You may not know his name but I can bet that you have heard the man play drums. Remember that drum beat in John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane”? That’s Kenny Aronoff. In fact, he played with the Indiana rocker for over fifteen years. He has played behind Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, Melissa Etheridge, Stevie Nicks, Elton John, Santana, Ray Charles, Jon Bon Jovi; the list is endless. How in the world does one man accomplish so much?
Well, I decided to try and find out. But catching him when he was not playing drums for somebody was not an easy thing to do. The man is just a beast, he never stops, and he loves to stay busy. He recently finished working with John Fogerty and will be doing some touring with Chickenfoot while Chad Smith keeps his obligations to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a massive tour.
So it’s a Saturday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, and Aronoff has found a window of time to talk with me. Except his cell phone is causing havoc and he is trying to find the perfect spot for me to hear him clearly. We could talk on the landline phone but he doesn’t remember the number because he is so rarely at home. But it eventually all works out and Aronoff is able to tell us all about his life as the Mozart of drummers.
Did you say Mozart? Wow that is a big compliment.
Well, you are. You were like a child prodigy, you’ve played on hundreds of albums, you have a scholarship named after you at Indiana University. It’s amazing what you have accomplished.
I don’t think I’m a prodigy. I just look at myself as somebody that just took what talent I had and worked my ass off for my entire life. And still am working my ass off. To me, the key to success at anything, and it just came to me from just observing what I’ve done my entire life, is three things:
One is hard work; continuous hard work for your entire life or for as long as you want to be a player in whatever field you’re in. Hard work is like a vehicle of transportation to get you where you want in this life. And the people that work their asses off are going to go further. I’m not saying that guarantees fame or anything like that, it just gets you where you got to go. I don’t care if you’re a musician, a businessman, a doctor, a schoolteacher, even a parent trying to raise a family; it’s hard work whatever you love doing, or want to do, or are doing.
The second thing is passion, which is what fuels the hard work. If you love what you do, whether it’s raising kids or being a doctor or anything, that fuels the ability to work hard, which is a given. So passion is an important thing.
The third thing is education, which is constantly learning and relearning and just getting better and better and always learning new things to help you grow and get better at what you do. You apply those three things together and you’re going to have a better chance of success than if not. So I wouldn’t call myself a prodigy. I think the greatest thing is my ability to work hard and the passion I have towards what I do. I can’t even take credit for anything but hard work cause hard work I chose to do and choose to do. I didn’t create me, you know what I mean (laughs), I’m just fortunate that I had that hard work drive and I plan to keep doing it.
But you were really young when you started playing drums.
Yeah, I was like ten but I was just doing it for fun. Kids nowadays are starting really young, like at two or three years old. I get these emails from kids who started when they were two years old. Back then I was young, I don’t want to say how young (laughs), but rock & roll was just starting off so the drumming thing was more of a jazz thing back then. It wasn’t as popular, it wasn’t a business like it is now. When I was a kid it started to become this big business, so all of a sudden kids, music stores and everything started flourishing and it just took off, this whole industry took off. So all of a sudden you can be in a band, you can have a drum set, you can have an electric guitar and people started buying those things and it was supply and demand. Stores offered it, kids bought it.
Where did you grow up and how did you get started with the drums?
I grew up in the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in New England. It’s kind of a unique setting where there were a lot of people, like three thousand people, but there were a lot of arts and a lot of support for the arts. Like the Boston Symphony Orchestra would be up there in the summer doing a summer festival: potters and painters and sculpters. I think Daniel Chester French, the guy who did the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, he came to my area at one point to go to Norman Rockwell’s house. It was just nothing to us.
Next door to me lived Norman Mailer who was one of the great novelists and historians and writers. Retired actors and actresses, Arthur Penn, the movie director of Little Big Man and Bonnie & Clyde, they had a house up there. Bill Gibson, the writer of The Miracle Worker, he lived up there. Sigmund Freud’s protégé lived there and manned a very prestigious hospital there for people like Judy Garland who had a lot of money and needed a place to go to detox. I could go on and on and on. Jacob’s Pillow, a great ballet and if you’re anybody you danced with Jacob’s Pillow. So there was that entire environment and that was the environment where creativity was really, really accepted and supported.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, they had all different levels of educational programs. I eventually, after four years of auditioning got accepted to the older orchestra; there’s a youth orchestra and this was the highest level orchestra and I got in. I was one of the seven percussionists to get in to that program where I worked with Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Arthur Fiedler, and we studied with the people from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was really, really highly competitive and a very, very challenging music camp in the summer.
So I grew up in this area and what got me started was when I was a little kid in second grade and every year when I was young they’d have a marching band come to town and play on Memorial Day for the veterans. And they would march and when that drum line would start, I completely gravitated toward that. I was hyper with a lot of energy and I gravitated towards sports and I gravitated to high energy things. So the natural instrument to gravitate toward would be drums, mostly because it commands energy. I mean, if I saw a pianist playing like I remember seeing Ray Charles as a kid, yeah, I was excited and I’d gravitate towards that, but drumming was one hundred percent energy.
My mom and dad were big jazz lovers and my mom was teaching us piano and I rebelled against it. It wasn’t exciting enough for me. They wanted to get you into the music program. My teacher was a music education teacher so he knew the benefits of teaching you how to read, movements, drumming on a pad. But when I saw A Hard Day’s Night when the Beatles hit the USA it moved you (laughs). That was it, I wanted to be in a band and a week later I had a band. And all I owned was a snare drum and a cymbal on a stand. That was it. I had to play standing up cause my parents didn’t have the money to buy me a drum set and they weren’t going to go buy a drum set for this kid that this might be a hobby. So I started gardening and working to save up money for different pieces of the drum set. On my birthdays and Christmas, I’d get another piece. It was a slow-building thing.
By the time I was eighteen I was studying pretty heavily with a percussionist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, just classical music; he’d give me some drum set exercises and I was practicing my Senior year and the summer before my Freshman year in college, nine hours a day and I was playing three, five nights a week in a jazz trio.
Was that the first band you were in? It was jazz?
No, the first band I did was called the Alley Cats and that was when I was in fifth grade so I was like eleven years old. We were playing Beatles, Beach Boys and whatever else was on the radio.
So who would you say is your biggest influence as a drummer?
Everybody. But as a kid one of the biggest influences was Mitch Mitchell from Jimi Hendrix’s band. That really turned my head. He combined jazz and rock together. He put those two things together, which is kind of where I was coming from.
Tell me about playing with John Mellencamp?
I was twenty-seven and I was just a struggling musician and I get in that band and two years later we have the album of the year. And the journey in that band was so intense. It was not an easy run. I mean, I almost at one point lost my job because I was new in the band. I was only there for five weeks, we had to start a record and things weren’t gelling so the producer wanted to get the record done fast. He saw things weren’t gelling and he brought in session guys which John didn’t like but at that moment I could easily have been out of the band. I wasn’t in the band long enough to make an impression.
On that record [Nothing Matters And What If It Did] I didn’t play drums, I played percussion. I went on tour and the next record was American Fool with “Jack & Diane” which is still being played on the radio now and that’s thirty years later. And it features drums on “Hurts So Good”. The drums were loud, the song starts with drums and they’re really loud in the mix and I could go on and on. But so many things changed my life because of that band. We went from playing clubs to selling out multiple nights in arenas with no opening act, doing three hour shows, and flying on private jets (laughs), it happened fast.
How did you get hooked up with Mellencamp in the first place?
I went to school at Indiana University for four years and studied classical music. Went home after that at age 22 and studied for a year, practicing eight or nine hours a day, studying with a drum teacher in Boston, studying with a drum teacher in New York, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I turned down two orchestral gigs, one for Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, one for the Quito Ecuador Symphony Orchestra. The fact that I turned them down, cause wasn’t that what I trained for? But I ended up basically saying no to the orchestral gigs partly because I didn’t want to leave the country; the other part was if I was really passionate about being in an orchestra I would have gone anyway. What was happening was I didn’t realize that my passion was playing drums and that whole lifestyle suited me better. And my parents and everybody were like, you did all that work training and now you want to go back to Indiana and play in a club? Or play in a rock band? They had spent a lot of money on my education so it was kind of a little bit like, jeez (laughs).
Anyway, I went to Indiana and I played in a band for three years and after three years I decided to move to New York and that’s when this guy Johnny Cougar was looking for a drummer. Somebody told me about it and I was literally on my way out of Bloomington to fly to LA for an audition. It was two weeks before moving to New York and I hear about this Johnny Cougar wanting a new drummer. You know what, I used to make fun of his music, but I went cause this is back to the original plan and goal, I wanted to be in the Beatles, I wanted to do this sort of thing. I went, man, he’s on the radio, he’s touring, he’s making records, this has always been my dream. I just took seven years of a break trying to be an orchestral guy; I thought that was the thing to do but it’s not. So I went, yeah, I want this gig bad. So I started practicing sixteen hours a day, memorized the record, and John Mellencamp had asked who were the best drummers in town cause he wanted to get a guy that lived in Bloomington so everyone recommended me to audition. I was the first one to audition and I got the gig.
Were you nervous at all about it?
Once again it’s preparation and it’s hard work. Hard work always saved my ass, whether it was sports, academics, anything, studying for a driver’s test, anything.
Is Mellencamp a perfectionist?
Oh yeah, big time
Who would you say has been the most challenging performer to play behind?
Well, he’s one of them (laughs) and Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins when I toured with the Pumpkins because he made it difficult for himself and everybody else. He would change the setlist around thirty minutes before the show, purposely, that was his style, and that made it difficult for everybody. The guitar tuners would be scrambling to tune guitars, I had to run around and try to see what these changes were. I mean, it’s cool but he put everybody on edge and when things didn’t go great he got really bummed out and he was setting himself up for things to go wrong. That was what the challenge was. Every night after every show, I would go back to my hotel room and rewrite all the charts and try to relearn everything so that the next time we would play those songs I would play them the way we had just done it, because he’d do things differently every time. That made it very challenging.
Who would you say gave you the most freedom as a drummer to improvise?
Melissa Etheridge and definitely now Chickenfoot. They encourage me to improvise, to the point where they want me to improvise more than I would normally think was acceptable, but they like it. The Chickenfoot gig is the gig that everybody has wanted to have. Everybody gets along, it’s a love fest, everybody has been successful in their own right doing their own thing so everybody is in a good head place. That’s why when Chad Smith couldn’t do the tour, they were very, very cautious on who they got. Sammy called me up and said, “Listen, I’m telling you, I know that you can play the gig and there’s a lot of drummers that can play the gig, but I’m looking for somebody who is going to fit in the way personality-wise that reflects the way you play your music” and it worked out. We got together, we met, we played and it worked out.
You know, I just don’t know how you do it. Reading over everything you have done, all the albums you have played on, all the tours, how in the world do you keep up with the popularity and demand of your drum set?
Yeah, that’s the challenge. You’re working eighteen hour days. You’re just non-stop, that’s the thing, and it’s tough.
Any plans to slow down?
I don’t have any plans but realistically at some point you’re going to have to. It’s crazy, it’s in my gut to never say no. I actually said no to a gig on the 29th and 30th, last night and the night before, because I was flying in on the 28th late from Massachusetts being with my mom for Christmas.
By the way, I worked like the 21st, 22nd, 23rd making two records on the east coast before Christmas. I scheduled it that way so it’d be like an hour and a half from my mom’s house. Then I had four days of Christmas with my mom, and I lost my dad last year, so I really wanted to focus on her. So that’s what we did.
Then I had to fly back to California learning songs cause I have a show on the 4th for a new movie that is coming out with Dennis Quaid. He has a new movie coming out and this is a premier for it and I’m playing like nine songs with Bruce Willis and Dennis Quaid and all these people. So I had to learn all these songs; plus I had to learn ten other songs for another thing on January 28th plus I have to get ready for Chickenfoot. And then I’ve got also twenty-five songs to learn for a corporate thing I’m doing on the 24th with the bass player from Jane’s Addiction and a couple other monster players. So I have all this material to be learning.
I’m just showing you how crazy I am (laughs). I once flew from London just to play in a club in Bloomington, Indiana. I changed my flight just so I could get back in time to play in a club.
But if you love to do it, do it while you can. Life is short.
Fuck yeah it is
Tell me about your tattoo. It is very interesting.
The tattoo was based off a design that me and a guy came up with for my signature snare drums. It was a limited edition and it had these snake bodies weaving within each other and they end up with dragon heads. And in between the dragon heads would be the name of my snare drums, which is on my actual snare drum. For the tattoo on my arm, the dragon heads come together and in between is the letter A and through the A is the word uncommon; uncommon being the uniqueness of not marching in the normal steps of society. And I’m saying follow your own path in life and it doesn’t matter if you’re alone on that path. The A is not just for Aronoff but it’s for excellence, A is the top of the mountain. Inside the bodies of the snakes are the words truth and honor, which is the way I try to live my life.
That is a great philosophy.
Yeah, that ties from the snare drum into my beliefs into my arm and then the website has stuff. In my studio, it’s going to have a related thing too. It’s kind of like branding, the same sort of thing.
I haven’t worked the nerve up to get a tattoo yet.
I waited till I was in my fifties.
I just didn’t have time (laughs). I couldn’t be bothered. I mean, a long time ago John Mellencamp opened up a tattoo parlor and demanded all of us get tattoos and I was in line and I didn’t know what to get and I wouldn’t have even known what to get. I was too irresponsible, not irresponsible, but it didn’t have any meaning to me. So thank God the tattoo artist was an alcoholic/heroin addict and he passed out right before it was my turn (laughs)
That is too funny (laughs)
Oh yeah, my stories, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I could write a book.
Can you tell me about one of your most memorable moments on stage?
Oh man, too many of those but here is a memorable moment that was different and unique and that was playing for the Obama inauguration. That was definitely a trip playing an historical moment like that and playing for President Obama. I played with everybody, 24 different artists, from Beyonce, Mary J Blige to Will.i.am to Stevie Wonder to John Mellencamp, Josh Groban, it goes on to James Taylor. The variety was insane. That was a big musical moment.
Also playing the concerto. You can hear a piece of that on my website if you go to audio and video. You’ll see a picture of me in like a blue tuxedo with long hair, doesn’t even look like me (laughs). It was when I was a kid. I was playing a concerto with like a sixty piece orchestra and it was a violin concerto that I played on marimba, so it was pretty wild. You can read the marimba and it’s the same notation as the violin, it’s the same cleft. It’s strange, you’re looking at middle C as middle C. You don’t even have to adapt it to it. You can just play it straight out. You just read it. I spent a year on that piece. By the time I was 22, I’d won a concerto competition and was a guest soloist in an opera hall the size of the New York Met with a 60 piece orchestra. That was like no fucking around. But that’s Indiana University. So that was an outstanding moment.
There were a lot of them: Playing in front of a million people with John Fogerty at the Lincoln Memorial at the millennium; playing with the Smashing Pumpkins in front of like 250,000 people at some big grandiose concert. There’s so many of them it’s ridiculous.
What would you say is your favorite album that you have played on?
These are all tough questions cause there’s too many of them; too many great albums and moments. A lot of the Mellencamp ones are great because those are my compositions as far as coming up with drum parts that were unique, where the drums were actually significant like “Jack & Diane”. That was huge. It was a drum composition I had to come up with on the spot, at the moment: very challenging. It’s too many records to pinpoint to just one. It’s not possible.
Join us next week for an exciting and fun interview with Def Leppard’s guitar player Phil Collen, who talks about his youth, his music and his current project – his band Manraze.