Interview: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds talking performances, Decibel, toilet-brushes and socks

Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds

My Decibel Festival experience hadn’t even kicked into full swing and I was off to meet two of my musical heroes; Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. They arrived in Seattle the previous night and were busy preparing for their performances as part of the Erased Tapes Optical Showcases – just two shows out of the many they’ve been stunning the word with in recent months.

With Ólafur’s album ‘For Now I am Winter’ still gracing many of our stereos and Nils’ upcoming album ‘Spaces’ (read a review of the album here) due soon, the duo had a wealth of material, experience and performances under their belts ready to stun the festival’s modern classical crowd. But before their amazing performances (read the Decibel X festival review here), I was lucky enough to have a very informal chat with them both in the lobby of the W Hotel in Seattle. It was Wednesday, midday. Ólafur looked tired and Nils looked alive. I had nothing prepared apart from a microphone and years of fan-boy admiration for two of the most talented musicians I was ever about to meet. I was just happy having a chat. Luckily for me, that’s exactly what I got.

Nils, can you tell us a bit about your new album, Spaces? It felt like I had just sat down to watch you perform when I first listened to it.

Nils: The idea was that it feels like one performance in the end. I wanted to basically make it feel like I had one good performance over the 30+ shows we did.

So you were cherry-picking the best tracks from the tour?

Nils: Exactly, I was spoiled!

Did you have your album in mind when you started the tour?

Nils: No, no. I was just recording to see if it could end up being an album.  It was recorded over two years, so the first performance sounded much different to the last performance I recorded, and the last one I recorded was St Johns, so two tracks from that show made it on to the album. And yeah it changed over time. Some improvised bits, more worked out songs…

And how did your improvised pieces effect the overall recording?

Nils: The material developed on tour basically, it’s funny because I only have the setup you see when i’m on stage, I don’t have it at home so I can’t rehearse my live set-up, so every concert is a rehearsal in a way. Every sound-check is a chance to come up with new stuff.

How much do you two get to play together?

Nils: We’ve played around 30-40 shows together.
Ólafur: Yeah quite a lot! We met when Robert (Raths) asked if Nils could open up for me in 2010, he just joined our tour bus and after that we played a lot of shows.
Nils: Yeah, the Erased Tapes tour last year.
Ólafur: And of course in the studio as well.

Some of my favourite moments from you guys are of course, your improvisations (and there’s a few online) Are they planned AT ALL?

Nils: The one you’ve seen was probably not planned at all.
Ólafur: Yeah, initially they are not planned but then they tend to develop over time. There’s that one on youtube that’s quite popular, that one wasn’t planned at all. it was part of an improvisational tour I was doing and i’d always invite friends to join me on stage – it was the first time we had played together. And then after that, we’d often go back to that original idea, develop and build on it. So in the end they become planned but not consciously.

Is that how ‘Stare’ came together originally? 

Ólafur: Nooooo it was more like ‘hey I’m in Berlin, lets cook and have some whiskey! Then suddenly it’s 6am and we’ve done an album!’
Nils: Yeah that wasn’t planned. It just happened. When we were half-way through the material we got a little bit more ambitious and excited and decided to meet up again to make some more.

Nils you seem to enjoy remixes (for example the Screws project) but how did you decide on Max Cooper remixing Stare?

Nils: He basically just wrote us.
Ólafur: Yeah, he just did it! He sent us four remixes, he’s so enthusiastic, a big fan and he really wanted to do it. I love his music.
Nils: So nice of him.

Are you planning to see his show on Friday (at Decibel?)

Nils: We will definitely plan to meet, I’m not sure if i’ll have time to see his show though.

I’m interested in how much you feed off the audience. You mention it in your album and you say how much this influences you, but when I watch you live it’s almost as if you are in your own little world, head down..

Nils: Well in the middle of the album (Spaces) there’s this track called Hammers, and a cell-phone rings. I was improvising something and all of a sudden you here ‘ring-ring’ and I have to laugh, you know! It definitely changes your playing because everyone is laughing and giggling. So you can’t deny that you don’t create music for the people at a concert, it would be silly to assume that you only do it for yourself. I serve something to the people because they have paid to see it and I’m happy to deliver. And I value that – i’m happy that people come to the shows and I like to make them feel that they change the performance in some way.

If they’re really quiet, then I can play really quiet so they can hear everything. When the audience give a big applause excitedly at the end of the song, like a DJ, you remember ‘that track was good’, so they help me develop my material based on their response.

So how does this impact your playing style in the middle of a set?

Nils: If they are quiet, then you play more quiet, and if they are loud, then you play loud. So if you put it into perspective, the dynamic aspect of it changes. A piano can only go so loud, but a synthesiser can go really loud, open up the space, and it may make the piece after appear even quieter. It becomes a psychological thing.
Ólafur: I don’t think it’s about conscious decisions, it’s more about confidence. When I feel like the audience is enjoying what I’m doing, I’m more confident and experiment or try something new, but if the audience is a bit dry I might play it more on the safe side.

Do you have any pieces that you know will almost certainly get the audience on your side?

Nils: It’s important to structure your set list. You might have 12 songs and the order of these songs is what you may end up changing. When you know you have one track that people like the most you have to work out where to put it in the set.
Ólafur: I’ve changed in the middle of a set. I’ve just thought ‘well this one doesn’t fit here, I’m going to play this one instead’ even though I had a set-list. I expected the room to be different and prepared the wrong set list.
Nils: Like a DJ with the wrong records, you have to change it at the last minute and make it work.
Ólafur: [Laughs] It’s very bad for my string players when I do that, because I don’t normally announce my songs, I just start playing and you see them trying to find the correct sheet!

I think I remember seeing that! How much do you practice with your string players?

Ólafur: Not really at all. I mean they are professionals, I give them song sheets, I tell them to listen to the record, learn the songs, and then usually we just do a sound-check and a quick run-through.

Wow, so how do you choose your string-players?! Do you choose them?

Ólafur: Yeah I choose them.
Nils: I don’t have to choose them because i’m all alone…!

Ah but did you choose the toilet brush?

Ólafur: [laughs] How did you choose that one…?
Nils: I just didn’t have the money to buy proper drum-sticks.
Ólafur: Toilet brushes are probably more expensive.
Nils: They were two bucks from Ikea – two bucks for two.
Ólafur: Oh really. I bought one the other day for like $20,
Nils: I know, there’s a toilet brush for $500.
Ólafur: Yeah but you can change the ‘thing’ on it.
Nils: Oh realllly…
Ólafur: I just want to throw it away, but now i just have to go and buy another ‘thing’. You keep the stick, because it’s made of some fancy material. You can’t throw away the stick!
Nils: Sustainable…
Ólafur: Anyway, Viktor, who is my lead violinist and who I have worked with for a long time, we met in music school, and we just kind of wing it, between a regular group of around ten who we normally pick from.

Did you grow up with a lot of people you still play with now?

Ólafur: Yeah, to begin with most of my players were just friends from school.

And were you classically trained at this time?

Ólafur: Not really, I did one year in classical composition.

So are you mostly self-taught?

Ólafur: Mostly, yeah. I had education in percussion, but that was more like Jazz style, not really classical.

Ah, so can you play the drums as well then?

Ólafur: [laughs]
Nils: Well he is the better drummer. But piano is all about rhythm too.

[laughs] I have no co-ordination. When you’re playing two pianos up there on stage it blows my mind.

Nils: It works in our favour because we come from a background where we learn instruments. A lot of music these days doesn’t require people to learn instruments. They work with a laptop, they add things together and it might be really tasteful, really amazing, but people get used to the idea that there’s somebody on stage delivering what they pieced together in a studio. So when people today see musicians actually play an instrument it’s more of an experience.
Ólafur: I was recommending this band the other day and said ‘..and yet they are actually playing it’ [laughs] it’s amazing! When did this become a thing? They actually play the synthesizers! In just, five years this has suddenly become something weird. They don’t just press play on the laptop!

I think that’s a big reason why I really enjoy your shows, as my background is more electronic and I really respect what you guys do up there.

Nils: Yeah and that’s good [being from an electronic background]. It’s liberalisation of music. People who are 25 can still think ‘i can do it’ but it’s very different from learning music from an early age.

So what do you like to listen to at home?

Nils: There are no bad genres, there are just bad albums of a genre.
Ólafur: Jazz, classical, techno, rock. A big part of what I listen to is electronic music. Probably 30/40% of everything I guess.
Nils: I listen to a lot of jazz and old records. There’s always times for different material. Sometimes I’ll only listen to classical musical for a couple of weeks!

What are you looking forward to at Decibel this year?

Nils: Last year was really amazing. We had some bad technical issues in my performance but this year we are in a really great performance hall.

Anything different planned from last years Erased Tapes tour?

Nils: For me I’m still on the Spaces thing, so it’s similar to what you know from the record, and people over here don’t know it yet. This is the first time I’ll bring a synthesiser and the more electronic parts to American audience.
Ólafur: I’m bringing my vocalist which is pretty special, we’ll be playing stuff off the new album.

Talking of Arnor (Ólafur’s vocalist), were the vocal additions to ‘For Now I am Winter’ a conscious decision beforehand, as it was a different approach for you?

Ólafur: Yeah, it was more just a need to do something new. I was looking for something to do different on this album. I know the singer, he is a good friend of mine and we’ve always wanted to do something together. He is classically trained but has played in rock-bands his whole life – kind of the opposite to me, I’m pop trained but I’m doing more classical. I thought it’d be a great fit. We wrote the lines together but he wrote the lyrics.

Are you a perfectionist?

Ólafur: In a way. We’ve talked about this before. Perfection doesn’t have to be something with no mistakes.
Nils: It’s a perfect feeling about something.
Ólafur: You’re conscious about everything. We’re just very conscious about what we do.

Nils, that must’ve been a big step for you with ‘Spaces’, having to go through the hundreds of recordings and pick out the ones with no mistakes so to speak?

Nils: When I have one show, 90 minutes of material, there’s a small chance I’m going to perform it to my satisfaction. A lot of people would be really happy with the show and not notice the small things that really bother me, but I’m not happy with that, so I have to record thirty shows and take the best ones!

That’s probably the best way to do it, instead of being in the studio all day long.

Nils: Yeah it’s something you can capture on stage which you can’t in the studio. Like the PA system is loud, the synthesisers are loud, and we have room mic’s and the sub-bass is recorded on the mic’s – it sounds so different to when you just pluck the synthesizer on your computer. All these little things, plus the atmosphere, and the sweat – it’s a good experience!

And your well-esteemed labels. What do you look for and enjoy about Erased Tapes, and label manager Robert?

Ólafur: Apart from being a good person and all that obvious stuff, I look for someone who is just an enthusiastic fan of the music. I’m on a different label now, and I wouldn’t have gone there unless I could clearly see that they are huge fans and want to do what i do, instead of telling me what to do.

So you still see a role for the conventional record label? With so many artists doing it themselves nowadays?

Nils: I don’t like the whole concept [of not being on a label]. I see why people do it, and there’s a place for that too, but I think an artist should be concerned about making music, and the label concerned about promoting it. And then you share the money! There’s so many musicians, Facebook addicted, whatever, who spend five hours a day promoting music and only spend one hour playing the guitar. It should be the other way around. Play more instead of twittering!
Ólafur: But it’s great that it’s possible. Because It’s not possible for everyone to be on a label. I love those tools that we have and I’ve used them a lot, especially before working with Erased Tapes, I love the capabilities they have today. I can be in the UK and sell 500 records on the other side of the world.
Nils: I think it’s really nice that the fans can get closer to the artist. But sometimes I see the disadvantage. I get lots of random emails asking ‘hey Nils what headphones do you use?’ And there’s always a time and space to answer those questions. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to think that the artist is in a different sphere – makes it mysterious if you’re not totally accessible all the time. It depends…. I mean you can’t really write to Daft Punk and ask them what kind of headphones they would use? You wouldn’t get an answer!
Ólafur: And that’s kind of cool!
Me: They don’t have headphones, they have helmets!
Ólafur: They are built in! Custom made!

What’s the best place you’ve played in terms of setting and arena? When I was talking to Robert (Raths) earlier we were saying how great Hackney was but how surprisingly intimate it was for such a big place.

Ólafur: Oh yeah, that was a great place. But there’s two things to it. The room – atmosphere, closeness and feeling, and there’s also the technical aspect of the production. And very often those things are not found in the same place. Usually, technical places loses intimacy, and usually if it’s really intimate, it’s a small place that’s not very technical.
Nils: It really depends. The most exciting shows are the ones where you have a really bad feeling at soundcheck. You come into a room and think ‘this is going to be horrible’, and then there’s a good chance you’ll be surprised. Likewise if you think everything is perfect, then the performance might lose a bit of excitement because you expected it to be good. And then your mood, it depends if you’re tired.

Your audience are probably quite knowledgeable of what to expect from you guys right?

Nils: It’s funny, for me, people often think that we are, or maybe I am, just a classical ‘hat’ and people need to be respectful, and he’s a piano virtuoso and they have this image of a really serious guy who will try to bite you…
Ólafur: I think we both consciously try to break that. With my talking between songs, Nils drumming his piano.
Nils: Or me just wearing some ridiculous socks. [Laughter]
Ólafur: He’s wearing his happy socks.
Nils: No, these are not my happy socks, but for my style they are quite normal.
Ólafur: I like how you always wear happy socks on stage, and a hoody.
Nils: Not always!
Ólafur: I was thinking about starting to wear death-metal t-shirts on stage.
Me: I’ve been waiting for you to wear your bright yellow and black top we always see in your instagram photos.
Nils: We’ve just got to not wear a suit or be proper classical.
Ólafur: I don’t mean like a Slayer t-shirt… I’m talking about [Ólafur announces a load of bands I have no idea how to pronounce]
Nils: But they are kinda expensive huh?
Ólafur: Cult things
Nils: Like you buy them on ebay for $200
Ólafur: Is that too much? [laughs]
Nils: Ah whatever works!

That’s obviously your next venture…

Ólafur: I know what we do, we start a merchandising thing and we have our names, but in death-metal letters [laughs] with like these unreadable logos!
Nils: My new album, ‘Man Eater’ [laughs].

Don’t forget your socks.

Nils: I’ll get death-metal socks, whatever!
Ólafur: Death-metal happy socks!

Olafur, Ryan, Nils —–

Discussion

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