Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm are two of the pre-eminent figures of contemporary music, operating in the fertile and increasingly well-trodden middle ground between neo-classical and a certain type of graceful electronic refinement. As collaborators, the two have previous: 2012’s Stare, plus the odd formal session and impromptu live jam over the years. They’re also pals – and at pains to stress that it’s actual friendship, and not just a cash-in collaboration between two artists being forced awkwardly into each other’s path.
Intermittent studio sessions over the past year or so have borne fruit: both the more traditionally-leaning 7″ Life Story Love And Glory and texturally rich, rhythmically abstract 12″ Loon are out this month. We’re premiering Misha Shyukin‘s (quite literally) illuminating video for “Four” from the latter below, which ebbs and flows with the same grace as the track itself.
With that pair of records sidling up against quasi-performance film Trance Frendz, itself not a million miles off one of Radiohead’s From The Basement tapes, we reached out to Erased Tapes to see if there was any time to chat. Pleasingly, both obliged; so here we are. Delightful.
Much like last summer’s long-read on the label’s own story – which has since expanded globally by orders of magnitude, culminating recently in both a BBC Proms special with Mary Anne Hobbs and a well-deserved AIM Award for ‘Best Small Label’ – it’s best to keep any introductory spiel to a minimum, and let the brains behind the operation shape their own narrative.
GABRIEL SZATAN: How did the gestation of these releases occur? It’s broken into three parts: a 7″, a 12″, plus a separate collaboration with Ólafur – with all compiled for a CD release, right?
NILS FRAHM: So yes, it’s a Stare reissue from the first 10″ we did; a 7″ with two piano pieces; and another 25-minute 12″, which is more like modular synthesizer stuff. Then we just did a session a couple of nights ago, just filming how we improvise in my studio. We sketched out 40 minutes of music in eight hours, and it turned out quite nice, I have to say. [Laughs] We’re now thinking about including the improvisational video on the second CD, so those who tend not to buy vinyl or just prefer CD can get the whole complete catalog; like, quite a body of work.
When it comes to the 25-minute piece, it’s not worlds apart from what you individually do, but is definitely more in tune with gurgling electronics and sound design than usual. Did you set out purposefully to achieve something different?
NF: You know, there’s a lot of different angles to our friendship. Our careers suggest that we think a lot about what we’re doing, because we are both kind of prolific artists, and so it appears that myself and Ólafur are really hard-working, straight-up, full-on music producers. It’s actually not like that. We meet because we’re buddies and we’ve known each other for a long time: we eat pizza, drink some beers, stay up way too long and trying new things for fun. We just simply record whatever comes to mind, or whatever lays in front of us.
At the time I had just got two new synthesizers which I wanted for an age – the Oberheim Four Voice, a beautiful machine, and a polyphonic Korg PS-3100. We were just discovering these machines over a couple of days while Ólafur was there just to hang out, to finish something with no certain plans for release. Everything that we put out is basically just a by-product of us spending time together and geeking out on music.
As I love Rhythm & Sound and Ólafur likes techno, it’s never feels wrong for us to do something in that way. One moment we’re just playing piano together, and maybe in the next moment we’re onto some noisy, glitchy stuff. With our different approaches, the main question was: shall we put it all together, or separate it? We thought putting out the two piano tracks – one is more him, and I’m joining; the other is the reverse – felt right, whereas the electronic things should stay together on a good-sounding 12″, so a DJ could play it if they so desired.
I like music that is still to be finished somehow – it puts your focus on the in-between details.
GS: Would these conversations interrupt the creative process if they took place during, instead of in the aftermath?
No, not as such. We were just, “go, go, go!” We focus hard on a new idea, harvest everything which was good, and then record, record, record, record. And then, the next day we wake up: “What did we do? Hey, this is nice, let’s mix this one. Oh, this one is not so good. Ignore.” It’s basically just so fun to ‘work’ together so loosely, because work comes much more seriously on individual projects. We’re backing each other up, masking the doubts.
How does all that – both the friendly goofing around, and the safety net that brings – compare to others you work with?
Collaboration can also be a lot of work. I did a collaboration with Wayne McGregor, who’s a choreographer, and we were quite focused on the project. The fun thing with Ólafur is that when he’s solo, it’s quite figured-out and rather perfect, you know? Everything is in place. And when we work together, he lets go a lot, improvising more, developing sounds and letting inspired ideas flow. He’s not sitting there, looking bored in the corner; he has this kind of session character, like, “Play for your life, because we only have three days. Play, play, play, play, play!” He has very good taste and instinctively knows what’s working, what’s strong, what’s too weak.
I like music that is still to be finished somehow, which is not super locked-in or round, rather than everything being there. It puts your focus on the in-between details, little differences in the reverb and details in the filter. A lot of tracks on the 12″ especially could have more things piled atop, but for this time we only imagined the synth melody, orchestra section or sweeping strings.
You’re quite fortunate as well that that no-one’s sitting on you saying, “sorry but you didn’t really finish it. Go back and redo that part.”
Yeah. It’s not negative. You know, this music is not the most catchy, not the most hit-you-in-the-face festival-kicking song of the year, or a declaration of: “Look at me. Watch how great I am.” It unfolds over time, is a little more rich, and I like that kind of humbleness about it. It’s like a cat, moving as and when they desire, rather than a dog, so eager to please. We treat our sessions as how we did music age 14, when we were only doing it for the fun of it. It’s a break from the day-to-day of being professional musicians. Sometimes I arrive at points where it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I have to finish this, and there’s a video edit I have to do for that, and this email and…’ Everybody needs to work, and that’s okay – but here we strictly decided, “as soon as it feels like work, we’ll just do something else. Go to the lake and swim.”
Are you going to try and replicate it live, or simply let it exist as a hermetically sealed project? Just a document of a few days, that’s all.
Yeah I mean, if we would do a live show, then we would probably go in this kind of professional world. We would need a live technician, and a solid crew, and then there’s marketing, and then you have to announce stuff, and there’s a lot of risk, because the venue needs to be filled ––
And more interviews.
And more interviews, and people spending a lot of money on tickets, booking six months ahead for something that comes from a sacred place in the moment. There would need to be a turnaround is what I’m saying. Stuff costs money, and people will spend it on us, and they want something for it – this is totally fine, by the way, it’s what I do every day with my solo career, and Óli as well. But for us not to be fuelled by any trading ideas, just basically giving some music people can opt to pay for or not: that’s a nice thing. I guess a live recreation is not on the cards. Although there is that 45 minute session we shot in my studio.
Similar to the one from three or four years ago in front of a tiny audience, but a little more polished and professional. I suppose you’re letting people into your safe place, but it’s not a vehicle of end product necessitating months of planning and a whole rig.
Exactly. Ideally I would love to give these living-room concerts with Ólafur, but because the public demand would be too big — a ridiculous run of just 20 or so tickets would lead to disappointment — you would end up with two-thousand capacity rooms filled by experimental music, which is not really a great fit. I want it to sound like we’re playing for the person who’s watching the person who’s watching, forging this connection. And this works better, so I’m happy with that.
This music is not the most catchy, not the most hit-you-in-the-face festival-kicking song of the year, or a declaration of: “Look at me. Watch how great I am.”
Had you spoken with Óli in advance about emulating a certain sound? Or even buying specific gear having heard it used well on a particular record?
No, but new instruments come around by chance, and that can be a game-changer. Another piece of equipment can really become a part of your musical language. The new project was basically exploring two new synthesizers, which arrived in my studio only a week before. It was more like opening a box of candy and trying the different flavours. “What is the green one like? Ooh, fresh.” And that kind of thing is a rather special moment in time, because once you’ve got all the flavours and know what the green ones do taste like, you eat it differently, just maybe not so much of it, and just more carefully. But in the first moment when you discover something great, you just…it’s a little bit too much, you know? We are documenting the excitement.
In the same way, I think we are not so depending on the specific synthesizer. We would always try to squeeze everything out of whatever you have, and we would only have very basic equipment, but we would still see the potential of it and say, “This is the maximum we can get out of it, and let’s try to aim for it.” Instruments are really important, and they matter in the end for the result, but creativity of course is beholden to limitations: instruments are limited, and your physicality is limited. This is where you really see creativity as necessary to overcome that. The more synthesizers we would have, the more difficult it would be to stop. Or take plug-ins on a computer: you have 50,000 VSTs, and you’re considering, “I can make potentially any sound out there, but which sound do I really want to do?” So, it’s much easier sometimes to have a thing which only has three sounds, and to then to really think what you do with that sound. It’s already a lot of possibilities.
It’s funny, sometimes I see you – and the way people relate to your music – as a modern update on Tangerine Dream and early kosmiche and stuff. But I guess the idea of you on a fucking massive synth rack probably isn’t ever going to happen, because having a million options would terrify you.
Hah, yeah. I’d rather have something simple which just has a beautiful aura. I don’t need parameters, you know? I don’t need to have access to every tiny detail in the sound, I’d just rather get some feedback from the instrument, and the piano’s the best example. It’s a massive instrument and only has one sound, but you can make so many moods and atmospheres with it. Fender Rhodes is the same – it just has one sound, and then the rest really depends on you.
Like, a modular synthesizer suggests that you overcome technology, but it’s not the case that technology overcomes you, because all the knobs and all the things are still things you didn’t decipher; they’re just there, and you have to use them. So, you’re still kind of a slave to the options you have. With the piano as an acoustic instrument, it’s much easier to just find your physicality, make the difference, and make it yours. Positioning my fingers in one such way, stretching my foot to reach a pedal or abandoning that note, hitting a chord with a certain physicality: you’re relying on your uniqueness. Maybe the piano will never sound like this unless I play it.
Digital replication with compute programs is a code: that reverb preset would sound the same in Paraguay as it would it London. No two Steinways or Fender Strats sound the same – and even then, you know, humidity, sun, the wood is always different. This is really what I like about specific old synthesizers too, because they age differently, and they use slightly different components, and so the capacitors can dry out and change value, and therefore, no Juno will sound exactly the same. It’s really inspiring to find the answer to those questions.
You can’t just hope to sound like Boards of Canada, because they have a unique setup with uniquely modified instruments.
Reckon you’ll ever be able to overcome that unwillingness to engage in instruments that are more impersonal and generic?
You have to first wonder if it’s necessary that you put your uniqueness in music, or is it just a cliché? Think about it: John Coltrane sounds like John Coltrane, Miles Davis sounds like Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix like Jimi Hendrix. The way he presses the guitar chord, nobody else would do it like that, and maybe it’s because he didn’t learn it properly or something — just something applies which is unique. In the world of MIDI and such, the algorithms and the code is exactly the same. It’s interesting that it’s really a new way of thinking about music, because before this era, every instrument was slightly different, you know? I think this is why we like the relationships with instruments, because we honour the uniqueness and the slightly odd features. I have a hard time building relationships to computers, because I know they are the same and kind of bland. It’s not a buddy; he doesn’t belong to me. It’s just software. Maybe I shouldn’t make a big deal, it’s the wrong story to live by; that we as artists should stick out. But this is the idea I was brought up with. I grew up like this; I thought an artist needs to be unique. I wonder how people who make this very generic digital stuff think about it.
I don’t think they’re thinking about the wider implications of homogenisation of sound. They’ll be like, “Oh, sweet. I’ve uncovered a new preset,” or even, “I’m hitting on an incredible melody. It doesn’t really matter what the base tools are.”
But on the other hand, at a basic level some musicians want to sound like their favourite musicians. “I want to sound like Jon Hopkins. I want to sound like Aphex Twin. I want to sound like Autechre. I want to sound like Boards of Canada. Like whatever, you know: electronic music.” You can’t just hope to sound like Boards of Canada, because they have a unique setup with uniquely modified instruments. The way they set things up with broken tape machines will always sound unique because this one tape head is kind of off. You know? All these little uniquenesses add up.
They made a mistake when they took their field recording and that will be forever. It will be permanent.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then they use this one little thing which fell down, and it sounds a little weird, but it’s cool. This is what I would really terribly miss in a different setup. I understand that people want to work on the laptop while they fly from New York to London or something like that. But when I fly from New York to London, I’m flying. And when I’m in the studio making music, I truly think about it. When you sit, you sit; when you breathe, you breathe; when you swim, you swim; when you drive, you drive. And when you make music, you make music.
The things I did with Ólafur, we’ve committed our time to make music in an environment which is rather unique, and we only do it when we are there. We are defining a story, and this will be the context for the music, and music will always be about that context. If the story of my music was like, “Yeah, I download illegal software and I make a hundred tracks and ten are good, and I’ll always do it while I’m on the train or the bus, and I have headphones on and I just make music all the time,” it would raise a question: ‘What is inspiring you?’
And so, I’m really picky about the story: the setting, the setup, the beautiful essence that, when it goes right down to the bottom, is about friendship. It’s about two people being in a room, not being online. There’s all kinds of people who are excited by new technology – like Herbie Hancock recording in a Skype meeting, I’d hate that, but why not? It’s a story in itself – but I’m just like, ‘this is making me scared.’ If you really want a piano part, then ask me if you can come by; let’s be together in a room first of all, then we spend time together and really work on something, then let’s arrange another day to finish it if you want to go further, or say “that’s it.” But I plainly don’t want to have an email thread. I feel there’s a human condition which wants us to spend time together. And I really think this puts a great narrative to a composition.
I was going to ask about giving up autonomy in the studio, but you’ve answered that. It’s about a wider issue of finding mutual harmony, being on the same wavelength. So I suppose the only real thing I have left to wonder is: did you have a Lennon-McCartney debate about who would come first on the record?
No, no, no. I think that’s the beautiful thing with us, and why it works. Even if you have an idea ready for what’s next, somebody has to come first, you know? While I’m adding a new track to the session, Ólafur was already on an instrument, or sound checking levels, always doing something a step ahead. You need to be really cool about that, and thinking about what you could offer instead. When you have an email thread about it, you can be like, ‘How shall I tell him now that I want to do something there? I’ll tell him tomorrow.’ But if you have to all do it in real time, it needs to have a nice atmosphere, otherwise it’s clashing. It’s not about [point scoring] — we are both seasoned enough to know the better idea wins, and to be happy with that. And this is what I really had a hard time with when I was 16 or 17: I wanted to steer the whole thing, and this is why I had to do a solo project for a long time, to just get enough of that.
And now that I have done so much of myself, I’m really happy to share.
A fortnight after chewing the fat with Nils, schedules finally aligned and I followed up with Ólafur. In the interim time, he had managed to both bring his chops to Berghain and re-imagine the works of Chopin at the somewhat more stately Queen Elizabeth Hall. It makes a neat summary for where his career is at nowadays.
Where Nils was lucid, forthright and verbose – a man evidently happy to say ten words when one would suffice – conversation breezed by with Ólafur. He was affable and engaging, but spoke with a carefully-considered manner, reigning in the sprawl. His answers largely mirrored that of his partner’s. But, given the symbiosis at hand, of course they would.
So, I put the question to Nils about who is more Lennon and who is more McCartney in the relationship. He dodged the bullet, but alluded to you being more ‘alpha’.
ÓLAFUR ARNALDS: [Chuckling] Nils is absolutely something of an improviser, whereas I am a little more structured. Even though we say he follows me, it’s never quite as simple as that, you know? It’s a constant loop of cross-influence; he is reacting, and I am reacting to his reaction, and so forth.
Did you personally set out any specific aims for these records, then?
Nothing that we do is overly planned in advance – as I’m sure you’ve heard already a number of times. The 7″ was simply the result of starting to improvise something, and seeing the developments.
Although, when putting together Loon last year over the three or four days, I had come to Berlin just for that purpose. In that sense, there was an impetus. Nils had just got that Oberheim and the Korg PS-3100, and somehow they led us to this sound.
For me, that sound throws back to early Cluster & Eno, and strangely even some of the effects used by bands like Ozric Tentacles. You might not have been reaching for something initially, but now do you see any parallels?
You know, when I listened back to the dub side after mixing, realised there was in fact a channeling of Rhythm & Sound. We were absorbing a lot of it in Nils’ car, and that did find its way through – but indirectly, subtly. We looked at the ambient side as a continuation of the textures and motifs on Life Story, but perhaps with less conventional ‘playing’ from us both.
But to the point of Cluster & Eno: I think most everything leads back to them in one way or another. [Laughs]
What’s your stance about how much needs to go alongside a record for the message to be accurately conveyed. Do you personally prefer to keep details relatively light, and let people make their minds up uninhibited?
It kind of depends what your purpose with a project is. You have to look at each record in turn. Let’s take Trance Frendz: we were strict about keeping that as it is, all 46 minutes. There was never any substantial conversation about using it as an incentive for people to buy Loon or Love Story. We rejected Erased Tapes’ suggestion to break the video down into seven composite songs. We absolutely understood what they wanted, but for us, leaving it was the only option.
On the other hand, we need to promo Loon. We want as many people to hear it as possible, of course. But there won’t be a glut of traditional marketing.
We haven’t ever in our lives played the same song twice.
I wanted to get your take on the no-tour ethos.
Well, there a few factors. There have been a lot of concerts lately for both of us. Touring involves organisation, logistics and expectations; we want to keep it well away from there.
We haven’t ever in our lives played the same song twice. Not exactly the same, at least. Doing a joint live show at the moment would not involve us being able to play these songs – though it could very well happen some time in the future, we are in no rush. It’s really precious to have that lack of pressure.
So you shield yourself from gripes like, “hey, why didn’t you play “m” like I wanted?”
You also shield yourself from accidents like the one that happened in London –
– which actually ended up making three smashed instruments this summer. [Groans]
We both played at Haldern Pop in Germany, Nils before Kiasmos – it was back-to-back in terms of timings so we thought it would cool to meet in the middle for maximum improvisation on stage. Unfortunately, a broken instrument was not so cool.
And having not only acquired the Oberheim Four Voice but just begun the process of understanding and working it, I can tell you: there is no way in hell we’re putting that on an airplane.
What’s your solo takeaway from those lengthy lockdown sessions? Do you fly away from Berlin mulling new techniques having seen his methodology from the other side, or a simmering jealousy at Nils’ new toys?
Well, I have probably about same amount of equipment as Nils. We are equal addicts. [Laughs] Something is taken from each and every session, and you bring inevitably bring it back to your own area. It goes both ways. Personally, as someone whose relationship with music is more structured, working in tandem with Nils teaches me to improvise more. I’d love to move further in that direction, to be freer.
Ultimately, the fun is in there. The video is a testament to that. It’s in those sessions, in the recordings, and in our friendship.
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