The families and groups of friends milling around the foyer café at London’s Barbican centre seem oblivious to the dark rumblings emanating from behind the closed doors of the basement hall. There’s only a few hours before the curtain goes up on Possibly Colliding, an entire weekend of music, art, and film curated by the acclaimed German pianist and composer Nils Frahm, and he’s hard at work rehearsing. Tonight will see him joined by various collaborators, including Kieran Brunt’s Shards choir, and the classical ensemble s t a r g a z e, all performing a dizzying, not to mention technically challenging, selection of works both new and old. Also scheduled to play are Frederic Gmeiner and Sebastian Singwald, his bandmates in nonkeen, performing several tracks from their debut album The Gamble, released earlier this year. But I’m here to quiz them about the follow up, Oddments Of The Gamble, a counterpoint of sorts that’s just come out on R&S Records.
“Our part [tonight] is relatively straightforward,” deadpans drummer Gmeiner as he takes a seat opposite, “but some of the other stuff Nils is doing…”. Faint but unmistakable sounds are still seeping from the hall, Frahm tweaking and honing as long as he can. It’s the same approach the trio adopted for the records; recording their rehearsals and extended jam sessions over eight years – and always to tape – the massive bank of material was condensed down late last year until the bones of something more concrete was formed, something that, to their ears at least, sounded fresh and unencumbered by influence or expectation.
It’s certainly not boring; both albums exhibit a restless energy and a fascinating warmth. In parts, there’s a lazy, shambling quality to their music, but when they pull things sharply into focus – on ‘Chasing God Through Palmyra’ say, or ‘Diving Platform’ – is when they really hit the highs. At times, they seem to play with the concept of time itself; how it can be stretched or condensed, and how the listener’s perception of it can alter the emotional impact of the music. They paint in big, dramatic swirls, but draw your eye to little details and stylish flourishes; a little fill here, a rumbling bass line there.
During the concert itself they play four tracks, all lifted from The Gamble, and augmented by Italian drummer Andrea Belfi. It’s a lot louder that you’d expect, and somewhat looser – by their own admission, they wrote nothing down, nor tabbed anything, so recreating songs for the stage involves a certain amount of experimentation and freedom – but no less captivating. Hearing Frahms solo work alongside material he’s been beavering away on for a decade with childhood friends makes for an interesting contrast, the more studied, crafted compositions jarring against the ebb and flow of three musicians feeding off each other. “It shouldn’t just be work; it should also be inspiring,” says Singwald, something nonkeen are currently having no trouble with.
DiS: It took eight years to put together The Gamble, and yet here we are, five months later, and the follow up is out. Why so quick?
Frederic Gmeiner: Basically, nothing was planned at all during those eight years. Not the release of The Gamble, or any album really. We were just playing together in the rehearsal space, and we could never really imagine a way of how to make an album out of the sessions; in the end The Gamble and Oddments Of The Gamble are roughly about 1% of the material that we recorded over the years. So, so much of that stuff is not worth, from our point of view, keeping, or to work with any further. But there were some moments that we liked so much, which we were also inspired by, that we continued working with this material and making songs out of it. Then we were at a point where had a collection of songs, but the question was how to put them together on an album, because there were too many to put on one record, which is roughly about seventy minutes.
So, we made two albums, we assembled both, and with the choreography so each could stand on its own – but they definitely have a connection. Then we tossed a coin to decide which one we should release. After that, it was an album, and we sent it to Renaat at R&S Records because we had got to know him and we were just curious about what he might say. We thought it would be fun to release it with them.
We were so overwhelmed by the warm reception and the kind feedback we got from The Gamble that we decided to also release the other one, the brother or sister album Oddments of the Gamble. We didn’t wait because we are keen to work on new material and continue, not having something in the drawer and just waiting for the right moment for marketing reasons or whatever because it is there.
You talked earlier about when you were recording and you would sometimes get a “feeling”, maybe because of some little mistake, and you talk a lot about “chance” in many of your interviews. How easy was it, given that “chance” plays such a big role in what you do, to rehearse for a tour and to put together a set and try to capture that moment? How do you even go about taking the stuff from the two albums and putting together a set?
Sebastian Singwald: We rehearsed, so there was no “chance” any more, but it was also a good feeling because although we met and rehearsed – and sometimes we didn’t meet for half a year – we just played what we wanted to play; we never had songs and arrangements, and even sounds changed from rehearsal to rehearsal. But when you rehearse for tour, you can’t be so easy going and say: “I’ll plug it here and plug it there.” It should have a more professional direction. Even this was a new experience for us and actually, I enjoyed it. I mean, for the albums, no solo was written down and everything was improvised, but we gave every arrangement a certain space and freedom so chance can be there. To play a show, the set list was clear; the songs were there.
FG: For me it was really interesting; we were rehearsing so much together to prepare for the tour that we became really skilled at just playing and listening to each other, and I noticed that with all of us. Then chance played another role on tour, because every night was really different and there were so many factors; I found that very interesting because I had never played so many concerts in a row, so I had no reference. Every night was different, and I guess every artist can appreciate that, but it was interesting because of how much the audience got involved, how many people were there? Are they standing? Are they sitting? How much distance is there? How is the sound? Do you feel like you are still in the rehearsal space or do you feel like you are in a big cathedral, where you feel tiny and lost? You have to go through this, and it was really interesting to experience that and also very inspiring, I think, for all of us.
How many dates did you play?
FG: Twenty dates.
Did you find that by the end, the set had evolved quite a lot, or it was pretty much the same as it was at the start? In terms of the order or the way in which you played certain passages or certain songs.
SS: Some tiny things. Maybe 10% changed over the tour, but the personal feeling changed a lot; at the beginning we were nervous like small schoolboys on their first day, and by the end we really enjoyed playing the last show. We were still nervous and that’s a good thing, as it sharpens your perception; you have to be together and you know that it has to work out and it’s a nice feeling. In the end you know what to do and you try something new, and the last show you do something and think: “I don’t know if this is going to work out or not.” But you get more confident, it’s good.
Lots of musicians and bands are very meticulous about writing and recording, and what they do in the studio. But chance is a big part of what you do; do you find that quite liberating as an artist? In that you are not really bound by a lot of the traditional structures and things that musicians would do when they are in the studio recording?
FG: Yeah, and I think that’s the reason why we all still make music together. Nils has many other projects going on, and you [Sebastian] as well, but I think that’s really the point and why we all like it so much, playing together. Now it also has a name, ‘Nonkeen’; we didn’t have a name for a long time, you know? We were just ‘The Band.’ We would meet and now it gets more defined, but everyone is very interested in preserving something undefined, because we don’t like this typical band thing where you often have the song writer and certain structures so that when you meet you play the same songs over and over. Then you have the time for developing new material, always these phases of releasing, touring, preparing for new albums and so on…which none of us are inspired by.
SS: It is very liberating to be undefined.
FG: Also time; I mean it took eight years, come on! Which record label would say: “Yeah guys, take your time…”
So, in 2024 are we going to have album number three?
FG: Let’s see.
SS: Two albums!
FG: To be honest, let’s see where it goes, because it’s a lot about friendship and being curious about playing with each other, and I think if we were to play together every day it would lose some of its magic; you have to be careful with it and keep it as something precious.
I’ve been listening to both albums for the last few days, and to me Oddments seems more like a collection of defined songs, as opposed to more of a collective jam session that’s been broken up into segments. Is that a fair way of looking at both of them?
SS: So that also means that on the first album, the songs fitted better together?
No, it’s not that they don’t’ fit together, but on Oddments it’s more like: “There’s this song and then that song.” Whereas on Gamble, it’s more like a journey. I find with Oddments I go back and listen to certain tracks, but with Gamble I find you can’t really do that; it’s better to just put it on at the start and listen all the way through. I suppose my question is; was it a conscious decision to have one album more like this and one album like that? Or was that just the way that they turned out?
FG: I think I completely agree with you; the perception is like that. Interestingly, many people now who have listened to Oddments say: “To be honest I like it more than The Gamble.” It’s very interesting. You say: “Oh really? Didn’t you like The Gamble?” And they say: “Yeah, I like it of course, but this gets you going more.” I think it’s like you said, it has more defined ends, and therefore it maybe depends on how you like to listen to music. If you like to listen more to an album and take your time, to see it as a whole piece, then with Oddments it’s true; you can take out certain songs and then make sense of it as a song completely. For example, ‘Diving Platform’ is more like a ‘rock’ song in a way, more psychedelic.
An analogy might be that The Gamble kind of sounds like a symphony, with various movements, whereas Oddments is more like an album with linked tracks. That’s just the way I see it after going backwards and forward, listening to it.
FG: It’s completely cool, yeah.
Another thing I noticed as a difference between the two is that the titles on The Gamble are very pointed and a little bit political, whereas on Oddments it’s a lot more open to interpretation; a couple of the titles are words in German.
FG: Yeah, we also found this one a bit more playful in a way, and we weren’t so shy so we put some looser, or progressive material, or songs, on this album. These sessions were often more about the energy of us playing together, and it’s more repetitive in certain parts. It’s more easy going in a way, more playful, and not only in a serious manner.
SS: I remember when we played songs from Oddments in the rehearsal room on certain days when we recorded, we left the room with completely different moods compared to when we leave generally after two or three hours playing and having a beer. When we played ‘Diving Platform’ it was much longer – nearly half an hour – than it is on the album, and it was really noisy at the end and really loud.
FG: When we meet it depends on the mood, and what kind of energy you bring with you when you come to the room. Are you listening to each other? How loud do you put the amp? Stuff like that.
Those moments didn’t happen so often with Oddments; when we played, generally over the eight years, it was more like the atmosphere you would find on The Gamble, so that’s also maybe why we put it together as one thing, assembled as whole. Oddments is more like these fractions that from time to time occurred when we were in more of a silly mood.
SS: We had working titles like “Horse Moustache”…
FG: Yeah! It was a different vibe.
The three of you have been friends since childhood, and as you said, the recordings were made over a number of years. As your friendship has developed over the last eight years, how did that affect the music that you were making, or the things that you would bring to rehearsals? Eight years is quite a long time to be friends and to be making music together before you get to the point where you think: “Let’s release this.”
FG:: I just remember when we met in Hamburg when we were young, and then a bit later when we were playing together, we lost that fear [of playing]. We were listening for example to Soft Machine or Chicoria, stuff like that, and we also listened to other music that was often because of the Fender Rhodes, the electric bass, and the drums; that was the kind of sound we could identify ourselves with, that Seventies sound. We were so into playing these kind of more progressive, improvised things, and also going on stage when we were invited to small clubs, without defining anything; just going on stage and playing one hour together from time to time, and really going crazy without having any fear.
But when we were listening back to our music back then – sometimes we recorded things – we liked it, but it always reminded us of something, our influences. Over the years, by listening to the music and constantly meeting together, we got more and more concentrated on reducing ourselves a little bit and playing together more, as a whole thing. Instead of being like: “OK, if I’m playing very well, then it’s all going to be great, and if everyone is playing as much as he can and gives everything, then it’s going to sound great,” it was the opposite. It was more like stepping back a little bit and listening, letting it breathe to come up to this point where we would listen to certain passages and say: “Oh yeah, I have never really heard something like that.” Of course there are always influences, and many people point out references when they listen to it that are completely valid and true, and of course we are inspired by many other pieces of music. But it helped us a lot to condense the sound, and to listen to each other.
What currently inspires you musically in other artists? What sort of stuff do you listen to and take inspiration from?
FG: It’s so broad and diverse. It’s a tricky question, because if I mention one or two projects, tomorrow I’ll turn around and say: “Oh, there’s another thing.”
SS: Every rehearsal was maybe after a three month’s break, and so you’d have been listening to some band. Air made a new record five years ago; I was listening to some basslines from it and, of course, you are inspired by that, then there is another band and so on. FG: And for me it depends really on my mood; I really love listening to jazz when I’m in the kitchen and I’m cooking. In the kitchen, the old radio is always playing jazz music. When I am at work, I like to use music to bring me into a certain mood; if I’m moody, or happy, or whatever. I also listen to techno music on a good PA when I like to dance.
The most exciting thing for me is to experience or to discover new music, or someone shows me new artists, or music that is kind of touching me, in a way. It’s a precious moment, and you think: “Why didn’t I know that before?” It changes your life, and you know this immediately by listening to it; it’s a magical moment.
Now that you have released these two albums and you’re done with this bank of recorded material, do you see that as an end of one cycle? If you’re going to start using some new stuff and you’re going to get together and rehearse and jam that, is this the start of another cycle?
SS: If we keep continuing to record everything on tape, we could use the old stuff for gluing…but no one knows. The stuff is still there.
FG: Because now we are also playing these interpretations of these songs live – because we recorded every concert as well, and we also came up with new material – it gets kind of blurred together in a way. We just have to see what we make of it. I think, in a way, a certain phase was releasing Oddments, which is of course coming to an end, but maybe also a certain experiment. We have to ask; can we go on tour with that stuff? Can we release an album? Can we do interviews? How does this fit into our everyday lives? And so on and so forth.
SS: It worked quite well and we had lots of fun, and it was also a great inspiration. It’s important because it shouldn’t just be work; it should also be inspiring, and this has been the case I think.
Now that you might be thinking of the possibility of either releasing more stuff or touring it, do you think that will affect you in the studio when you are rehearsing? If one of you says: “Well, this is good but, there is no way we could ever play this live so, we should stop.” Or: “There’s no way this will ever work on an album, so let’s not do it.” Is that now something that might play on your mind?
FG: The good thing is that although it seems to be like that, we have a lot of dogma, or strict rules, because of the tape thing. But these things happened as a tool, and a convenient thing, because for example, when we were playing live we were confronted with that situation; how do we bring ‘Chasing God Through Palmyra’ to the stage? It was a different process [for the record]; we used the material from the rehearsal space, but we used it in a sequenced manner, more like an electronic method to cut and paste all these loops together. We liked it so much that we thought: “Well, why not put it on the album?” It was a nice track. But then we tried to bring it on stage, live, and we found ourselves deciding which of the tracks do we delete, or mute, so we can play them on the synthesiser, because with the drums, you can try to imitate it, but it won’t have the energy and the preciseness of a machine, because that is what makes it magical. Otherwise, we would have a drum machine and just play synth along with it, and then it gets completely boring and we would be a slave to the machine – because the machine dictates what we have to do.
So, we decided to play it, but to play it from the record on the tour; Sepp went to the record player, put on the record, and we all had a little break and were giving free drinks to the audience. We made it funny with silly things on the stage. Because in a way, we are often frustrated – maybe not frustrated – but in a way we’re not satisfied with the way electronic music is performed often. Maybe if the sound is good, and it’s a real party situation, then it’s completely valid, but being somewhere and watching someone turning knobs for an hour? I don’t see the point in it, but often, that’s how it is done.
So everything is OK – first of all, you just have to see what you like and what you feel comfortable with. You have to say: “OK, no one has done this before.” And even if it has been done before, it’s maybe not usual in concerts to just put on a record, and play some dance music.
I have never seen that before, no.
FG: Well, why not? Everyone seemed to like it, and afterwards we continued playing and maybe you ought to see the difference; this is electronic music, or playback music, and this is live music. It’s different, and for us it is very important to also keep it that way, because otherwise it would get boring for us.
So, what comes next?
FG: Tonight the Barbican, and then we will see. We have a new rehearsal space, a new thing that is kind of inspiring. It’s a large recording hall, in an old GDR broadcasting complex in Berlin. So we’re really happy to use that room and the facilities over the next year to set up our instruments there and play there. We’ll see what will happen.
Do you have any more tour dates lined up after tonight?
FG: No, nothing. A blank slate.
Is that quite liberating? Or daunting? Or exciting?
FG: I think it’s disappointing.
SS: Yeah. I would like to play a festival actually, but we can’t always do that.
FG: There are a lot of technical issues. We have a lot of stuff on stage, so it may not be possible. I could also imagine that unless you were maybe the first band on one stage, and you have time enough for doing a good soundcheck and time to set up, it would be tricky – especially if you’re not using computers. It would be complicated.
I can imagine.
FG: There is tonnes of equipment and lugging of cables, but it’s fun. It’s good, and I think also at the end of the day, you know what you are getting; you need a crew, you can’t just fly in with a laptop and press play, you know? You need muscles and at the end of the day everyone sits together and enjoys the beer. You have a good feeling, body wise.
Oddments Of the Gamble is out now on R&S Records.