Drum and Ace: Drummer Jai Row Kavi on Keeping Time
Why Jai Row Kavi is one of the most versatile drummers in the Indian music scene today
It’s a surprisingly easy day for 28-year-old drummer Jai Row Kavi when we meet him in Mumbai. There’s just one rehearsal lined up for the day, he tells us. Kavi plays with all of five bands, not counting the number of studio sessions he does for Hindi films and says he couldn’t be happier. He is part of instrumental metal band Pangea, rock band Indus Creed, blues group Blackstratblues, pop rock band Tough On Tobacco and Hindi film composer Amit Trivedi’s band. Kavi also played for a year with Mumbai death metal band Bhayanak Maut filling in for their original drummer Rahul Hariharan, who took a break to study. There’s no arrogance in his tone when Kavi says, “I’d get bored playing in just one band.” He goes on to explain himself, “I genuinely love playing with all these bands and since I’m playing often, I’m always thinking about the next rehearsal and next material.” Kavi, who began performing with Mumbai metal band Pin Drop Violence (PDV) in 2002, has been upping the ante for himself and for drummers around the country.
A big, bear of a chap, Kavi is known as a “rock” drummer in the film industry circles for bringing some heavy grooves into the sound, but has the most diverse range we’ve heard and is one of the most hard working musicians in the scene. Says Shantanu Hudlikar, music producer for bands such as Delhi-based Advaita and chief sound engineer at YRF Studios, “Jai is definitely one of the standouts because he plays to the song. He has great instinct about any kind of song and that’s invaluable especially for a sessions drummer. He picks up songs quickly and invests a lot into his craft. I don’t see most people practising, but Jai does and you can hear the result in his work, which is also why he’s in such demand.”
He has also just realized every drummer’s dream of setting up his own studio in the heart of Mumbai in Bandra. He says, “To be a studio drummer, you have to have a fair amount of equipment and I’ve saved my ass off to buy so many snare drums. When I have a session, I go prepared. You have to be really particular about time in the studio. I like to listen to the scratches, choose cymbals and snares to get the vibe. I keep reading Modern Drummer magazine. I’m a big geek. I love everything about gear.”
On stage, Kavi isn’t your typical attention-seeking drummer. A never-ending rampage of a drum solo isn’t his style. He says, “I’ve never been that ‘Hey, look at me’ kinda guy. I’ve never been one to twirl sticks – that’s just not my thing. I’d be very uncomfortable if I was on stage and there were spotlights on me. I like nailing material with bands. That’s why I started playing.” Although Kavi recalls that he has come a long way from his PDV days when he was known as one of the loudest drummers in the scene. He says, “When I used to go to Jazz By The Bay (now known as Pizza By The Bay), Peter, the manager, used to plead with us to play quietly because they were getting complaints about the noise. I didn’t know how to play soft until I started studying.” A year-long course at the Musicians Institute in California in 2006 was a turning point. Says Kavi, “We had drummers, who were playing with artists such as Paul Gilbert (Mr Big’s guitarist), and were terrific educators. They’d tell us straight up: ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Why are you playing so loud? The song doesn’t call for it.’ That’s exactly how they spoke.” Well known drummer Gino Banks from Mumbai is also a music school by himself, says Kavi. “Gino’s always pushing us. Whenever I feel shitty about myself, I go there and he gives me stuff to work on. There are always drummers hanging around his garage because there’s so much to learn from him.”
What sets Kavi’s musical journey apart is its beginnings. Kavi didn’t grow up knowing he would be a musician and neither was he from a family of musicians backing him with an impressive lineage. “I was just failing school and hated studying. I have nightmares about school even now.” Kavi suffered from dyslexia, a learning disorder, and took to drumming straight after school. Mumbai guitarist Chandresh Kudwa’s music school Allegro was where Kavi received his first formal training when he was only 16. “I remember playing Channel [V] Launchpad (a competition event based on the show that the music channel hosted). Vishal (Dadlani) and Luke Kenny were the judges and PDV won. I was 17 then. There were at least 10,000 people who were at Bandra Kurla Complex that day. They hadn’t come to watch PDV, but some others – I think there were some Bollywood musicians playing that day too – but that was one of the biggest crowds I’ve played to.” Adds Hudlikar, “I’m so happy that Jai’s progressed from being a hard core hard rocking alternative drummer to being able to nail any song he wants. He’s got a great sense of groove and swing.”
It’s soon time for Kavi to head for rehearsals with Tough On Tobacco. The drummer says, “Tomorrow I have rehearsals with both Pangea and Blackstrat. And day after I’m off to do some work with Gino in Chennai. Life on the road is pretty fucking intense, but it’s better to be busy than to be fiddling with Playstation at home.” Kavi adds that he’s also filling in for Banks with Kolkata-based sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee, bringing Indian classical music to his drum circle. Cue drum roll for Kavi.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of ROLLING STONE India.