Nils Frahm’s new live album and concert film, ‘Tripping With Nils Frahm,’ is intimately entrancing
Words by Jam Pascual
In the storied building of Funkhaus Berlin, whose architecture is akin to the grandeur of a cathedral, Nils Frahm commands the air and the space, to construct sounds only he can construct. He’s surrounded by intricate machinery, moving from station to station while a captivated crowd looks on. It’s simultaneously intimate and spacious, an arresting thing to watch.
This is what you see in his new concert film Tripping With Nils Frahm, directed by longtime collaborator Benoit Toulemande. The German composer is known for combining classical techniques and experimental sensibilities, and it’s evident in both the record of the same name and the recorded live show. We spoke to Frahm about what went into the performance, and we even chat a little bit about gear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your work is multiple albums and EP’s deep, and you’ve played over a hundred and eighty live shows. How do you look at your new concert film, given all of that experience?
Well, for us it’s fantastic that the film basically continues where we had to stop in December 2019. Our goal was to reach as many markets and listeners with our tour as possible. But we weren’t able to go to South America and Mexico and other places like Iran and many many other countries. The concert film is an attempt to let the show also like, reach people, where we couldn’t be personally.
You recorded this show at Funkhaus Berlin, which is where you also recorded your album All Melody. Can you describe your relationship with the space?
I think that Funkhaus is the main reason why I am in Berlin. I knew that space ever since I came to the city, but it took me many more years to be able to afford renting one of these bigger spaces. And now that I can work there, I’m obviously very blessed and feeling very grateful for that, because I couldn’t imagine a better room or better circumstance to be recording at. So there’s definitely and love affair between that space and me going on, and it’s ongoing and ever unfolding. It’s rare to find a space with 7 meters ceiling height, and it’s just a good size for the recordings I do. The shape of [Funkhaus’s] room is not rectangular, it’s tilted, and even the ceiling is tilted. So the [sound] reflections, they’re just very, very good sounding because you don’t have parallel walls. There’s not many reasons which have been built with that type of quality and in that size, just purely for the attempt to record in a better way.
Your concert film sees you utilizing different instruments and sounds and layers, and you have a lot of equipment that you work with. How important is your collection of equipment to your creative process and live performances?
There are certain instruments I like using because they’ve been around and I never got tired of hearing them. And then there’s relationships with instruments which, after two or three years of using them, you kind of lose interest in using them and you stop using them. All of the instruments I bring on tour, they’re important to me for two reasons. One’s because they can take a beating—because bringing things on tour is a lot of stress for the instrument, and will be damaged. The other reason why they’re with me is because I like them for many reasons—because they sound great or they’re good to use or I can use them in situations where other synthesisers are difficult to use because they have a bad overview. And so this is just a special mixture of practical reasons and emotional reasons why I’m bringing exactly these instruments.
I want to ask you about a specific piece of equipment that you own. You have a large collection of Roland RE-501 Chorus Echos. And you use, I believe, five of those in your concert show? What do you like most about this particular piece of equipment and the effect it produces?
It’s kind of a very diverse tool because it can do three effects, which is delay, reverb, and chorus, so that makes it quite flexible. And then you have even two delays you can add on each other, which is another flexibility. And then it just produces very good pre-amplification, especially for synthesizers. So if you have kind of a low output line level like synth, then you amplify the low output level with the preamp of that chorus echo, and that particular gain is very clean. It just sounds very good on synthesizers, but also on guitars. And I use it basically as a DI box also in the studio for many sources. It’s just basically a very good conversion tool with built-in effects.
I’ll be sure to inform my musician friends, they’re always talking about gear a lot.
[Laughs] No please don’t, they’ll bring up the price of that unit!
I notice that there’s a lot of improv and on-the-fly experimentation that goes on in your set. It’s almost like you’re jamming with yourself. What’s going on in your head when you get spontaneous in your live playing?
I don’t pay attention because I try to just focus on the playing, and whatever capacity I have in my head is used for the music to be produced. And I don’t have memories of what I was thinking or what I was feeling. Maybe just because you try to be as much in the moment that it’s a type of meditative state where you don’t record your inner dialogue anymore. When I fall out of the improvisation, then I start realizing things in my head. But when I’m fully in the music, there’s nothing else happening anymore. It just slips me like a dream.
What was it like working with director Benoit Toulemonde? I understand that you guys go way back!
Yeah, we are growing old together [laughs]. We worked ten years on some art film, which is called Empty. That film was also now released one year ago. It was an interesting film, or for some a boring film, where I walk around the Alps and record field recordings in the snow. But I think it was time to really showcase what his actual ability is, which is making, putting musicians who perform in a visual which is a little bit different or unexpected, or has the typical touch of him. And I was always a big fan of La Blogotheque, which is something he co-founded. And his other series Soiree de Poche, which is also something I took part in.
We always really liked each other’s world of thoughts and ideas. And he’s such a fun guy to work with, so we didn’t hesitate to ask him once we made a plan to make the concert film to do it with him. And the process of doing that was from start to finish, that really incredible, creative, chaotic, wonderful journey. He has that crazy artistic energy he brings into a project. I don’t know what is with the French people. They’re just, like, the most energetic artists of them all, you know? They never stop. They call you up one night and they start talking for an hour.
When I fall out of the improvisation, then I start realizing things in my head. But when I’m fully in the music, there’s nothing else happening anymore. It just slips me like a dream.
It pains me to ask an obligatory quarantine-related question, but what do you miss the most about live shows?
Well, first and foremost, obviously the energy between me and my fans, but also the… yeah, well, being together with my crew. They are basically like a part of my family. Now they are basically busy with other things and I’m happy they’ve found other duties which they can do. But they are not in Berlin, so it’s not that we see each other, aside from being on the road. It’s basically a love and hate relationship because travelling and touring is somehow dreadful and challenging and it’s not really healthy. Then these moments of pure joy and achieving, or realizing whatever you’re working on makes up for that. Honestly, I’m not trying to tour constantly. So for us, it was basically perfect timing because we wanted to take it easy anyways this year, and relax and go in the studio and work on things, just to experiment. And so, it could have really hit us in a bad moment but, in the end, we are almost like, doing exactly what we planned on doing.
Can you tell us about any new projects that you might have in the works?
We are not thinking about doing anything for a particular reason. But it is true that I’m working, basically, when I’m not playing live concerts, I’m working in the studio as a normal routine. And I’m recording, but for me, the best process is to not really know for what exact reason or project or format I’m working for. Right now I have the luxury to just play whatever is on my mind. In that phase, I find it limiting to think of the end result. That must come at some point, I’m sure. But the fun part is where you just play music for yourself. Right now, the luxury I’m having, I’m happy to say I’m having no plan, and honestly—I don’t need one!