An In Depth Interview With KJ Sawka
This year at Lost Lands Music Festival we had the opportunity to sit down and interview KJ Sawka. KJ is known for being a solo artist along with playing drums for the groups Pendulum and Destroid. He is an extremely talented artist and truly showed everyone at Lost Lands why you should never miss one of his sets. With the combination of a completely custom drum set and the extremely talented groups he plays with, KJ sets himself apart from what you would expect from a drummer.
Oneedm: So tomorrow is a busy day for you?
KJ Sawka: Yea, tomorrow is the busy day.
Oneedm: You have an Ableton workshop at 2.
KJ Sawka: I do, yea.
Oneedm: What can we expect from that?
KJ Sawka: Well, I have a half-plan so far because I thought ill.Gates and I were going to do it together, but he is marrying the PK family, so he had to change everything to Sunday. So now, it’s better for everybody because he is doing a solo and production workshop, and I as well am doing a production workshop. So now, there’s two workshops instead of one. I don’t believe there is going to be a projection of my laptop up so everybody can see. So I’ll probably have to do kind of an overview of what I do and talk to everybody about how my drums take part.
Oneedm: So will ill.Gates’ workshop be any different from yours?
KJ Sawka: Yea definitely! So he loves teaching. We both taught a lot together and he is really good at it. He loves it and has a whole teaching seminar online. He used to do one on ones and has a whole class on 808 where they’re all his top students and he made a whole collaborative album and it’s really bad-ass.
Oneedm: It’s really cool to see someone of your skills go out there and teaching people what you know instead of just going out and doing your thing and not worrying about anybody else.
KJ Sawka: Yea, when I was in around 7th grade or so I was practicing shit tons and I started teaching fellow drummers who were in band with me and I realized I started getting a lot better at the kit with practicing so much, and they were kinda the same. So I started teaching them all the stuff that I was learning and coming up with, and from that point on, around 15 years old, I really became a teacher and it helped me learn more.
Oneedm: I see you have a very customized drum set – is there anything new you’ve added to it at all?
KJ Sawka: It’s pretty mad, yea. I usually play with this octopad thing, which has 8 pads. Now I play with SPDXS which is the sampling thing. It has nine pads but smaller and easy to travel with and that’s on my solo kit.
Oneedm: When you play with Destroid, is it all Electronic?
KJ Sawka: That is all electronic. Now my KJ set is a blend of electronic and acoustic drums.
Oneedm: Now are you producing/mixing at the same time you are drumming?
KJ Sawka: I’ve got a little mixer with everything plugged into that, and I have a monitor mix that way I can hear the tracks and the queue up things. I have Ableton to change the kit on the fly and all kinds of things.
Oneedm: Growing up as a drummer and only having an acoustic drum set with an idol like Phil Collins, I can’t even imagine what he would think about all of this now, and how far music has come.
KJ Sawka: Phil Collins is actually my all time hero.
Oneedm: Growing up did your parents support you fully? As you made your change to EDM and the electronic music industry.
KJ Sawka: So, they supported me with the drums. I bought everything myself, though they supported me in spirit. When I was banging on my loud freaking drums and it echoed through the whole house, they didn’t stop me. And they encouraged me, which is really all you can ask for from a parent, and then I got into electronic music when I was 18/19 or so, and it totally changed my whole world, but it was pretty new. EDM hadn’t really started until about 10 years ago. And back in the day it was called IDM (intelligent dance music) and that was the nutty artsy fartsy intelligent stuff. Drum and bass kinda fit into that category. I was hearing The Chemical Brothers and stuff like that with great beats, and those were just sampled drum kits. The way they cut them up and processed them – I wanted to create that same sound on my kit, so that’s what I tried to do. I tried to emulate all of those sounds. That’s what got me into electronic drumming. It wasn’t the vibe or sound necessarily, like it didn’t make me want to go get electronic drums; I did get beat machine, but this was before laptops. So I had my desktop computer, and i didn’t learn Ableton until way, way later getting into electronic music.
Oneedm: And that makes your drum set so much more than a standard kit.
KJ Sawka: Yup yup, I never took the sounds from my songs and put them in my kit until way way later. I just tweaked the preset sounds and ran them through a distortion pedal and delays and stuff. I had a small sampler, but the technology then, you couldn’t lay it out across a whole kit like you can today.
Oneedm: What is it like to transform into an alien and perform with Destroid? It’s got to feel awesome to be on that stage with that setup.
KJ Sawka: We really get into character right when it goes on, especially the masks. It’s all fun and games, but once we put the mask on, it’s a serious deal because we can’t hear each other except through our ear packs. And we can’t really do much until we get plugged in on stage and the air cool unfogs our freaking masks, because we’re just sitting there going “Oh my God, plug it in already.” Then finally, we get plugged in and we’re like “Ok it’s time to start, it’s on.” It doesn’t matter all the prep-work we can do, it’s all about that there’s no more to be done, just full character mode.
Oneedm: Is it just the masks you use or is it the whole suit too?
KJ Sawka: It’s the whole thing yea. It used to take like a whole hour to get the suits on and now it just takes a half an hour. That’s a solid thirty minutes.
Oneedm: So what makes it take so long?
KJ Sawka: We have this cross jumpsuit thing kinda like a harness, and then we have some workout tight shirts and shorts, and then there’s this harness thing that straps around our balls and has all these buckles all over it. Then we put on a crazy jumpsuit that has more buckles on it. Then our armor has to be put on totally perfect, like we can’t put it on ourselves because there’s too many straps and such. The whole thing is designed to strap to our body perfectly and body size. We have the armor, the arms, the legs, we have shoulder pieces, a chest plate, and our backpack. At first we were cordless, but we had this really big battery on our backpack and that was way too big, so we took that off. We had our helmets slightly adjusted too, but we did it through this company called Ironhead and they do all the Marvel stuff, like legit Batman, Spiderman, all those guys.
Oneedm: So you reunited with Pendulum at Ultra last year. Do you plan on playing with them again upcoming?
KJ Sawka: We just did a whole summer festival run. Like a shit ton of gigs. No USA shows though. We did Korea, all over the UK, and all over Europe.
Oneedm: Since this is a dinosaur themed festival, what dinosaur would you want to be?
KJ Sawka: I think I’d like to be the really tall one (Brontosaurus). I heard the ones here are to-scale too. Very impressive.
KJ Sawka: They’re all different. My role in each one is quite a bit different. Like with Pendulum, it’s really all about holding down the drum department. When I first started, the drums were already built by Rob so i just adapted to that, but I wasn’t just a drummer. I didn’t wanna be part of the band part of the group. I wanted to be part of the writing process, like the whole thing. It was great, it was a real set role. Now the drum department has taken over and it’s all about the drums. Now with Destroid, it’s all about everything. I created the whole show in Ableton and what they play. I built all the parts they play, it’s really intense. So I have much more role – both hands and feet involved. The guys played a little music growing up but they’re not fluent like me, they’re producers. So being a producer you have to be in the mindset big time. The dexterity, the musicality with the fingers and feet, and everything is key. So I kinda taught them how to play their musical instruments. Hitting a drum or plucking a string or hitting a piano key aren’t much different than hitting a stick on a rock, it’s really no different. It just takes a certain technique. Like if you want to get a tone with a hollow stick on a rock, you have to use the right technique and that’s it, same with playing the piano or plucking the guitar or hitting the drum or pressing a button. So that was the thing, so there’s all these buttons that they have to press and at the beginning they were like, “Oh this isn’t working” and then I got on there and said, “No, the program is working, it’s running right.” It’s really just an on/off switch, but there really is a finesse to it, just like finger drumming. Even though it’s not sensitive, like the harder you hit it the harder it’s going to sound, it’s [really] just an on/off, but there really is a finesse, so I had to help them understand that. It took awhile, so I programmed their instruments around that to make it easy enough, but challenging enough for their musical minds, but also easy for them to play. Because it takes years to physically master an instrument.
KJ Sawka’s Take on the Fire During the Destroid Set
KJ Sawka: So we were playing our set, and I was up on that stage 30 feet in the air, playing the drums playing the Destroid set. So we all have these coms to talk to each other during the set, which is freaking hilarious and we have this full conversation going on while were playing the freaking music, and all of a sudden Jeff is like “Hey shit the volcano is on fire”. He was like, “It’s fine, keep on playing,” and then the sound cut out big time, and we were like “Uh oh”. Then we finished playing and the sound cut out again and I was still playing. Because in our ears we can hear all the music regardless of what the PA does and I looked back at my tech Justin and I said “Should I stop?” Jeff and Sean were talking and saying, “Ok, this is serious,” and then we saw security pushing people back. Then I finally stopped playing drums and I definitely had a moment of like, “Is this Destroid’s final moment?” Like, it’s in the name, are we destroying like everything? So these volcanoes have never been done ever. The amount of CO2 and flames blasting from them has never been done. They have two jet engines underneath them pumping jet fuel and shooting CO2 and flames and I was thinking, “Hmm,” if a jet engine actually did blow up and it all blew up that’d there would definitely be many injuries including us, which is pretty scary.
If you ever meet KJ Sawka you will meet one of the most kind and genuine artists. Truly humble about his skill set, KJ is always trying to help others learn and use his knowledge to better the music industry. We are very thankful to have had the opportunity to sit down and interview him. Out of all the artists at Lost Lands, KJ Sawka showed everyone that he has many tricks up his sleeve and we can’t wait to see what comes next.