Every young musician dreams of Internet success these days, but for Pendulum’s KJ Sawka, it’s a digital Cinderella story. It happened a few years back when the 28-year-old drummer threw up a few YouTube videos of himself playing drum ’n’ bass—style beats in his bedroom on a regular old drum set and bam! Just like that it went viral. “I swear to God the next day my phone was ringing off the hook trying to get me booked all across the world,” he says from his flat in London where
But before you start uploading demos, know that Sawka actually knew what he was doing before he hit pay dirt. “Some of these promoters had no idea what to expect: ’I thought you were going to just play drums.’ But I was like, ’No, I have actual songs and full sound to come out of your P.A.’”
For years he had being doing his own solo drum ’n’ bass thing in his hometown of Seattle, bringing a keyboard player, singer, and his own acoustic drum set. “I used to have a bunch of sequencers, but now it’s just a laptop to keep it simple.” With all this production experience, he showed up in far-flung locales ready and willing to deliver a turnkey hi-fi experience.
Before long, Pendulum frontman and general mastermind Rob Swire was e-mailing him. The process of meeting up online piqued Sawka’s interest but it was not until he and the Pendulum blokes met face to face two years ago that the tipping point came. “It was this moment of all of us going, ’Wow. We need to play music together,’” he says. “It’s cool playing music by myself, but I knew I was going to have to be in a band to hit the big festivals. Pendulum was this world-dominating drum ’n’ bass/breakbeat/rock band. It’s basically just [pop or any other] music but it’s at drum ’n’ bass tempos, and that’s right where I’m coming from.”
Immersion, released to much acclaim in the U.K. in early 2010 but only hitting U.S. shores in January of this year, harks back to the halcyon, hedonistic, glow stick—twiring days of Fat Boy Slim, Crystal Method, and all the other giants of early ’00s Big Beat. Block-rockin’ beats? Check. Sublime synths? Yup. Chest-cleaving bass lines? Hells yeah.
We know what you’re thinking: What’s raver boy doing on DRUMmagazine.com? First of all, he is a regular drummer, and Immersion’s tracking process was no different vis-à-vis the drums. “I went in just like an acoustic drummer would, but in the aftermath, that’s where it really differs,” he says referring to the post-production surgery of Swire. “He’s a total mad scientist in the studio. I’m a producer myself but some of the things just went completely over my head in two seconds.” Sawka had drum patterns in mind as basic sketches for each song. He distinctly remembers busting out at least six for the track “Vultures” right on the spot, then coming back later to pick the best one instead of jamming up the workflow.
For all the talk of DnB, only a handful of tracks have the dance sub-genre’s recognizable 174 bpm tempo. The rest experiment with electro, break beat, and good ol’ hard rock. In keeping with the current rage in electronic music, “Salt In The Wounds” and “Set Me On Fire,” with their thick, down-tempo breakdowns, are pure dub step. In a real curve ball, Swedish melodic-metallers In Flames are featured on “Self Vs. Self,” the only track where Sawka got to exercise his rusty blastbeat chops. This was no remix of an existing In Flames track, though; the band came down to the London studios and composed it specifically for Pendulum. “That was kind of a shining moment for me on Immersion ,” says the ex-head banger. “It’s all acoustic drumming but we layer it and the end result is very club-oriented.” (Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson and The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett also make appearances on the album.)
The journey Sawka took to become the bionic basher he is today had its beginning in artsy ’90s funk metal. He started playing drums when he was 12 jamming to Guns N’ Roses, Slayer, Iron Maiden, and the like, but it was Rush that opened up his mind, and, finally, Primus that blew it. “So that’s when I started this funky, high-speed drumming that led into the drum ’n’ bass. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was doing, and when I was about 17, I heard LTJ Bukem, Roni Size, Aphex Twin, Square Pusher, Chemical Brothers, all in the same day. I was like Holy sh__! What kind of beat is that!? It’s so simple, but out of this world. That is what I want to play.”
As for replicating Immersion’s unforgivingly dialed-in sound on stage, that can’t be fun, right? In fact, that’s precisely what it is. Sawka and Swire stem out all the samples so that his acoustic kit, fully triggered, will produce the same sounds as on the record. “If I stop playing then there’s no drums,” he says. “I’m the drum machine, really. The kick is layered with five drum sounds [Roland] 808, and 909. There are cymbal sounds on the snare, all kinds of things.”
Despite the sonic richness, everything is clean and discrete per the sanitized vibe of DJ music. There’s no bleed or overlap of guitar and drum sounds. Even the untriggered live elements, such as the crash cymbals, have incredibly (and appropriately) quick decay. “Everything’s gated and really short.”
At one point Sawka was going to have e-drums for the floor toms. “But then I was, Wait, what’s the point? They’re going to just have that floor tom sound but I wouldn’t have that good meaty feeling when I hit them. So I’m keeping them acoustic. I’m only half cyborg.”
The beauty of all this preproduction is that it lets Sawka focus on just being a drummer. It’s not quite as seamless when he does his own project on breaks between Pendulum tours. “With my left hand I’m pushing buttons like crazy so with my solo project it’s all about the stick under my arm [laughs]. And it’s great going back and forth, playing a bunch of Pendulum shows and then my own thing because they’re both different playing-wise.”