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Joe Dwyer, Owner and Founder of Warlock Drums

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the the 2014 Spring/Summer issue of JCI Magazine.

Crafted in JC’s Village, Joe Dwyer’s custom Warlock Drums are now known coast-to-coast.

Joe Dwyer wanted drums from the age of nine. “I kept telling my mother and father, ‘I want to play drums, I want to play drums. And for Christmas they bought me a flute.’”

Little Joe was undaunted: he took the flute apart and used the pieces as drumsticks.

It was the mid 1960s and life had rhythm. Music was in the air in the Village section of Jersey City – if you didn’t play an instrument, your buddy probably did.

Nearly a half century later, Joe Dwyer runs Warlock Drums out of that same neighborhood, and why not? His family had been there since the late 1800s; his grandfather owned Zampella’s Clothing Store on Newark Avenue.

And the beat goes on.

Drum Styles and Finishes

Joe Sees a Sign

Joe grew up listening to records by all the jazz greats—especially Buddy Rich. By age 10, he was taking drum lessons every Saturday at Dick Allen’s School of Music at Newark and Third. By 16 he was giving the lessons there.

In the 1970s, Joe was a student at the old Jersey Academy high school. There was no school band so he further honed his drumming skills—jazz and hard rock—playing alongside friends in local bands with names such as Renee and Taylor.

After graduation, Joe headed to New Jersey City University (then known as Jersey City State) as a science major. “I had aspirations of becoming a surgeon,” he says.

Soon Joe had a degree but no band. His former singer, who had artistic talent, suggested starting a sign-making business. “We got $10 together,” Joe recalls, “and bought a can of paint and a brush.” In 1981, Dwyer bought a condemned building at 369 Third Street to serve as headquarters for the Unicorn Sign Company.

Unfortunately, the business didn't leave much time for drums. “It was either music or business,” says Dwyer, “and I decided to build a business.”

[caption id="attachment_67118" align="alignnone" width="600"]Joe's son Joseph Dwyer Jr Joe's son Joseph Dwyer Jr[/caption]

Family Matters

After a successful 10-year run, in 1988, Dwyer sold the company and entered the financial-services industry. Around the same time, he married his childhood friend, Renee (no connection to his earlier band!). (Her family has been in Jersey City since the Civil War.) Soon enough, the happy couple had three children of their own: Diandra, Joseph, and William.

When Dwyer grew tired of mutual funds and insurance, he looked toward an earlier interest for another new career. “Science was a passion my whole life,” he says. And for the past 15 years, he has taught middle-school science, first at School No. 8, then at No. 7, and currently at No. 27.

Early on—especially with his growing family—Dwyer’s school salary wasn’t quite cutting it. “When you start as a teacher, you’re broke,” he states, “I had to supplement it.”

So he continued to run the construction company he’d begun, B&R Builders. (Who were B&R? “Nobody!” Joe laughs. “I made it up.”) He also started a commercial painting firm, Hudson Bay Restorations. Each company was based at 369 Third Street.

In the 2000s, the building also became home to the Mary Benson Gallery, run by Renee. The popular art space was named for the late-19th-century philanthropist whose name also graces the nearby Mary Benson Park. Not every gallery visitor was aware of that history. “For the longest time, people called my wife Mary Benson!” Joe says. (Renee’s gallery still participates in the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour every year.)

[caption id="attachment_67114" align="alignnone" width="600"]Joe testing out a finished drum kit Joe Dwyer testing out a finished drum kit built by Warlock Drums[/caption]

Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Music crept back into Joe’s life while performing his dad duties. His then teenage daughter Diandra wanted to go to concerts, so Joe took her to Ozzfest, the metal-themed tour organized by Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. “I’m sitting there watching all these bands, one after another, and I got the bug again,” Dwyer says. “Man, I could play like these guys!”

When he got home that night, Joe dug out his old drum kit. He wanted to add a couple of pieces to the set, so Joe headed to a “big box” music store where he was really disappointed with the quality of modern drums. He remembers telling Renee, “I know how to work with wood. I’m going to figure out how to build drums.”

With son Joseph’s help, they got to work in—you guessed it—the back room of 369 Third Street. For three years, Dwyer wasn’t satisfied with anything they made. It was a meticulous process, chasing that perfect sound: finding that ideal maple, examining grains, precisely lining up wood, sanding, sealing, and lacquering for a high-gloss finish.

Finally, in 2006, Dwyer was pleased with his product and Warlock Drums was officially launched. Renee designed the logo, with help from friend Tim Tuohy (formerly of Marvel Comics). As for reaching potential customers, it certainly didn’t hurt for the company to be located in the back of a busy art gallery. “Sometimes they’d be more interested in the drums than the art,” Dwyer says. “They thought it was fascinating that someone could actually build an instrument.”

One of the intrigued gallery-goers was Adam Peterson of the Jersey City Tattoo Company. Peterson became Warlock’s first customer, purchasing a snare drum. And word of mouth began to spread.

Another customer, Winard Harper, combined a couple of Dwyer’s worlds—Joe taught science to Harper’s son. A Jersey City resident, Harper is a top jazz drummer having played behind greats such as Dexter Gordon and Betty Carter. Harper has taken Warlock drums around the world, including on national tour by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis (yes, of that Marsalis family).

Another enthusiastic customer turned out to be a writer for Modern Drummer, a well-regarded national magazine. Soon after, an entire Warlock drumkit was on its way to the publication’s offices, and a full-page review appeared in the magazine’s August 2013 issue. “Setting out to capture the tone coveted in the jazz world with the size and power of rock drums is no easy feat,” wrote the reviewer. “The fascinating conclusion about Warlock drums is that they actually do live right in the middle of those two options. They’re big and rocking, yet they possess an impressively wide tonal range at any dynamic level.”

[caption id="attachment_67119" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sampling of different types of drum finishes offered by Warlock Drums[/caption]

Ready for Their Close-Up

The positive publicity has definitely benefited Warlock Drums, and company growth is underway. In addition to the professional-level drums that Warlock already offers, this summer they are launching the Voodoo series for intermediates and beginners, with a price tag 40-50% below Warlock’s professional drums. In the fall, Warlock will release the EV series—“extreme vintage”—recreating classic drums but using today’s higher quality woods. If business continues to expand, Warlock will purchase another building to house a regular production facility. But that doesn’t mean their process will change. “I would never do mass production, never,” Dwyer insists. “We build them by hand, and that’s how it’s going to stay.”

Warlock also plans to exhibit at the 2015 NAMM Show in Anaheim—the National Association of Music Merchants. This massive convention draws about 95,000 attendees and more than 1,200 members of the media. “That will really put us on the map—our world debut,” Dwyer says. “Now we’re with the big boys.”

That should give Dwyer more opportunities to rub elbows with the biggest names in drums, which has already started happening since the Modern Drummer review came out. Perhaps the most notable is legendary rock drummer Carmine Appice, best known for playing with Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, and Rod Stewart. Dwyer was thrilled that Appice wanted to buy a snare drum from Warlock.

“I told him, ‘I saw you play at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City with Cactus [Appice’s early-’70s band]. I’m honored to build a drum for you; you’ve been one of my drumming idols since I was a kid,’” Dwyer reflects. “And if that’s all that ever came out of it, to say you were able to do something for one of your childhood idols, I think that’s pretty cool. That’s success.”

Warlock Drums is located at 369 Third Street and can be reached at 201.779.5893. For more information visit them online at warlock drums.com

Photos by Steve Gold

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