The guitarguitar Interview: Adrian Von Ziegler
Published on 25 January 2019
Adrian Von Ziegler is something of a paradox. A massively popular online musician who is intensely private: an internet success who professes a real distaste for the pace of modern life. Perhaps the clues lie in his compositions: Adrian has become very well known on Youtube for his graceful, magical instrumental pieces of music that sparkle with the colours of nature and High Fantasy. His songs are based in Norse & Celtic mythology, Epic Fantasy and Symphonic Metal. Adrian's Youtube videos easily make it into the millions of views and countless other social media users have made their own successful playlists featuring exclusive mixes of his music.
Interestingly, as Adrian notes himself, this huge online fame does not often translate into real-world fame. Adrian is part of a new breed of musicians who don't tour, don't play festivals and don't appear in magazines. His massive success is a tribute to the music itself, quite an unusual feat in today's cultural landscape. For Adrian, this is perfect.
We decided to try getting in touch with Adrian to ask him about all of this. His success, as far as we are concerned, is as legitimate as any band selling out venues across the world so we wanted to see if we could gain any insights from him first-hand. We're glad to say that, not only did he agree to speak with us, he also gave us a very honest and sharing interview. Read on to hear from a quiet and polite man who simply loves music.
Adrian, thank you so much for talking to us! You are something of a Youtube sensation to say the least, with over 800k subscribers! Some of your music videos have had 37 million views! That is staggering - well done! How does that make you feel?
Thank you so much! Well, first of all, I don’t think “fame” on YouTube is comparable to actual fame outside of one platform, so in the real world I am still quite an obscure artist, for example, I get recognized in real life only very rarely. As for YouTube, I am honestly surprised that my songs reached numbers of that level. I don’t have a particularly sophisticated production process and close to zero musical education, I still don’t even have a studio, just my personal PC and a keyboard at home. What I can say is that I pour my heart and soul and sometimes sweat and tears into each song, so maybe that is somewhat noticeable in the end results. It may not be the best music out there (certainly not in fact) but what I do is very raw and honest... maybe that’s why so many people seem to connect to what I do artistically. But to be honest it’s just my guess, I still have no idea what the reasons are, it baffles me every day.
Well, you've certainly found an audience! Going back a bit, what were your main influences growing up?
I think my earliest influence that really made an impact were soundtracks of games that I played in my childhood and early teenage years, mostly Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu. They are probably also the reason why I always stuck to instrumental music, my music resembles game soundtracks quite a lot. Later I got into Grunge (Nirvana), Metal and eventually Symphonic Metal with Nightwish being the strongest influence in my late teens. From there I started to discover movie composers more in-depth, especially Hans Zimmer. I think he is the biggest reason why I shifted into orchestrated music more and more. I still count him and Koji Kondo and other mostly Japanese composers as my strongest influences today, although there have been some more recent additions such as Jeremy Soule.
Your music is intensely cinematic: aside from film composers like Hans Zimmer, have films themselves been an important source of inspiration to you?
Definitely, I’m a very visual person artistically, so I always see moving scenes in my head while I compose, that’s also why there is barely any song of mine that doesn’t have some movie-like story behind it. With existing movies, I think the one that made me aware of the power of movie soundtracks the most and earliest in my life was the movie, Gladiator. The scoring of that movie is absolutely amazing, it really shows what the right music can do to not only enhance but completely transform a scene.
I couldn't agree more! That was a big one for me, too. So, there is a strong ‘Fantasy’ element to what you do too, can you elaborate on that?
Well, I’ve always been a daydreamer and loved Fantasy since early childhood. Especially Tolkien’s world and some games like Final Fantasy have really shaped my version of the genre, and I very often almost automatically incorporate that into my songs. I think to a certain extent it’s also a form of escapism for me: I never really found myself feeling comfortable in the real world and am very introverted, which makes social encounters difficult to handle. Fantasy is a wonderful thing to dive into when the real world around you starts to feel like it’s too much for you to handle.
I understand you completely. These things are here to help us, after all! So, did you receive any formal musical training or study music at college or university? If so, would you recommend that for others?
I never did, the only thing I had were basic guitar lessons for a few weeks when I was 16. I would say a certain amount of theoretical knowledge is very beneficial, but you don’t need a degree in it in order to compose. Maybe not knowing much about music theory is even liberating because you just experiment completely without limits and do whatever sounds good for you, and not what’s correct “theoretically”. That’s something I see in Nirvana, for example, Kurt Cobain did a lot of things in his songs that are flat out wrong, but they sound fantastic.
Yes, Kurt wasn't afraid of 'out of the box' playing, for sure! Growing up, did you perform in any bands?
I was in a band when I was 15-16, as a drummer. We were all apprentices at a gardening company that liked rock music and we did mostly songs that are reminiscent of the 60’s and 70’s. It was a lot of fun but I got out because I started to get a bit frustrated playing the drums because I had so many melodic ideas which I couldn’t bring in. That actually was the starting point of me working on my own music seriously, I quit the band and bought a headset with a mic and started recording my first guitar melodies with it (horrible, horrible tone quality btw!).
Haha, I can imagine! Where there's a will, there's a way! You are an intensely prolific musician with, at my count, 5 albums released in 2012 and at least two most other years! I can understand the frustration you just mentioned. How do you keep up the pace? Do you release everything you make?
No, I keep my weirdest experiments hidden. I made a cover version of “Bad Boys” for example, with only Japanese instruments. I think the reason why I can do so much is basically that I never EVER look at it as a job, it always stayed my hobby. I go at it without a real plan or intention to sell something, I just sit down and do whatever I feel like playing right at that moment. When you work like that you will produce a lot of music, simply because you’re having so much fun doing it, and because you won’t really care all that much whether or not it’s going to be marketable.
That must be a very liberating perspective to take. When writing a piece of music, do you have a pre-conceived theme or concept in mind to begin with?
About 50/50, sometimes a song gets born from a story or picture I have in my head, other times I start just improvising on the keyboard and the topic what the song will be about reveals itself while I’m playing.
How does your song-writing process work? Do you write every day?
I try to, but it doesn’t work. Composing/creativity for me is such a volatile thing, it scares easily: you try to grab onto it too hard and it will run away and you won’t see it anymore for several days. So I basically try it every day but I never try to force it out, that immediately kills the creative spirit in me.
That's interesting. Do you enjoy collaborations, or do you prefer to work alone?
I enjoy collaborations only very rarely and only with a very small select few people who are already close friends. The answer to this is actually related to the question before. My creativity is super jumpy and picky, so when I feel any discomfort personally I have a total blackout for composing. And since socializing is a deeply uncomfortable thing for me it tends to kill my inspiration as well, making collabs almost impossible. Making music is a very private thing for me, it’s extremely hard for me to share it with other people.
Millions of people are very glad you did, Adrian! Now, I’ve read that you use a “very old keyboard” and Magix Music Maker (relatively old software) to create your music: is that still the case? What else is in your studio?
Yeah, I still have that keyboard, it has a USB port so I can play anything directly into the PC through Cubase. I used Magix for many years, and I still do sometimes, but Cubase is my main program now, mostly because it can handle instrument packs from EWQL and ERA that Magix just can’t. And that’s about it... that’s my studio, there isn’t anything more in it. Oh, an acoustic guitar and a microphone from Rode.
Your music is obviously very well produced and ‘professional’, for want of a better term: do you create it all in your home studio?
Yes, all of it. It’s not professional at all, I barely do any mastering or mixing... I just seem to get away with the lack of quality. I like to tell myself that my songs sound more “raw” than what you usually hear, but the truth is probably more like “raw” as in “under-produced”.
You're being very modest! Do you have any particular ‘rules’ that you adhere to when mixing your music? There are lots of layers of instrumentation: does that ever become a problem?
No... because I barely do anything! I just listen to the song a couple of times and turn volumes of the individual instruments up and down until it sounds good to me. That’s the extent of my mixing skills.
Fair enough! Do you feel any limitations with your current equipment setup? Are there things you’d like to make or perform but can’t due to the restrictions of computers and sampling?
Yeah, realistic violin solos. That is insanely difficult to do on a program. Another thing that is super annoying to do is fast-paced and complex percussion. It is very tedious to do that on a keyboard and a MIDI piano roll on Cubase, percussion is meant to be played and recorded live.
I know what you mean. You are from Switzerland: do you find the country itself is an influence on your writing?
Probably, yes... I am very fond of forests and mountains, snow, fog, pine trees... lots of those kinds of things, which all exist abundantly in Switzerland. I think it gives me peace and quiet, a state of mind that I really need to be creative. I have a lot more creativity in Winter for example than Summer because the nature is much more quiet during that time, so it reflects the same on my psyche. I think I wouldn’t be as creative if I would live in a warm country for example.
Do you consider your music to be ‘ambient’?
Some of it for sure, yeah. I make some songs that are expressively meant to be ambient pieces, although I think even in those I still am just too excited by melodic stuff to make them truly ambient. I always end up doing some kind of melodic theme. But I read often that my music is used by meditation coaches, massage therapists etc., so I guess they are ambient enough for that purpose. My ultimate goal is to make these songs as relaxing as possible, so I feel my mission is accomplished if people can get that from it.
That's fantastic! What is it you wish to communicate with your music?
I don’t do it consciously, but I think what I’m trying to do is... giving people something that can make them think about life and our world in a way that we rarely ever do. To feel things that we mostly ignore or don’t want to dive into too deeply. To transport people into a world that doesn’t exist but can make them feel as if it’s real just for a few minutes, to escape from this reality and have a safe place just for yourself. It’s hard to tell because I have songs with very different themes. Some songs are about the evanescence of mortality and the acceptance of passing on and letting go. Others are about the feeling of what a true home feels like, something so fragile and precious at the same time. Other songs are about the past, about our ancient forefathers whose lives were so different from ours and I try to reconnect ourselves to what they must have seen and felt. There are so many things I try to tell, and they are mostly about something that I feel we think about far too rarely in our superficial, fast-paced society.
Those are some beautiful sentiments, thank you for sharing them with us! With the amazing success your music enjoys on Spotify and Youtube, are you able to make a fulltime living as a musician?
Yeah, I have been able to live from my music now for a few years, which is honestly insane to me.
It's well deserved and also great for other composers and musicians to hear! Do you have any tips you can share with our readers on how to increase views and subscribers on sites like Youtube?
That’s always so hard for me to answer because I purposefully don’t look at what I do as a career and so I never tried to market my things or to grow my audience. Which makes me a complete amateur with a huge amount of sheer luck that it worked despite my lack of marketing skills. I could say as a piece of good advice to be honest and stay true to why you’re doing art, to do what you truly love and not what people expect. But I feel like that’s good personal advice, not good business advice... I really don’t know, I’m sorry.
Not at all, that's perfect! So, are you currently working on new music?
All the time, yes. I’m working on several songs as of this moment, a relaxing Fantasy song, a Viking song and a Metal song.
Finally, Adrian: do you have any musical ambitions still to achieve?
I’m not the ambitious type, so I don’t really have any... the only ambition that I have is to keep being able to make a living from my music. I pretty much achieved everything I wished for, much more than that actually!
Fantastic! Thank you so much Adrian!
We'd like to thank Adrian for his time, friendliness and generosity in taking part in this interview.
Interview by Ray McClelland.