Joey Waronker: "I love REM, and it was immediately like stepping into a family”
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Joey Waronker (above left, pictured with Ultraista) may not be a household name, but you know his work. In fact, he’s probably scattered throughout your record collection.
He’s been Beck’s regular drummer for most of his career and played on almost every album since 1996’s Odelay. He took over REM’s drum stool after the departure of Bill Berry, and has worked with the likes of Elliot Smith, Johnny Cash, Air, Gnarls Barkey, Thurston Moore, Norah Jones, Bat for Lashes, Leonard Cohen and many more (‘Get Free’ by TheVines? That’s Waronker). Aside from his sideman duties he’s a fully paid up member of Thom Yorke’s non-Radiohead band Atoms for Peace, as well as his Krautrock-flavoured band Ultraista – with both bands also containing long-time Radiohead/Beck producer Nigel Godrich.
Waronker was here with Beck’s run of gigs for Harvest Festival, which included an epic two-hours-plus show at the State Theatre.
“That was the longest show we’ve ever done,” Waronker laughs.“And it was decided completely on the fly. Beck said he hadn’t been to Australia in a long time and it’s figured it’s going to end up being six or more years before he comes back, so let’s just do everything we know.’”
Six years seems like an awfully long break – isn’t there a new Beck album, due in 2013? Possibly two?
“Well, yeah – actually, we might be back in action this year. I might need a doppelganger, though. I might not be with him, but he’ll be doing it.”
It’s not a surprise that Waronker may have a full slate this year. One presumes that he and fellow multi-band session legends John Stanier (Tomahwak, The Mark of Cain, Helmet, Battles etc etc etc) and Josh Freese (Devo, Nine Inch Nails, A Perfect Circle, Weezer, the Vandals etc etc etc) are obliged to take separate flights lest one plane crash would pretty much decimate the entire music industry.
“Exactly – it might not be the worst thing, actually…” he laughs. “No more pop-rock! I’ve been waiting for it to leave, but it’s like a virus!”
Waronker grew up in the LA of the 80s, where pop-rock wasn’t really a thing as yet. As a teenager, there were basically two options: hardcore SST-influenced punk, or hair metal. “And that’s why I couldn’t wait to leave: I didn’t fit into either mould and I couldn’t wait to see what else was out there.”
It was a foregone conclusion that Waronker was going to have a life that revolved around music. For a start, his dad Lenny was president of Warner Bros. Records before moving to DreamWorks (now part of the Universal Group), while grandad Simon Waronker was a classical musician who co-founded Liberty Records in the 50s. Sister Anna was lead singer of 90s indie darlings That Dog, and it was through Anna that Joey met an up-and-coming LA artist named Beck Hansen.
“He was a friend of my sister’s, and she just said ‘oh, you should meet him.’ And I thought he was hilarious. We just started making jokes right away and just ended up being friends.”
And how did the REM stint come about?
“That was quite literally a bizarre phone call from a mysterious person with a southern accept saying ‘would you be available to come down to Athens, Georgia, and do some playing with REM? And please don’t mention this to anybody.’ ‘Cool, what are we doing?’ ‘We’d rather not say.’ It was really weird. And then this FedEx envelope arrived with this detailed itinerary. I guess I’d just been playing around a lot at that time, but I’m not exactly positive as to how that got out there.”
Well, people in the business of music do know who Joey Waronker is, and that he plays drums.
“Well, yeah. And I was just starting to have a little bit of recognition at that point. And I love those guys, and it was immediately like stepping into a family.”
After two albums and a couple of large-scale tours with REM Waronker bowed out, but he’s remaining impossibly in demand ever since. Thom Yorke was quick to rope him into Atoms for Peace, which Waronker is quick to make clear is a proper band and not just a Yorke solo project. Sort of.
“Well, creatively, there’s obviously a leader – I don’t feel like I’m totally equally there every step of the way,” he admits, “but it feels like being in a band. It’s really cool, I’m being acknowledged for it, and it’s really cool.”
Having this sort of a professional dancecard doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things, presumably?
“Fortunately the projects that I’m involved in, I think we have the power to do shorter tours. I’d feel slightly guilty for Ultraista if we were in a position to go ‘let’s go on tour for 18 months!’ but we’re definitely not there yet.”
It’s the one outlier in his project heavy schedule. After all, with Atoms for Peace or Beck there’s presumably a block of time that’s mapped out well in advance, but Ultraista is Waronker’s own band – and that’s a different kettle of rock.
“Yeah, but just to be completely honest though, if we were put in the position of ‘hey, go on tour, be a support and you have to slog it out,’ we’re just not gonna do it,” he laughs. “But stuff like that hasn’t come up, even. And Nigel’s in the band and he’s just as guilty as I am [about having endless other commitments]. Laura [Bettison, the third member of the band], I feel bad for her. I know she’d be game if that was to come up, but I think when people are asking us to do shows, and we can pull it off, we’ll do it. We’re about to do a couple shows in Europe and stuff, which is really cool.”
It must be frustrating for Laura, though, if the rest of her band are looking at their diaries and going “…OK, I think I have a Wednesday afternoon free in April 2015…”
“Well, it’s weird. Nigel and I met working together, obviously, on [Beck’s 1998 album] Mutations, and we became really good friends, so we’ll sit around and go ‘oh, nothing’s going on in two weeks – do you wanna come in and record?’ We just organically work it out. And when I was in Australia with Beck, he and Laura were working on stuff. So it’s great, I think it’ll just keep working that way.”
So did Ultraista emerge out of a project with Nigel, or was there an actual conversation where someone said “hey, let’s start a band!”?
“We were just palling around and having creative conversations, talking about how it’s cool to have friends you can work with and really talk about music – because that can be really annoying for other people – and then we were like ‘wait, we always like working together – why aren’t we trying to do a project?”
So it’s almost like being in a high school garage band again– everyone’s got other commitments, it’s not your professional job, so everyone’s just doing what they can as they can do it?
“Yes! It’s like ‘you like Led Zepplin? I like Led Zepplin!’ It’s that kind of thing. The magic trick is to make it work that way: like we’re friends in high school, and the sky’s the limit, it’s just for fun and there’s still that spirit, and you’re working really hard because you have something to prove and you wanna get better. And then you’re like ‘let’s make a video, why not? Let’s go to the electronics store and see what kind of silly lights they have!’”
The self-titled Ultraista album appeared in late 2012 and Atoms for Peace’s disc is appearing this year, as is at least one Beck album, but Waronker’s got another project coming up this year, along with his sculptor wife Lizzy: their first child. So how the hell is that going to work with everything else going on?
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’ll just do what I can. I mean, I feel like it always works out – and we may be fooling ourselves, but my wife is saying ‘as soon as it feels OK to travel, I’ll just travel: we’ll just bring the baby’. If it looks like it’s going to be that kind of year. I should really start taking some vitamins.”
At least they’re at least fairly portable at this age. “Do you have kids?”
No. At least, not as far as I’m aware.
“Well, my sisters have kids as does everyone around me, and everyone tells me: the first two years, maybe, you might be able to get away with it, it’s 50-50. If you have a colicky baby, you won’t be doing that.”
Well, given the genes this kid’s going to be working with, one assumes that it’s going to be fairly robust. “Yeah, it’s going to be like‘wah, we’ve been home too long – can we go on tour in Europe? I miss Paris!’It’ll be very interesting. I think it’ll be OK. I’ve been on tour with little kids, and actually it’s been great. I mean, we’re not sleeping anyway…” he laughs, shaking his head. “Oh man. This year’s going to be crazy…”
Image credit: Ebet Roberts via Getty.