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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.

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NEW MUSIC: Midwife – Angel

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Here’s a nice track from the duo Midwife (Madeline Johnston (of Sister Grotto) and guitarist Tucker Theodore.) It’s a lovely unfurling drone-pop track that has shades of Cocteau Twins and the ambient, dreamier moments of Mogwai. The song creeps along at a funereal pace, shrouded in gauzy haze of distortion before the fog clears to reveal fragments of effected and intertwined guitars, like fading sonic memories.

‘Angel’ comes from the EP Prayer Hands, available on Bandcamp and major streaming platforms.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Low – Double Negative

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Press play and the first thing you’ll hear on the new Low album is the equivalent of a digital sandstorm.

Slowly but surely, out of the static and sonic scree comes the voice of Alan Sparhawk, sounding like a ghost trying with all his might to re-engage with the physical world. It’s a fascinating way to open an album; a new approach for Low and one that sets the scene for their most experimental and strangely beautiful record to date.

There’s a strong David Lynch aesthetic at play across Double Negative. That blend of a sense of foreboding and unease mixed with tender and affecting musical emotiveness. ‘Dancing And Blood’ continues to ratchet up the tension and usher the listener further into the present. Producer BJ Burton has worked in Bon Iver’s studio and you can certainly hear elements of the creative deconstructionist approach to traditional song that has happened within those walls. Mimi Parker takes the lead vocal on ‘Fly’ and it’s a powerful moment, almost backwoods ecclesiastical in the way it billows and urges. The defiance is short lived though as ‘Tempest’ submerges their voices in grainy, almost all-consuming decay. The clouds part momentarily before the connection is again violently disrupted.

‘Always Trying To Work It Out’ is a soulful suffocated pop song while ‘Poor Sucker’ is unsettling and laced with existential dread. When ‘Dancing And Fire’ emerges with pristine, clean guitars and an unprocessed vocal from Sparhawk, it sounds positively calming, Parker’s voice acting like a tonal echo chamber. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” they sing, and it sums up the album’s themes of standing up for one’s beliefs, the danger of losing optimism and how the negative forces in the world are warning signs to correct things before it’s too late.

Low leave us with ‘Disarray’, a robotic dance at a death disco and a plea for change; “Before it falls into total disarray, you’ll have to learn to live a different way.Double Negative is bold and powerful music, fusing the avant-garde and traditional song with both friction and harmony. It’s unnerving, visceral and wholly compelling.

Chris Familton

NEW MUSIC: Old Faith – Landing

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Though Old Faith are only releasing their debut LP, the post-rock quartet have previously released a couple of EPs under another name. This finds them realising a sound that harkens back to the golden era of post rock when bands such as Mogwai, Isis, Pelican and Tortoise were regularly releasing music that wove epic dynamics, hypnotic guitar-led incantations through sonic peaks and valleys.

For more details and to pre-order their self-titled album, head to https://oldfaith.bandcamp.com/album/old-faith. In the meantime here is a track from the album, ‘Landing’.

NEW MUSIC: Loomis – Deep

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New music today from musician and songwriter Loomis who hails from New Orleans. There are some great moody, gauzy textures going on in this song ‘Deep’ that remind me of New Zealand band JPS Experience filtered through Chicago post-rock. The circular nature of the way he arranges the instrumentation is great on this track.

You can check out his album Shark Water on Spotify and Bandcamp.

ALBUM REVIEW: Stuart A. Staples – Arrhythmia

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For Stuart Staples, he of the silken croon out front of UK moodists Tindersticks, it’s been 13 years since his last solo album, Leaving Songs. That record was comfortably in the same musical orbit as Tindersticks – baroque, jazz-informed and dramatic songs placed somewhere between latter day Talk Talk, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. In the intervening years he’s continued to work on film soundtracks which goes some way to to explaining the more cinematic and experimental scope of this new four track album.

‘A New Real’ opens the album with an echo-laden primitive drum machine and a dub bass line before that distinct low and nasally coo of a voice drifts into view, questioning the shape and form of love. Slowly unfurling at a heavy-lidded pace it suddenly blooms into cascading keys and strummed guitar, the mood quickly shifting from desolate melancholy to some kind of cautious optimism.

‘Memories Of Love’ surveys similar subject matter, this time looking at love as nostalgia. It’s in keeping with the album title Arrhythmia, in this case Staples sees irregular heartbeats as being at the mercy of the vagaries of love. The song rides on nothing more than a ride cymbal and sparse, resonant piano chords before bells and other percussive melodies permeate the song in the vein of Bjork’s textural explorations. ‘Step Into the Grey’ goes deep soul on a jazzed-out breakbeat as if the band Spain were playing R&B. Staples seems to be exploring the greyed out feeling of post-relationship despair before a restrained string-led avant freakout intervenes.

‘Music For ‘A Year In Small Paintings’’ is a 30 minute instrumental track that works like a short film as it traverses multiple moods (scenes) borne from the reactions of various musicians to 365 oil paintings of the sky by artist (and his wife) Suzanne Osborne. It takes on modern classical, ambient and jazz forms with wonderfully emotive and immersive results, making this album an intimate and evocative solo release from the enigmatic Staples.

Chris Familton

 

NEW MUSIC: Low Share Three New Songs from ‘Double Negative’.

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Low have a new album called Double Negative coming out via Sub Pop Records on September 14th and today the label has shared a clip featuring videos for three of its songs – ‘Quorum’, ‘Dancing And Blood’ and ‘Fly’.

Working again with producer B.J. Burton, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk and bassist Steve Garrington returned once again to Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (where they recorded 2015’s Ones and Sixes). Rather than obsessively write and rehearse at home in Duluth, Minnesota, they would often head southeast to Eau Claire, arriving with sketches and ideas that they would work on for days with Burton. Band and producer became collaborative co-writers, building the pieces up and breaking them down until their purpose and force felt clear.

Tracklisting:
1. Quorum
2. Dancing and Blood
3. Fly
4. Tempest
5. Always Up
6. Always Trying to Work It Out
7. The Son, The Sun
8. Dancing and Fire
9. Poor Sucker
10. Rome (Always in the Dark)
11. Disarray
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ALBUM REVIEW: Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance

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Ryley Walker is a restless musical soul, constantly shapeshifting and looking for new ways to present his avant jazz/folk guitar songs. Over his first three solo albums he travelled from Tim Buckley/Van Morrison/Nick Drake traditional folk to the songs that, three years ago, explored more eclectic and contemporary territory on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. 

On Deafman Glance he continues that work, taking further influence from the Chicago post-rock sound and draping his songs in synths, brass and tactile percussion. Songs change tempo, jump from meditative to frenetic and dance loosely on instrumental flights of fancy. Opener ‘In Castle Dome’ possesses a languid bluesy shimmer akin to his earlier work, his vocal strangely recalling Eddie Vedder. That thought is quickly eviscerated by the jazz shuffle of 22 Days, sounding like a more organic version of the band I’m Not A Gun. Boundaries are stretched and abstraction increasingly embraced on each song, adding up to a sense of both calm and unease, often within the same track. Lyrically there is little to grasp onto thematically other than a sense of questioning and a desire to find a surer footing in life.

With the album highlights ‘Opposite Middle’ and its gentle Tortoise-like propulsion, the prog and psych qualities of ‘Telluride Speed’ and the gorgeous closer ‘Spoil With The Rest’, Deafman Glance occasionally amounts to a disorientating listen but it never tips over the edge into wilful self-indulgence. It’s the sound of an artist inching closer and closer to realising the wild sounds in his head.

Chris Familton