Drummer Kevin "KJ" Sawka is an aberration of drum-n-bass nature. His drumming is a cyborg metronome gorilla-love-child conceived from Neil Peart (Rush) having a ménage à trois with Squarepusher and a wrecking ball. Sawka has supra-timing. He's not just on beat, he's out in front of the beat, reading the beat's future. He plays a hybrid acoustic/electronic drum kit like he's taking dictation from a coked-up, mutant Elektron drum machine. It's a breakbeat calculus. At times, he tucks a drumstick under his right armpit to manipulate gear and play drums at the same time. He calls his solo material glitch hop, crunch step, or jungle house. Sawka is the example of what a drummer can do when at one with machines. Seeing is not believing, especially when he goes torrentially roundhouse on all 78 of his crash and splash cymbals.
Sawka, a Seattle native, has released four solo albums. He started coming into his own with the psych-rave trio Siamese. Then he saw time as Blake Lewis's drummer after American Idol, where he befriended and claims to have nearly necked with Ellen DeGeneres. (They still keep in touch regularly.) Sawka is now a member of the UK-based, globetrotting, live drum-n-bass band Pendulum. He's back in Seattle for a bit, recording new material for his next solo release. We caught up at Dick's for fries and strawberry shakes.
Do you live in London full-time now? How can you live anywhere else after having crammed the taste of Dick's into your mouth for so long?
When Pendulum tours full-time, I live in London. Seattle is home otherwise. I still get plenty of Dick's.
How did you become Pendulum's drummer?
They got turned on to my YouTube videos. We both were huge fans of each other's work. It was a pretty natural connection.
You play on a big drum riser for them?
A six-foot drum riser. I have a baby rat that sleeps next to my kit at all times. When we're not playing Pendulum tunes, we forgather and play Gilles Binchois covers on a bed of Tomás Luis de Victoria classics.
How is Ellen DeGeneres?
Sweet as ever. She just sent me a Juiceman juicer.
What's Pendulum's touring schedule like?
One tour leads into the next, usually. We tour in blocks—UK, Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. And festivals.
Do you have an English accent?
Only when I'm in Seattle.
What kind of fucked-up shit do they have going on over there in London? Do their college athletic coaches molest boys like they do here?
Snow leopards with angel-hair-pasta legs walk all over the place there. I also saw Ralph Vaughan Williams walking down Queen's Lane High Street.
Has your drumming changed? For someone who has mastered a craft, how does your playing shift?
I play in more of a rock way. I play a lot of slower dubstep and drum step beats these days. Which is half-time or more of jungle and drum 'n' bass. I'm working on aerials, layouts, and tucks from my riser.
Is the Queen a bitch? Do you like Princes William and Harry? Are they really like the Kardashians?
The Queen is super-nice to me. The princes joined the cast of Glee. It's really tough to get in. Who are the Kardashians?
Do people care about the royal family? Or are they like, "Great, the Queen is saying some crap from her gigantic castle or royal yacht or whatever, who gives a flying shit?"
Every person strictly obeys every word the queen says.
What are your thoughts on the Allman Brothers Band? And Widespread Panic?
My all-time favorite bands of all time, of all bands.
You don't even know who Widespread Panic is, that's bullshit. What are your thoughts about jumping on a trampoline nude with a baby lamb slathered in peanut butter?
I couldn't think of a better idea.
Tell me a story in an English accent.
We found a bladdered lad sleeping on the Pendulum bus. He got the royal treatment, which is ultimately fair justice for the disorderly conduction the young lad was facing. He was talking a load of codswallop, but he knew he'd cocked up.
What do you miss most about Seattle?
The Space Needle that shoots fire every night.
What's your kit like for Pendulum, as opposed to what you normally like to play? With 78 crash cymbals?
My Pendulum kit is BIG. It's got 22 cymbals, eight triggered, acoustic drums, and six electronic pads. My KJ Sawka kit is slightly smaller. The same Tama Bubinga shells.
You have your own Sawka cymbals now, right? Didn't you travel to the place in Turkey and help with the design?
No. I never did that. It was a lie. I would love to, though. I play Meinl cymbals and Hammerax hybrids.
This whole time I thought you went to Turkey to help them make your own cymbals. I totally pictured you at some forging factory in the Istanbul hills, pouring melted alloy metals into heated cauldrons in a giant kiln room. And testing the cymbal molds to see which sounds and compounds you liked. Then, I saw you drinking espresso on the porch with the cymbal-making family, and petting their cat. You also played chess with the family's older men, who wore wool.
Okay. I did that. I wore wool, too.
What kind of kit are you playing these days? What new toys have you added?
It's 100 percent vegan shells with aged, endangered riverine rabbit membranes. It's mostly in the box these days. All my drums and electronics are fed into Ableton. I just use a Korg nanoPAD. I use my drums as triggers, knobs, sliders, and buttons.
What are you in Seattle recording?
I am working on my next KJ Sawka record. I just recorded at Avast! Studios and London Bridge Studios. Got disgusting sounds.
What inspired these recordings?
Inspiration for this next album is vast—traveling across the world, listening to the languages, city sounds, and human culture has been inspiring. Playing and producing with the lads has been a massive inspiration.
Chug strawberry shake through your straw and say something about robots, lions, hymens, and being underground.
[He chugs and pauses.] With a trustworthy side aerial, it's quite possible to perform robot calls underground. You could also blend genetics with golden-assed lion tamarins beneath a wide layer of Noël Coward hymens. It's all possible. This is off the record, right?