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KJ SAWKA interviews in Eye & Now magazine!

The Chameleon

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Extended Play

With Denise Benson


Seattle's Kevin “KJ†Sawka puts the drums in drum 'n' bass. Playing obsessively since he bought his uncle's kit at age 11, Sawka was initially influenced by metal and prog bands including Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush and Primus. He got into funk, played drums in his high-school jazz band and was introduced to electronic music at 17 when a friend's British cousin came visiting with some LTJ Bukem in hand.

“He had all this mystical drum 'n' bass stuff that just blew my mind,†recalls Sawka over the phone from his home. “I knew I wanted to play those beats; it was unlike any drumming I'd ever heard. I've never been the same since.â€

The drummer fell hard for D&B and electronic music in general, briefly trading in his sticks for a pair of turntables and choosing to DJ as his musical outlet.

“But then every time I played a party, people were like 'Dude, where's your drum set?'†Sawka chuckles. “So I incorporated the drums with a turntable off to the side. Then I thought that, instead of playing records, I should start making my own.â€

By this point, the musician had begun to augment his acoustic drum kit with electronic gear, buying “tonnes of different drum machines†and playing for three years in pop/electronic band 94th Street. Influenced by manic beat producers such as Squarepusher and Aphex Twin and the “fierce, fast and on-the-edge†mix CDs of famed American drum 'n' bass DJ Dieselboy, Sawka started to create hard, dark, high-speed D&B. He also played drums in D&B/breakcore improv trio Siamese, who released two CDs and toured their way across the US before going their separate ways.

Playing in Siamese put Kevin Sawka in front of audiences that ate up his ability to play fast-paced, complex breakbeats live. One new fan was fellow Seattle resident Michael Shrieve of Santana.

“Michael saw me at a show, was blown away and asked for lessons,†says the still-incredulous Sawka. “I was like, 'Wait a minute. You're the drummer in Santana and you want me to give you lessons?' He's an amazing drummer who really wanted to learn how to play the drum 'n' bass and jungle beats. It's a different twist on drumming, for sure.â€

Through Shrieve, Sawka was able to record or play live with a serious roster of musicians interested in his D&B perspective, including Bill Frisell, Andy Summers (the Police), Will Calhoun (Living Colour), Amon Tobin, Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing) and innovative jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Sawka also upped the gear ante, immersing himself in software like Ableton Live and Native Instruments' Reaktor and Battery, buying Kaos drum pads and still more drum machines, and developing a half acoustic, half electronic set-up. In short order, the drummer programmed beats as well as he could physically play them and was able to create a wall-of-sound live experience.

“A lot of people don't really get drum 'n' bass or jungle when they hear it, like 'Oh, that's just weird electronic music,' but they'll really get into it live because then it makes more sense to them. The live drumming puts an 'Ohh, ahh, wow!' factor into that equation.â€

Whether performing solo or with a full band, KJ Sawka thrills crowds with precise playing, stage props such as glow-in-the-dark sticks and the fact that he never runs out of steam, performing sets of one to four hours or more, depending on venue. These days, he's also devoting time to diversifying his tempos – playing anywhere from mid-tempo breaks to hard breakcore beats – and developing his songwriting. He's excited about his just-mastered Cyclonic Steel album, due out in May as a follow-up to 2005's Synchronized Decompression.

“My new album has a lot more range,†Sawka enthuses. “It's a lot more hi-fi and club-friendly than Synchronized Decompression which was my first real attempt at what I'm trying to do. Lately, I've really loved slamming the crowd with the deepest, darkest, dirtiest basslines I can make, but I'm also really into the dark versus the light, the life and death combination. I like a lot of really heavy beats and heavy basslines, and then some beauty on top.â€



Rock ’em Sawka

Seattle basher KJ Sawka is a one-man drum ’n’ bass wrecking crew


KJ SAWKA with the CHAMELEON PROJECT and KNEPTUNE at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Saturday (March 24). $10. www.ticketweb.ca, www.torontotronica.com.

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When drum 'n' bass emerged out of the UK rave scene in the early 90s, the first thing new listeners tended to notice was how alien the breakneck rhythms were. The mangled breakbeats sounded far removed from anything a human might play, despite being based on samples of real drummers. Some drummers, however, saw these new beats as a challenge, and set about developing ways of interpreting them.

"I was about 18 when I heard LTJ Bukem's Logical Progression, and that simple, really fast beat – I couldn't even explain what I heard, but it was amazing," recalls Seattle's Kevin Sawka (aka KJ Sawka). I'd heard DJ Shadow before, but nothing like that."

Before this revelation hit, Sawka had been paying his dues in various rock bands and was already moving toward fast and complicated rhythms, but it renewed his drive and gave him a mission. Combining his acoustic kit with electronic gear, he began to develop an impressive performance system that allowed him to function as a one-man drum 'n' bass band, culminating in his 2005 album, Synchronized Decompression.

"As far as my albums are concerned, the acoustic drums haven't been that prominent, but they definitely are when I play live. The live drums have a huge impact that I just can't seem to get from triggering samples. It's like talking to someone in person rather than over the phone."

Sawka is currently wrapping up post-production on the follow-up to his debut, which once again features a variety of guest vocalists and musicians. While Synchronized Decompression was a moody, mellow album steeped in the earlier, more experimental days of d'n'b, his newer material sees him focusing more on club-ready sounds.

"This one is a lot more dance-floor-friendly, a little more electronic. There's lots of dark drum 'n' bass. It kind of starts off on the lighter, melodic side of breakbeat and moves on to the darker stuff."

In a weird twist of fate, one of his new collaborators, beat-boxer and vocalist Blake Lewis , has suddenly become a minor celebrity after becoming a finalist on this year's American Idol. The underground dance music scene and televised singing contests may have very little in common, but added visibility can't be a bad thing. the end


NOW | MARCH 22 - 28, 2007 | VOL. 26 NO. 29


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