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How I Play Live: Nils Frahm

The German multi-instrumentalist breaks down his tech setup and approach to performance

Nils Frahm is tired. It’s just before Christmas and we’re one of his last interviews of the year, before, like everyone else, he retreats for the holiday season for a well-deserved rest after a draining year. There’s reason to celebrate, however — he’s just released his first concert film and album combo, Tripping with Nils Frahm, captured in December 2018 over four nights at Berlin’s iconic Funkhaus, where the artist’s impressive studio is also based. 

The film is simultaneously intimate and grand, with shaky hand-held close-ups capturing the delicate moments of Frahm’s performances, while sweeping shots of a gleeful crowd provokes contagious energy we’ve all sorely missed in 2020. 

The set-up is equally juxtaposed, as close-mic’d acoustic instruments mesh with electronics and tape delay FX, a frenzied Frahm the conductor of sonics and sequences. That middle ground between classical and contemporary is where Frahm clearly excels, where the sound source is almost irrelevant in favour of the sonic goal. By surrounding himself with instruments he trusts and don’t “make him want to throw up and run away”, custom-made boxes that bring his imagination to reality and a long list of trial and error in his wake, Tripping is as much a success for its impressive technical achievement as it is for what’s coming out Funkhaus’s custom-built soundsystem. 

The set-up, featuring multiple Juno-60s, Fender Rhodes, a Mellotron, Vermona DRM1 drum machine, Roland SH-2 synth, Moog Tauras, multiple custom-made Arduino boxes for unique control and a variety of pianos, merges acoustics and electronics effortlessly. We caught up with Nils to discuss how the set-up works, his approach to performance, and how Brad Pitt ended up as executive producer of Tripping.

"I felt like it was a good idea to really play as much of these electronic sounds live on stage [as possible]"

DJ Mag: What was the initial goal when you started taking your music on the road? How did you foresee it playing out? 
Nils Frahm: “Well, the main goal was to bring the studio on the road, basically. To be able to work with the instruments I'm also composing and recording with without compromising too much of the original timbre which you find in the record. 

“It was built around the self-made organ which I built in 2015 that was quite big, split across five big cases, and was air controlled. So it was a beast to tour with. We wanted to not overdo it — when you have too many things, you are not able to give each of them a real moment in the show. So it was about making it as big as it needed to be, but as small as possible, and we found a middle ground.” 

How did you choose what gear to take on the road, and what to leave behind, which parts to play live and which to sequence etc? 
“I would always try to play the part in the song myself, or give it an expression which I think is the most fun or most important part. If I did sequence something via MIDI then, of course, I enjoy the exactness of that, because that’s what people are not so good at playing — the exact same thing over and over without messing up. So I wanted to use the strengths and weaknesses of each sound, to highlight what needs to be highlighted depending on the part.

For example, on the Mellotron, it makes a difference if you play the note heavily or slightly, you can make the sound distorted. Or if you just half-press the note, you can touch the playback head just slightly and that will make a weird effect. This is all stuff which doesn't sound so good if you sequence it from a machine.”

So expressiveness is super important to you.
“Everything that is muscular and comes from the flesh, even just touching the filter or the pitch bend on the Juno and controlling it by hand will have a completely different sound to controlling it with an LFO or having some external Sample and Hold thing do it. I mean, they all sound good in certain aspects, but there's nothing like turning something with your hand and modulating by hand. I feel it’s not possible to emulate it with external signals.” 

It also lets you react to what the audience is feeling or what the atmosphere in the room is. 
“Exactly. That’s the moment where it feels like live music. Obviously, electronic music is hard to perform live and these ambitious productions stopped maybe in like the ’80s. Maybe people like Jean-Michel Jarre and maybe some other popular acts, but most of the other electronic music acts shrunk to DJ controller set-ups. I felt like it was a good idea to really play as much of these electronic sounds live on stage because it would be good visually, but would also be more fun to be around. I was convinced the more I could invest in that aspect, the more of a reward we could get back from it. It felt like the right thing to do.”

"An instrument is not allowed to make a sound that kills me. If the synth makes this nasty sound I don’t expect, I wanna throw up and run away"

What were the early challenges you ended up having to adapt as you played more shows?
“For the [self-made] organ, we had a lot of challenges. Especially when we did festival shows. We couldn’t find a quiet enough room to put microphones in front of it. By nature, it’s very quiet and you have to close-mic it and give them a lot of gain. And so we had a long cable for it and it was a beast — you roll a dirty, nasty cable through the venue looking for a space that’s fairly quiet. And then you realise that even in a quiet space, the bass speakers from the PA go through the whole building and then you start low-cutting the mics from the organ as much as you can. And then on my monitoring, I could hear whatever was happening in the quiet space, maybe somebody would walk in. So we had all kinds of interesting broadcasts from the organ [laughs]. So for festivals, we couldn’t deal with it so we sampled the organ in my studio and made a [Native Instruments] Kontakt instrument out of it. It actually sounded really good and chunky, so we kept on using it for the rest of the tour. 

“With the Mellotron, we always had problems. People don’t wanna know about it — we could write a book about motor controls [laughs]. We had to basically re-invent the whole motor control because I wanted the instrument to play lower octaves. We needed to change all the constructive parts because when you travel with it, it shakes all the parts so we had to reinforce it. There wasn’t anything we didn’t modify on that beast.

“The craziest thing [with the Mellotron] is all that smoke, electrical smoke we have with cell phones and wireless data all goes on the tape heads. It creates all types of crazy intermissions. We had to ask the audience to turn the phones off if they were closer than three metres. In the ’60s, there wasn’t much going on and so that was never really a problem. A lot of these old vintage instruments, in the future they won’t be easily used, when we keep pumping electromagnetic energy into the air.” 

You mentioned sampling the organ, and then you wanted to make sure you use the real Mellotron. Where do you draw the line saying, ‘OK, I'm alright with sampling this but I want to make sure this is the real deal?’ 
“With the organ, I wasn't so worried about it being a little bit different once it was sampled because it has a very static nature. Each note was basically the same. We even recorded some differences so it’s not the exact same sample [every time], and the controller I was using is the exact same keybed as I was using on the organ so it didn’t feel much different. 

“It allowed us to also focus on fixing other complications. We had six or seven [Roland] Space Echos, and they eat a lot of your patience.” 

There are modern equivalents to some of that kit though — like the Boss RE-20 Space Echo pedal, that would be far less troublesome. You’re obviously a big fan of vintage equipment, is it important to you to always use the originals and keep it authentic?
“No, I’m not the type of person to use old stuff because the old stuff is ‘always better’. I don’t believe that’s true. But certain things were just developed in such a good way that you could have left it as an industry standard. I don’t think we ever needed a better delay than the Space Echo. It has almost no noise, you can make very short delays, very long delays and they sound very musical to me. They sound more interesting than a digital delay, which sounds like an alien in an acoustic world. I mean, I like acoustic instruments like a piano and if I want an effect in a song, I need to see what colour combinations work with what sounds. It’s like cooking with the wrong ingredient. If you want something sweet, it makes a big difference if you use honey, white sugar, brown sugar, fruit sugar etc. If I compare this effect to spice, I feel I can throw it on anything and it always works.

“I try to only keep tools in my studio and around me that don’t piss me off. I’ve had synthesizers and I’ve had things which have one or two cool sounds I really like but 95% of the time when you accidentally turn it on it just doesn’t sing. It just produces horrible sounds I cannot stand and it has to go. An instrument is not allowed to make a sound that kills me. If I’m in the studio and the synth makes this nasty sound I don’t expect, I wanna throw up and run away. It really kills music for me. A lot of synthesizer manufacturers are responsible for synthesizer players being clowns, or people who don’t really play ‘real’ music because so much of it is just ridiculous sounding.” [Laughs]

“I don’t want to change just for the sake of change, but I have to keep myself interested in the song and the performance. If you don’t feel a song anymore, it cannot be forced”

How much of your show is improvised and how much is pre-prepared? Obviously, there are sequences running, but how much freedom do you have to extend a track for example?
“Most of the stuff is running as a circle, and I have a lot of switches to kill MIDI signals or cut off just the CC from a signal. We have these small self-made Arduino boxes that give me immediate access to changing MIDI channels with a physical switch and I have little points where I can interact with these looped MIDI parts. I can extend the loops as long as I want to, I don’t even count the bars, I just get the loop to where I want it and at some point, I start my internal counting. I never really watch time. Sometimes I’m inventing a new part in a concert by playing a different combination of things, and I try to develop that in the next show and it becomes a thing. Or maybe I’ll think after three shows, ‘No it’s too complicated’. 

“Some shows I rely on the things I know and that work and other concerts I need to go out there and hear new things, otherwise I’m getting bored. I’m not changing too much, I don’t try to change things so people know I can play in many different ways — I want to develop the song as much as possible in a way where it becomes, hopefully, stronger over time.”

Does it require a lot of discipline not to add and change and adapt as you become more used to certain songs?
“Yah that’s true, I don’t want to change just for the sake of change, but I have to keep myself interested in the song and the performance. If you don’t feel a song anymore, it cannot be forced. Everybody has it, Radiohead had ‘Creep’, they couldn’t play it for many years. If they maybe drastically re-invented it or made it something new, that’s something you have to decide as a musician — if you wanna stop playing a song or you wanna re-arrange it. 

“For classical music, like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, it’s fine to play the music exactly as it was because they don’t have to play it themselves. I imagine that even Bach, if he had to play a song 100 times, at some point he probably would have had to change some notes. Just an assumption, maybe unfair.” [laughs]

Are you using hardware MIDI boxes to sequence or are you using Ableton?
"Hardware sequencing is also something we sacrificed — it’s not flexible enough and not fast enough. I like using Cubase, just because that’s the software I grew up with and what I use for composing. I know a lot of these things can probably be done in Ableton Live in an easier way, but Cubase works for me, even though it has some down points like looping clips. If I want a song to be longer, I need to make the whole song much, much, longer so I’m not running out.” 

So you’re not looping in real-time, it’s just playing everything linear from Cubase?
"Exactly, the composition at some point repeats against each other forever. Which is interesting because some loops will have a seven-bar structure, others seven-and-a-half. The more tracks you have, the more different points of overlap you will get. Even for me, I sometimes hear things I’ve never heard before because things aren’t looping 16-bars, 16-bars, 16-bars etc but whenever they stop, they start new.” 

And is the whole thing sequencing MIDI or are you also running audio backing tracks in Cubase?
“Everything is MIDI but we also have a lot of CV and Gate generators coming from the Arduino boxes. We actually run MIDI over XLR, which we learned from Depeche Mode, and we use that for arpeggio clocking, or for tuning for the old Roland SH-2 which doesn’t even have MIDI.” 

How similar is the show to how you work in the studio? Is it more structured in the studio? 
“No, it’s less structured! I’m running whatever makes a sound, no matter what type of sound. On stage I try not to get too experimental, it can be boring for the audience and also boring for me and makes me sweat too much. In the studio, it’s much more about exploring and I try to develop things that I don’t know but sound familiar to me. In that case, you listen to very unusable and very boring and generic things, it’s often long jams which are maybe two hours of a certain sequence. I record all the of these rehearsals cause I never know if I can make that sound happen again. I develop a sequence, go have lunch, then I record another two hours. Then it takes the same time to listen back and isolate certain parts. I have a MIDI computer in the studio, and then a different computer I record audio to. Whatever I’m recording in the studio doesn’t even have a bpm, there’s no click track. When I’m editing the audio I just have to turn the grid off and line things up visually. 

“When the main instrumentation is recorded it’s very hard to put another sequenced part on top of it because it doesn’t have a bpm. I have to play an element with my hands, sometimes for seven minutes, because I don’t want to loop it. I love these ways of challenging myself because that makes the music totally live and unreliable. And then it starts testing me because it becomes a real hardship to achieve things — playing a shaker for eleven minutes, one left, one right.” [Laughs] 

Brad Pitt was an executive producer on Tripping — how did that come about? 
“When he asked us to score Ad Astra, we met him and stayed in touch even though I couldn’t do the score because I was on tour. I contributed some songs he found important for the film. He came to the concerts and we had the chance to speak and tell him about our next project, which was the film. We were basically joking when we said ‘Hey if you guys wanna be involved, we still need producers’. They jumped on, which was a very sweet gesture. I think you can say he likes my music and he felt confident working with me and Felix [Grimm], who co-produced the film. We were pretty amazed by that.” 

How do you feel when you watch back Tripping now when you saw the final edit?
“‘Nils, that’s you, you look fucking ridiculous’ [Laughs]. I can live with it because this is not a staged moment. I’m not putting my feet on a monitor speaker and making crazy faces, whatever you see is how I do it. But it’s also really nice to move to the music when you have such loud sound and you’re playing something rhythmically. I automatically start dancing. Maybe when you see it recorded in a nice space, with good cameras, you begin to understand what the show is about. It’s about energy — people see a certain type of energy going on and it feels very natural but also somehow intense. 

“That’s maybe even more important to the concert than if it’s this exact sound, or the analogue version of this particular echo or whatever. People see me having the fun that I’m having, they know it has the potential to be a good evening.”

Tripping with Nils Frahm is out now. Listen to the album here and watch the trailer for the concert film here

Want more? Check out our How I Play Live feature from 2020 with Hyperdub affiliate, Loraine James

Declan McGlynn is DJ Mag's Digital Tech Editor – follow him on Twitter here