Having a famous father can only get you so far, and Joey Waronker, son of legendary record producer and executive Lenny Waronker, decided to succeed on his own terms. Over the past few years, Waronker has played drums for artists including Beck, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, John Doe, Idaho, Walt Mink, Semi-Gloss, and Elliott Smith, and he recently scored the independent movie Chuck & Buck. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Waronker about playing rock 'n' roll with the stars and his jet-set lifestyle.
The Onion: Not long ago, you finished recording the new R.E.M. album. How did that go?
Joey Waronker: It went great, actually.
O: Were they self-conscious about following Up, which for some reason a lot of people didn't seem to like?
JW: No, absolutely not. [Laughs.]
O: Do you consider yourself a session drummer?
JW: I think I just kind of… well, I guess by trade, yes. But I'm trying to do a lot more than that.
O: How much creative freedom do you get when you're picked for a project?
JW: I'm sort of at a place now where I do more of my things and less of someone else's. Except, with certain people, it's kind of fun to pick their brain and see what all their ideas are. That's really cool. But generally, I try to do my own thing.
O: When you work with artists like Beck or Elliott Smith or R.E.M. more than once, do they eventually give you more freedom?
JW: Um, yes. With those artists, I can figure out exactly what they want. They're pretty specific, and I just take it from there.
O: All the bands you play with are pretty different, fortunately.
JW: Yeah, that's the good part, the fun part. I'd kind of, in a way, rather hear what Elliott Smith is hearing, drum-wise. It's kind of more interesting to me than just doing my thing. Which is kind of what he tried to do, but what would you do? He's such a good drummer.
O: Is it difficult to distance yourself from music you've been a fan of for a long time?
JW: It's getting easier, better.
O: That's because now you're a rock star, too.
JW: Uh, I don't know about that. [Laughs.]
O: Well, when you're on tour with R.E.M., nobody buys that "he's not our real, permanent drummer" stuff. People must chase after you and Ken Stringfellow like in A Hard Day's Night.
JW: [Laughs.] Well, you know. We're the young guys. What are you going to do?
O: It must have been fun to play in the kind of places R.E.M. plays after doing the club thing for so long with Walt Mink and Idaho.
JW: Actually, it was insane. Although, Beck… At the end, we were doing a lot of really big festivals and stuff, all the TV shows. So I was kind of used to it.
O: Oh, so now you're a jaded rock star.
JW: Exactly. Kind of been there, done that. No, but R.E.M., some of their own shows were drawing, like, 40,000 people. Just for them. On a bad night, basically. They were like, "Oh, the last time we were here, there were 100,000 people."
O: Does R.E.M. tell you what to wear?
JW: No, not at all, actually.
O: But don't you feel a little pressure to dress the part of a rock star?
JW: Well, yeah. I always kind of do, anyway. I'm always interested in being a part of what's going on. That's more interesting than pulling the "I'm the hot-shit drummer guy." I won't name names.
O: Well, here's a name. You played on The Smashing Pumpkins' Adore, but Kenny Aronoff toured with them. When he toured with them, he really looked like the band dressed him up. Kind of silly.
JW: They didn't dress him up! That's him, a hundred percent. I mean, I can't say that, but I was supposed to do that tour, and I decided not to, because… [Laughs.] Billy Corgan wasn't going to tell anyone how to dress, that's for shit-sure. That was purely that guy being, like… [Laughs.] It's funny you should bring him up. That's the ultimate, like, "I'm Drummer-Guy." At least in that gig, he wasn't playing as part of The Smashing Pumpkins. I'm sure he was like, "Oh, shit, I've been doing this for a long time, and I'm not getting as much work as I have been, and I'd better look young."
O: But that begs the question: Were John Mellencamp and John Fogerty dressing him down? You know, "Take off those silly sunglasses!"
JW: I can't believe he did it. I know exactly what you're talking about. It was so mind-boggling, he just looked silly. At a certain point, if you're doing rock 'n' roll, you've got to age gracefully. You can't try to be young, because it's not going to work. Because you're up against 25-year-olds, and you shouldn't care in the first place.
O: When you were growing up, did you get to hang out with any of those famous session guys, like Jim Keltner?
JW: Yeah, though I didn't really get to hang out with Jim Keltner. When I was a little kid, I got a lot of Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro, which was pretty amazing.
O: The Steely Dan guys.
JW: The Steely Dan guys. Incredible. Later on, I actually sought out Jim Keltner on my own, and he's a real supportive guy to young drummers. I got to hang out with him a bunch of times.
O: He's pretty much dressed the same way for the last 30 years. Cowboy boots, sunglasses…
JW: …and the vest. But that's what he's been doing forever. He's comfortable.
O: Did hanging out with these guys make you want to play drums?
JW: I was really into it before that. I heard Kiss when I was seven, and that was sort of it for me. And from there I got really into it. My parents, being musicians or whatever [Lenny Waronker took piano lessons alongside Randy Newman], tried as hard as they could to dissuade me from playing music. Finally, they sort of gave in.
O: It must be tough for a parent to tell you that you can't do what they're doing. You know, "I'm producing Randy Newman and you can't!"
JW: [Laughs.] I think his thing was like, "Look at these people." Well, he never said, "Don't do what me and my friends are doing." Times were different then, and particularly the musicians were just insane. Everyone was just completely out of their minds. But you should never tell your children not to do something. I didn't want to be a musician. I mean, I did as a little kid, but I kind of grew out of it as a teenager. I wanted to do anything but be a musician.
O: So when did all the phone calls start coming?
JW: I was touring with Beck. So I get to the point where—maybe through no fault of his, or maybe a fault of his and his management—we'd be touring and we'd have, like, four months off. I wasn't really making ends meet, so I figured either I had to get a job or try to play and make money playing. So that's when it started. It sort of took a while, and at first I was really down on it, trying to figure out what I would rather do. I definitely had those experiences where you go to the closed session, and at the end of the day they go, "It's going really well, we just need to take a break. Why don't I give you a call later?" And then they call and say, "We're going to take a couple of days off to reevaluate everything. Can you be in tomorrow before 10 a.m. and just get all your stuff?" Then you show up as another, very well-known drummer's big shiny Anvil cases are being wheeled in.
O: Part of the job is to just ignore that stuff.
JW: Exactly. But my whole reaction was, "Maybe I should just get a job." I was never really aggressive about it, but after I started putting out feelers, people started calling, and I would hang out more and get work.
O: Was it tough when you had to start making choices?
JW: Yeah, that's always a drag. I was trying to do as much stuff as I possibly could, play with as many people as possible, and just do that. Take advantage of it while I have the energy. But at a certain point, that's just not going to fly.
O: What work have you been proudest of so far?
JW: Definitely Beck's Mutations album. I'm definitely not really a "drummery" drummer, and I'm not interested in that because I don't even listen to that music, but I feel like that was a great album and I was a part of what we were after sonically.
O: The album is kind of underrated, in part because Beck kept saying, "This is not a real album." Even though the songs were good, it sounded good, and everyone liked it.
JW: Yeah, it was really scary. I'm not exactly sure why that album got made. In his heart, I think, he wanted to make it, but he knew it was going to create problems.
O: Was it actually more successful than the "real" album [1999's Midnite Vultures]?
JW: Ultimately, I think it was, which is kind of ironic. It was also around the time that The Smashing Pumpkins' Adore came out, which was supposed to be their "side-project album" or whatever. And that just seemed to wreak havoc on their career. Beck was terrified of the kids who went to see the Odelay shows going, "This ain't hip-hop! Where's the beat?" I say just go with it, always just go with it. That record, they had to kind of keep it down a little bit.
O: Beck had the advantage of being all over the place to begin with.
JW: I think so. The beauty was that he was in a position—I think he still is, though maybe not as much as when Mutations came out—that whatever he does, no one's going to have the courage to say, "This sucks!," even if they think it does. Beck's just the man of the moment, so take advantage of it. Do your thing. Or be extremely vulgar and commercial. But don't go in between.
O: There must have been a lot more pressure on The Smashing Pumpkins. They had sold so many records, and they're a big, unironic rock band. That album's failure must have had much more of an adverse effect. When you were in the studio with them, did you keep your opinions to yourself?
JW: Yeah, you know, especially when… A lot of times I'm in the studio for, like, a day, because Pro Tools will let a producer say, "I'm just going to put up a song, do 10 passes, a couple on one idea, as many as you can come up with, and we can just deal with it later." But when you're with a group of musicians for a week or two, yeah, there's definitely a point where everyone's sitting around quietly looking at each other, saying, "What the hell was that guitar part?" or "What was the vocal overdub? Why are you making us sit through that castanets overdub?" It definitely goes down, but that's sort of the beauty of it. Hopefully, there's a situation where there's either a fearless leader who just tells everyone exactly what to do, and everyone just sort of goes with it…
O: Like James Iha.
JW: [Laughs.] …or everyone is sort of quiet and just talks through these embarrassing, bad ideas. Then, later on, at the end of the day, someone just says, "That was really bad and we're going to abort that," or "That idea worked really well." That's more exciting for me.
O: You're starting to do film scores and production work now, right?
JW: Trying to. The director and producer [of Chuck & Buck] and I are sort of old friends. We've known each other for a long time, and Chuck & Buck was definitely one of those movies that was done out of pocket. I had just finished touring with R.E.M. and I was excited to have free time, finally. It initially started out as maybe a week or two, just do a bunch of ideas and hand them over to be thrown in the movie at will. They didn't have any money, and that seemed like the best way to do it. But somehow it turned into a three-month odyssey in a more traditional scoring thing, with a music editor and all. We did like 40 cues. I loved it. I can't wait to do more. I worked on it with my friend Smokey [Hormel, guitarist for Beck and Tom Waits] and… Wait, I just totally lost my train of thought.
O: You were talking about snorting coke off a hooker's butt in Milan with Billy Corgan, I think.
JW: [Laughs.] No, wait, we were talking about Chuck & Buck. It was basically just '70s-styled children's music. And obnoxious dancey stuff, which I love.
O: And how about your production work?
JW: Oh, it's chugging along. I did a couple of remixes, one for the Eels. Other than that, odds and ends. Working with people I like who don't have deals. Putting together a studio, doing things at my own pace.
O: What else is coming up in the near future?
JW: Nothing's ever solidly booked, but I plan to do more work with the Eels. Hopefully, that will happen as planned.
O: Do you feel more pressure the more famous you become?
JW: I try not to think about it. I mean, I guess the pressure will start when I go into one of those situations, all mellow, and they hate what I'm doing, and word gets out that I suck and I'll never work again. That would be bad. But I have a back-up plan. I think I've already saved enough money where I can sell my car, and I just bought a house, so if it all ends in a couple of years, I can just sell all my assets and move to Mexico. Have a shack on a beach. Teach children drum lessons. Or write children's music or something.