Nils caught everyone's attention when the song “Pacific Coast Highway” came straight from left field and headed to the top of the charts, becoming not just the most played song of the year in 2005 but the most played song of the first decade of the 21st century. For a song from an unknown artist on a small independent label to get on the chart, much less top it, at the time that the format had abandoned current music and was only playing established artists was quite a feat. What you may not know is that he did an album in the late 90s for a label that went bankrupt the week it was supposed to be released and he ended up getting hit with a bill for recording and band costs. That album, Blue Planet
, is now available on his website. He didn't throw his hands up and quit after that, though. He put together an album that became one of the decade's success stories and has released three more including his latest, What The Funk,
. He emerged at the time when this music was starting to lose its momentum but he hasn't let that turn his head. He's moving forward, adapting and focusing on the positive effects these changes could bring.
SmoothViews (SV): You grew up in Germany and moved to Los Angeles when when you were in your early twenties. How did that come about?
: Coming to America was really a trip because it was a different world. I liked going to school, I was at Musicians Institute first. It was really cool seeing kids practicing in every corner and playing, it was such an environment. I had been studying electronics but I dropped out because I wanted to play music and be in an environment where everyone is excited about practicing and playing music. It was really exhilarating. Los Angeles was such a magical place, there were a lot of first impressions I had when I came to town.
SV: What were some of them?
The climate, for one thing, and seeing palm trees. Growing up in Germany, the only time you see palm trees is when you go on vacation. I was living in a place where there was a palm tree in front of my apartment and every day I woke up and saw it outside the window. It made me feel like I was always on vacation. I had to learn to speak in a different language too. It changes you because you have to slow down with your thoughts.
SV: Did you speak much English before you moved here?
N: I had about 8 years in school.
SV: The school version of a language is always so the way people actually talk.
N: I remember opening a bank account and I had to go in the bank and try to explain that I wanted to give them my money (laughs) and when I went to buy a car I didn't know the words for fender and speedometer. I was having all these experiences and I was being very inspired musically from being in school. I was starting to work with an orchestra and do a lot more writing.
SV: How did you end up moving to the U.S.?
N: When I decided to get into music my parents cut me off because I dropped out of Technical University in Munich, which is one of the best schools in Europe for electronics. I wanted to do music and they weren't happy about that choice. I was driving a cab at night and went to music school during the day. That went on for a while and they realized that I wanted to do this and the music schools there weren't going to give me the best education. There were great schools in L.A. and they agreed to send me over here.
SV: So they did a 180.
N: When they saw that cutting me off didn't stop me they became supportive and started helping me. They realized how serious I was. They were living in Puerto Rico at the time too so I would be closer, at least we would be in the same hemisphere. After I got settled in L.A. I met a guy who had a recording studio and worked as an engineer. That's how I learned production. I worked up from there until I got the keys to the studio. Then I went in and started recording my first record.
SV: Your first record was an adventure unto itself as far as the industry throwing a bunch of roadblocks in front of you.
N: The label filed for bankruptcy right when the album came out. We had put the super band together and were ready to start doing some shows. We were called Nils and the West Coast All Stars. It was Ricky Lawson on Drums, Bobby Lyle on Keyboards, I had a horn section with Rick Braun, Eric Marienthal and Everette Harp. Phil Perry and Carl Anderson were on vocals.
Right when this happened the tour support fell through because the label filed bankruptcy. I got stiffed for a $10,000 band bill.
SV: How'd you cover that?
N: Very painfully. I had to pay it back. I was lucky because I had written a song for George Benson that he recorded and I got nice royalty check. I used that to cover most of it but I would rather have used it to for other things.
SV: Then I read that you had to actually buy your own CD’s in order to get them to send to radio stations.
N: We had done a deal with a radio station where we would give them ten copies for giveaway and they would give us advertising, have us come up for an interview and all. The station never got their copies so I had to go to Tower Records and buy them at retail price.
SV: So that adds about 200 more bucks to the 10,000 you had to spend already.
N: I got very disillusioned with the whole business at that point. I kept writing and producing and when I was producing other artists I would try to get the musicians to lay down some tracks for me. It took me three or four years but I had another CD ready. I was trying to get more into film and TV writing and I had made some contacts on that side. I got to work as a music editor for a show on Fox, I got to write some things for the Spirit Awards. When I finished the CD I was thinking of it mainly as a business card, kind of an introduction to get me more work along those lines. That CD was Pacific Coast Highway. Only two people heard it at first. One was Frank Cody from Rendezvous Records. The other was the parent of a student of mine who had Baja/TSR records. Both of them wanted it. First I wanted to go with the bigger label. Then I realized I could get more attention and support from a smaller label that didn't have a roster of artists who were already big names. I went with the smaller label. At the time I didn't think the CD was going to be a big deal anyway. Then before I know it the song is going up the charts, hits #1 and stays there. All of a sudden I'm a smooth jazz artist.
SV: There was a pretty big space of time between that and the first one.
N: I basically did this record without a budget, so I had to work on it on weekends and when I had spare studio time.
SV: How did you stay focused and not get discouraged or give up on it?
N: I just enjoyed doing it. When I had ideas for songs I would get them down. I figured I could sell the song or do something with it. As a creative artist I'm always writing stuff and I like doing studio production so I would just record them. It wasn't a focused project. I would just have a song that I liked and flesh it out and make a recording of it. Then another one would come to me and I'd do that one. I'd get other people to do tracks for me in trade for me doing tracks for them and stuff because I didn't have a budget. The songs just came together that way. Pretty soon I had whole record.
SV: Do you think that lack of urgency and the fact that you were doing this because you enjoyed it contributed to the quality of the music on this first album?
N: Not necessarily because on the current album I had the opposite thing happen and I feel like this one has some of the best work I've done too. We had a communication breakdown with the label and my deadline got shortened by two weeks. I thought it was supposed to be delivered at a certain time and I called the label to tell them that the engineer who was going to mix the record was out of town and asked to get another week to work on it. The label said the distributor wanted it even earlier than we thought they wanted it. Some of the songs hadn't been written, parts hadn't been recorded. All of a sudden it was this insane push to get it finished. It gave a different energy to the record.
SV: You've come to this process from having all the time in the world for one project to the "we want it yesterday" deadline breathing down your neck for the new one.
N: The advantage I have now is that I have a full working studio at home and I have a network of friends that I can call on when I need them. That really helped when the time crunch happened.
SV: Like 4 am with a deadline looming! What did you do when you had to go into high gear like that, because the album doesn't sound like a rush project at all?
N: The main ideas were there so the writing wasn't rushed. There are a couple of places that I would have fixed or taken out that I didn't get to or I was too burnt to hear. They are things nobody would notice unless you pointed them out. I've done production for so long that I know what I want and how to get it. It was just skipping a few nights of sleep. One thing that worked in my favor is that I was working Clydene's record at the same time and the song "Save Our Love" was from those sessions. Since she is in my band and I wanted to give her a featured spot in my show I asked her if I could use that song on my CD and she agreed to that. That was one song that was already done that I could use.
SV: I remember when most labels only wanted artists to deliver nine or ten songs. Now most albums have at least 12.
N: I think it is to entice people to buy the whole album by giving them more songs than they would get if they paid for the songs individually. Selling singles just doesn't work financially for musicians. For the marketing and effort to pay off you need to sell albums. Selling one song doesn't justify the expense, and the audience doesn't really get into the artist when they only hear one song. I know that when I was a kid I would buy an album and maybe listen to one or two songs but then I'd start listening to more of the songs and start to enjoy them more, even the ones that I didn't really get when I first heard them.
SV: That happens a lot when you're doing radio or scanning over CD's to pick one to review. You listen superficially but then if you put it on and just do housework or drive or something the songs you originally passed over turn out to be some of the best.
N: That's why we want to nurture the culture of listening to the album. When I write music it's not a collection of individual singles, it's a group of songs that create an experience when you hear them in sequence. That is something that gets lost when you buy just one song.
SV: You've put out five albums, the last four of them within a five year period, and they are all full of strong material. How do you keep coming up with stuff?
N: I'm a writer and that's what I do. It just comes naturally to me. There was never a lack of ideas. I have a certain working process because my ideas usually come in spurts of inspiration. Whenever I feel inspired or have one of those weeks where a lot of ideas come my way I can just get them down in my computer as they come to me and revisit them later and flesh them out. It's like a sketchbook. I'm always writing and I try to listen to different music. I listen to a lot of electronic music. I like to get inspiration from a whole spectrum of styles because I don't want to sound like everybody else. On this new one I am really striving to get away from being pigeonholed as a smooth jazz guitarist. I want to get to a place kind of like Jeff Beck, where people just know you as a guitarist and don't identify you with a type of music. I'm not comparing myself to him and saying I'm on that level but that's what I'm striving for. I want to be liked for the way I play guitar, not for being identified with a certain song or style.
SV: I think Jeff Beck kind of opened the door to instrumental music for a lot of us who were into rock back when he put out Blow By Blow. All of a sudden we could get straight to the guitar solo without having to sit through somebody singing!
N: I saw him about five years ago and that's the last time I just dropped my jaw when I saw someone play. What he was doing on guitar was physically impossible and amazing. Over the last couple of CD's I started playing more with my fingers because that's one thing he does and you can get such different tones that way. I used the whammy bar thing on "Sara Smile," which is a technique where you are bending notes that was heavily influenced by what he does.
SV: Yeah, you took an overplayed Adult Contemporary staple and shredded it which was really off the beaten path. There was a lot of rock influence on your version of "Europa" too, which was a really strong updating of that song.
N: I had been doing that one live for a long time and people kept wanting to buy it so I finally put it on the last CD, Up Close and Personal.
SV: So here we are with contemporary instrumental music being really affected by the transitional stuff going on in the industry and you coming in at the time that the changes really started. You continue to hang in there as you release your fifth album in a little over five years so you're obviously into surviving and thriving rather than bailing out.
N: As a musician I feel like when I do music that's what I have to focus on, not the extraneous stuff. When I'm writing I'm focused on writing. When I'm in the studio I think about music. I can't be concerned with what will be happening in the business a few months or years from now or what I need to do to fit into a niche. I want to be creative and all those outside thoughts just hinder the process. The thing I did set out to do with this one was make it a little broader, go into some areas where I hadn't gone before, and show people who I am as a guitar player. A song like "Detroit Strut" shows the side of me that can do something really high energy, same with "Shake It." I wanted to show what I could bring to the table and how this music could evolve.
SW: Two wonderful things about this CD are that the songs don't all sound alike. You explore a lot of different tempos and you've got some rock, blues, and funk as well as a little smooth stuff. There are some really nice trance and chill type textures in some of the songs too.
N: That's what I'm going for. I want this CD to be liked by people who are not necessarily into smooth jazz. I set out to broaden my audience.
SV: The title track is totally funky, a get up and dance kind of thing. It had a George Clinton type thing going. I read somewhere that you worked with him at some point.
N: He was basically at my house recording something and my business partner and I tracked him for another record. He was on the front lawn looking for the Mother Ship (laughs). He's definitely a character. It was one of these experiences that you can tell your grandchildren about.
SV: You have a nice blues thing going on in “The Hump.”
N: That was the George Duke influence. I grew up listening to funk music. I wanted to use those influences on the CD.
SV: It seems like with most musicians in our genre the live sets are powerful, energized, and just blow people away but when people get in the studio they play with a lot more restraint. Is this just the nature of studio work?
N: I think this was the first sign of what was wrong with the genre and how the industry saw it. The only things that would get played on the radio were the more subdued tracks. These musicians are amazing players, they can really rock. Making them play this sonic wallpaper
is such a waste of talent. You hear songs on the CD that are made just to get on the radio, then live they can cut loose. I would get upset when I saw someone doing the same things live that they did on the CD. You've got to take it a little further when you can.
SV: Do you think you were still under that influence since you started recording this before the radio format totally went away?
N: I'm trying to move away from that. I want listeners to hear that I'm not carved into this niche sound. I have a whole variety of styles I like and want to play. I'm not super adventurous with it yet because I want to give the people who are already fans some of what they expect from me, but I want to push that and do it in a way that they will appreciate. I didn't want to do a total change of style all at once. There are songs on the CD that I think are perfect for conservative radio, and there are other songs that show where I want to go musically. Now we have internet stations and independent stations that can play the more adventurous songs too.
SV: Let's go back to the first single.. It came out at the point where there were still a lot of stations running the corporate format but they were cutting back on play for new music and focusing the few new music slots on established artists on big labels. "Pacific Coast Highway" was by a new artist on a small label. How did you manage to get it on the air?
N: It was a surprise to everybody, especially to me. When it took off I was amazed. Every week they would call me and tell me we had moved up the chart again. I didn't know what to make of it at first. I didn't feel it at the time because I didn't have an agent or any gigs. It was in early spring and all the festivals were already booked. I was able to get on the side stage for a few shows but it wasn't until the end of that year that I found an agent and was able to get bookings. I did a lot of shows. It really changed my life in a way because I had just been working in the studios before.
SV: There were more hits from that CD too.
N: "Summer Nights" went #1 too. When you have a hit like that there is the fear that you might be a one hit wonder. Bringing out the second single and having it do well was that that really established me.
SV: That song had a lot more energy than most of the songs that were getting played in the format so now you were a new artist on an independent label with a high energy hit in an easy listening format.
N: I wasn't listening to smooth jazz radio because it had become so corporate and everything was starting to sound alike. Musicians were trying to fit their music into this sound but I wasn't even expecting to get played when I was recording so fitting into a format didn't cross my mind.
SV: After you get past the one hit wonder trap there is the sophomore slump, the follow up not living up to expectations. Yours did fine.
N: I don't think it did quite as well as I hoped it would. "Cat Nap" got up to something like #12 and that was the highest it went. It was a little disappointing for me because I thought it had some of my better songs on it. The title song, "Ready To Play" is a favorite at the live shows.
SV: I thought that one went top 10. By then stations were starting to either quit playing new music or bail out of the format so it's hard to judge.
N: It did go top five on the indicator chart, the chart the smaller and independent stations reported to. The independent radio stations were playing it a lot. I think “Catnap” went # 1 on that chart. The stations that could pick their own music were playing both those songs and doing really well with them.
SV: That was the chart I was watching anyway. You were still a survivor though, lots of artists were being cut or just not recording as much music and you came out with a follow up pretty quickly.
N: Up Close and Personal was a fun record for me. It was a little bit more relaxed, a little bit slower overall,but there are fast tracks on it. I put some blues songs on there so I would have some variety and something different to do in the live shows. I did the Santana song, “Europa.” None of the singles went into the top 10 though.
SV: That came out in early 2009 when there were literally almost no stations playing new music and the chart was eaten up with covers, vocals, and year old songs, so again it was the industry, not the quality of the music.
N: That's when I realized as an artist that radio was phasing itself out and the thing to do was really look at the internet, which seems to be getting more and more traffic. I was listening to more internet stations and they were much more enjoyable. The music selection is more interesting, I can look and see what the title of the song is. There aren't as many commercials, a lot of time there aren't any commercials. It's getting easier to find internet stations and listen to them with all the different wireless devices too. That's when I started putting together an internet radio show called "Backstage Pass With Nils."
SV: I was going to ask you about that, it was kind of ahead of the curve because more musicians are doing that now.
N: My feeling was that I have a unique position as an artist because I play a lot of festivals and get to hang out with a lot of musicians at these gigs so why not just give people a peek at the conversations we have. I just asked them if I could record a few minutes of conversation and I got pretty much everybody during the time that I was doing it. The show ran on several internet stations. I did a bunch of them but now I'm thinking about doing something fresh, coming up with a new concept. With the website you can use video too, so as our tools get more accessible there are a lot of things I can do.
SV: You also have a side project called String Theory.
N: It's a ambient/electronica project and it's different from my other albums but there are some common threads between the two. I just finished the website for it and now I have to find a way to get it out. I wanted to do something different. I also want to get back into writing for film and TV and I needed a different sound to show producers that I could do some music that was atmospheric. I finished it right when I started promoting the What The Funk album so I haven't started really promoting that one. I want to find a way to market it and hopefully get distribution for it. I just overhauled the website and there is a lot of stuff there that is different musically than what most people know me for.
SV: I know you'll be doing a lot of live gigs to support the new CD but after festival season slows down do you have anything else in the works?
N: Right now I'm working on music for a TV series in England. I'm producing some other people, including Claydean's record. I'm working on music for another movie.
SV: That should keep you busy and the album will keep you high profile and on the touring circuit. Thanks so much for the conversation and we look forward to hearing more from you because as Jeff Golub said in an earlier interview, the handcuffs are off, and you can kick it up a notch or two, or a hundred (laughs) now.