Interview with drummer Jai Row Kavi

If you’ve been to a gig at most venues in India, you’ll notice that it appears as if they ration their stage lighting. Lead singer gets the most, followed by the guitarist. The bass player is in total darkness and then there’s the drummer, who you can sometimes see if the light makes it to him after bouncing off the various glittering parts of his drum set. So if you’re in the audience and actually notice what a drummer is playing and continue to pay attention, it’s because he’s doing something right. That’s how we first noticed drummer Jai Row Kavi. We’ve seen him play with many different bands and he makes what he does memorable each time without upstaging the band.

Here he is talking to us about how he strikes that balance, his music school experiences, favourite drum parts, the importance of hi-hats and the one drummer joke that he thinks is actually funny.

We’ve watched you perform live with several bands now – give us an update on who you’re playing with at the moment.
I’ve recorded a few songs with Indus Creed, which we’re going to release real soon. Blackstratblues’ third album is done, so we’re going to be back out on the road promoting it. Pangea is working on new material too, demos are being sent back and forth, stuff is cooking. Apart from these bands that I am a part of, I do a lot of regular studio work for independent artists, Bollywood composers and composers from the South Indian film industry. My drum room is finally almost done, so I’ll be holed up in there practicing my socks off, and giving lessons too.

Your drum parts tend to stand out without overwhelming the song – what goes into maintaining that balance?
Thank you! I guess the only trick that works for me, is truly listening to the song, understanding it, painting a somewhat road map of the approach and pretty much going for it with a certain level of confidence. I have to be the best I can, truly excel in my efforts, although whatever I do has to blend with the music. Sometimes you gotta find what works for the song, and go with it even if it kinda goes against your natural instinct. That’s where the fun lies. Everyone [me included] wants to play drum parts that will be loved by drummers, but  sometimes simplicity is needed. Not to say that playing something simple is easier. That’s where taste and ‘feel’ come in. Once all that stuff is figured, is when one’s individuality truly appears.

You mentioned once that when you were in music school you sometimes played for 10 hours a day – tell us more about that. How does that even work?
10 hours give or take. Classes started at 10 am,  and were spread out till 6pm. In between the mandatory classes that every student had to take, like Playing Technique, Rock Drums, Rhythm Section Workshop etc, we had to choose electives like studying the drummers of James Brown, Inside Studio Drumming, Analysis of Great Grooves etc. Also once a week we would have a private one-on-one class with a teacher of our choice. Each class would have homework, and after the day’s classes, we had tons of material to work on for the next day, which had to be nailed. I’d have sticks in my hand throughout the day and wouldn’t go home till I finished whatever I needed to, sometimes staying in the practice lab till 3-4 am. Walking home, making my way through the enthusiastic tourists and Scientologists of Hollywood, I’d be singing drum parts in my head, sleep, wake up do the same thing the next day.

It was an ideal situation for an eager 19-year-old like me then, and I would highly recommend going to Musicians Institute. I remember one of my teachers, Donny Gruendler, taking me out with him to NAMM, and then often to his gigs, and recordings. As a drummer he would give 110 % to all his projects. His work ethic amazed me. Whether it was his reading chops, the little details like choosing the right gear for the situation, or just being there on time. The thing about LA is if you can’t cut it, there are a hundred guys that can. That’s something that stayed with me. Even though there aren’t half as many professional drummers here, you gotta be on top of your game all the time. The thing about going to music school, any music school, is that you will always be in an environment surrounded by like-minded people [who are] starved to learn and happy to share. Gotta always have that fire burning and contemporaries pushing you. I’m grateful I did it. Was the best time of my life.

What has been the most effective practice routine that helped your technique?
While I was at MI, I studied Technique with Rob Carson. Anybody that’s ever gone to Percussion Institute of Technology (PIT) will tell you what a true master he is. He basically broke down everything I knew before. Started me (and the others) up from scratch. He comes from a marching background, is a 9-time world rudimentary champion. He was extremely particular about every little detail. It was like going to bootcamp. He taught us how and where to hold our sticks for maximum efficiency depending on the need, angles, stick height, breathing etc. Worked the wrists, fingers, and even a full arm movement. All drummers had to take his class, and it helped everybody improve by leaps and bounds. It was like studying drums with Bruce Lee. Ironically, he studied martial arts with Bruce Lee and had some lessons with the great Buddy Rich.

I remember telling him that I was leaving school to come home, and asking for his permission to teach his material. He was real sweet and said that I should go ahead. Kind of a blessing if you will.
I haven’t had any pain of any sorts in my arms for the last 7 years. And I hit pretty hard. His technique helped me to play with dynamics, something that I struggled with before.
Have you seen the trailer for the film Whiplash? Was any part of your drum training like this at all?

HAHA that was intense! I did have moments where I’d piss my teachers off but [it was more like a] “I’m disappointed, you could have played that much better kind” of way. I loved that they were very honest, nothing was sugar-coated. Gotta watch this movie though.
Talk to us about hi-hats and what they do for a groove. The kick is steady, the snare works to emphasise, but the hats can really get things going right?
Hi-hats make the groove sing. No two drummers can play the hi-hats exactly the same. As you spend more time with a drum set you realize how endless the possibilities are. Playing licks on the hi-hat using the stick and the feet (chick sound)… it’s fascinating. Rudiments should be mastered on a practice pad. After you’ve done that, it’s a lot of fun to experiment using a kick, snare and a hi-hat.

Accents with paradiddles i.e. (RLRR LRLL) can open up a plethora of fun. Great drummers like David Garibaldi have taken that concept to another level. Steve Gadd’s approach with hi-hat based grooves and double strokes are something that almost every drummer must have stolen ☺ including me. John Bonham would use massive 15” hi-hats for that extra bounce, to counter his massive 24/26” kick drum.
The hats work as a timekeeper and determine the general time whether you’re playing with the click, ahead or behind. For example there was an Avril Lavigne album, where the producer used two drummers for two different tunes. One was a big ballad that required a laid back approach. Josh Freese, drummer for various pop/rock artists and A Perfect Circle, is known to be the best in regards to that feel played on that tune (Forgotten). The other tune (My Happy Ending) needed to be approached with a feel that was slightly pushed. Hence they called studio great Kenny Aronoff who has played with artists like John Mellencamp, Jon Bon Jovi, and Elton John to name a few. [These are] two very different approaches. Both made a statement with the way they played their hi–hats or ride.
You play live a lot – what is your experience so far in terms of sound conditions in Indian venues. Also, if you had one wish for the Indian music scene what would it be?
Things are better than they were, say five years ago. Vendors providing backline drum sets and other equipment in major cities have got their stuff together. That being said, sometimes it is the organisers that tend to skimp out on hiring the right people, which is extremely frustrating.

Recently I played a gig at a really good venue that had the works. Their backline was brilliant, they had top-notch monitors etc., yet the organizer insisted on hiring some Clueless Jack with gear that was horrendous. Kickbacks, I presume. Crap like that has got to stop.

Also, drummers that steal parts off hired drum sets, shame on you!!!!!
What are, in your opinion, the 5 best drum parts in popular music?
I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with today’s popular music. Although some of my favourite pop grooves/ drum parts that I love air-drumming to are:

Easy Lover by Phil Collins – You know the beat is going to be sick when your lead singer is actually a drummer.

Give It Away by Red Hot Chili Peppers – You’d have to be a deaf rock to not appreciate this.

My Sharona by The Knack – Cheesy [but] so good.

Sting – There’s too many to mention. Almost everything off Ten Summoners Tales featuring Vinnie Colaiuta. ALL of THE POLICE. Gotta love Stewart Copeland!

Doin’ It Right by Daft Punk. I loved how they used a click track like a hi-hat and then added another hi-hat. The last album was pretty hip.

Deftones – They are not exactly a pop band, but Abe Cunningham is extremely creative with his linear hard-hitting grooves. Definitely worth checking out.

What is the difference between a good drum part and a great drum part?
It’s a great drum part if a layman can sing it maybe. Not just a drummer. The fact that it can stay in your head for hours after you’ve heard it. Like a lyric or a melody would. All of Michael Jackson’s grooves had something special. I remember as a kid listening to The Way You Make Me Feel and spazzing out over the intro fill, singing it and giggling. Love it! Or listening to Fine Young Cannibals’ She Drives Me Crazy. That song had such a distinct snare drum sound that I noticed even when I was a little kid. I love that sound. 80’s Pop 101.
Have you heard a programmed drum part that didn’t suck?
Most certainly. With a lot of metal bands, they program drums and they sound good. Although never as good as a real drummer ☺
Even with hip hop music. A lot of it is programmed but it’s programmed by guys that know how to play drums. Or have a basic idea. So it’s cool I guess.
Tell us about your drum kit – which cymbals, sticks, do you prefer. Also what mics in your experience have captured the sound of your drums best?
I exclusively play and endorse Pearl Drums, Zildjian Cymbals, Evans Drumheads and Vic Firth Sticks. All the above companies meet mine and a lot of other drummers’ expectations with their world class products and I’m happy to be associated with them.

I have a Pearl Reference Drum set. The sizes are:
20”/18”- bass drum
10”/8”- tom
12”/8” tom
14”/14” floor tom
16”/16” floor tom
Various Pearl snare drums

I use Evans G2 coated (batter) and G1 clear (Reso) or clear heads depending on the gig
Evans power Centre Reverse Dot on the Snare batter
Evans hazy 300 on the Resonant side

Zildjian. Various A Customs, K hybrid Customs, K dark. Totally depends on the gig. For example Warren Mendonsa (of Blackstratblues) will only let me play with him if I bring my 16” k light hi-hats.

Various Vic Firth sticks like the f1’s or X55a’s . Lately I’ve been digging their Japanese white oak Shogun Series. Really good wood that lasts much longer and the weight feels good.

I absolutely love Audix microphones, they are rad!
I read someone say that “Keeping time by yourself is incredibly hard. Humans aren’t machines, and we tend to speed up or slow down when we’re doing something.” Is this accurate? If so, what is your method to keep this in check.
True, to keep steady time in a consistent manner can be quite a task. A metronome certainly helps. If you’ve spent enough time with a click track, that task can be made easier. There are guys out there that have such good time, they can guess a random tempo and play it, being off by 1-2 bpm.
Is there a drummer joke that you think is actually funny?
What do Ginger Baker and black coffee have in common?
They both suck without Cream.

YIKES !!!!!!!
What are you working on next?
I’m eagerly awaiting the completion of my drum room, so I can get back to some really intense practice sessions. I have tons of weaknesses in my playing that I want to work on. Apart from that, the usual touring, recording, taking it as it comes.
Interview with drummer Jai Row Kavi

For more from Jai:

Photos: Elvis D’Silva