Joey Waronker Looks Back On His Beck Years
He went back into the studio with Beck a couple more times, and kept in touch until, finally, the singer asked if he wanted to go out on tour. And even though the band’s personnel has turned over several times since then, Waronker remains Beck’s drummer of choice. Together they’ve covered thousands of miles and hundreds of gigs, but one thing seems to bother the drummer, just a little. Waronker’s drumming has only barely made an appearance on Beck’s albums.
Beck works with the red hot production team, the Dust Brothers, and their studio wizardry contributed significantly to the success of Odelay, the singer’s current release. A large part of their sound can be attributed to the Dust Brothers’ extensive use of drum loops, and they borrow from any resource they can salvage. However, in the process, they all but eliminate the need for live studio drumming during their productions.
“It’s a style of recording,” Waronker reasons. “That’s how they do it. Live drums are integrated into a song when that seems like what they want to do. To be as humble as possible here, when you’re making records like that, if they want a funky beat, they have to think, ’Why should we get Joey to do it when it’s probably going to take him a little while and we’re going to have to work to get the right sound when we can just get a Bernard Purdie break beat record?’
“The records are really well conceived and made in a certain way, for a reason. And right now, I’m intrigued by watching Beck work because I feel like there’s something important going on. I’m not thinking, ’I’m a drummer and I need to express myself.’ Which I question from time to time, like, ’Wait a minute. I am a drummer! I should be in a rock band, playing everything.” I would like to be better represented on an album, but it’s sort of a weird time.”
Even though Waronker hung out during the Odelay sessions, and added acoustic percussion touches wherever they were called for, he still had plenty of time on his hands and began taking session work with other artists around L.A. “They were usually album sessions that were, frankly, a drag,” he says. “A lot of times it would be a band that fired their drummer, and I’d sort of be the bad guy who was coming in. During all the sessions that I did, with a few exceptions, I was basically just given direction. And that would be cool if it was someone who I really respected, but it never was. I don’t like doing recording sessions at all.”
A nanosecond later, Waronker qualifies his statement. He doesn’t like doing session work as a hired gun, but he does enjoy recording with Beck, whenever he gets the chance. “It’s mostly a live band,” he offers, and considering how much Beck tours, that in itself can constitute a satisfying career. Therefore, much of Waronker’s job is spent interpreting the loops that his bandleader and producers put on tape. “Personally, I would have chosen the same beats that they did,” he graciously concedes, but the beats he actually ends up playing onstage bear only the most distant resemblance to those of the album tracks.
While the pulse of Odelay’s loops rarely changes its syncopation or phrasing, Waronker’s live drum parts constantly shift. On one verse he may play the backbeat on one of his snare drums and sixteenth-notes on a hi-hat, then on the next verse he’ll reorchestrate his parts so that the backbeat moves to a floor tom and the sixteenths are displaced to a tambourine, or bell, or steel can.
How does he choose his parts? By using clairvoyance, he says. “I feel that Beck and I have a really good rapport. As a musician, what I want to achieve with this band is to be able to read minds. I think that’s the best way to be. So I put all my energy into trying to figure out what Beck’s going for and just trust that I will interpret that and make it better. It’s especially important for drummers to be really sensitive that way. You’ve got to support everyone else. It’s not always a happy job, because a lot of times you’re not going to get noticed.”
Considering Waronker’s outrageous setup, though, it’s hard to imagine that he would have any trouble being noticed on stage with Beck. He’s surrounded by multiple snare drums, bells, gongs, stacked cymbals and crashers. Two different-size bass drums sit at very odd angles to the drummer, the farthest appearing to be too far from his feet to access as a regular double-bass drummer would. That’s because he only uses one bass drum at a time, and plays the far one with a double-bass extension pedal.
“I wanted to have two different bass-drum sounds and play them both with the left foot, which is my primary foot. I wanted to have the feel of a 20" bass drum that’s really tight as well as an 18" bass drum that’s really loose. Even if they sound kind of similar through the P.A., the feel is going to be so different and that affects how everyone else plays, which is what’s important.”
Waronker says that the kit designed itself, out of necessity. “My whole approach to drums used to be getting the most out of the bare essentials,” he says. “But then I began to approach it more as a percussionist. If I needed a bell sound for one note in one song, even though we may only play that song once every four shows, I wanted to have that in my setup. We tried to do the show stripped down, instrument-wise, and it just didn’t work.”
Because of all the sound effects on Odelay, there had to be a certain amount of taped material running during Beck shows. So after Odelay was completed, the group went into the rehearsal studio to work out the arrangements for the live show. “We had all of the things that we thought may need to be looped on separate tracks,” Waronker explains. “We’d start with stuff that I could imitate, and erase it. Then we’d erase stuff that anyone else could imitate, and sometimes we were left with just a click track and a few weird things, so it’s as organic as possible. Sometimes we would strip everything away, so we wouldn’t have to use a click track at all.”
After the painstaking process of replacing samples and loops, it turned out that Waronker needed to follow a click track only on four songs onstage. In order to keep time with it, he uses inner-ear monitors, which he absolutely swears by. “I just have the most phenomenal mix,” he says. “I have the click track coming into my ears, so I have some leeway around the click track. I’m the only one in the band who hears the click, so everyone else is following me.”
But Waronker makes up only half of the percussion section in Beck’s touring outfit. The other half comes from scratch master DJ Swamp, who plays rhythmic grooves and pointed hits that blend seamlessly with Waronker’s feel. “It’s a little like playing with a drum machine, because of the sounds and because he’s coming from such a hip-hop background,” Waronker explains. “He’s used to turntables and drum machines. It’s a whole different feel, so I find myself adjusting and playing more drum machine-type beats. But he also plays a lot of weird sounds, atmospheric stuff, a lot like a percussionist. I think at first, Swamp really didn’t consider himself a musician, and now he’s realizing that he has this rhythmic gift and a sense of dynamics. It’s a bizarre thing because it’s such a new instrument and I think he’s used to the concept of just being a DJ or playing loops. But in this band he’s being forced to be more of a percussionist.”
Swamp isn’t the only member of Beck’s band to by challenged by the eclectic gig. “Beck’s whole thing is so diverse,” Waronker says, “so he needs musicians who can go from the hip-hop thing to more poppy stuff, to punk, to folk, to country. All of which he does pretty beautifully. There just aren’t that many musicians who can do that. The challenge has just been to do it all and make it sound cool. That’s taken a long time.”