Story by Mike Dawson
Photos by Alex Solca
By creating subtly insinuating grooves that blur the lines between electronic and acoustic percussion, he’s become the secret ingredient in some of the gutsiest, most detailed music of modern times.
If you were to grab any record in Waronker’s lengthy discography, you wouldn’t necessarily be knocked over the head with obvious “drummer stuff.” Yet the rhythm tracks, whether they’re made with a standard drumset and percussion or off-the-wall electronics and homemade contraptions, are so perfectly matched to the song that the two meld into one living, breathing listening experience. Waronker somehow manages to make his drumming invisible yet essential at the same time. Although his specific contributions are downright indescribable, the way they improve a track is often pure magic. And, always, deeper examination reveals ways for us to elevate our own art.
We’d been meaning to catch up with Waronker for a few years now. His last cover story was in May 2001, and it focused primarily on the experience of stepping in for Bill Berry with R.E.M. We also featured two of the left-handed drummer’s unique setups in our January 2011 Gearing Up column—one was the organic earthy-toned kit he used on tour with Blue Note recording artist Norah Jones in support of her 2009 album, The Fall, and the other was the heavily treated electroacoustic hybrid configuration he created for a tour with Atoms for Peace, an alt-rock supergroup of sorts that includes Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, producer/engineer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco.
Despite Waronker’s consistent output of interesting recordings and collaborations, 2013 is a particularly ideal time to sit down with the drummer for his second MD cover story. Atoms for Peace’s debut album, Amok, was released on February 25. And Joey’s new electronica trio, Ultraísta, which includes Godrich on keys and bass and up-and-coming U.K. singer Laura Bettinson, released a cool drum-centric self-titled debut that’s jammed with super-hip Afrobeat-meets–Massive Attack tracks. The group planned a run of East Coast dates, including an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
What we didn’t know until shortly before our scheduled meeting in NYC was that Waronker was only days away from becoming a father for the first time. As it turned out, his wife went into labor moments before Ultraísta’s first show in Philadelphia. “I think I hit the snare once at soundcheck and the phone rang,” Joey recalls. “Then I had to hop on an airplane.” Since the tour had to be postponed, a face-to-face interview was clearly out of the question. But being the humble and gracious soul that he is, Waronker allowed us to steal him away from his daily duties as a new father—his most challenging gig yet—so we could chat about his unified approach to tone, touch, and technique and discuss the way his music-first aesthetic relates to his dual roles as a studio artist and a contributing partner in Ultraísta and Atoms for Peace.
MD: How did you get involved with Atoms for Peace?
Joey: I’ve worked with Nigel for years, and we’re really good friends. So it was kind of one of those organic things. Thom wanted to explore reinterpreting his album The Eraser live. We tried it, and it worked. Recording followed, which consisted of another batch of material that was more collaborative.
MD: How was the new stuff written?
Joey: We went into the studio and just jammed. Thom also had germs of ideas that we would expand upon. It was that kind of process, being built from the music outward.
MD: Were you playing live drums during the jams? It’s hard to tell from what made it to the album. It sounds like a lot of layering of drum loops and electronics.
Joey: The drumset that I created for Atoms for Peace was so bizarre and electronic sounding anyway, but there was a lot of layering of drums and percussion, played mostly by Mauro. I had developed a unique drumset for the tour, and Mauro had these different percussive sounds, so when we started working on the new material we already had a sound palette.
Some of the jams started with an electronic beat that Thom had programmed. Or later we would add some electronic elements. It became a dense hybrid of stuff.
MD: How are you going to reverse engineer the new music for shows?
Joey: With this album being so sophisticated and layered, I’m hoping to create a kit that fits the new songs. Or I’ll just change things up to use some different sounds and then let it be what it’s going to be.
I had some electronics last time, but they were more on the organic side of that, like Simmons pads and a Simmons brain. The Simmons brain died at Coachella, so I sampled the sounds and loaded them into my old ddrum brain, which I feel is still the best thing for triggering samples. Now I have a Roland SPD-SX, which is really handy for loading samples into. But you can only use four trigger inputs with it, so it’s kind of limiting.
MD: When the Simmons brain died, were you then running triggers on the acoustic drums into the ddrum module?
Joey: No. I kept the Simmons pads and plugged them into the ddrum. I only used four Simmons sounds, but they worked for the whole set. There was a sustaining bass drum that was tuned to a low note that I used on one song. The other sounds were percussive white noise. Live, it sounded like a drum machine, but I honestly didn’t know how we were doing that. [laughs]
MD: But you were intentionally trying to reproduce the programmed sound of The Eraser.
Joey: Right. And there was an intention to do things like play the bass drums and snare without any dynamics, but the sound guy took that and ran with it. He made the drums sound as punchy and machine-y as possible. Then, when Mauro added the percussion… He’s Brazilian, so it’s not an Afro-Cuban sound. He’s doing more shaker-type things that sound programmed. When he’s playing pandeiro [Brazilian tambourine], it sounds like a drumbeat that’s been chopped up and filtered down.
MD: Since you were able to get that electronic-type sound live without using loops, why do you think you ended up layering all the electronics when making Amok?
Joey: Even if the drums were meant to be machine-y, there’s literally air around the sound because of the microphones. So it actually ends up sounding softer. The direct signal of a sample is punchier, and it has less dynamics. It has a completely different tonal character that’s difficult to get out of a live drumset.
The exciting thing about the live drums and percussion is that we’re moving around and doing things that are a little bit dynamic and not so uniform. We’re doing this heavily layered, repetitious thing that’s kind of like dance music, but it’s human at the same time—like Afrobeat. When recording, you can keep it moving and then add samples and electronics underneath to tie it all together. To do that live without loops or samples, you just have to gate and compress the kick and snare.
MD: Is that part of the reason why you often use heavily dampened drums? So you can get as close to that tight, punchy electronic sound as possible?
Joey: That’s just the tone I like. Even if the drums are miked from far away, I end up dampening them. But usually when I record, things are pretty basic, with microphones that aren’t too far away, so you get a lot of tone.
But it depends on the context. I love what I do because I get to switch around so much. With Beck, I’ll often have three different drumsets. One will have no bottom heads; another will be a ringy, wide-open ’50s or ’60s Gretsch that sounds like Max Roach; and then there will be a more typical rock kit.
MD: Has drum tone always been a big focus of yours?
Joey: The feel and the sound are almost on equal levels for me. Led Zeppelin was such a massive influence, and the feel and sound that Bonham was getting was unique. It’s the same thing with old funk records and the ’80s stuff that I grew up listening to, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Talking Heads. It’s always about the grooves and the sounds.
MD: Did you spend time trying to get your drums to sound like the records?
Joey: I did. When I was a kid, I spent all of my time tuning drums and trying to figure out how it was done. And I would stare at pictures of guys’ drums in Modern Drummer to see what they were putting on the drumheads. [laughs]
MD: Why do you have a cloth hanging over the rim of the snare? Is that to soften the rimshot sound?
Joey: No, I don’t really play rimshots on that kit. That’s just where it sounds good. I’ve seen that used on Hal Blaine’s kit and in other photos. I’m being a little more extreme, but I remember in an early recording session the engineer came out and taped a piece of towel on the snare that way. I thought, Okay, I’ll keep doing that. That sounds good.
MD: So what is it about that dry sound that you dig so much?
Joey: I just like sounds that are tight and punchy. I like snares to be contained and not have too much sustain. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to too many Serge Gainsbourg records. When I’m listening to something and getting inspired by it, I end up wanting to explore that sound.
MD: What about the way you play the drums? You often use a light touch. Is that for tone, or is it just the way you naturally play?
Joey: I’m thinking of the sound and tone. I was never drawn to the hard-hitting thing. Even when I was in a rock band in my early twenties, the sound we ended up going for didn’t involve bashing the snare.
MD: What is it that you like about it?
Joey: There’s more control of the sound and the feel. I can’t think of too many tracks that have a really exciting groove where the drums are being smashed. John Bonham was such a big influence for me, and even though he was probably hitting the shit out of the drums, he played in such a nuanced way. It had a finesse that I was inspired by and could never shake.
The drumset is still an instrument, and there’s an art to playing it. So if you tune and play the drums right, you can control the sound through your touch. That’s the name of the game for me.
MD: I don’t hear a lot of “drummer stuff” in your playing. Is that a result of growing up in the studio [Joey’s father is the famed producer and record executive Lenny Waronker], or has it evolved over years of recording?
Joey: Some of it is growing up in it. But I was always obsessed with the drums, and I wanted to be in Led Zeppelin. Even as I got into different music, I still wanted to be the drummer. But I was one of the kids who wasn’t into Rush. I realized later that that music is great, and I love Neil Peart. But when I was a kid, I liked the Police and Stewart Copeland, and that was as far as I went on the “muso” tip.
When I started getting into playing with a band, recording was the thing that excited me. It started with experimenting with a four-track recorder and grew from there. I even wanted to stop playing live altogether and just focus on playing, producing, and writing in the studio, because that’s more fun for me. Then I realized the importance of performing. The two really feed each other.
But I’m just drawn to the studio, and I love to collect different sounds. I have a room filled with percussion, and it’s all set up in a way that it’s easy to record. I keep buying and making more instruments. I can’t stop myself. [laughs]
MD: What are you making?
Joey: It’s usually metal stuff. I love Harry Partch, so I’ll make contraptions that are inspired by his instruments. And I’ll put things in different kinds of containers to get various shaker sounds. I also got on a kick of buying ’60s Japanese drumkits, especially the ones with teardrop lugs that look like old Sonors. I found one that had an olive-green-swirl wrap. It was the ugliest, coolest thing I’d ever seen, and it sounded awesome, so I had to have it.
MD: How do you choose a kit for a particular project?
Joey: That’s my favorite part of the whole process. I just sit and listen to the music and experiment with ideas to create a specific sound palette. When I was a kid, I was exposed to a drummer named Steve Hodges. He worked with Tom Waits, but even if he was just playing blues in a club in L.A. he would have a crazy mishmash of sounds with a few pieces of metal or detuned timpani. I thought that was cool.
For the first Atoms for Peace tour, I just listened to The Eraser and thought of ways to reinterpret it for a live stage. I used my imagination and picked from the stuff that I had: various gadgets, Pete Engelhart metallic instruments that have springs attached, and other weird things. I did my best to represent specific sounds that are in the different songs, but I wanted a kit that I could use for everything.
Now I’m into the concert-tom thing. Maybe it’s boredom, but I wanted to see what I could get out of that. The sound reminds me of some of my musical references that have that junkyard vibe, like Captain Beefheart. It’s a good challenge to try to use a drumset to get that happening. They have to sound like drums, but how do you get them to be a little bit “off”?
MD: Do you bring a bit of that aesthetic when you’re called in to do a session for someone else?
Joey: Yeah, totally. Hence, I don’t get called to do sessions too much anymore. [laughs] But I like to bring something different. If someone’s calling me to record with them, I’ll let them lead. I have a great deal of respect for that type of playing, and I enjoy it immensely. But generally when people call me for a session these days, they want me to bring some special sauce to the recording that they haven’t thought of.
MD: What would be your top piece of advice for a drummer going into the studio as a producer for the first time?
Joey: Always rely on your strengths. Even though you’ve spent years honing a craft as a drummer, the tendency is to put all your energy into working on the big picture versus getting a great rhythm track, which is what you’re really good at. Don’t neglect your expertise. And don’t be intimidated by the process. Don’t think that just because you’re coming into something that’s slightly unknown, there’s really a right way of doing things. There’s going to be a learning curve, but just go with it. Reinvent the wheel if you need to, and don’t worry about it.
MD: Should they be studying records or just trying to figure it out on their own?
Joey: It’s good to listen, and I love picking apart records. So, yeah, this is your opportunity to study. But I say reinvent it. Don’t worry too much about how the Beatles got their sounds. Who cares? They got them by experimenting.
MD: What about the drummer who’s never recorded before? What would be the biggest advice for that person?
Joey: It’s really a game of experience. The worst thing is the lack of confidence you have when you go into that situation for the first time. You just have to make it as comfortable for yourself as you can. If something doesn’t sound right in your headphones, try to fix it. If engineers or producers are telling you to do things that you know are making you stiffen up or shut down creatively, try to figure out a way to step back and let them know that you have to do it a certain way in order to make it as good as it can be.
Joey: I think so. It took me at least ten years before I could go into a recording session and not be nervous. And if producers start getting tweaky, it’s usually because of their own insecurity. Now I’m hyper-aware of it. But that was really hard to get past when I didn’t really know what I was doing.
MD: Let’s shift over to Ultraísta. How did that project come about, and what was the intention behind it?
Joey: Nigel and I were hanging out all the time and working on different things, and we got into this conversation where we were telling each other to start a project. By the end of that, we planned to do something together. We went into the studio and just started throwing ideas around. It really started as rhythm tracks. Then we got to the point where we decided we should try to make these ideas into songs with a vocalist to give it more of a pop sensibility. We thought it would be a challenging left turn for us to try to do more normal song structures.
When we got in cahoots with Laura, we tried different things with the tracks we already had. Once we got through ten, we had the record. It was very deconstructive. We had these rhythm tracks that we would chop up, rework, and then add stuff on top of. It took a really long time, but finally a style was born, and we just followed it.
MD: What were those original sessions like?
Joey: I was playing mostly drums and Nigel was recording. We decided to stick with our specialties. Nigel and I knew that we worked really well with him recording me, so we figured here was an opportunity to do it without being directed by another artist. It was really creative, and we had about fifteen ideas together over the course of three days. Then we went back and added stuff. We didn’t go through the typical songwriting process. We were going for the sensibility that you don’t have to be James Taylor to make a great song.
Also, Nigel and I both grew up listening to a lot of Afrobeat, like Fela Kuti, as well as Adrian Sherwood, African Head Charge, and dub reggae, so we were excited to explore a more groove-oriented approach. We both love the idea of having musicians hit on one idea and do it over and over again, which seems like it should be irritating but actually ends up being really hypnotic.
MD: There’s a fine line between something that’s repetitive and annoying and something that puts you in a trance. You guys really hit that sweet spot.
Joey: Thanks! It’s so hard to do that. You can’t just take something and loop it. Things have to happen. That’s the trick.
MD: How much of the drum tracks were chopped up versus played continuously?
Joey: They’re usually pretty long chunks. The idea was to try to leave things as they were, so maybe we would grab a minute-long thing that was working the best and then layer everything else on top.
MD: How are you playing this stuff live? Are you playing to tracks, or are you manually firing the sounds?
Joey: There’s always at least one looped rhythmic element that we play along to. Those are triggered by me with an SPD-SX, and the entire show is run from Ableton Live in one computer. Nigel and Laura are playing virtual instruments with keyboards and controllers. The idea was to just show up with a computer and an audio interface and be able to go stereo-out of the interface into the PA. The vocals are going through Live, so Laura can use effects and loop them.
We wanted to be able to loop ourselves and trigger sounds on the fly and have it all synced, and we didn’t want to use tracks. If you’re playing to a track, there’s no way to extend sections. It just is what it is. We wanted to leave it open ended and see if we could take it to another place by actually playing all of the parts. With Live, as long as that one rhythmic element is looping, everything is usually fine.
MD: Does being responsible for triggering samples and loops affect the way you play the drums?
Joey: I can’t really dig in and play as much as I’d like to, but it’s actually better than I thought it would be. As we keep going it’ll get easier, and I’ll have triggers around the kit so that I’m not so locked into the SPD-SX pad.
MD: Did you design this kit especially for this band, or is it the kit you’ve been using on everything lately?
Joey: I’ve been obsessing on the concept of this concert-tom kit. It’s just the sound that I’m into right now. I’m using it with Beck, and parts of it will probably be the basis for the next Atoms for Peace setup. And I’ll use it with anyone else who will let me get away with it.
MD: What is it that you like about the sound of single-headed toms?
Joey: For some reason they’re speaking more in the track. They’re more in your face. I also have a Pearl fiberglass concert-tom kit, and that’s what’s on the Beck song “Chemtrails,” off Modern Guilt. I bought that kit as a joke because it looked ridiculous. The toms are huge, but they were so punchy. They sounded as loud as the vocals in the track.
MD: How do you have the concert toms tuned?
Joey: I tune them kind of low to get a round tone. They sound like the samples in the Linn drum machine; that’s probably what they used in the first place.
MD: Are there plans to play more shows with Ultraísta, since you had to cancel the first run?
Joey: Yeah, we’re going to make those up. We just don’t know when yet. Schedules are really crazy for a while, but we’ll see.
ALL TIME FAVES
Marvin Gaye What’s Going On (Chet Forest, Marvin Gaye) /// Talking Heads Remain in Light (Chris Frantz) /// Tom Waits Rain Dogs (Michael Blair, Mickey Curry, Stephen Hodges) /// Serge Gainsbourg Histoire de Melody Nelson (Dougie Wright) /// Scott Walker Scott 3, Scott 4 (uncredited) /// Béla Bartók Concerto for Orchestra /// Can Ege Bamyasi (Jaki Liebezeit) /// Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin III (John Bonham) /// Aphex Twin Drukqs /// Kraftwerk Ralf und Florian (Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider) /// David Bowie Lodger, Low, Scary Monsters (Dennis Davis) /// De La Soul 3 Feet High and Rising /// Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back /// Charles Mingus Mingus Ah Um (Dannie Richmond) /// Fela Kuti Expensive Shit (Tony Allen) /// Jorge Ben ??frica Brasil (Wilson das Neves, Mamão) /// Os Mutantes Os Mutantes (Dirceu) /// Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (Stephen Morris) /// Siouxsie and the Banshees Kaleidoscope (Budgie) /// Junior Murvin Police and Thieves (uncredited) /// The Congos Heart of the Congos (Sly Dunbar, Mikey “Boo” Richards) /// Love Forever Changes (Michael Stuart) /// Max Roach Drums Unlimited (Max Roach) /// Sly and the Family Stone Fresh (Andy Newmark) /// Miles Davis On the Corner (Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Billy Hart, Don Alias) /// Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band Clear Spot (Art Tripp)
8 Ultraísta Beats
Much of the music that appears on Ultraísta’s self-titled debut album originated with Joey Waronker jamming on the drumset. The result is a hypnotic, groove-oriented record that’s chock full of tasty beats. Here are some highlights.
This track features a tighter and more deliberate two-bar groove, and it’s in 3/4. The trick to getting that machinelike feel is keeping the dynamics of each limb as consistent as possible. (0:00)
This is the slinkiest and most syncopated beat on Ultraísta. Again, use a light touch and let the kick, snare, and hi-hat glide from bar to bar. (0:00)
Waronker uses heavily dampened single-headed toms to create a slick melodic motif at the start of this track. (0:00)
The driving groove that opens this tune features a sparse quarter-note hi-hat pattern, which leaves plenty of space for the 16th-note drum machine part that cycles underneath. Subtle ghost notes make the track sound extra-funky. (0:00)
Waronker lays back on the beat for this down-tempo, hypnotic groove. (0:03)
“Wash It Over”
This head-bobbing beat is all about the spaces between the notes. Make the bass drum 16ths swing and dance without sacrificing consistency. (0:07)
Joey’s Single-Headed Setup
Drums: C&C maple/poplar/maple
A. 5×14 Ludwig chrome-over-brass Supraphonic snare
B. 10″ Blaemire fiberglass concert tom
C. 12″ concert tom
D. 13″ concert tom
E. 16″ concert floor tom
F. 14×20 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 15″ Xist hi-hats
2. 22″ Xist crash
3. 24″ Joey Waronker signature ride
Heads: Remo Coated CS snare batter, Coated Ambassador tom batters, and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Hardware: DW, including 6000 series retro flush- base cymbal and hi-hat stands and 9000 series bass drum pedal
Percussion: Pete Engelhart Reco Reco
Sticks: Innovative Percussion Joey Waronker signature models, various brushes and mallets
Electronics: Native Instruments Machine