When Brandt Brauer Frick burst onto the Berlin scene in 2009, reimagining propulsive techno by using acoustic instruments, the world of DJs performing with orchestras and pianists headlining festivals was light years away. Inspired by both the city’s classical history and its dank dancefloors, the trio’s bricolage beats owed as much to minimal masters Steve Reich and Philip Glass as they did the minimal techno of Ricardo Villalobos and the Perlon label. Their debut album You Make Me Real blended the highbrow music of concert halls with the euphoric abandon of club music and in doing so helped to pioneer the contemporary classical renaissance in pop music.
The three friends, Daniel Brandt, Jan Brauer and Paul Frick, had no idea then that the intense style of music they made as a result of living and working on top of each other would take off in the way it has now, with artists like Nils Frahm headlining the Royal Albert Hall in London and Jon Hopkins being nominated prestigious awards like the Mercury Music Prize. “We couldn’t have imagined that the interest in classical instruments and especially piano would become so big,” says Frick. “I mean, we were dreaming of releasing on some cool underground label, so to see so many minimalistic piano artists doing well now, it’s exciting.”
You Make Me Real took Brandt Brauer Frick around the world: the video for their breakout single Bop, in which they appeared in ties and blazers picking and plucking at various instruments, was picked up by Kanye West and featured on his blog, and they brought their frenetic live show to festivals like Coachella and Mutek, where they performed with the Mexico State Philharmonic Orchestra. They followed their debut with a ‘remix’ version, 2011’s Mr Machine – except instead of getting DJs to rework each track, they rearranged it for their newly founded ten-piece ensemble, using brass and string instruments, as well as harp, piano and percussions.
Mr Machine was a knowing title, and in fact Brandt Brauer Frick have always been far more subversive than they’re given credit for. Their smart, starched image was often compared to the stiffness of Kraftwerk, but they opted for that clothing simply because they felt that it was the opposite of what they should do, compared to the vest-ripping DJs of that era. “We started in techno clubs, so you would stick out wearing a shirt and tie,” says Frick. “Daniel was actually the first person to show me how to tie one!”
Similarly, the trio’s reaction to changing tastes and trends has always been to do the unexpected. Their third album in 2013, Miami, was a concept record that drew on noirish funk and spooky synths and worked, using an unusual slate of guests including Jamie Lidell, Nina Kraviz, German post-punk icon Gudrun Gut and Frank Ocean producer Om’Mas Keith. Then they morphed into a post-punk band entirely for 2016’s Joy, bringing onboard Canadian poet Beaver Sheppard as their frontman. It was a risky move but they were so enamoured with Sheppard’s “attitude,” says Brandt, that it pushed them to be experimental. “When you work with people like that it inspires you to add more interesting things to the music.”
Since then, the three musicians have been off working on other projects – Brandt has released two solo albums on acclaimed label Erased Tapes and co-founded online television channel Strrr.tv; Brauer has been composing music for theatre and various media as well as working as a mix engineer and recordist for other artists and Frick put out his first solo album, Second Yard Botanicals, in 2018. This year, however, Brandt Brauer Frick have come full circle. They’ve gone back to where they started with Echo, an album that, says Brauer, “echoes our ten years of existence”.
“It's about getting back to what we started off with,” continues Brandt, “but of course, after 10 years, we’ve gained more know how. When we were starting out we just had one microphone and a broken piano to make our first album.”
Echo is indeed a visceral follow-up to You Make Me Real and flawlessly produced, showcasing a trio at the peak of their powers. It masterfully plays with dynamics and precision and yet it’s more club-focused, too, surging between serene minimalism and slo-mo 4x4 beats. Their typically knotty assemblages of all manner of instruments and unlikely percussive sources are still present, but eventually these give way to irresistible groove.
Often the effect is of a battle between man and machine. ‘Rest’ sets out the album’s stall, unfurling cinematically with its slow-burn of strings and an industrial-sounding chorus of machinistic instruments, as if the light is tussling with the dark. ‘Decades’ and ‘Masse’, meanwhile, are the kind of breathtaking festival-ready crescendos that will sound sublime as the lasers flicker. There’s an inescapable restlessness to their new music, too; brimming with urgency but also a nerve-shredding anxiety. ‘Fuel’, for example, an eviscerating techno thumper that Brandt jokingly calls “a climate change banger,” is the heaviest track they’ve done and sounds like it’s trying to escape doomsday.
“A lot of neoclassical music to me feels like it’s meant to be a retreat from our stressful lives,” says Frick, “the idea being that everybody does too much, we have too much communication all the time, so here’s some nice arpeggios.” Brandt Brauer Frick, on the other hand, are keen to incorporate those emotions instead of ignoring them. “We’d rather integrate that anxiety than try to forget about it,” he says. “We don’t make music that will help you get away from all your problems. It’s more about trying to funnel the aggressions in everyday life into a more positive thing.”
Elsewhere, Brandt Brauer Frick tastefully flirt with glacial electronic-pop. The track ‘Echoes’ manages to be both woozily spacious and tense as the Austrian musician and actress Anna Friedberg, of London based alternative band Friedberg, provides a sultry, come-hither vocal. And on ‘Encore’, the trio have worked with yet another unexpected vocalist, the French singer Catherine Ringer from the band Les Rita Mitsouko, a nod to their new relationship with Gallic label Because Music.
Fans will be pleased to hear that they’re still dedicated to exploring what weird noises they can source from unlikely places. On Chamber I, says Brauer, they’ve used the sound of a flying fish. “It’s a wooden fish on a rope around several metres long and it makes this very bassy noise, like a buzzing bee, which has a bit of a stroboscopic techno vibe.” It’s these oddities that give Brandt Brauer Frick’s music a playfulness and sense of humour that has perhaps previously been mistaken for stiffness.
In fact, Echo is the opposite: it feels like a living, breathing organism, persisting in the face of the more clinical sounds you can download on music production software. “When you are working with repetitive music,” explains Brauer, “it’s important to make it feel alive.” Echo is certainly the classic sound of Brandt Brauer Frick, reborn and rewired, brought brilliantly back to life.