I recently had the pleasure of talking in depth to KJ Sawka, drummer for world famous live Drum & Bass group ‘Pendulum’. I am still awed by the humility, intelligence and depth of thought conveyed by KJ during our brief conversation. It’s always amazing to meet a legitimate rock star whose ego has not overtaken the drive to create. On a person to person level, KJ strikes me as not only a humble, grateful human, but one who has the vision and tenacity to push the envelope in contemporary music.
BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE IS SAID! MAKE SURE YOU GET YOUR TICKETS FOR KJ SAWKA’S SOLO SHOW @ THE SIREN, MORRO BAY ON SATURDAY MAY 12.
ALSO, FOR ALL YOU DRUMMERS; KJ IS GIVING A FREE DRUM CLINIC FRIDAY MAY 11 @ THE DRUM CIRCUIT, SLO.
The KJ Sawka Experience
You don’t have to be a Drum & Bass head to appreciate what KJ will be bringing to the Siren on the 12th. If you are interested in electronic music and want to see how an extremely technical & creative musician seamlessly blends acoustic drumming with DJing and sound manipulation, DON’T MISS THIS SHOW. Even if you’re not interested in electronic music, but want to see some badass drumming, you should still check it out. We don’t get the opportunity for this type of performance on the Central Coast all that often.
Anyway, without further ado… the interview.
Vince Cimo: You’re one of the artists really pushing the boundaries in ‘taming the beast of the computer’. What steps are you taking to keep things fresh for yourself during live shows and not become a slave to a backing track?
KJ Sawka: Each group (Pendulum, Destroid & Solo) has a different set up and therefore has different areas where improvisation and spontaneity can happen. Pendulum is probably the most structured group; many songs do have backing tracks, but even with the backing track, there’s still enough room to move and keep things fresh. For example, Rob (the singer) has his vocal backing tracks gated, to where if he is not singing, there’s no volume on the vocal backing track. If we want to skip a verse and replace it with a lead, he can just not sing a part and that changes the whole feel and structure. Furthermore, with 5 live musicians, even the slightest changes can really make things feel new and fresh. The ethos with Pendulum is to do everything we possibly can live; meaning the same synth patches used on the record are played live, drum racks are switched on the fly and played live, etc.
The solo set is a bit different, but the ethos is similar. When I’m preparing for a solo performance, I think of it more like a DJ set. I consider the size of the venue, the demographic I’m playing to (if it’s gonna be a Drum & Bass festival for example) and create a set in arrangement view in Ableton that I think will really be the perfect fit. Within the set, I give myself a lot of flexibility to manipulate and change things on the fly to keep it fresh. With a couple of knob twists or pad hits, I can completely change the sound of the drum kit, trigger stems on and off or totally mangle a track. It’s a structured, chaotic playground that has taken me a long time to master.
V: Wow, it’s amazing how much detail and pre-production can go into live electronic music. Can you tell me a bit more about Pendulum’s overall set-up? How does everything sync together so seamlessly?
KJ: It’s a pretty streamlined system at this point. A few years back, each of us (band members) had racks up to our chest of effects and processors. We used to use a system called Receptor, and literally had racks of those units for all our instrument changes. Nowadays, we have a primary laptop running Ableton that serves as the brain of the operation and the primary backing track master. Ableton then sends out midi program change messages via ethernet to a few Mac Mini’s running Mainstage . Those Mac Mini’s have racks and racks of virtual instruments (Serum, Massive, Etc.) which turn on and off at exactly the right time to ensure we’re all playing the right sound at the right time. Even with all the technology today, we still rely on a few hardware pieces; for example, I recently moved over to the Roland TD-50 V-Drum Brain, which allows me to upload all of my own drum sounds, because I couldn’t get the latency in Ableton down below 17ms.
V: Yep, we’re almost there with software, but there’s no real replacement for a hardware piece that you know will work every time. Let’s switch gears a bit; a lot of our readers are aspiring pro musicians and I know I’m personally curious what the road to success looked like for both yourself and Pendulum. To put it bluntly, how did you become a rock star?
KJ: It really is a combination of things, build on a lot of hard work. Hard work enables luck to happen in a lot of ways. When I got started, I was one of the few people that was doing live Drum & Bass with a solid performance and set. Drum & Bass took off in the early 2000’s, especially in Europe, and I found that the press I did get on my performances made a ripple in the Drum & Bass scene. I oriented my life around my music; traveling to Drum & Bass hotspots on my own dime to get seen by the right people. Eventually, slowly but surely, I made a name for myself doing what I love to do.
On the other side of the world, in Perth, Australia, Rob & Gareth were in the studio working their asses off making some really revolutionary Drum & Bass music. They managed to get their tracks to their favorite DJ (El Hornet), who is still playing all of the Pendulum DJ shows today. El Hornet connected Rob & Gareth with Joe Oakley, our manager, who convinced the whole lot that if they really wanted to be successful, they needed to get into the heart of the scene and move to London. It wasn’t long after that they found success with some of their first singles (Machete being one).
Around this time, I was fairly well known in the Drum & Bass world, and one day received an email from Rob & Gareth entitled ‘World Domination’. In it were, well, carefully laid plans for world domination with the soon-to-be live Drum & Bass supergroup Pendulum. From that point on, we played show after show, winning over audiences around the world.
V: Wow, thank you for sharing that. It’s a good reminder that perseverance and staying true to your vision can really pay off, even if you have to move to a different country to make it happen! After touring the world and seeing both live groups and DJ acts, do you have a preference or feel like a live component achieves something a DJ never can?
KJ: I don’t really think there’s just one way to throw a great show. The impact that an audience member feels from the music depends on so many factors. Do they have an emotional connection to the band or the recordings? Does the venue work sonically (is the sound guy on point)? Are there 10,000 other people screaming with excitement? Can the audience member even see the performer? I’ve had nights where people go wild for the live component we bring to the table, and nights where it seems like we could be up there with decks and get more or less the same response. I think that there’s a lot of great DJ’s who are doing really interesting things, mixing up multiple songs at a time to create otherworldly sounds and really connecting with audiences in their own way. On the flip side, there are also some amazing musicians out there doing the same thing. I believe if you stay true to your art and just work with honesty and passion, you can connect and inspire people.
V: Yeah that makes a lot of sense. There really is no ‘one right way’. I think you’re right, as long as you’re passionate and talented, you can throw a kick-ass show no matter what your instrument.
One last thing. Is there anything you’re really excited about, and any parting advice you have?
KJ: Yes! We really pour everything into making sure our studio creations are absolutely perfect, and I think that it’s our studio tenacity that really is the pre-cursor to being a successful act. With production getting tighter and tighter in contemporary music and attention spans getting shorter, it’s really important that you make a solid impact with your recordings.
V: I hear you man, the music studio is my life. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Very much looking forward to your show.
KJ: Thank you! Have a great day.
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