Anika Niles. Welcome to the new age.
It makes perfect sense that when it came time to name their new full-length album, the drum phenom from Germany couldn't find the name in the dictionary. In the end, it was precisely because of her desire to tread uncharted and unlit paths that she gained international popularity. As it turned out, many of us were ready to join her, and in the process find a new definition for the phrase 'drum star'.
About 7 years ago, German drummer/composer Anika Nills took a leap into the unknown, abandoning a stable career in social education to pursue her true passion: music. "It was very risky," says Anika via Skype from her home in Mannheim. "I've always understood that I'm not happy with my job, but when you make enough money and you're kind of safe, it's not easy to leave." Deciding to focus on drumming and composing, Anika began practicing many hours a day to make up for the time she had lost since entering the professional world after graduating in popular music and music business from the Pop Academy in Mannheim. .
To make ends meet, Anika spent several years teaching and giving concerts in Germany. Then, in 2013, she went into the studio to record a video for one of her tracks and then send it to local producers, band leaders and concert agencies to earn extra money. The song was called 'Wild boy' and this track showed the drummer's deep groove, cool linear fills and a strong melodic component. Anika uploaded the video to YouTube in October and everything changed for her from that moment on.
Literally overnight, thousands of people from all over the world watched the video, practically placing Anika in the top promising drummers who used YouTube to build their fan base. A few months later, Anika uploaded a second video for her song 'Alter Ego', which quickly went viral. ('Wild Boy' has hit 1.5 million views, and 'Alter Ego' is approaching the 3 million mark.)
No one could even guess what level of instant attention Anika would get from these two videos, but as the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, ''Luck is when preparation meets opportunity''. Anika has found her own path to success by focusing on making top-notch videos of playing her own compositions instead of taking the more expected path that other YouTube stars have already trodden by playing covers of popular songs and solos.
Very soon Anika became a welcome guest at international drum festivals and drum master classes. In 2015 she took part in the London Drum Show, Meinl Festival, Pasic as well as Drumeo and her schedule is increasingly filled with masterclasses in drum shops and music schools around the world. Anika has also released MP3s of the tracks 'Wild Boy', 'Alter Ego' and the quintuplet-based track 'Queenz' on iTunes, including tracks without drums for listeners who would like to practice along with them.
Incredibly sweet and flattered by this unexpected success, Anika continues to use YouTube as her main platform for releasing her work; she currently has 11 full-length videos with several more planned for release this year. Now she is especially excited about the upcoming release of her full-length album called "Pikalar", which is filled with rhythmically inventive grooves with super trendy complex time signatures and odd note groupings, artful metric modulations, and hurricane fills throughout the kit, presented in the context of prog/fusion arrangements, catchy melodies and incredible playing of musicians supporting Anika - bassist Frank Itt, keyboardist Maze Leber and guitarist/producer Joachim Schneiss.
We crossed paths with Anika as "Pikalar" was getting ready to release and were able to delve into the drumming and musical concepts she explored in the tracks on this album.
MD: Congratulations on the album. You must be very happy that you were able to record and distribute such original music.
ANIK: Yes. I worked on it for a year and a half between tours and trips.
MD: Drums and mixes throughout the album sound the same. Did you use the same studio for the whole album?
ANIKA: Yes, I have been working with a producer named Joachim Schneiss for the last 6 years. We work great together. After all, the composition of the winners does not change, you understand? He also plays guitar on the album.
MD: I'm very curious about how a drummer/composer composes. Has it always been your goal to focus on your own music?
ANIKA: No, not always. I started composing when I was learning to play the drums at the institute. At first I composed on the guitar. Then I switched to keyboards and worked a lot with programs like Logic and Cubase. It helped me develop my composing skills as I was very limited with one guitar.
MD: Did you learn to play the piano as a child?
ANIK: No. I really can't play the piano. I can play a couple of bars and that's it. I can't get anything consistent on the piano. I just compose on it, and then I bring the idea to a real keyboardist.
MD: How do you get ideas? Do you start with a bass line or a chord progression, or does the song start with drums?
ANIKA: I often start with the drum part. My composing style is very rhythmically oriented. I have a lot of ideas and I type them into my laptop and then overlay bass lines, keyboard melody and everything on top of them. The guitar plays the main melody, but I compose it by just singing at first. Those. basically I put the vocal melody into the guitar.
MD: What unusual concepts did you explore on drums while writing these tracks? What inspired you?
ANIKA: It's instrumental, so I don't have words. I listen to a lot of other musicians and other music and I get more into the track when I feel something from the melody. When I listen to songs with vocals, I usually don't pay attention to the lyrics. I'm looking for something that would hook me in the melody.
I travel a lot and there are often times when I'm listening to music and the sun is shining in a certain way or I'm driving through cool looking fields and I feel some kind of connection. I remember these feelings when I compose. That's why one of the songs is called 'Greenfield' and stuff like that.
MD: What does Pikalar mean?
ANIKA: It's not really a word. You won't find it in a dictionary or Google. It's a word I made up for the things that happen in life that can't be described. This is what has been happening to me for the past 3 years. All this attention on the Internet, on YouTube. It took me 2 years to figure out what happened. I searched for a title to describe this experience, but all the words I found sounded stupid. So I thought it would be cool to come up with a new word that would refer to this particular experience.
MD: When you first started making videos for YouTube, did you have a plan or did you just want to make them?
ANIKA: I started making videos about three years ago and the idea was to get the attention of people around me to get a job. Only and everything. After all, they always ask to send audio or video, so I recorded one of my tracks and posted it. And the next morning the real madness began (laughs).
I don't know why it happened, but a lot of people messaged me and supported me, and I thought why not put out a second song? It was the song 'Alter Ego' and it made a crazy impression too. It was also cool that I had an instrument to implement my music. That's how it all started, but I didn't plan it.
MD: As a result, did you start with more local concerts, or were you immediately invited to some international events?
ANIKA: I've been playing drums for a very long time and I've played a lot of gigs in the surrounding cities and in Germany in general. My career started by playing on stage with different bands. But with the video, everything immediately became international.
MD: When you are at home, do you still play shows in and around your city?
ANIKA: I don't live in a big city like Berlin or Hamburg. I live in a smaller city. We have concerts, but not every week. I work with several concert agencies that organize concerts all over Germany. I play a lot on weekends and sometimes on weekdays. But I'm very busy with my own affairs, so I can't play many gigs.
MD: On the album opening track 'Synergy', how much of the whole drum part was pre-conceived and how much was improvised?
ANIKA: This song is called 'Synergy' because it's about the interaction of two sizes. Two sizes are played at the same time, I play not the size that the whole group plays. The chorus groove was written in advance, and all the other musicians rely on it. But fillings are always improvisational, and therefore they are always different. Grooves are often composed in advance.
MD: How do you keep time in tracks when you play fills over a bar? Are you thinking about the time at this moment or about filling?
ANIKA: I'm thinking about groupings of notes. ‘Synergy’ in 3/4 time and 90 bpm. And I know exactly which groups of notes, like 5, 7 or 9, I can play at that tempo. When I improvise, I just play on a group basis. 'Synergy' has a lot of groups of 9's and a few of 7's. I've learned a lot of groups to play in those lengths, but now I don't think about them anymore. I just feel them.
MD: Is there one group of notes that you use the most?
ANIKA: I often play in groups of 5.
MD: With what fingering?
MD: On the second track, called 'Mister', what is the fingering in the chorus when the hi-hat plays a fast figure?
ANIKA: It's 32 notes and I play them R-R-L-K. This song is very hard to play because it has a slow tempo. It's very hard to keep the time exactly, especially in the verse.
MD: What do you do to keep time better? Do you consider smaller durations?
ANIKA: I try to feel the 16th.
MD: Do you play this track live with a metronome?
ANIK: Yes. I'm not good enough to play it without it (laughs).
But I'm working on it, I really feel like I'll be doing it all my life.
MD: This track has a metric modulation in the middle. Tell me what's going on there.
ANIKA: The new size is based on a quarter triplet, i.e. triplet becomes a quarter.
MD: What inspired you to this track?
ANIKA: Michael Jackson.
MD: Did you grow up listening to R&B?
ANIKA: Yes, I listened to a lot of Off the Wall and Thriller.
MD: Who has influenced your game the most?
ANIKA: Jeff Porcaro has inspired me all my life. Then Chris Colman, Jo Jo Meyer and Benny Greb, from whom I have learned a lot over the past few years. And I also like Stanton Moore.
MD: Let's talk about Jeff Porcaro, what in his game especially influenced yours?
ANIKA: I like a lot about his game. First, ghost notes are just insane. His game was so dynamic. He caught all those soft things along with the other musicians and still had flow in his playing. He was very musical.
MD: The next track is 'Orange Leaves'.
ANIKA: This track is based on all sorts of Asian influences. I live in Mannheim and there are a lot of people here from Turkey and nearby countries. Therefore, we have something to inspire here. When I decided to do something in this style, I chose this name, because it seems to me that orange is the right color for this kind of music.
MD: Tell us about the metric modulation in this track.
ANIKA: She's one of the hardest - she made me work out (laughs). I play in 4/4 and then the new time signature is based on fifths. The metronome stays on 4/4 and I'm playing 5 on top of that at the moment. This song evolved as we recorded it with different musicians. I came up with the modulation idea at the last second before we wanted to upload it to YouTube. I thought the track was a bit boring in the middle, so I thought it would be cool to play 5 over 4.
MD: Let's talk about the song 'Greenfield'. When I heard this track, I immediately thought of Steve Jordan. Did he inspire you for this track?
ANIK: Yes, exactly. I wanted to replicate Steve's sound on the John Mayer albums. I really like this style of playing, and John Mayer was a big influence on me as a composer. This song is a little in his style.
MD: The snare drum sounds a bit different on this track. What drum did you use?
ANIKA: It's 13 by 7.5.
MD: On the record, your drums sound very powerful and readable. What did you do to get that sound?
ANIKA: I tried a lot of things to get that sound. I wanted a clean sound so everyone could hear all the ghost notes and fast singles. I also wanted to sound powerful. So I looked for heads that already had that sound. So I use an Evans EC2 on the rack toms and a G2 on the floor tom, which I tune really low so I can do double-pedal-sounding drums on it.
MD: When do you adjust the bottom and top heads relative to each other?
ANIKA: I set the bottom head to the lowest point and the top head a little higher than that.
MD: What about the bass drum? Do you muffle him a lot?
ANIKA: I use Evans Onyx EMAD, it's a two-ply plastic with a special coating and a muffler ring. Plus I have two Evans pads inside the drum. I tune it very low, you can even see the screws shaking on it (laughs).
MD: How do you choose which cymbals to use?
ANIKA: I like a dark and dry sound that is sometimes very hard to hear as far as I know. But I really like that kind of sound. When I record, I try to choose cymbals that fit the track.
MD: How often did you change plates? Did you do it every song?
ANIK: Yes. Sometimes I left the hi-hat and 1 or 2 crashes, but I changed a lot of cymbals every song.
MD: Why so often?
ANIKA: When you're recording, you're always looking for the best sound for a song. Therefore, we also changed snare drums very often. But I think the choice of cymbals gives you the most distinctive features. Meinl cymbals have their own characteristics, and if you use Zildjian they have a completely different sound. Every cymbal is different, so I'm always looking for the ones that fit the song.
MD: How many snare drums did you use.
ANIKA: I had 8 different drums and used 6 of them.
MD: What were you looking for in a snare drum when you chose it for the track?
ANIKA: I like aluminum and brass drums, but they don't fit every song. Sometimes you need a drum with a thinner wooden body that sounds more open. It also depends on the heads you use - whether it will sound more open or muffled.
MD: The track 'Mallay' has a quintuplet pattern. You are very well known for your experiments with quintuplets in your drawings. How did you come to this?
ANIKA: It happened when I was preparing for my final exams at the university. I was looking for something different from the Dave Weckle cons that everyone played every year. I was Jamila with bassist Frank Itt, who ended up playing on my album, and he asked me if I could play a quintol groove. I could not. But I thought it was cool. In the end, for the exam, I came up with something using quintuplets. I worked on this for several months and came up with my own exercises because I could not find anything on the Internet on this subject. I played 'Queenz' at my final exam.
MD: It was just one of those songs that you posted on YouTube.
ANIK: Yes. The idea was to take the quintoli into the backbeat pattern on 2 and 4 and make it great, not just play some crazy stuff. True, for people who don't really understand quintuplets, it still sounds crazy. But you feel the backbeat, which was my goal. On the track 'Mallay', everyone in the band plays quintuplets.
MD: This song has such a laid back, pulling, J Dilla rapper feel, somewhere between flat and swinged 16s. When you came up with this track, did you listen to drummers who play this way? Like Chris Dave or Daru Jones?
ANIKA: No, it was just a mathematical idea - to count and play in fifths.
MD: It seems that in your quintole grooves you very often accentuate the 1st and 4th notes of each quintuplet.
ANIKA: As with regular 16s, quintuplets also have a variety of parts that you can play in the hi-hat. You can play on 1 or 4; on 1, 3 and 4; 1 and 3; etc. and each such pattern has its own feeling.
MD: Did you work on putting the bass drum into these patterns? Is that how you started working on quintuplets?
ANIKA: No, I started with normal quintuplets with variable fingering (RLRLR LRLRL) on the hi-hat and at the same time I focused on playing the bass drum in quintuplets. To begin with, I wanted to understand how to play the different bass drum parts.
MD: And then you started to remove the notes in the hi-hat?
ANIKA: Yes, but it was probably the tenth step of this process (laughs).
MD: The next song is called 'One Ride, One Life' and it has a half shuffle.
ANIKA: Yes, this song was inspired by Jeff Porcaro. When I was in LA a couple of years ago, I had a demo of this song with me. We drove up the hill and it was one of those days when the sun was shining and everything was fine. I was listening to this song, and the name came to my mind, which roughly conveys that such a feeling happens only once in a lifetime.
MD: You have a video on Instagram of you playing a half shuffle in fifths. How do you do this?
ANIKA: The idea came during a Skype session. The student asked me if I tried to play the usual drawings in fifths. I didn't even think about it and he asked me to try it with a half shuffle. And the drawing sounds very interesting.
MD: The track 'Pikalar' is in 7/8 time. How do you get this time signature to sound cohesive?
ANIKA: The fusion comes from the hi-hat and ride part. On the ride, I play through, and it's like 7/4, and the snare and bass drum play in 7/8. And that creates that flow, and you can shake your head like it's 4/4. Also, depending on where you play the snare drum, the pattern sounds better.
MD: Where do you most often play the snare drum in 7/8?
ANIKA: I usually play small on 5, which gives the feeling of half time.
MD: When did you realize that you wanted to be a drummer?
ANIKA: I started playing drums very early, at the age of 6. I didn't practice much, but I always knew that I wanted to be a drummer. But my parents convinced me to take a 'real' job, so I worked 6 years outside of music. At the age of 26, I started actively training to become a professional drummer.
I always knew that this is what I want to do. There was a time when I was completely immersed in my work. A lot of people worked for me and I made good money. But then I thought, ''Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?'' A few months later, I decided to quit my job and start working on my technique.
MD: Did you already play concerts on the weekends while working at your old job?
ANIK: Yes. I also taught and played in cover bands a couple of times a month.
MD: When you started studying at the age of 6, did you take lessons?
ANIKA: I took lessons at a local music school for 3 years, I also took a few private lessons. For a few years after that I didn't take any lessons, but then I started studying with Klaus Hessler, who lived twenty minutes away from me.
MD: When did you realize that you need to make good videos to advance your career?
ANIKA: Like I said, it wasn't planned. The first and second videos weren't produced to be honest. But I think it's very important to make good videos with good sound and write good songs. That's what makes me different - I'm focused on my own songs and doing everything at the highest possible level.
MD: Do you plan to make videos for all your songs?
ANIKA: I plan to release 2 or 3 more videos, but right now I'm already writing new material that I want to release this year.
MD: The next track is 'Those Hills', which is also based on a quintole pattern. This track could have had a drum solo, but you decided to jam with other musicians instead. It was a deliberate decision, and what do you think about drum solos in general?
ANIKA: To be honest, I don't like them. When it comes to drum solos, I'm no longer able to play. I feel empty. I have no ideas, no flow - in general, nothing. I need music to inspire. I need melodies to feel something. I also don't like listening to solos and watching too. They don't seem interesting to me - just rhythms. People often want me to play a solo, but I'm perfectly happy when I can play just flat 4/4s without any fill.
MD: What are your feelings about the master classes, in that case?
ANIKA: At first it was difficult. I thought a lot during the game, but now everything is fine. I feel much more comfortable, but I still miss the guys from the band on stage.
MD: How do you build your master classes?
ANIKA: No drum solos! (laughs). I know people want me to play a little without music, so I put on a metronome and improvise a little. Then I play a few songs and then I answer questions.
MD: What is the most popular question?
ANIKA: I am often asked why I hang my cymbals tilted away from me and why I swapped the hanging toms.
MD: And what are the answers to these questions?
ANIKA: (Laughs) I switched toms because I played for a very long time with a minimum number of drums, only 2 toms: 12 and 14 or 16 inches. And when my setup began to grow, I put the 10" tom on the right, as I'm more comfortable with the 12" in front of me.
The plates are tilted away from me because I hang them very low. And sometimes, when you crash into a cymbal, if it is tilted towards you, then it starts to swing very strongly and you have to stop for a split second until it comes back. And when the cymbal is tilted a little away from you, it has much better control because it follows the stick better. And no, I didn't hit more cymbals because of that tilt (laughs).
MD: The elements of your setup are very close to each other. Have you always played this way?
ANIKA: Not always. I discovered this in the last couple of years. Because when everything is close to each other, you don't have to stretch. Faster things can be played, and it doesn't take a lot of energy to move around the setup.
MD: What inspired you for the track 'White Lines'?
ANIKA: Gospel music.
MD: You play some cool splash tricks in it. Did you do it specifically?
ANIKA: Yes, it's orchestration. I have fingerings for groups of 5, 6, etc. which I use. When I was doing this, I decided to experiment with orchestrating them on unusual surfaces, in addition to toms - on cymbals, hi-hat, stack and percussion. To orchestrate fills a little differently, sometimes using cymbals, stacks and splashes. But the fingering remains the same.
MD: The last song on the album is 'Alter Ego'. It was the second track you posted on YouTube. Why did you decide to include it in Pikalar?
ANIKA: This song started my career. This song went viral on the internet very quickly and I got a lot of attention thanks to it. I included it in the album as a thank you to all those people who follow my work and support all these years.
MD: What advice would you give to drummers who want to make a career in music?
ANIKA: I think the most important thing is to focus on your goals. You must work on your own things. If you think what you're playing is cool, then keep doing something about it. You must find something for yourself. You also have to be good at timing and playing musically with other musicians. This is the most important thing.
Author: Michael Dawson
Translation: Oleg Kuznetsov
Editor: Anna Gornaya