Anika Nilles: Angling for glory

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Anika Nilles grabbed the drum community’s attention with her YouTube videos only three years ago – and now she’s one of the most hotly tipped drummers in the world. Joel McIver finds out how she did it… as well as the secret behind those crazy cymbal angles
Words: Joel McIver   Images: Richard Ecclestone

May the gods of drumming bless the internet. Without the gift of YouTube we might never have heard of Anika Nilles, who came out of nowhere – well, strictly speaking it was Mannheim in Germany, but you know what we mean – via a series of online drum performances in 2013. Since then, she’s been stunning drum fans worldwide, not least at the recent London Drum Show. 

We caught up with Nilles just as she left the main stage, having levelled a crowd of appreciative fans with a set that included cool, laid-back grooves, frenetic solos and more fills than a bottomless Coke at Nando’s. Although she’s a little tired after an extended run of international clinic dates for her sponsors Mapex, Evans and Meinl, she accepts a cold drink, sits back on the green-room sofa and answers our questions with wholly admirable enthusiasm.

“My father got me into drums,” recalls Nilles, asked how she got started. “He was a drummer too, although he quit playing over 10 years ago. We had his drum kit in our basement at our house in Aschaffenburg [in Bavaria], where he used to rehearse with his covers band when they played at local festivals. One day I sat down at the kit and started playing a groove; that’s all I remember because I was really young at the time. Later, my father took me to a local music school when I was maybe six years old.”

Yes, you wish you had parents like that. Thanks to Herr Nilles, music education was at the top of his daughter’s agenda during her formative years, although like any caring parent, he made sure she had backup options if the drums didn’t work out. “I just wanted to play the drums,” chuckles Nilles, “but my parents told me I had to study a different subject as well so that I could get a job if I needed to, so I worked in social education for six years. After that time I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I quit and started studying drums at the Pop Academy in Mannheim.”

More properly known as the Popakademie Baden-Württemberg, this seat of learning has been Nilles’ home for the last couple of years, although she’s pretty much done with education for now. “I’ve done my final exams,” she tells us. “I just have one more thing to do and then I’m finished… but I don’t have the time to do it right now!”

A certain Britrock legend and Drummer regular was an early object of fascination, says Nilles, fully aware that the guy is in the next room at the LDS as we speak. “I really admired Mark Richardson of Skunk Anansie, who is here today!” she says. “I’ve played all of their songs. I met him and I was blown away. He really influenced me in my youth. I was so into the groove back then; just keeping the backbeat really heavy and playing with power.”

All of which brings us neatly to the small matter of Nilles’ explosion into the drum world three years ago, when she uploaded a performance video of an original song called ‘Wild Boy’ and watched her profile skyrocket overnight. “I’ve been writing songs since I was 10 years old,” she explains. “I started writing songs on keyboard at the Pop Academy, and before that I’d written songs on the guitar, but that was a totally different way of songwriting for me. After that I decided to find a singer and a band and play the songs; I never thought that I could just play the drums. I just thought I’d keep time on the drums and keep everything open for the singer. Then I had an exam, and in these exams you always do Dave Weckl playalongs and stuff like that. I realised that I didn’t want to do that any more and so I tried something different.”

Nilles continues: “My songs took shape, and that’s how everything started. The teachers liked my songs so I put one out just to get jobs. There are companies who watch out for musicians; they want to see something and I didn’t have anything so I put my song online. Six hours later it went totally crazy. People loved my playing and also the songs. That’s a big thing for me, to put my music out. I put my first EP out about 18 months ago and there have been a few singles since then. Now I’m working on a full album. When will it come out? Good question! Some time in 2016 – I’ll be releasing it myself.”

Read the full interview in the February issue of iDrum, available now!

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