Having seen drummer Kevin Sawka in deliriously frenzied action, it’d be easy to think—especially considering his reputation for effortlessly pounding through three-hour-plus syncopated drum ’n’ bass solo shows on an actual drum kit—that he’s some sort of machine, a slave to his craft and niche genre of music. But, in fact, Sawka’s human: he has a day job away from the drums, his cell phone runs out of batteries (sometimes during interviews), and when talking music, he’s not shy about the realities of the d ’n’ b sound.
“With d ’n’ b, there’s no money in it, you know, so you have to play a little bit of everything,” Sawka says in a phone interview from his native Seattle. For example, he’s supplemented his income by session-manning a live show with pop-rocker Mike Doughty, and money aside, he keeps his ear open by jamming in experimental sessions with the disparate likes of jazz/bluegrass guitarist Bill Frisell and Andy Summers of the Police. “I grew up playing all the styles, and while the new stuff has definitely conquered over all that, I still keep with it. I mean, I can even play a good polka beat.”
Sawka’s breadth of talent and interest is shaping the direction of his current work. While not abandoning d ’n’ b or jungle, Sawka, formerly of Seattle trio Siamese, is stretching how he approaches the genres. His latest release, Synchronized Decompression, includes original vocals from some of Seattle’s sassier female singers, keyboards from Kent Halvorsen and cello from Gretchen Yanover, along with Sawka’s trademark drumming. Some of the tracks are more structured and less choppy than his usual efforts, and Sawka’s embracing the change, continuing to work in the studio to further develop the sound.
“It’s a whole other kitty,” he says. “The newer stuff is a more straightforward band sound. Not entirely straight, but moreso than before.”
When Sawka tours through Missoula he’ll be joined by vocalist Christa Wells (who also appears on the latest CD) and Halvorsen—the group tours under the name KJ Sawka—to deliver a taste of the new work. He’s also added a light show and video projection to round out the performance, but rest assured, at the center of it all will still be Sawka and his half-acoustic, half-electronic custom drum kit.
“We still want the crowd to get a little bit of both,” he says, explaining that fans of his d ’n’ b sets will not be disappointed. “The band adds more of a live atmosphere, but I’ll continue to be there doing what I do…an induced feeling, a mesmerized feeling where the grooves and the basslines and crowd all gets that intense, crazy-high feeling. Yeah, that’ll still be there.”
KJ Sawka plays Higgins Alley Upstairs Thursday, March 2, at 9 PM. $7.