A Gretsch Abroad — Exclusive Interview With German Pop Drummer Cani Nickels
I hadn’t heard of Cani Nickels when I first met him a few months back in Frankfurt, Germany. If you live outside of Germany perhaps you have never heard of him either, but in this land of poets and thinkers his musical skills are in high demand as a world-class drum tech, producer, and drummer. Cani understands sound manipulation and musical energy and puts a lot of thought into making magical moments with the artists with whom he works. He jumps from project to project with the ambitious goal of making songs sound brilliant and making productions come together flawlessly. With recent high-profile studio jobs for German national treasure Silly and the prodigious young talent Lotte, Cani Nickels is seeing more and more of the spotlight as of late, but does this matter to him? We recently caught up with him in Germany to talk drums, music, and life.
Lucas: It’s so interesting talking with Gretsch artists like Ash Soan and Morgan Ågren and hearing them talk about their home studios where they record drum tracks for bands and producers where everything is sent back-and-forth digitally as a Pro Tools or Logic file. It seems like this is a new type of business model for professional drummers and a way to make extra income without the burden of having to travel all over the place. Can you talk about your recording studio Brickwalldrumrecording and the work you do there? Are you only recording on tracks that people send in to you or are bands also coming in to record with you?
Cani: Brickwalldrumrecording is basically my living room where I have all sorts of drum gear lying about, a place where I can unfold creatively. I do a lot of drum recordings for various artists and producers there. Normally I get the songs sent to me and I lay down a drum track which I think could fit well. Then I send it in and get feedback and then record again until it is perfect. This way usually works really well and we can get to a good end result quickly. It’s great because I can do it all from my living room in Berlin.
Lucas: So you’re a Berlin guy?
Cani: Well, I was born in raised just outside of Cologne but moved to Berlin in 2004.
Lucas: As an American I love Berlin, a city with such historical depth.
Cani: I love Berlin because of its wonderful diversity, and it has a big music scene which is very vibrant. The musicians all seem to know each other like one big family.
Lucas: I’ve met a lot of people from Münich and it seems that Münich has a big music scene as well. Would you say that Berlin and Münich are the two competing music capitals in Germany?
Cani: Well you would have to throw Hamburg in there as well. Cologne also seems to have a lot going on too.
Lucas: So you‘re on tour right now?
Cani: Yeah, we played in Freiburg last night. Today is a day off then tomorrow we are playing in Frankfurt.
Lucas: Ah, the grind of a touring musician. How big are the clubs you are playing?
Cani: Anywhere between 500 and 2,000 people.
Lucas: Well there are some catchy tunes with Lotte’s new album Querfeldein. How involved were you in the writing process? To me this sounds like an innocent singer/songwriter that brought material in that got re-worked and beefed up power-wise by industry veterans such as yourself and her other backing artists. Was this the case?
Cani: Sort of. Lotte was indeed a singer/songwriter when she first came into the studio. Up until that point she had only played and performed with her semi-acoustic guitar. The songs were all sketches that were more or less finished. Mic Schröder, the producer, then arranged and recorded the songs with us. It was a very intense time as we recorded Querfeldein and the band and team really grew very close.
Lucas: Is it hard to have a boss like Lotte who is so much younger than you and less experienced?
Cani: No, not at all. It keeps me young myself. We really trust each other and listen and respond to each other very well.
Lucas: In 2016 you worked with the band Silly on their album Wutfänger and this band is a solid generation older than you are. Can you talk about that experience? Then in 2017, you are working with Lotte who is a generation younger than you. Do you find it challenging to overcome such age gaps when working creatively with others?
Cani: In my opinion, age is irrelevant when working with other musicians. The most important thing is that the musicians understand each other. I have to admit that in both cases the experience was very similar. Silly is a very experienced and mature band, whereas Lotte is very young and new to the business. So both are very interested in experimenting and and trying everything in order to find the very best sound for a particular song. The great thing about both productions was that Mic Schröder was the producer, and Mic and I have worked together for so many years so we really understand each other. Mic and I have worked together with lots of artists including Rea Garvey, Thomas Godoj, Louka, and many more.
Lucas: In a recent interview with Karl Brazil he talks about how there is no golden ticket in the music business any more, that you have to work extra hard to get the jobs to make a living. Does this fact motivate you or discourage you?
Cani: He is absolutely right. Over the years I have had many ups and downs. Like in 2014 when I was playing with German star Andreas Bourani and I thought “Ok, now I’m set and nothing can stop me!” By 2015 his old drummer decides he wants to tour again and I was out. I wasn’t angry because we are all very good friends and that’s just how it is. That’s the business and you can’t control everything. Personally, I find that this motivates me to continue and find new ways of making a living as a musician. I can’t just sit around and do nothing. If you want to survive in this business you have to keep moving no matter how unpleasant or difficult it is, otherwise you are out.
Lucas: So you have always made a living primarily as either a drum tech or a drummer. The glory of playing drums on a big stage in front of a lot of people is obvious. Can you talk about the rewards of working as a drum tech for a live production and which job do you prefer?
Cani: To be completely honest I find both jobs equally gratifying. My life is drums. Whether I am playing or serving a drummer who is playing, I am equally happy. The excitement I feel before a show as drum tech is actually the same level of excitement that I feel as a drummer. I love the drums and anything to do with drums. Most drum techs today aren’t just roadies that are setting up and tearing down. You really have to be technically very competent as a sound engineer and be prepared for anything. You need to be able to play and understand the drums and all that goes along with it at least as well as the drummer you are working for. I thoroughly enjoy the challenge.
Lucas: So tell me a little bit about your relationship with Gretsch drums. When did you start playing Gretsch drums?
Cani: I started playing Gretsch drums when I was 8 years old. I didn’t really have a drumset but then my father, who is also a musician, talked to his friend who had some drums. One day he came over with a Gretsch 22“ Bass drum, 16“ floor tom and a snare drum and that was my first drumset. Then I had all different types of drums but was never 100% happy with the sound until a few years ago when I met Nico Nevermann from GEWA (the current distributor for Gretsch drums in Europe). Nico handles all the artist relations stuff for Gretsch drums in Europe and he asked me if I could tune all the drums for a Gretsch Day event, which I was really excited to do. After I played some of the Brooklyn and Broadkaster kits everything became perfectly clear. It was the sound and feeling that I had been searching for my entire life. It was like coming home. I’m really just so delighted and thankful that I get to play these drums every day.
Lucas: How would describe this sound?
Cani: It’s the most warm and emotional of sounds. In my head the Gretsch sound was THE sound for drums, it was always the sound I was looking for because it is so distinctive.
Lucas: Can you talk a little about the absolute worst live experience you’ve ever had?
Cani: Well in 2014 I was playing drums for Andreas Bourani at the Expo Plaza Festival in Hannover. On that specific day everything just went wrong. We didn’t have our own monitor soundman and the onsite guy hired to do the job really had no clue. It was the worst sound I had ever experienced. In the end we all agreed that the top priority was to take care of Andreas Bourani and make sure that he had enough monitors and a good sound because he was the singer. I had to then transfer my sampler and click to run through my own small mixer next to me, that was my in-ear sound. So I had to wear two sets of headphones, the click and sampler was on the in-ear headphones, and the band sound was on the over-ear headphones. Somehow it worked, but the show was an absolute train wreck.
Lucas: If you were to suddenly lose everything you had in terms of status, money, network, and drumming skills, what line of work would you enter?
Cani: Drums! I would definitely start over and teach myself everything and go down exactly the same path that I am going down now.
Lucas: It’s refreshing to hear someone that is so determined and passionate about their work. Do you have kids? Family? How do you mix work and family?
Cani: I have a wonderful wife who supports my music career completely. She is not only my wife but also my best friend. She actually pushes me hard and motivates me to do more interesting and demanding work all the time.
Lucas: So what are your plans for the remainder of 2018?
Cani: I’ll be playing more festivals again this summer with Lotte. Between June and October I have a lot of studio projects where I will be playing drums. In October we’ll be going into the studio again with Lotte where we will work on her second album. It will, without a doubt, be an intense and beautiful time. I really look forward to everything that will happen and am so grateful that I get to do the work that I love to do!
Learn more about Cani on his Facebook page.
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)