When German musician Nils Frahm recorded his 2011 album Felt, he named it for the material he used to dampen the hammers of his piano, allowing him to practice late at night without disturbing his neighbors. Compare that to his latest record, All Melody, which was created in a studio he’s been building for the past two years and carries a name that reflects the unconstrained approach that the new setting allowed. Like his studio, housed in a building from the 1950s, the music takes something old and makes it new. Frahm elegantly retrofits the structures and instrumentation of classical music with synthesizers and the pulsing rhythms of electronica; his compositions utilize familiar elements and imbue them with a fresh energy. Ahead of his North American tour, Frahm spoke with us about moving into a historic studio, lugging a pipe organ across the globe and taking musical risks.
Your studio is located in the Funkhaus in Berlin, which was originally built in the ‘50s as an East German broadcast center. Did the history of the building inspire any of the music on the record?
I studied the building, I’m a little bit of a music recording history geek. One of my good friends, who helped me with all my mixing desks and studio equipment repairs and modification, is teaching me a lot about the history of recorded music. I was definitely interested in working in the Funkhaus, because I know how much effort and knowledge they put inside these four walls. I would say the acoustics of the room are almost as important as the instruments—imagine a really great Steinway in a bad a room, it’s still a horrible experience. [The Funkhaus architects] actually built a reverb chamber in the ‘50s and disconnected the cables, but I reconnected it so I could use it on a record and it blew me away how good it sounded. It just reconfirmed that we are living a very bad sounding age. People back then had pure sonic joy and we are just listening to music on laptop speakers. So honestly, I’m pretty spoiled.
How did you get your hands on the custom pipe organ that you used to record this record?
There are many organ builders still around and they’re looking for jobs because, as you can imagine, it's something that people aren’t building very much anymore—one of them said, “I’ll do the job.” It’s a touring organ, so it’s five cases in total and it comes on the road with us. It turned into a percussion instrument because I built a MIDI controller for it. We can set it up in all the venues and it’s backstage so there’s no sound spill— we set up six microphones to amplify it onto the PA. The interesting thing about my organ is that you put the microphone super close to it, so just a cigarette box would fit between the microphone and the actual pipes. They’re wooden pipes, not metal, so they have a very woody sound that basically sounds like a pan flute, which is usually an instrument nobody likes, but I think it’s quite exotic.
What inspired you to include vocal elements in your music for the first time throughout All Melody?
People always ask me to do something with strings or with an orchestra. I feel like that’s not the most original thing I could think of, and if I wanted to work with an ensemble of some sort I would really like to try something with voices. I believe that they can do the most diverse soundscapes—the voice is a fantastic instrument. The piano has a really human sound and I really like sounds that related more to the soul than to technology. If you think of pure techno from 1992, the excitement about it was that it was completely inhuman. I wanted to include more humanness in the record, and I felt that human vocals would carry that the best way. I set up a choir for a Barbican festival in London and I played with them during two tracks in my show. It was so much fun that I told them that they should expect to see me in Berlin when I make my new record. I put some [of the choir's] vocal sounds on a Mellotron keyboard and I ran it through some effects. I wanted to take the edges of all the different sound aesthetics and origins and overlap them so that you get confused about what is real and what is unreal.
You’ve stated that you want to be available to tour for the next two years. Why do you feel drawn to spending that amount of time performing live?
What happens on tour is I have all these sound checks and they’re really long. In these sound checks I come up with new ideas, so the tour will develop—it will kind of start like this and end like that. When I get back from the tour I will probably have enough material or starting points to focus on the next recording project. Two years is a long time because I was not touring for two years and I feel like I’ve built up a demand. The way I tour and the [amount of] stuff I have to prepare, it only makes sense to just do it full-on.
On your 2013 record Spaces, you cut together recordings of your live performances into a collection of new songs. Are you still taping all of your sets?
Just to be safe, I definitely record everything. Fortunately, we have much better budgets for the shows—I had to make Spaces using really bad recorders. Spaces, for me, was never really a record that I was proud of because I was never 100% pleased with it sonically. I captured a certain type of energy, which is probably more important. I also underestimated the energy that people would get from it, so it was a great surprise that the record did so well. To be honest, the record I always wanted to make since Felt, which I did in 2011, is basically All Melody. This is the record I was dreaming of my whole life, to just do everything in the perfect way. I’m really looking forward to recording this tour because now I know how to record in the best possible way and maybe after one or two years of touring and recording over 200 shows we will have something to release. Maybe don’t call it Spaces 2, but it could actually be another live record.
If All Melody is the album you’ve always wanted to make, what’s your path forward from here?
This is always what I wonder—having a music career is a little bit like playing Jenga, where you pull the bottom stone and try to put it on the top of the tower. The tower goes higher and higher and it starts to get harder and harder. What I intellectually know is that the further I go the more courage I need. Since I’m not risking my life by any means—I do a little bit by touring—but I don’t really do something dangerous, so I really want to take all these risks. I started with All Melody by taking certain risks and I would like to increase my risk-taking because I feel like, at this point, it will make me be excited about music for a long time. As long as I can do that, it will be kind of hard to say what happens next.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.