Interview by Ian at DrumRadar on March 22, 2019.
Anika is a German drummer, songwriter, and producer who gained immense popularity from her high-quality and original compositions on YouTube. She started drumming at the age of 6, and went on to study music at the University of Popular Music and Music Business in Mannheim, in addition to studying with some well-known teachers like Claus Hessler.
Anika has released various singles, as well as her debut album, "Pikalar", which climbed it's way toward the top of the charts all across the world.
She won the award of "Best Up and Coming Artist" through Modern Drummer Magazine Readers Poll, and "#1 Rising Star" in DRUM! Magazine in 2015 and 2016. Twice she made it to the #2 spot for "Best Fusion Drummer" by Modern Drummer, and lately she won #1 for best Clinician / Educator by Music Radar.
When you were young you had a chance to study with Claus Hessler, a student of Jim Chapin who many drummers call his successor. How was your time with him, and what are some important things you learned during that time?
I’ve studied with Claus for more than 8 or 9 years, starting around the age of 19. It wasn’t a weekly thing - it was more like once or twice a month. Claus is an awesome teacher! He has more knowledge about music and drumming than anybody I’ve ever met. Claus studied a lot outside of drumming - more about music in general, music history, about different musicians, and also the history of musical instruments. He has a ton of knowledge, and all of this makes its way into his lessons. I’ve learned stuff like this from him, and also of course how to understand music, because he is a very musical player. A lot of my technique comes from Claus Hessler.
Claus and I are still in touch today because we come from the same area in Germany. We lived really close - about a 20 minute drive from each other. We are more like friends and do educational stuff together. Lately, we put together a bunch of lessons and call it the Drumming Kinship, and we offered this as a 2-3 day Masterclass package. Today, you can get us both together as your teachers if you’d like too! [laughs]
When you left your career in social education to pursue drumming full time, you began practicing multiple hours a day. What kind of things would you practice, and what would you study from? (Books? Online lessons?) Did you have a plan all laid out, or was your learning path more spontaneous?
I left social education and started studying at the Pop Academy in Germany - it’s a famous university for pop music. I got lessons there, and of course in the beginning I was focused on the material we got from the teachers. I also started to work more with books and more with the stuff from Claus. It got pretty intense because I had more time to practice, but I didn’t have a plan at that time. While practicing along with all the material from the teachers, I realized at some point that it needs more structure and I couldn’t get any more progression, so I figured out a lot of different options for how to practice - things like how to split, how to organize practice time, etc…
In the end it took me more than 2 years to really figure out how I learn best, and how I study best. You have to make your own experiences because everyone has a different personality, different character, and everybody differs in how they learn new things.
Has your degree in music business come in handy at all during your drumming career?
While studying at the Pop Academy, my studies weren’t focused on drums only. A big part of the curriculum was on the music business side of things. Things like how to promote yourself, how to handle all the office work, taxes for professional musicians, self-employment stuff, social media work, and all that stuff. All of this was really helpful in my career.
Playing-wise, I don’t think you need a degree. As long as you are practicing, working on developing your skills all the time, and moving forward, then all is good! Of course you need a lot of experience playing with musicians - in bands, on stage, and in the studio - and all of that stuff helps you to grow as a musician and on your instrument.
I would say all the lesson stuff was helpful, but when I started with Claus it would have been the same in the end because it’s on YOU how much time you spend practicing, and how much time you spend to develop your skills. It’s not the material you get, or the teachers you are studying with. It’s more about yourself.
Can you explain how you came up with the title for your newest album, Pikalar?
Pikalar, for me, is like a synonym for something colorful, something complex, and something beautiful. I don’t know how that came up - it was something in the studio I think. You know, you have this studio flow at some point, and we say “Ugh, everything is a little Pikalar today”, and [laughs] “I feel Pikalar.”, and “Let’s Pikalar it up!”
You have your own language at some point when it gets crazy after weeks in the studio. I don’t know - I came up with that and I think it’s a synonym for all that is included in the album - something colorful, colorful tones, colorful notes, colorful songs, and a lot of complex rhythms of course. So yea, we end up with Pikalar!
I love how your incorporate odd time signatures and displaced rhythms into your playing. What advice can you give to people looking to start doing the same thing? Are there any good exercises for that kind of thing?
I’m really interested in that kind of stuff, like playing odd meters, playing permutations, and all of those things. A good way to start is probably to keep things really basic. Don’t start with polyrhythms if you don’t understand odd-time, for example. I would say that having a little bit of structure and an overview of the topics really helps to create a plan, and that’s a really important thing in the beginning when you start practicing.
I have experience with a lot of students, and they will practice this a little bit, that a little bit, and then they switch to a completely different topic. After doing that for 2 days, they don’t see the connections between all those topics. For them, everything is a separate thing so nothing flows together. Everything is a little bit chaotic.
When it comes to this more complex stuff like odd meters, permutations, or polyrhythms, then it’s really important to understand it and have a structure. My way of thinking with odd-meters is to add a note or leave a note out. You can take your regular rhythms you are familiar with in 4/4 and just try to add a note or 2 notes and try to capture the feel of the new groove you create. It’s hard to explain in 2 minutes, especially making people understand such a complex concept easily, but I think that’s good advice when it comes to adding a note or leaving one out. I actually did a lesson like this on YouTube where I had a little more time to explain it:
I’m writing a book right now which is based more on the pad, but I really break down all the polyrhythm and odd-meter stuff in a really basic way - how to practice it and how to bring it to the drum set later on.
Do you think YouTube is the same now as when you uploaded your first song 6 years ago? How has it or the online community changed since then?
I don’t think YouTube has changed. It’s more that the quality and people probably changed [laughs], and the next generation is already online. Yea, you are right - it’s been probably 6 or 7 years since I uploaded my first video. When I started producing drum videos it wasn’t really planned, rather, it was a really lucky accident (my career).
When I uploaded my first video it was one of the rare drum-related videos in good quality, and that made it a little more outstanding when compared to a lot of stuff on YouTube in this category. In the meantime, everyone else was starting to produce really good quality drum videos. The industry like Meinl cymbals, Vic Firth, and all the guys who produce musical instruments - they recognized YouTube as their next new promotion tool. They started to promote the cymbals, sticks, and drums in high quality videos, and of course they used their endorsers too.
I have to make sure that my videos are the same quality as them, and it’s getting more and more expensive I feel. When the industry starts with a lot of money to produce good videos, then as a self-employed small artist you have to check all your options and see what you can do. This has been pretty challenging for me.
So, I don’t think YouTube changed. I think time has changed and everything gets faster. People don’t spend 5 minutes anymore on a video - it has to be quick! Everything you have to say has to be said within 10 seconds, or better in 5. [laughs] It’s really challenging to put the most important information in a good production within 10 seconds. Time has changed. Society has changed.
Besides just playing drums, you compose your own songs. Do you have a specific process you go through when you compose a song, or is it different every time?
I have mainly 2 options for how I start. I have kind of a routine when it comes to composing. Sometimes I start with the drums - I have rhythms, ideas, and grooves, and I just record that stuff and build a song on my drumming ideas. But it’s also the other way around where I have ideas, harmonies, and melodies, and I just start with recording those and go over it with my drums after. More or less when I start composing it’s similar to when a band is composing a song together. I start with an instrument, then I do the next one, I put it down for a few days while listening to it, and then I restart the process. I get new ideas and let the song grow.
I would say I don’t finish a song within a day, because I don’t have to. [laughs] I can take the time to listen to it a couple times, bring in new ideas, and figure out different options for how to play a verse or chorus. Let the song grow!
You know, I travel a lot, and I get inspired by landscapes and people. By traveling I have all of these different cultures around me, and when I’m back home I’m full of ideas when it comes to composing. Sometimes I sit down and do a quick layout - just one potential part of a song - and take it into a full song later on.
What advice can you give to people wanting to learn how to compose their own songs from scratch?
It’s hard to give advice on this since everyone is so different. If you are a complete beginner at composing, then it’s a good idea to jam along to a track you like while recording yourself, and then remove the track so you have an arrangement with just your own drumming. You’ll have dynamics in your drums which mark the different parts, and this is probably a good point to arrange some chords on it. Having an arrangement ready is the first step, and from there you can take each chord to bring it to a full song.
Since you've started doing a lot of drum camps and clinics, have you found that your teaching style has evolved? Do you find teaching drums to be difficult sometimes?
I love the educational part of drumming. I started teaching around 14, and this was a really helpful way to make a living while studying. At some point I also started to learn how to teach drums, and that was a separate thing from the studies in the university I was in. I always do lessons with others and it’s really fun for me - I like it a lot! I learned a lot for myself as well. Sometimes when you explain something or break something down for someone else you get new ideas, or you understand it way better for yourself. You get a different view on it, so that’s funny.
I started doing a lot of drum camps but it’s never been difficult. Even if I have 20 students in the group, I have so many tools to help handle situations like this plus my experience, so it’s always really fun to do. I love it!
Of course, yea, I made a progression myself when teaching because of all these experiences with beginners and also with professional musician students who are really into studying drums. I would say it made me a better teacher, but I would also say I learned a lot about how to handle different situations. When it comes to teaching I’m always very relaxed and I’m never scared of upcoming situations. I feel...cool. [laughs] I love doing it!
Is there one thing you notice that a lot of drummers tend to overlook when playing or practicing? What should drummers try to be more aware of?
I noticed one thing that happens a lot, and that is that they switch topics too fast and too often. They are not really focused for a long period of time on one topic. And that, of course, is really important to be able to master something - to really internalize and memorize something. When you feel that you’ve learned something new and are able to play it, a lot of drummers stop at that point. When you understand something, it’s not the same as being able to play it in any situation on stage. If you feel like you still think about something, then it’s not internalized.
When talking to students about what to practice, you can’t just say, “You need to practice that for 2 months,” because everyone has to feel it and re-check with their own bodies if it’s already internalized. I would say that if you start something really new, you should be focused at least for a couple of weeks or months and dive really deep into that topic to make it internalized in the end. A lot of students don’t do it, so after half-a-year they are unable to play that stuff anymore. They have to restart from the beginning.
That’s the most difficult topic and it’s also a question which is coming up in a lot of clinics, so I’m happy you mentioned that and it’s important to talk about.
What are your thoughts on where drumming is headed? How do you think drumming will be different 50 years from now?
A lot of young drummers study with the mindset that drumming is supposed to be fast, a lot of notes, loud - and I don’t know why! Of course it sounds interesting at some point and probably on some tracks, but for me sometimes it’s an overload. It’s too many notes too fast, and also the songs are too fast. I don’t feel it! It’s a personal thing - my taste and feel in music - but it feels like everything is about speed and filling the space in each second. People would probably say the same about me, that “You play too fast and too many notes as well”, but I don’t see it that way in my playing. I always try to support the music.
The music I release on YouTube and the various download portals is my personal thing, so I have the freedom to create the music around the drums because it’s my music. But when I’m just there to support the singer or a song where the drums are not the focus, I don’t do all that crazy shit! [laughs] I just play a groove and a fill and that’s it. I think that sometimes drummers forget about supporting the music, or just keeping the time. It’s not about soloing everywhere. It’s about getting the feel for where to solo, and when to just keep time. Musical sense is probably the right word here. Besides playing fast and a lot of notes, create a musical sense.
I don’t know where this is going in 50 years [laughs]. Probably we’ll be at 500 BPM then - I don’t know. Or are we going back to a more groove-based drumming? Hopefully that’s the case.
What are your plans for the rest of 2019 and into 2020?
The goal for this year is to finish the next album. We are producing and recording a new album with my band right now (Nevell). I wrote a couple tracks and the guys brought in their ideas and influences as well, so it will be more a band-based album this time. The plan is to release the album in the summer this year, and of course I always try to get some gigs booked for the band for the second half of the year.
I’m working on an educational book right now so I’m trying to finish that as well by the end of the year. I have a couple of clinic tours around the world - in Asia and USA. I also have a new thing coming with Emmanuelle Caplette. We have a new drum camp which will be released this year in Canada and Germany where we teach together.
These are my plans! It’s a lot of work to do and of course I’ll produce new YouTube videos with original songs. Some will be from the albums and some will be completely new. I also will release a transcription book of my already released track. For the next year I’m going to bring the band more into focus - to travel and do more shows with the band. We are looking for an agency who does the booking for us. There’s some other stuff I can’t talk about right now. There are a lot of plans, and a lot of stuff to do!
Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans and the drumming community?
I love all of my fans because they’ve been great from the very beginning. I have the best fans in the world, definitely! I hope I can bring out some new stuff for you - some fun stuff to listen to and to study along with. Keep in touch everywhere you can. I love you guys!
What's your favorite movie?
Oh Jesus, I have to make a choice! I would say my favorite movie is still one of the first heavy movies I’ve ever seen - Silence of the Lambs. It’s still a good movie in 2019!
Thank you Anika!
Make sure to check out Anika's website, www.anikanilles.com, to see what she's up to next, and visit her YouTube page for some awesome drumming action.
Her newest album "Pikalar" is a masterpiece that I've been playing non-stop, so go pick it up right now! (link here)
You can follow Anika at:
- Instagram: @anika.nilles
- Twitter: @anikanilles
- Facebook: Anika Nilles