How it all began
Flash back to 1989 when Kevin started playing music due to an accident he had with an Exacto knife. He was working on a model car and oops! sliced open his hand and thus quickly killing his little league career. Being the busy and active child he was, it didn’t take long for him to exchange his catchers-mit for his uncles used drum set. With nothing else to do other than drum and practice Kung Fu, he started to take lessons, joined school bands and practiced upwards of 6-8hrs a day.
“15 years ago -when drum’n’bass was very near it’s zenith in popularity, and Kevin was playing
in prominent rock bands in Seattle (grunge was huge)– someone played him an LTJ Bukem track, and,
as he says, “It scorched my brain. I dropped everything, and focused solely on how to recreate that on the drums.”
Flash forward to 1999, about 15 years ago -when drum’n’bass was very near it’s zenith in popularity, and Kevin was playing in prominent rock bands in Seattle (grunge was huge)- someone played him an LTJ Bukem track, and, as he says, “It scorched my brain. I dropped everything, and focused solely on how to recreate that on the drums.” He heard Dieselboy as well. More brain-scorching. He started writing utilizing the style, and honed his new concepts and approach to the drums. He debuted the new sound in the band 94th Street, a band years ahead of it’s time: a pop drum’n’bass band with a sense of humor. While the band didn’t gain much momentum, the word about Kevin was out: there’s a drummer in Seattle who’s performing jungle and drum’n’bass beats on acoustic drums, what was once thought to be absolutely impossible by any human. Here Kevin was making it look easy -like watching a jazz drummer who’s said to play “like water flowing,” Kevin instead was doling out insanely syncopated d’n’b.
“Saw blades, a few electronic drum pads and all the acoustic drums set to electronic triggers. His band at the time -still ahead of it’s time- was the all-improvisatory avant-garde drum’n’bass trio Siamese”
Man…or machine? That’s the question that listeners, show-goers, and critics ask themselves about Kevin Sawka since the Seattle drummer started experimenting with drum ‘n bass styles in the late ’90s. Kevin Sawka didn’t invent the drum kit. He didn’t invent jungle beats, and he didn’t invent drum ‘n bass. But by pairing these elements with his innovative approach to creating and performing, he is inventing something newer, more intricate, and downright eye-opening.
Word spread quickly. Seattle resident superstars were checking him out. Michael Shrieve, drummer for Santana for many years and lover of drum’n’bass, took him under his wing and showed him off to anybody and everybody: Andy Summers of the Police, Bill Frisell, Amon Tobin, Jack Dejohnette, Will Calhoun, and many more. Kevin at this time was playing an amazing next-generation drumkit: a custom half-acoustic, half electronic drum kit with one diabolically huge kick drum, one insanely tiny kick drum, three snares, a multitude of trashy sounding cymbals & saw blades, a few electronic drum pads and all the acoustic drums set to electronic triggers. His band at the time -still ahead of it’s time- was the all-improvisatory avant-garde drum’n’bass trio Siamese. They toured the country multiple times in ’02 and ’03, bringing down the house in San Francisco at latenight afterparties and raves; in New Orleans during Jazzfest; opening for LTJ Bukem and MC Conrad in Portland; and, put simply, slaying nay-sayers and dropping the jaws of industry, musicians and fans nationally by performing astonishingly long sets of uptempo jungle and d’n’b without set breaks -without even breaks between songs. Again, seeing is believing.
Live and in the dj scene, Sawka was pushing the envelope with his one-man balls-to-the-wall dancefloor show, which included a laptop, samplers, loops, and a rack of gear to produce a full-on production -plus projections, live-action cameras, and intelligence. For many live music venue gigs, Kevin also employs a full featuring ethereal female vocals, a keyboardist, and a cellist performing similar material in an in-your-face way that only the reverse-engineering, seemingly bionic Mr. Sawka can bring.
KJ SAWKA – GIVE THIS CYBORG SOME STICKS
by Katie Sauro, Seattle Sound
Imagine you’re at a loft party. Hour after hour, throbbing jungle beats batter you from all sides, and rapid drum palpitations assail you with suffocating fervor. You look up and, with nary a deejay or drum machine in sight, realize that all that noise pours forth from one man – a solitary drummer named KJ Sawka, pounding away almost as quickly and powerfully as human nature allows.
Using only a half-acoustic, half-electronic drum set and a laptop pre-programmed with keyboard and bass lines, drum n’ bass guru KJ Sawka produces dynamically enthralling electronica with an all-but-unmatched aggression. As Sawka himself explains, his immutable force derives from a committed exploit of live drums.
“Even when a person has a live keyboard there, live drums just really take it to that next level of intensity,” Sawka says of his inimitable style.
Adding to the organic vigor of the acoustic drums, Sawka flaunts the lightning speed and breakneck chops that have shaken the local electronica community to its core. Garnering praise from, and even playing sets with, Seattle musicians as diverse as Reggie Watts and Bill Frisell, Sawka’s rapidly expanding fan base swells with every next performance.
“For one thing, [people] like to see the live performance, and it’s definitely something unique,” he says of his burgeoning success.
Fans also appreciate the stamina demanded by Sawka’s sets, which can last anywhere from a two-hour club show to a six-hour loft party to a 12-hour festival performance. Songs bleed into one another, pooling into one extremely long dance groove.
“That’s what really trips people out,” says Sawka of his festival performances. “I mean, my head just starts going to a crazy place, and it’s pretty intense when that happens. It’s like running a marathon, kind of, but a musical marathon.”