Joey Waronker: Beck's Sidekick Isn't A Loop

He's A Real, Live Drummer

Joey Waronker

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.”

{pagebreak} Joey Waronker

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.”