Nils Frahm: Resonate Deeply
Head east out of Berlin. Go past the blinking Alexanderplatz tower, through the wide residential blocks of Karl-Marx-Allee. Then keep going, past where the tram stops running, past where the last outposts of clubbing chug on, until smoke-puffing factories and stick-man power pylons are the only signs of activity. Here, in a building used as a former broadcast studio in the 50s, is where Nils Frahm has his studio.
“It’s a little bit like the place found me,” Frahm says, as he leads me through the vast complex of the Funkhaus, the venue that he now calls home. Originally the sound studio of East Germany’s GDR communist state, its endless corridors still display unmistakably midcentury details – modernist, unnumbered clocks and boxy armchairs in pristine condition, even if there are cracks in the walls. It hums with history.
Here, on the banks of the river Spree, is where the GDR created their radio broadcasts to ensure that their version of events was being reported to its citizens, rather than West Germany’s. In the meantime, these engineers also became some of the foremost sound pioneers in the world, developing state-of-the-art facilities for their endeavours, such as reverb studios, welled concert halls for transmitting the full sound of a symphony orchestra across the radio waves, as well as countless purpose-built studios for producers and musicians.
Like many of Berlin’s most distinctive buildings from the 20th century, the Funkhaus has had a rocky journey into the 21st, changing hands several times since Germany’s reunification. Most recently, Funkhaus’ capacious halls have been occupied as recording studio spaces for Berlin’s diverse population of artists and musicians. One such musician is Nils Frahm – the Hamburg-born composer, producer and celebrated performer, best known for his cerebral works on piano, most notably 2011’s Felt, for which he added felt to the hammers of the piano, creating his signature sound in the process.
A consistent innovator, Frahm has continued to stretch the boundaries of the classical genre, often opening it up to a new audience, notably younger than the typical solo piano concert-goers. In 2015, Frahm was even compelled to conceive an annual Piano Day, taking place on the 88th day of the year, which aims to promote a worldwide movement to celebrate the instrument.
Frahm got his introduction to the vast red-brick Funkhaus complex when he first moved to Berlin. “I had a mastering session for a record I produced for a band, and thought, ‘OK, this is crazy, I have to come back,’” he tells me. In 2015, news of the historical sound studio made it to Frahm’s ears yet again – this time because the newest owners have begun moving people out of their studios to make space for planned renovations, for performance spaces as well as office areas to help the building sustain itself. It was these new owners who then popped up on Frahm’s phone one day: “He said, ‘You’re building the greatest piano in the world, right? We need it in Funkhaus. Let’s meet.’ The same day I signed the contract for the studio.”
This studio is Saal 3, of which the Hamburg-born pianist is now the host. This fleur-de-lis-bedecked space is custom-fitted to meet Frahm’s instrumental needs, having been deconstructed and reconstructed alongside the process of making his new album, All Melody. Everything is crafted from scratch: the mixing desk, a pipe organ. Everywhere you look there are microphones and cables, standing quietly against the 50s woodgrain panels and gold-flecked wallpaper. “I knew the record would happen in here,” Frahm says, of the impetus behind the record. “I had to record the song All Melody, which I played live for a couple of years but never ended up on a record… I thought ‘OK, I need to do something completely new to surround these songs.’”
What is new for this record is the varied and occasionally counterintuitive use of instruments. Songs feature choral voices (a collaboration with Kieran Brunt and the Barbican’s Chris Sharp) as well as a midi-controlled touring organ – the Peterson-Maus-Hahn that has been with Frahm since 2015, and which he’s used to glorious effect on All Melody as a percussion instrument. He was particularly keen to combine percussion and choral elements, inspired by a Christmas song from Argentina from the 60s.
Filled with synths, drum machines, even trumpets, cello and other orchestral instruments, All Melody is most definitely not a solo piano album. “I always dreamt of making electronic music,” Frahm tells me in his mixing room, surrounded by a thousand knobs and buttons, waving an unlit, hand-rolled cigarette at me. “Making piano music was a weird accident which happened because Wintermusik [Frahm’s first album] was a Christmas present for my parents, and my mother doesn’t like electronic music!”
“I change the music until I find a point where it feels familiar, but it also doesn't sound like anyone else”
Once this project is complete, Frahm plans to be open to touring for the next two years. This is part of his interest in creating something substantial, something which will make a long-lasting impact. He laments contemporary consumerist culture, where art is lost in the scroll of the newsfeed and where everything breaks quickly, so that we are sucked into buying newer versions of products as plastic fills up the oceans. “We could have nice products that work well, which would be economically effective, efficient, and beautiful,” he says. “Why don’t we just do it?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with one foot in the classical music world, Frahm is disdainful of the mechanisms of the music industry. He’s scornful of work that is only ephemeral: a new remix, created just for a headline, or a music video that’s just put together to remind an internet-addled audience he exists. “Don’t clutter up the internet!” he says. “That’s why I made this ‘Big Album,’ you know, just to piss everybody off.”
It seems clear even after a few minutes of chatting, that Frahm is an iconoclast, whether it’s put to use in ignoring the diktats of contemporary music publishing, or in stubbornly using a drum machine to play a melody line. Undoubtedly, this approach is part of why his music always sounds so distinctive. “I don’t like plug-ins, because I can imagine somebody’s using the same preset right now, maybe in Tasmania! It makes me wonder, ‘what is original, what is authentic, what is interesting?’” he says. “I will need to change [the music] until I find a point where it feels familiar but it also doesn’t really sound like anyone else.”
Nils Frahm achieves an original sound partly with custom-built instruments, but recording techniques play an equally significant role. Most notably for All Melody, the use of the Funkhaus’s old reverb chambers create the echoing fullness of sound manually, rather than artificially. Frahm’s technical fanaticism took him all the way to Majorca, where a holiday was interrupted by a sound that caught his ear. “I’m staying in a really little old stone house from the 1600s or something, then all of a sudden I heard a water drop falling into water with this 80s, digital, Blade Runner reverb and it sounded insanely artificial,” he remembers. “I thought it was in my head! I went into the corner of the living room and opened something which looked like a wooden toilet seat, and there was this well, inside the house.” Being Nils Frahm, he set to work immediately, gearing up this tiny old house for his recording purposes, placing a speaker and microphone inside the well, so that the microphone picks up the sound to utilise the well’s reverb.
Throughout its lifespan, reverb has always been created manually at the Funkhaus, and its reverb chambers are still extant. We crash through the overflowing boxes of a storage room and open up into a small concrete space that is empty apart from a microphone and speaker. “Previously, there was no artificial reverb. The only way to make the reverb was to put a microphone in a reverberating space and send music through the speaker,” Frahm says, looking around with something like pride. The owner of the Funkhaus was about to knock down the walls in here, to create a bigger storage space – until Frahm explained these rooms’ value as one-off historical recording spaces that could continue to offer interesting sound to contemporary musicians.
“I feel like things have a soul, so I think when this space is used, it’s happy”
This appears to be Frahm’s unofficial position at the Funkhaus – as guardian of some of the exceptional architectural features for recording music. And while there are developments in other blocks of the vast Funkhaus complex, Frahm is dedicated to ensuring that Block B, where Saal 3 is located, remains focused on recording music.
Although he is committed to trying to maintain the unique features of Funkhaus for recording music, he is also aware that part of this is keeping the building standing. “I knew my studio only has a future if the whole Funkhaus has one.” His contribution has been to ensure that the area under his control is as close to perfection as possible: “I needed to do something that can’t be beaten… If I made a studio which is spot on that I will never need to argue about it. So that secures my future.” You can’t argue with excellence, in other words.
Since Frahm is heading out on tour this year, the space is about to be hired out for others to use. Is this something that bothers him, I wonder. Frahm shakes his head: “I feel like things have a soul, so I think when the space is used, it’s happy.” He has faith in the sanctity of the room to induce respect in others: “Nobody would treat this room badly. Nobody.”
As Crack Magazine’s photographer begins to rev up for his last few shots of the day, Frahm begins to carefully stroke the keys of a modified Danish pianette, then moves over to a grand piano, clear and strident, then the Juno 60 synthesiser. Instantly, it’s as if we have all disappeared, and he is ensconced, safe within the bubble of his instruments.
Ultimately, this is what Frahm was always aiming for. Once the engineers have left, it’s just Nils and his instruments in this incredible space. “They leave in the evening and in the night,” he tells me, finally lighting that cigarette. “I’m alone and just making what I’m best at: music.”
All Melody is released 26 January via Erased Tapes
Nils Frahm appears at Down The Rabbit Hole, 29 June – 1 July, Gelderland, The Netherlands