Interview with NIK HAFEMANN, A&R for Monrose, No Angels ( both No.1 Germany). - Dec 17, 2007
ďA great song doesnít come down to just a hook. The whole sound has to be perfect and it has to fit to the main vocal.Ē
With acts like Monrose (No.1 Germany), No Angels (No.1 Germany), Vany (Top 20 Germany), Nik Hafemann is not just a successful A&R, he is also a vocal coach and started out as a hard rock drummer opening for the likes of Black Sabbath and Motorhead.
This background, alongside his experience with running things behind the scenes, can explain the crucial importance he puts on an artist's ability to play live.
He talks to HitQuarters about the new acts he works with following recently joining Universal, about evolving from rock to more styles, and about considering all aspects of a song when writing and recording it.
Tell us about your early beginnings as a drummer
I started drumming when I was 10 years old. For my birthdays or for Christmas I was asking for drum equipment. Until I was about 15, I always had drums in my mind and I was rehearsing like a maniac.
I became a studio drummer for about ten years for all kinds of projects. After that time I was an exclusive drummer for a hard rock act named Gibbon. Gibbon was my first professional project. This band was built when I was in school.
You went to LA in the mid-Ď80s with the Berlin-based band Skew Siskin. What was significant in that experience regarding touring and the US music world?
That was such a different world. Back in that time a lot of really good managements were interested in us. I had no idea for what reason, but we just became a pretty hot and maybe exotic band for the US market.
All of a sudden weíve been on a US tour with Black Sabbath. That was quite an experience. That was something different.
Before that we played a few showcases on the east coast. Weíve been to Boston for about six weeks. The whole thing started to explode thanks to our lawyer Frank Simler, who just found one of our demo tapes on the desk of one of his buddies.
Frank invited us to Boston to have some rehearsals and play a few showcases for a few record companies over there. It led to signing a deal with Giant Records in LA.
Why did you study vocals in LA?
We had no backing vocals in Skew Siskin. Later in 1995, when I built my own production company and recording studio called Mahonie Production & Publishing, I did a lot of jobs where I had to vocal coach all the people who were coming to our studio.
Why did you go back to Berlin?
I came back from the States in 1994 and played the next album for Skew Siskin. Then I quit the job, because our frontwoman Nina had to take a break. And I was just homesick. I had to see my family.
I had other plans to become a producer. I didnít want to get stuck in only being a drummer and only playing hard rock. I wanted to have more experiences in all kinds of music varieties.
I felt that I should become a producer because I like all kinds of music from classical to thrash metal. In order to have more variety of my own creativity, I made the decision that that was the logical step to take for me to get involved in all genres of music.
When did you start doing A&R?
After I shut down my production company, I moved to Munich. I decided to take a break for a year.
One of the first jobs after that was being a vocal coach for the casting band No Angels. My former boss saw my talent of having such a range - being an arranger, an executive producer, a producer and a vocal coach.
The job for A&R was vacant at that time and he just asked me if I wanted to do it. So, I gave it a shot at Cheyenne Records in Munich.
When did you start working at Universal?
Since July 2007. Right before that, I A&Rd Monrose and did the new album, which had their summer single ĎHot Summerí. So, I could finish up my project for Monrose and then I started at Universal.
How does your current job differ from working at Cheyenne Records?
First of all, itís a whole different structure. Itís a much bigger team. My job has a wider range. Iím also a song plugger for every department over here. I have several projects from musical to pop/urban to pop/rock. Itís much more varied.
At TV production company Tresor TV you were involved with Popstars?
Yes. That started with No Angels in 2000. Iíve done all Popstars projects except one for the last six years.
The only project I havenít done was a band called Nu Pagadi. Other than that I have been responsible for No Angels, Overground, Preluders, Monrose, BroíSis.
What artists are you currently working with?
Iím still working for No Angels. Iím working for Joana Zimmer at the moment, producing the new album, which is going to be pretty cool because itís a very different direction.
Another project is the US musical Wicked. We just did the German adaptation of it. The solo artist Jeanette Biedermann. And the new album for Stefan Raab. Thatís a new TV casting, which is pretty cool.
How do you choose your projects?
It depends. When I think itís a challenge then Iím very interested. I like to go for projects, which are for example stuck for some reason and I have a new vision for it. Or I think it could sound really different.
And when I can have a look at the artist from a different point of view, thatís when I think, this is very interesting.
How do you work with your A&R team?
Itís a fantastic team. I just started in July and had a very warm welcome. The whole team here is honestly great.
Itís a very good teamwork. You can sit in the office and itís no competition. Everybody is doing their own projects and theyíre asking for feedback, and so do I.
Whatís usually discussed in the early stages with new artists?
First of all, Iím trying to find out what personality they have. Thatís the most important thing to me.
I just sit down for a few hours and try to find out how they are as private people. Because then Iím starting to get a personal feeling and I can sort out things, which become interesting when it comes down to music.
What are they listening to privately? What are their targets for the future? Which music are they influenced by? What do they think their roots are?
How can they make money in this business and still stay true to their art?
The most important thing is to be honest about it. And that their music has a natural flow out of their personality, which the audience can follow.
There are two ways of being successful from my point of view:
You become an icon like Prince, David Bowie or Madonna. You canít really get a feel of what their personalities are. But thatís very interesting.
Or the other way around; you immediately have the personal feeling that you know the person. That they are open-hearted and next-to-you or not as distant as those icons.
What package needs to be ready?
Everything has to be perfect, because otherwise itís senseless to just release an album. Itís not always possible because of time schedules and things that still have to be sorted out, but in general everything should be ready.
You should know what the first three singles are. Then the album has to be done. The artist has to be ready. The whole marketing concept should be specified to the artist.
You have to have the TV shows. The tour should be scheduled. Everything should be perfectÖin an ideal world.
Will you sign a new artist based on hearing a two-song demo?
I wouldnít do it. Two songs is much too less to start a career. They have to have a show. They have to get on stage and blow everybody away.
I have to see a showcase for at least 40 minutes, where I can see that this is something really cool and we can build something up from what theyíve done already.
Of course, I can be helpful and develop the whole project and get into the process. To help them from my point of view, to find the little market niches where they can be really exclusive.
But anything else has to come from them already. Otherwise itís just senseless, because then Iím signing a band where it doesnít come naturally. Thatís too much of my job then. In the worst case, I have to turn everything upside down.
How do you work on the live side?
Live is even more important than ever when it comes down to being successful. If the artist wants to be successful, playing live has always been very important, or the most important thing.
If they canít convince the audience, why should they release a single? Then they maybe have one hit, and thatís it.
Do you look for outside songs?
It depends on the project. It always comes back to the natural and logical flow. If the artist is writing good material, good songs, then thatís all you need.
But sometimes we have like 11 fantastic tracks, but are we all sure that we have the first No.1 smash single?
If we arenít sure about that, then of course itís a smart move to check out other songwriters or do some co-writings with the band, where they can sit down and write their first single.
Do you write material yourself?
I used to write, but thatís kind of a conflict of interests now if I would still write songs. And to be honest, I donít have the time to do that.
What is a great song for you?
Not necessarily the catchy hook. A sound can be catchy by itself. If you take for example U2ís ĎWith or Without Youí, that wasnít such a catchy hook.
You have to consider the melody line, the guitar, which just rocks in the chorus, the whole package of the sound, how the vocals fit to that sound, how the drums fit to that sound.
It doesnít come down to just a hook. The whole sound has to be perfect and it has to fit to the main vocal. Thatís a very important thing to me. The vocal is just the focus.
Do you get unsolicited material?
I listen to it daily. I do a lot of briefings for new projects. Iím trying to develop for the future when I have something in my mind where I think a certain thing could be hot next year or ask myself what do we need on the market.
Iím sending out song briefings and getting back a lot of fantastic material. Itís a world market and there are just fantastic songwriters out there, who can write very much on the spot.
It helps me to develop a new act. When we have our A&R meetings with the team, Iím saying Ok, listen to this track, and thatís my vision for a new artist. What do you think about it?
When I present a new vision, itís always good to present a hot track to help understanding my vision.
What advise would you give up-and-coming artists on how to approach the business nowadays?
Itís actually the classic way. They should be fantastic on stage. They should rehearse like maniacs. When I saw the Justin Timberlake show, everything is perfect. The light show, the choreographies, the music, the whole staging.
You canít rehearse enough. Live is very important. You have to be very focused on what youíre doing. Touring is the most important thing. Then you can build up your fanbase. And you have to have a good management. You have to have a good company.
If you could change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
The record sales. The fact that everybody can download music for free is something that really bothers me.
Itís about creativity and about copyrights. It still has a big effect on the companies. But there is no reason to be nervous about something, you just have to face the facts and do the best you can to get out of it.
You canít change something, which was initiated by some other industry working with music. What can you do about it?
Big artists are giving their music away for free because they are sure that they convince live. Somehow they are trying to find their way back to even more touring just to be around and make their income like they did in the early 60ís.
They could only live from playing live, because the record industry back then wasnít that huge.
Where do you go looking at live gigs?
All over Germany. And I have been recently to Gothenburg and Stockholm, Sweden, to the UK. Iím going to Helsinki next February. Iím trying to find really cool acts all over the place, as long as it is not too time-consuming.
Still playing drums?
Every once in a while. Iím trying my best to save some time for that. But to be honest itís very rare. I am missing it of course, but Iím drumming on my desk and in my car.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman