Perhaps it’s fitting that when it came time to name her brand-new debut album, the German drumming phenomenon couldn’t find its title in the dictionary. After all, her international notoriety had been earned precisely because of her willingness to commit to traveling down an uncharted, unpaved road. As it turned out, an unprecedented number of us were ready and willing to go along for the ride, and, in the process, expand our definition of “drumming superstar.”
About seven years ago, German drummer/composer Anika Nilles took a leap of faith, abandoning a steady career in social education to pursue her true passion: music. “It was really risky,” Nilles says via Skype from her home in Mannheim. “I always knew that I wasn’t that happy at that job, but when you get money and you are safe, it’s not that easy to quit.” Once she made the decision to refocus her life on drumming and composing, Nilles began practicing multiple hours a day in order to make up for the time she had lost since venturing into the professional world after earning a degree in popular music and music business from the Popakademie conservatory in Mannheim.
To make ends meet, Nilles spent several years teaching lessons and gigging around Germany. Then in 2013 she went into the studio to record a video of one of her original compositions so that she could send it to local producers, bandleaders, and booking agents to help secure additional work. The song was “Wild Boy,” and it showcased the drummer’s deep pocket, wicked linear chops, and strong melodic sensibility. Anika posted the video to YouTube in October of that year, and that’s when everything changed for her.
Literally overnight, “Wild Boy” racked up thousands of views by people all around the world, effectively thrusting Nilles to the top of the heap of up-and-coming drummers who were taking advantage of the global reach of YouTube to build a fan base. A few months later, Anika posted a second video, the original composition “Alter Ego,” which went viral as well. (“Wild Boy” has been viewed 1.5 million times, and “Alter Ego” is closing in on the 3 million mark.)
No one can plan for the level of immediate attention that Nilles earned from those two videos, but as the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Nilles has carved her own path to success by focusing on producing top-notch performance videos of her original compositions rather than retreading more predictable paths that other YouTube stars have forged, with drum covers of popular songs and gratuitous solos.
It wasn’t long before Nilles became a hot commodity on the international drum festival and clinic circuit. In 2015 she made appearances at the London Drum Show, the Meinl Drum Festival, and PASIC, and also on Drumeo, and her schedule became increasingly packed with workshops at drum shops and music schools around the world. Nilles also released MP3s of “Wild Boy,” “Alter Ego,” and the quintuplet-based track “Queenz” on iTunes, and she included “minus drums” versions of each for her fans to use for play-along practice.
Incredibly gracious and humbled by the unexpected success, Nilles continues to use YouTube as the primary distributor of her original work; there are eleven full-production performances currently posted to her channel, and several more are slated for release later this year. But the thing that Anika is most excited about at the moment is the release of her first full-length album, Pikalar, which is a rhythmic tour-de-force featuring super-hip odd-time and odd-grouping grooves, tricky metric modulations, and intense full-kit fills presented within the context of soaring prog/fusion arrangements, singable melodies, and incredible playing from a supporting cast of bassist Frank Itt, keyboardist Maze Leber, and guitarist/producer Joachim Schneiss.
We caught up with Nilles just as Pikalar was about to drop, so we could dig into some of the drumming and musical concepts that she’s exploring on this batch of tracks.
MD: Congratulations on the album. You must be excited to get this batch of original music out there.
Anika: Yes. I’ve been working on it for one and a half years between touring and traveling.
MD: The drum sounds and mixes are very consistent throughout. Did you use the same studio for everything?
Anika: Yeah. I’ve been working with a producer named Joachim Schneiss for the last six years. We work really well together. You never change a winning team, you know? He also plays the guitars on the album.
MD: I’m curious about the writing process of drummers who compose. Was it always a goal to focus on your own music?
Anika: No, it wasn’t. I started composing while studying drums at the university. First I composed on the guitar. Then I switched to the keys and worked more with recording programs like Logic and Cubase. That helped me to develop my composing skills, because I was really limited on the guitar.
MD: Did you study piano when you were a kid?
Anika: No. I can’t really play piano. I can play for a couple of bars, but that’s it. It’s not really in the flow or anything. I just compose with it and then bring in a real keyboard player.
MD: How did the ideas develop? Did you start with a bass line or chord progression, or did the songs start from drum parts?
Anika: I often start with a drum part. My composing style is really rhythmic. I have a lot of ideas, and I’ll put them into my laptop and then put on bass lines, keyboard melodies, and other stuff. The guitar plays the main melodies, but I write them by singing them first. So I’m basically putting vocal melodies into a guitar line.
MD: What particular concepts were you exploring on the drums when you wrote these songs? What was the inspiration?
Anika: It’s instrumental music, so I don’t have words. I listen to a lot of other musicians and other music, and I always get more into a song when I feel something from the melody. When I listen to songs with vocals, I don’t really care about the words. I look for something with the melody that gives me goose bumps.
I do a lot of driving, so there are often moments when I’m listening to music and the sun is shining a certain way or I’m passing through some cool-looking fields, and I feel some type of connection. Those are the feelings I remember when I’m composing. And that’s why the songs are called “Greenfield” and things like this.
MD: What does the title Pikalar mean?
Anika: Pikalar isn’t really a word. You can’t find it in a dictionary or on Google. It’s a word that I created to stand for things that happen in life that you can’t describe. That’s what happened to me over the last three years. I got all this attention on the internet and YouTube, but it took me two years to understand what was happening. So I was looking for a title that described that experience, but all the words I found sounded stupid. So I thought it would be cool to put a new word together that would have the meaning for that.
MD: When you first started doing videos for YouTube, did you have a plan, or did you just feel like making them?
Anika: I started making videos about three years ago, and the idea was to put out videos to get attention from people around my area to hire me for jobs. That was it. People were always asking for stuff to listen to or to watch, so I recorded one of my tracks and posted it. By the next morning, it went totally crazy. [laughs]
I don’t know why that happened, but a lot of people wrote messages and were very supportive, so I thought why not put out a second song? That was “Alter Ego,” and it went crazy too. It was cool for me, because I now had a tool to put out my own music. That’s how everything started, but it wasn’t planned.
MD: Did you end up getting local gigs from the videos, or did your career go straight to international opportunities?
Anika: I’ve been playing the drums for a long time, so I’ve played a lot in my area and around Germany. I’m coming from playing live on stage with different bands. But with the videos, things started going international immediately.
MD: When you’re home, do you still play gigs around your town?
Anika: I don’t live in a big city like Berlin or Hamburg. I live in a smaller town. We have some things going on, but it’s not every week. But I work for a couple of agencies who book shows everywhere in Germany. I’m playing on the weekends a lot and sometimes during the week. But things are really busy with my own stuff, so I can’t do a lot of those shows.
MD: On the opening track, “Synergy,” how much of the drum part is written and how much is improvised?
Anika: This song is called “Synergy” because it’s about the synergy of two time signatures. There are two time signatures going on, and I play a different one from the band. The verse groove is composed, and all the other musicians rely on that. But the fills are always improvised, so they are always different. The grooves are more composed.
MD: How do you keep track of the pulse when you get into sections where you play extended fills? Are you thinking about patterns or the pulse?
Anika: I’m thinking about the subdivisions. “Synergy” is in 3/4 and is at 90 bpm. So I know exactly which subdivisions, like fives, sevens, or nines, I can play at that bpm. When I’m improvising, I’m just playing over a subdivision. “Synergy” has a lot of nines and some sevens. I’ve studied a lot of groupings to play in those subdivisions, but I don’t think about them anymore. I just feel them over the pulse.
MD: What would be one grouping that you use most often?
Anika: I play groups of five a lot. That pattern is like home for me.
MD: What’s the sticking?
Anika: It’s right-left-right-kick-kick.
MD: On the second track, “Mister,” what’s the sticking pattern in the chorus, where the hi-hat plays fast figures?
Anika: It’s 32nd notes, and I’m playing them as right-right-left-kick. This song is really hard to play because it’s a slow tempo. It’s difficult to keep the time exact, especially during the verse.
MD: What do you do to keep the time together? Do you count faster subdivisions?
Anika: I try to feel the 16ths.
MD: Do you play these tracks live with a click?
Anika: Yeah. I’m not that good to play them without a click track. [laughs] I’m working on that, but I think I’ll work on that my whole life.
MD: There’s a metric modulation in the middle of “Mister.” What’s going on there?
Anika: The new time signature is based on the quarter-note triplet, so the triplet becomes the quarter note.
MD: What was the inspiration behind this song?
Anika: It was inspired by Michael Jackson.
MD: Did you grow up listening to R&B?
Anika: Yeah, I listened a lot to Off the Wall and Thriller.
MD: Who are your biggest influences?
Anika: Jeff Porcaro has been a big influence for my whole life. Then there’s Chris Coleman, Jojo Mayer, and Benny Greb, who I’ve studied a lot over the past couple of years. I also really like Stanton Moore.
MD: What is it about Jeff Porcaro’s playing that’s so influential?
Anika: I love a lot of stuff about his playing. First, his ghostings were nuts. His playing was so dynamic. He caught all these soft things with the other musicians, but he still played with a really good flow. He was so musical.
MD: The next track is “Orange Leaves.”
Anika: This song is coming from more Asian-based stuff. I live in Mannheim, where there are a lot of people from Turkey and those areas. So we have all those influences here. When I decided to put something together in that style, I chose that title because for me orange is a color that fits that sound.
MD: What is the metric modulation in “Orange Leaves”?
Anika: This is the hardest one—it keeps me busy. [laughs] I’m playing in 4/4, and then the new time signature is based on a quintuplet. So the click stays in 4/4, while I play five beats over that.
This song grew while we were recording with different musicians. I got the idea for the modulation at the last second before we put it out on YouTube. I felt that the middle part was a little bit boring, so I thought it would be cool to try playing in five over it.
MD: The next song is “Greenfield.” The first thing I thought of when I listened to it was Steve Jordan. Was he an inspiration for this track?
Anika: Yeah, totally. I wanted to have the sound of Steve on John Mayer’s albums. I really like that style of playing, and John Mayer is one of my big composing influences. This song is a little like his stuff.
MD: The snare sound is different on this track. What drum did you use?
Anika: It’s a 7.5×13.
MD: Your drum sounds on the record are very punchy and clean. What do you do to get that sound?
Anika: I checked out a lot of stuff to get that sound. I wanted to have a clear sound where you can hear all the ghostings and fast single strokes. I also wanted it to be powerful. So I was looking for drumheads that already had that sound. That’s why I use EC2s on the rack toms and a G2 on the floor tom, which is tuned very low so I can do rolls on it that sound like double bass.
MD: How do you tune the top head versus the bottom head on the toms?
Anika: I tune the bottom heads of the toms to the lowest point, and the top heads are up a little bit from that.
MD: What about the bass drum? Is it heavily muffled?
Anika: I use the Onyx EMAD, which is a 2-ply head with a special coating and a muffling ring. And I have two of Evans’ pads inside. The kick is always tuned really low, so you can see the screws shaking. [laughs]
MD: How did you choose which cymbals to use?
Anika: I like dark and dry sounds, which I know are hard to hear sometimes. But I really like that sound. When I record, I try to choose cymbals that fit each song.
MD: How often were you changing cymbals? Was it every song?
Anika: Yeah. Sometimes I kept the hi-hat and one or two crashes, but I changed a lot of cymbals for each song.
MD: Why change them so often?
Anika: When you’re recording, you’re always looking for the best sounds for the song. That’s why we switched snares often too. But I think your choice of cymbals gives you the most character. Meinl cymbals have a certain character, but if you use Zildjian it’s a totally different sound. Each cymbal is different, so I’m always looking for a setup that fits within the song.
MD: How many snares did you use?
Anika: I had eight different snares, and I used six of them.
MD: What do you look for in a snare drum when choosing it for a song?
Anika: I personally like aluminum and brass snares, but they don’t fit on every song. Sometimes you need a thinner wood shell that sounds more open. It depends on the drumheads you use too—whether it sounds more open or muffled.
MD: “Mallay” has a quintuplet groove. You’ve become pretty well known for your experimentations with quintuplets in grooves. How did you get into that?
Anika: That happened while I was working on my final exam at the university. I was looking for something different from all the Dave Weckl play-alongs the guys were playing each year. I had a jam with bassist Frank Itt, who ended up playing on my album, and he asked me if I could play some quintuplet grooves. I couldn’t, but I thought it was cool. So I put something together using quintuplets to play on my final exam. I worked on it for several months and created my own exercises, because I couldn’t find anything on the internet. “Queenz” was my final-exam piece.
MD: That was one of the songs you posted to YouTube.
Anika: Yeah. The idea was to bring quintuplets into a groove, with a backbeat on 2 and 4, and make it feel groovy, rather than just playing crazy stuff. For people who aren’t into fives, it still sounds crazy. But you can feel a backbeat, and that was my goal. In “Mallay,” everyone in the band is playing quintuplets.
MD: This song has a laid-back, J Dilla–type feel that sits somewhere between straight and swung 16th notes. Were you listening to drummers who play like that, like Chris Dave or Daru Jones, when you wrote it?
Anika: No. It was just a mathematic idea—to count and play in five.
MD: It sounds like you most often accent the first and fourth subdivisions in your quintuplet grooves.
Anika: Just as with 16ths, you have many hi-hat patterns that you can use with quintuplets. You can play on 1 and 4; 1, 3, and 4; 1 and 3; and so on. And each hi-hat pattern has a different feel.
MD: Did you work on putting the kick drum underneath those patterns? Was that how you started practicing quintuplets?
Anika: No, I started simple with a quintuplet hand-to-hand sticking on the hi-hat and immediately focused on playing the kick in five. I wanted to figure out how to play different patterns on the bass drum first.
MD: And then you started leaving notes out of the hi-hat pattern?
Anika: Yeah, but that was like step ten of the process. [laughs]
MD: The next song is “One Ride, One Life,” which has a half-time-shuffle feel.
Anika: Yeah, this song is Jeff Porcaro–influenced. I took a layout of this song with me while visiting L.A. two years ago. We drove up to the hills, and it was one of those times where the sun was shining and everything felt fine. I listened to this song and the title came to me, which more or less means you only get to have one of those experiences in your life.
MD: You did an Instagram video on how to play a half-time shuffle using quintuplets. How are you doing that?
Anika: That came about during a Skype lesson with someone who asked me if I had ever tried to put regular grooves into quintuplets. I hadn’t ever thought about it, so he asked me to try the half-time shuffle. It sounds really interesting.
MD: The track “Pikalar” is in 7/8. How do you make that time signature sound smooth?
Anika: That comes from the hi-hat and ride cymbal work. On the ride, I play more in 7/4, while the snare and kick play in 7/8. That creates a flow where you can nod your head like it’s in 4/4. Also, where you place the snare makes it sound groovy.
MD: Where do you often place the snare in a 7/8 groove?
Anika: I usually hit the snare on the 5, which gives it a little bit of a half-time feel.
MD: When did you know you were going to be a drummer?
Anika: I started playing really early, at the age of six. I didn’t practice a lot, but I always knew I wanted to be a drummer. But my parents urged me to get a “real” job, so I worked for six years outside of music. It wasn’t until I was twenty-six that I started really working on my skills to become a professional drummer.
But I always knew that this is what I wanted to do. There was a time when I was totally into my old job. I had a lot of people who worked for me, and I was making money. But then I thought, Is this really the thing I want to do for the rest of my life? Several months later I decided to quit and begin working on my drum skills.
MD: Were you already playing gigs on the weekends while you were working your old job?
Anika: Yes. I was teaching, and I was playing in cover bands a few times a month.
MD: Did you take lessons when you first started at six?
Anika: I took lessons at a local music school for three years, and I had a few private lessons. I didn’t take any more lessons for a couple years, but then I started studying with Claus Hessler, who lived twenty minutes from me.
MD: When did you realize it was important to make well-produced videos to further your career?
Anika: Like I said, it wasn’t planned. The first and second videos aren’t that produced, honestly. But I think it’s important to make good videos with good sound and to write good songs. This is what makes me different from others—staying focused on my own music and producing everything at the highest quality possible.
MD: Are you planning to make videos for all of the new songs?
Anika: I plan to put out two or three more from the album, but I’m already writing new stuff that I want to put out this year.
MD: The next track is “Those Hills,” which is another quintuplet-based song. This one could have had an over-the-top drum solo in it, but you decided to jam more with the music. Was that deliberate, and what do you think of drum solos in general?
Anika: I don’t like them, honestly. When it comes to a drum solo, I can’t play anymore. I feel totally empty. I have no ideas, no flow—nothing. I always need music to get inspired. I need melodies in order to feel something. I don’t listen to other drum solos, and I don’t like watching them. I don’t find them interesting—they’re just rhythms. People always want me to play drum solos, but I’m completely happy when I can play straight 4/4 without any fills.
MD: How do you feel about drum clinics, then?
Anika: It was awkward at first. I was thinking too much while I was playing, but now it’s okay. I feel more comfortable, but I still miss the guys.
MD: How do you structure your clinics?
Anika: No drum solos! [laughs] I know that people want to hear me play without the sequencers, so I’ll put on a metronome and jam a little bit. Then I’ll play a few songs and answer questions.
MD: What are the most popular questions you get asked?
Anika: I always get asked about why I angle my cymbals away from me, and why I switched the order of the rack toms.
MD: And the answers are…?
Anika: [laughs] I switched the rack toms because I had played a lot on a smaller setup with just two toms: a 12″ and a 14″ or 16″. When my drumset started to grow again, I put the 10″ on the right side, because I felt more comfortable with the 12″ in front of me.
The cymbals are angled away from me because I set them really low. And sometimes when you’re crash-riding a cymbal that’s angled toward you, it starts moving totally crazy and you have to stop hitting it for a second until it’s back in place. When you tilt the cymbal a little away from you, you can control it much better, because it follows your stick better. And no, I haven’t broken more cymbals because I angle them that way. [laughs]
MD: You setup is positioned very tight and close. Have you always played with everything close together?
Anika: Not always, but I developed that over the past seven years, because when everything is really tight together you don’t need to reach out. You can handle faster stuff, and you don’t lose as much energy from reaching.
MD: What was the inspiration behind the track “White Lines”?
Anika: This song is inspired by gospel music.
MD: You play some cool licks in the song that incorporate the splash. Was that something you spent time practicing?
Anika: Yeah, that’s an orchestration thing. I have stickings that I use for groups of five, six, and so on, so when I practiced that stuff I experimented with orchestrating them on unusual things besides toms, like cymbals, hi-hats, stacks, and percussion. So sometimes I use the cymbals, stacks, and splashes to orchestrate fills a little bit differently. But it’s within a specific sticking.
MD: The last song is “Alter Ego,” which was the second song you released on YouTube. Why did you include it on Pikalar?
Anika: This song is where everything in my career starts. That song went totally viral on social media, so I got a lot of attention from it. I put it on the album as a thank-you to all the people who have followed and supported me over the years.
MD: What advice would you have for a drummer looking to make a career in music today?
Anika: I think the important thing is to stay focused on your goals. You have to work out your own stuff. If you think something you’re playing is cool, go with it. You have to find one thing that’s yours. But you also have to keep really good time and play musically with other musicians. That’s really the most important thing.
Drums: Tama Starclassic Bubinga in piano black finish
A. 6×14 Starphonic Aluminum snare
B. 5.5×14 Dynamic Bronze snare
C. 9×12 tom
D. 8×10 tom
E. 12×14 floor tom
F. 18×20 bass drum
1. 15″ Byzance Dual hi-hats
2. 16″ Byzance Trash crash
3. 10″ Byzance Traditional splash
4. 24″ Byzance Big Apple ride
5. 18″ Artist Concept Anika Nilles Deep Hats
6. 20″ Byzance Extra-Dry Thin crash
Anika also often uses a 24″ Byzance Extra-Dry Medium ride, a 20″ Byzance Hammered crash, and a 10″ Byzance Traditional splash stacked over a 14″ Generation X Filter China.
Sticks: Vic Firth 55A
Hardware: Tama, including Iron Cobra bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand
Heads: Evans Genera HD auxiliary snare batter, Onyx main snare batter, EC2 Frosted tom batters and G1 Clear resonants, G2 Coated floor tom batter and G1 Clear resonant, and EMAD Onyx bass drum batter and EQ3 front head
A half dozen unique beats from Nilles’s debut album.
Transcribed by Michael Dawson
The main rhythmic concept in this song involves blending 3/4 and 4/4 within the same measure. Anika outlines the 4/4 feel played by the band with a syncopated kick and snare pattern, while the hi-hat stays locked in 3/4. (0:22)
Nilles bookmarks a quick 32nd-note pattern on beats 2 and 3 with big, open 8th notes on beats 1 and 4 during the chorus of this song. (0:49)
Anika creates a powerful and unexpected tempo shift in this song by modulating into 5/4 for three bars before returning to the original pulse in measure 4. (2:31)
The spacious opening groove in this track sounds like a basic shuffle, but it’s actually built using a quintuplet subdivision. (0:00)
When the band kicks in, Nilles shifts her pattern to emphasize the first and third notes of the quintuplet. (0:23)
Anika creates a smooth, comfortable flow in this 7/8 groove by keeping a steady quarter-note feel with the hi-hat. (0:35)