Los Angeles loves its dynasties. For generations, certain familiar surnames have possessed the uncanny ability to rake in entertainment dollars by the truckload, such as Fonda, Hemingway, Redgrave. And Waronker.
That’s right, Waronker. Namely, father Lenny, the famous rock record producer, and his son Joey, who has quietly inched his way into the brightest spotlight of the ’90s while playing drums behind everyone’s artist of the year, singer/songwriter/anti-hero Beck. Like his boss, Joey Waronker is an unlikely rock and roll champion; quiet and reserved, self-consciously polite, highly thoughtful and just a wee bit spacey.
But he likes to take chances; carefully calculated chances that probably go far over the heads of most Beck fans. He learned these skills as a child while accompanying his father into L.A. studios during sessions for Randy Newman, James Taylor and Ry Cooder. There he would sit quietly, eyes riveted to the drummer’s hands and feet, looking for tricks and subtleties. He found them, in abundance, while studying drummers like Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner and Steve Gadd.
“They were just friendly, and they’d hang out and play with me,” he remembers. “I’d sit in the drum booth and watch them. I remember, the main thing that I picked up on was the drum tuning. That was the big thing. I would obsess on listening to how the snare drum sounded in the room as opposed to how it sounded in the headphones or in the playback. I’d try to imitate that at home. So I’d sit there and watch how Steve Gadd, after doing six takes, would just tweak one lug over here and one over here. It would be totally uneven, but he’d whack it and it would have his sound. I’d listen to how his cymbals were really sort of dry and dead, yet he had a way of somehow bringing a lot of sound and character out of them.”
Remember, Waronker wasn’t even a teenager yet. But he was already beginning to appreciate nuances that most drummers don’t even recognize until well after the onset of puberty. Yet, with all the advantages he enjoyed, his access to great drummers and the benefits of their sage advice, Waronker became ambivalent to drumming in his teens, turned off by the Hollywood hype machine, and the resultant decadent lifestyles of the rich and famous in the ’80s.
Instead, he stopped drumming and started to take his schoolwork much more seriously. In short, he decided to become a good boy, after all. “I sort of went through a phase really early of being a bad kid,” he admits. “Just playing drums and hanging out with friends and getting into tons of trouble. But then about the time I stopped playing, I had a weird realization that I should use my mind and focus myself, and I just got really into school for a while.”
But after about six months, a friend of Waronker’s hooked him up with an older guitarist named Paul Greenstein, who had a western swing band called the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters. It wasn’t exactly what you might call a perfect match. Waronker was only 14, loved punk bands like the Minutemen and had no idea what western swing was all about. But he was intrigued, and found himself playing with guys in their 30s who took the genre very seriously.
Waronker started collecting old records and videos of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley and learned to play on an old Rolling Bomber kit owned by the band. He became fascinated by country, blues and jazz, and through his band mates, began meeting other American music lovers around Los Angeles, like drummer Bill Bateman of the Blasters, who took the youngster under his wing. “He was a real historian and a real serious collector,” Waronker says. “He’d see me playing and he’d be like, ’You can’t use a Yamaha hi-hat pedal to play this music! You’re not going to be able to get the right feel.’ It was a little over the top, but for a 14 year old, it was actually really cool. And I became obsessed with learning about the history of music.”
As consumed as he may have been, Waronker still wasn’t sure whether to pursue a career in music or something a bit more conventional. He needed some advice, so he looked up Jim Keltner’s phone number and called him out of the blue. After chatting about the music business for awhile, Keltner suggested that the youngster take lessons with Freddy Gruber – perhaps the greatest drum teacher in the world, who has tutored many top drummers, including Steve Smith, Peter Erskine and Dave Weckl. Waronker remembers his first lesson: “I think the first thing we talked about was, ’Are you a drummer? If you’re not going to take this seriously, then there’s no point. You realize what it means to be a drummer? It’s a lousy life. It’s crazy. But it’s an art.’ He said everything I needed to hear.”
Waronker still wanted to complete his education, and, after graduating from high school, enrolled at McAllister College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied classical percussion with Joe Helmquist. While he enjoyed the classical training, drum set playing was still in his blood. So he joined a local band called Walt Mink, which soon signed an independent record deal and started touring. And even though Waronker completed his four years at McAllister College, he was unable to perform his final recital because of Walt Mink’s touring schedule, and never received his diploma.
“I definitely wasn’t going to join a symphony,” he says. “And there was a buzz going around about the band. We had gotten a write-up in Rolling Stone, and it seemed like things were happening. I just sort of bit the bullet and said, ’If I really need the degree, I’ll come back and get it, but right now there’s no time.’ And there hasn’t been time since.”
Though he enjoyed touring, Waronker grew tired of the Minneapolis music scene, which he says consisted mostly of bands trying to sound like local hometown heroes Soul Asylum. Plus he was beginning to feel restricted by Walt Mink’s limitations. “I was fascinated by the way the Beatles and Brian Wilson recorded, so I was trying to integrate those kinds of sounds: bells and tambourines and snare drums and timpanies and concert bass drums and vibraphones,” he says. “We’d make demos and I’d break all this stuff out and then it would all get erased. Everyone in the band would kind of look at me funny, like, ’Why are you wasting our time here?’ But in the back of my mind I knew that the time would come when I’d figure it out.”
Eventually Waronker got the message. Without much of a game plan he quit the band, packed up his drums and moved back to Los Angeles with his girlfriend in 1993. Within two months he got a call from a friend who owned a demo studio, who asked Waronker to come by to work on a tape with a singer named Beck. “I showed up and it was so funny,” he remembers. “Beck was like, ’I’m going to play bass. Let me show you this song. It’s really simple. It has two parts. The first part is going to go like this.’ And it was like, a I-V progression. ’So we do that four times and then the next section goes like this.’ And he plays the same I-V progression. So we played it and I just sort of followed him and he was like, ’That’s great, but make the second sections a little heavier.’ So I did that and that was it.
“Afterwards we hung out and were talking and then we ended up just freaking out and recording sort of a noise jam. And then I split, and my friend dropped off a tape later that day. Beck put on some guitars and a tambourine and a bunch of crazy noisy things and some vocals and then tacked the noise jam that we did onto the end of it. I was blown away how he visualized the song.”