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INTERVIEW: Nils Frahm

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photo by Alexander Schneider

WHEN MUSIC & ELECTRICITY COLLIDE

The last decade has seen a rise in the popularity of modern classical music and its influence on other genres, particularly electronic music. One of the leading lights in the scene is German composer Nils Frahm and in a revealing conversation with Chris Familton he discusses his musical beginnings, his future and the constant flux of his live shows.

It’s 1:30am on an autumn morning in Berlin and Nils Frahm is ensconced in Saal 3, his studio in the iconic, Funkhaus, a 1950s building that previously housed world-class recording facilities and was home to GDR state radio. “I’m always a professional, always working when I’m not sleeping,” he laughs. “I like the night, it’s perfect for musicians. It’s quiet and inspiring. I’ve been in the studio for four hours and I’ve already unlearned how to speak and so it is civilising to talk a little bit.”

It’s been a big year for Frahm, with a heavy touring schedule on the back of his acclaimed All Melody album, He’s about to return to Australia for the first time in four years but don’t expect to immediately recognise songs from the album when he plays them on stage. “All the songs have changed already. I can’t go back to where I started them,” he says, with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “I deconstruct the compositions all the time and build them in a different way. I feel like the songs are ongoing compositions and when the task is to play them again, no-one could ask me to play them the same every time. I need to destroy what I did yesterday and redo it today. It needs to be a little bit different each time,” Frahm emphasises.

A hallmark of Frahm’s music is his ability to seamlessly blend electronic and acoustic instruments and still retain an organic, tactile and emotionally resonant quality in his work. “It doesn’t matter how something is played, just listen to the music,” Frahm responds, before tracing his fascination with both musical worlds back to the lounge room of his childhood home. “For me it was a natural connection to electronic music because it was always connected to my father’s hi-fi system. It was highly electronic so that connection between music and electricity was always there for me and wasn’t a separate thing. I was aware that a piano didn’t have a plug and other things did, but I thought a vinyl record player was as exciting as a piano. I liked anything that played music to my ears and made me feel amazing,” says Frahm.

“I was always curious about music and I like when I don’t really know how something is made. It can be made by an orchestra, it can be made by a synthesiser or even an algorithm. If it sounds good to my ears, and it all comes out of speakers in the end, I don’t worry. Here in my studio I’m looking at my patch bay and cables one to eight are all microphones and nine to 16 are all synthesisers. They are all the same cables. Even the acoustic piano goes through the same cable as my synthesiser and they come out of the same speakers,” explains Frahm, surveying the array of keyboards, pianos and synthesisers around him.

The conversation leads to where Frahm first had a strong emotional response to music. Not just hearing it as background music on the radio or in the endless hours of practising scales in piano lessons. “There were some songs that amazed me. ECM released John Surman, the saxophone player who played along to synthesisers and loops. It was something that burnt into my heart,” he recalls passionately. “I was crying to that song when I was a kid, and it had no lyrics or anything. It was just a harmonic motif and the timbre of the synthesiser, together with the saxophone. A truly amazing combination of a real instrument and something alien that I couldn’t understand. I heard many good examples of tasteful blends of those two worlds, even before I recorded anything, so I was very confident that it could be done and I was standing on the shoulders of heroes.”

Frahm still has All Melody tour dates stretching into 2019, but what then? He recently released Encores 1 – additional music from the same album sessions, and he hints at but doesn’t confirm that there will be more in that series. For Frahm it seems like his future is something of a mystery at the moment. “I don’t tend to plan too far ahead. I just want to survive next year and then in 2020 who knows what I’m feeling like doing then. It’s a crazy time in life and I’m meeting a lot of people around me who talk about inspiration and what they want to do in life. I hope by 2020 I’ll be smarter and can imagine something a little wiser than what I’m doing now – being the pop icon who is traveling around the world with tons of equipment and lots of people and playing these silly festivals around each corner.” 

It’s a revealing and remarkably candid insight into the decisions an artist has to make – the form, timing and responsibility of presenting their art. “I’m totally open for all of this to end, to be honest. I don’t want to be the person who just stops and takes something away from people. I can’t say I’m excited to just finish a tour in two years and then do the next album and then do a huge tour. I don’t know how many years we can go on like this. It’s really crazy man. I’m not dark about the future, I’m excited… but I’m absolutely puzzled.” says Frahm, before returning to the solitude of the early hours, the empty Funkhaus hallways and the cables and synths of his studio.

INTERVIEW: Adrianne Lenker

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THE OVERWHELMING SENSATION OF BEING ALIVE

Three years on the road with her band Big Thief has been a life changing experience for Adrianne Lenker and as she explains to Chris Familton, she wanted to document and archive her thoughts and emotions through that period on her new solo album abyskiss.

I made my first solo record when I was 21 and I was so much closer to my influences then. Now I’ve got farther from those influences although I’m more influenced by more things than I’ve ever been,” explains Lenker as she ponders they ways in which she’s evolved musically and personally since her debut, Hours Were The Birds, was released. “I’m 27 now and I feel like there have been so many things that have happened. When I made that record I hadn’t even met the band and I’ve spent the last three years on the road and they’ve become my family. That in itself has completely changed me. I’ve shed skins. I’ve been so influenced by the music the guys in the band have shared with me and people I’ve met on the road. My heart has been expanding with the challenges and heartbreak and the wounding and mending over that time.”

The album was predominately written on the road, something many artists choose to avoid. For Lenker, her muse has a habit of dropping in at any time and capturing the songs in certain situations can make for a difficult creative process. 

“Songs are always welcome in my soul but reality sets in sometimes and there are moments when I can’t give attention to a song that’s coming through. That can be so frustrating. Time is so fleeting and with touring pretty much all of your hours in each day are structured and everything is planned out ahead of time. Writing on the road is about stealing time from myself, finding moments to get lost in my soul,” says Lenker. “That can just be for 20 minutes or a couple of hours or for a day, but there have been so many times when an idea has been forming that I’ve felt really excited about and then we have a soundcheck or a show or a meeting. That’s happened countless times where I’ve lost ideas that I’ve loved. I also think when it doesn’t form fully it is meant to be, they’re just stepping stone ideas to get to another thing.”

Sonically, there is a clear separation in the sound of the album from the full band elements used on Big Thief recordings. “I had the intention to keep them minimal because I really wanted the acoustic guitar to shine,” explains Lenker. The approach is an effective one, drawing the listener into the intimacy of her performance and the simple details of her songs. “I just sat in front of the microphone and sang and played the songs and recorded them. There was no editing at all and we only aded one or two other elements. I was conscious to keep it like that – quiet.”

Lenker is known for her astute and sensitive approach to detailing events and the emotional impact they have. On abysskiss she again takes a magnifying glass to life experiences but places them in  the context of big picture existential questions.

“The biggest theme is the least original thing possible. Life, pain, birth, death, the cyclical nature of things. A lot of it is about questions themselves. The aching bittersweetness of being alive and the inherent duality of everything. What kind of twisted, hilarious or crazy thing brought all of this into being and how insane it is that we are brought into his world and then leave and the only guarantee we have is that we will die and lose everyone that we love. Somehow that’s what makes it so rich,” she says, with a mix of wonder and passion in her voice.

“I’m fascinated by the microcosms and explosions that are happening minute to minute within all of us. It’s creating this crazy tapestry that feels extremely gruesome, morbid, gory and bloody and also so delicate and magical and pure. The ocean exists and the most beautiful harmony exists but also war and destruction. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the sensation of being alive. That’s where it’s coming from.”

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NEW MUSIC: Fox Grin – Black Tree

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New music in the sense that it’s new to us… Fox Grin (Atlanta, Georgia) actually released their LP King Of Spades back in January of this year but we’ve only just come across this great track, ‘Black Tree’, in the last couple of weeks. It’s a upbeat shimmer and dance through art-rock and avant-pop. Downbeat by nature but thoroughly on the up musically, it cuts a fine sartorial figure as the infectious rhythm section pulses below all manner of guitars and keys. It sounds like Beck buried in a kaleidoscopic studio with Field Music.

Check out ‘Black Tree’ and find your way through to the full record on Bandcamp or hit up the usual streaming services.

ALBUM REVIEW: Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss

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Known predominantly as the singer, songwriter and guitarist for the band Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker is one of those artists who writes constantly, documenting daily life and existential thoughts as she travels the world with her band. abysskiss is her second solo album and it finds her expanding the raw folk of her debut into a freer and more subtly textured set of songs.

Acoustic guitar is at the core of each track. Generally finger-picked and inventive it is the vessel that carries the songs as Lenker’s voice quietly drifts across the music, repeating phrases, re-shaping words into different phrasings and emphasising mood and tone over any quest for perfection. It amounts to a hypnotic effect akin to heavy-lidded lullabies and that sweetly intoxicating drift when you’re halfway between dreaming and awake. As a result the songs have an intangible quality that requires repeat listens to get a handle on them. Each track also contains a secondary element or two – a ghostly backing vocal, field type recordings  or another instrument, adding another thin layer of texture to the music.

Out of Your Mind is the most immediate song, sharing a gentle chug and sound with some of Liz Phair’s work while Blue And Red Horses is catchy in a playground chant kind of way. Symbol is another that lifts the pace and inhabits a nice pocket of ethereal psychedelic folk. Across the album, themes seem to alluding to big picture things such as childhood, the inevitably of death and the cyclical nature of life. Heavy stuff indeed but in Lenker’s hands it has a sense of mystery and wonder that draws the listener into her intimate world of song. 

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Joe McKee – I’ll Be Your Host

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Joe McKee used to be the main guy in Snowman but now he’s based in Los Angeles and has recorded a new album, An Australian Alien, under his own name, alongside members of Ariel Pink, Drugdealer and The Pixies.

‘I’ll Be Your Host’ is a beautiful hazy, dream-like drift of avant-pop, complete with a heavenly sax solo. Check out the video and then hit the Bandcamp link to stream and buy the album in digital and vinyl formats.

ALBUM REVIEW: Suede – The Blue Hour

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Suede are this deep into their career and have flirted equally with the charts and the arthouse that they have earned the right to be the masters of their own destiny. Hence they’ve realised that the best Suede albums have a mix of grandiose, sweeping music and dissertations on the minutiae and unease of modern life. The Blue Hour is the third album in a trilogy that includes Bloodsports and Night Thoughts, set in the dark blue-hued twilight of the evening, the deepening shadows the heart and the oncoming dark night of the soul.

Strings sweep across the rural landscapes and the trash littered motorways that Brett Anderson sings of. He’s talked about viewing the world through the eyes of his son and much of this album deals with the terrors of childhood. You can hear it both in the tension of the music and literally in Anderson’s songs of broken homes, fractured family relationships, fear of the future and finding one’s self and place in society. It’s powerful and dramatic stuff. In other’s hands it would be overwrought and pretentious but this is Suede’s home ground advantage, their musical stock and trade.

Interspersed between the songs, recorded sound effects and sonic vignettes suggest dead birds and lost children and give the record a sense of a concept album, though it’s more of a collection of sketches or short stories rather than one linear tale. Wastelands, Cold Hands, Don’t Be Afraid If Nobody Loves You and Beyond The Outskirts are highlights of the glam, indie-rock variety and provide a good balance to the arch and avant garde tracks.

It all amounts to a fascinating and rewarding album with plenty to revel in on its surface whilst also offering a deep well of poetry and drama to explore at length.

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Diana Radar – Growing

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A new track and clip from Melbourne quartet Diana Radar. ‘Growing’ is their third single this year, taken from an upcoming LP or EP from recording sessions engineered by Lachlan Wooden (Primary Colours, Archie Roach), and mastered by Mikey Young (Total Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring). ‘Growing’ is a tumbling cache of sparkling and jangling guitars and melodically rolling bass. It has that New Order, Smiths kind of vibe, definitely placed in an Anglophile 80s world but also in the same orbit as Real Estate.