Drummer Kevin Sawka is inhuman. As a baby, there was an accident, his brain was transplanted with a drum machine, and his pituitary gland was switched out for an 808 processor. Now a Seattle-based DJ, he's a freak of breakbeat nature—a DJ/drummer hybrid, manipulating electronics and playing drums at the same time. Watching him, your eyes can't believe what they are hearing.
His influences are Squarepusher, Dieselboy, DJ Krush, and Björk, and he says he wants to slam the dance floor. He calls it glitch hop, crunch step, glitch house, and jungle. On music's evolutionary chain, Sawka is the example of what a genius drummer can do when at one with the machine. He sprays a calculus of patterns and movement—seeing is not believing.
Word on Sawka got out in the days of his previous band Siamese. He became a rave and festival monolith. He recorded for Andy Summers of the Police and was a teacher to Santana's Michael Shrieve. He has also worked with LTJ Bukem, Venetian Snares, Bassnectar, and Bill Frisell.
So step right up, don't be shy: presenting Kevin Sawka, the Glitch God. His show is a one-man multiplex of mechanical deciphering that conjugates the future tense. He plays a custom kit of half-acoustic and half-electronic drums that are hooked into lights and video. It's mission control. There are racks of effects, samplers, triggers, pads, and computer boxes. Sawka's sounds are in the form of a DJ who mixes beats from prerecorded tracks, but he does it all live. From the drum stool, Sawka inverts the DJ mold.
Be amazed and take a look at Sawka under the microscope for a limb-by-limb breakdown.
Right arm: plays high hat, backbeat snare, floor tom, and ride cymbal. He triggers an SPD 20 Drumbrain, and his right stick is often found tucked under his arm while his fingers operate a MIDI interface and a laptop, which controls a sampler, sound layering, and a looper.
Left arm: plays soprano snare, jungle snare, and a 6-by-21-inch octagon tom. The left hand twists knobs that cross faders. There is a Repeater looper, an analogue effects unit, and an Akai filter. There are eight-in/eight-out audio and MIDI cards linked, which allow him to loop his acoustic drums from a mic underneath his kit. The MIDI joins all electronic-effects devices together for looping and triggering and can be operated by pads and pedals. There is a Trigger Finger and a Kaos pad that tweak sounds and house huge reverbs, and delays where he gets his one-shot verbs and reverse delays. His laptop runs Ableton Live and Reaktor, for loops, bass lines, vocoder keys, drum lights, and video.
His right foot plays kick drum, electronic kick, and "value-up" pedal, which changes patches on the SPD 20.
His left foot plays high hat, electronic hat, "value-down" pedal, loop on/off pedal, and a filter pedal where he can fade mixes and effect the high/low passes.
Can you say "liftoff"? Uh, Houston, we have a Sawka.
"Drum 'n' bass is just a fast breakbeat," he says. "Take James Brown and speed it up to 170 BPM, then add dub bass lines and techno keys."
When he's playing he says he "sculpts and caters the sounds to what the audience is responding too. If a certain sound or loop gets cheers, I go with it and build around that sound or feel."
This ability to improv and relate to the audience comes from years of playing and developing. While performing at a Phoenix Festival with Siamese, he played three eight-hour sets. He was cramping and chugging water, but the experience in the 24-hour Phoenix mind tunnel tuned his will and resolve.
Sawka's first solo release, Synchronized Decompression, came out in 2005, and his next album has already been recorded. Also on the horizon is a new Sawka band, Dabouge. In the meantime, though, take this ride again. Crush your moves to the spray of the breakbeat borg. Cyber moons rise and Sawka, the Glitch God, sails you away.