keyboard with weighted keys and stuff like that. So I started with that, and I glued two hi-fi speakers together and I glued an amplifier on top, like the type I saw on stages. I couldn’t afford shit, and I was so unsatisfied with the sound of that thing, even though everybody told me, ‘This is top notch for piano sounds’.”
How did you make the leap to the Juno?
Nils Frahm: “I had no fun with that [the home made piano] whatsoever. So I persuaded my father to sell the thing, and I bought a Juno-60, a Moog Prodigy and a Fender Rhodes for the same money. Quite a ridiculous deal when you think of what that stuff is worth today. I think I got the Juno for 100DM – like, 50 euros or something – so I even had some money left for sweets! I was the only 14-year-old with a Moog, like, a proper Weather Report set-up. I was always a fan of Weather Report, Sixties Miles Davis Bitches Brew era, and I saw Keith Jarrett with all these keyboards and I was like, ‘Cool, I wanna be like that’. I learnt later that he hated playing this – but I never hated playing it!”
How did the Juno work out?
Nils Frahm: “The Juno was the starting point, [but] it took me some time to understand what synthesisers are. When I was older – seventeen or eighteen – I read books about the differences of synthesisers. And then I understood that the Juno had some really nice possibilities when you connect it with other gear. But I used it more like an organ for jazz-rock stuff. I loved it so much, and I had probably seventy different keyboards in my life – this was the only one I didn’t sell. Eight years ago, I sold every keyboard I had just to make a clean cut and get rid of all this half-broken shit, and the only thing I couldn’t sell was the Juno-60. Now I’m starting over, basically, to buy more Roland gear. Synth wise, I’ve just bought an SH-5, SH-7, the SH-2, and also multiple Space Echos and some favourite Boss stuff as well.”
How many RE-501s do you have?
Nils Frahm: “Five. I have my gear agents who call me up when they find something I could like. I have good relationships with shops all over Europe and America, and since I’m travelling so much, I like to do business with smaller shops where they usually have used stuff, because some of these old things, I really like to re-open them up and see how different they are. No Juno sounds the same. I’ve tried many, and the one I’m using is, I think, a little bit broken, but it works fine, just some circuitry is messed-up so it sounds kinda distorted in itself. Also, the 501s, they have the same basic sound but each one has little differences, like, each spring reverb sounds different.”
And how are you using the Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus?
Nils Frahm: “I bought that with my first [Fender] Rhodes, because people told me that’s what you need for this: either a Jazz Chorus or Fender Twin Reverb. I couldn’t afford the Fender so I bought the Jazz Chorus. And the Jazz Chorus is great because it’s more like a little PA in a box. Kind of clean, but still has good tone. I don’t use it onstage because I have quite a good DI sound for the Rhodes for my solo shows. But I use the Jazz Chorus for my trio. I have a trio in Berlin with a bass player and a drum player and I like the directness of the amp in the room with drums.”
Your music is very cinematic. So I wanted to ask which soundtracks you admire.
Nils Frahm: “My go-to soundtrack, I would say [is] a mixture of all the Jim Jarmusch music, but a mixture like Night On Earth and Dead Man by Neil Young. But the one soundtrack I listen to the most is probably Cliff Martinez’s Solaris. Not by Tarkovsky, but the modern version, with George Clooney. I’ve only seen the movie once or something, and it didn’t leave such a big impression on me because I know the original. Also, the soundtrack for the original is great – very dark and processed synthesiser stuff from the Seventies, Russian synths and crazy gear.”
Have you done any soundtracks yet?
Nils Frahm: “I just did one. It’s [for] Sebastian Schipper, a movie called Victoria, and it was presented on Berlinale. It was a big surprise success, actually. It’s one shot over two hours ten minutes, just one guy running with a camera – crazy, crazy good. That was the only film I got offered which really blew me away. I don’t watch so many films, to be honest – I have other hobbies – but when I watch a movie it’s really seldom that I don’t turn it off after half an hour and fall asleep.”
What sort of headspace were you in during the recording of Solo?
Nils Frahm: “In a recording environment, there’s always two scenarios. You think about technicalities all the time: the right tuning of the piano, the right sound in your headphones, changing microphones. We had four days for [Solo], and most of the time I’m just making experiments with different positions of microphones and all that. Then there’s at least one or two hours a day where we just play through, we don’t talk to anybody else. After, like, ten minutes the atmosphere changes because the music you play tells you something you respond to. You have to kind of leave the realness of things for a while and music is the best motivation to leave this. For me, it’s always easy to get lost playing something which I won’t release. Just like some mantra or something. After twenty minutes of playing, I’m so detached already from all the other thoughts I had about whatever microphones: it’s gone. And then there’s always these precious little glimpses of inspiration coming and sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. In that world, there’s nothing I can describe with words, really. This is why I describe it with music.”
Piano Day is an event you started in celebration of the piano – and as part of it, you’re also crowdfunding the construction of a unique piano, the Klavins M450. Can you describe it?
Nils Frahm: “Yeah, the principle is easy. The strings need to be parallel, not crossed. On a normal piano, the strings cross each other and that’s not ideal because the resonance of one string makes the other strings resonate. They should be parallel, like a harp, so this is the first thing: low strings and high strings and they’re all parallel, making the shape. There’s a logarithmical calculation of how long strings should be.”
The M450 is going to be huge. How tall will it be, exactly?
Nils Frahm: “450 centimetres – you’ll need a ladder to get up there and then the keyboard needs to be at the top. I don’t have a room that big, so the biggest problem is not really making this piano, [but] to find a place where it sounds good, where it can live for a while. I don’t want to own it. I don’t want to say ‘This is my piano’. What I believe is that I should curate it, make sure it’s always in good shape and make sure it can get played by musicians. There should be concerts with it. So I want to definitely get it out there and make it known, and when I stop making music or I won’t be here anymore, I want to give it to somebody who is worth taking care of it. It should be somebody who I believe in, who will take the idea to the next level.”
How much will the M450 cost to build?
Nils Frahm: “120,000 euros, I hope. This is just material costs, plus [piano builder David Klavins] eating for two years. I made this website, pianoday.org, where people can find the Solo album for free. If they believe this thing sounds incredibly good, they can support us [by donating] because we don’t have as much money as the big piano names. I’m confident. I’m getting good fees these days, I will pay it out of my own pocket if needs be. My first thought was, ‘I don’t really want to own something big like this, I don’t want to have a big yacht for myself’. What is a big boat if you don’t share it with friends? So I thought, ‘In two years, I want to make a big piano festival, with a nice room with this thing in there when it’s finished, so we can listen to this’. This is the only thing I want. It’s not about the money. I finally want to hear it, after talking so long about it with David. Solo was recorded on his prototype – the 370 – and it’s already so great.”
You played The Proms in August. How did that come about?
Nils Frahm: “Mary Anne Hobbs is a great supporter and a good friend. She had to try her utmost to convince the whole BBC to make this happen. It probably wasn’t easy, not a walk in the park, but it worked out. They trust her. She’s an innovator. If she thinks we’re going to make something nice there then we probably will, because she knows what she’s doing!”
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