I want to start off by saying that I don’t get “star struck” when I meet famous people. And I’ve met a bunch. Now, I do get super excited when I get to interview drummers because I know the gig to a large degree, and when I get to meet a drummer I admire, it tends to be because I love the music they’ve made or the bands they’ve played in.
Meeting Kenny Aronoff is something quite different for me. Not that I got starstruck. Because to meet Kenny is to meet a totally down to earth great guy who is super easy to talk shop with. But when you realize you’re talking with a guy who has played on over 500 records, the correct term is awestruck. And I love being in awe of other people. I love seeing the greatness of other human beings. And in the world of drumming, Kenny Aronoff is one of the greats.
But to have played on over 500 records and toured for countless numbers of years and played with literally the greatest artists in the history of music, you want to make sure that you really dig in. Because the lessons that come from a success story like Kenny Aronoff’s are lessons that apply far beyond the world of drums.
His story is not just about how to be a great drummer, but about how to live your passion and rise to the top of the game you play.
And if the soul of a great band is the drummer, then Kenny has lessons on how to be a fully spiritual entity, because he is able to bring that soul into an incredible number of different situations and still maintain the soul of a “band guy”.
And if you ever needed proof of the truly spiritual nature of music, go see Kenny on tour with John Fogerty touring behind his album Wrote A Song For Everyone, and you will realize that music might be the most powerful thread that holds us all together.
TheBestDrummerInTheWorld.com: Kenny, I imagine that if I said you’re a busy guy, that would be an understatement.
Kenny Aronoff: You don’t know one-tenth of it. I’m in the middle of writing a book, mixing a record while touring with John, and I’m getting ready to do the Kennedy Center Honors. This is my sixth year doing it. I’m doing Billy Joel and Santana, which is no big deal now as the gig day approaches, but when you get there it’s the most massive pressure you can imagine. You gotta read like a motherfucker. Playing with seven artists that can be anywhere from Sting to Steven Tyler to Dave Grohl and you gotta be able to read, re-write, read, re-write, read, re-write, all while you’re performing. You barely get a second to get into wardrobe.
I go home at night and re-write everything. And being the drummer, there is so much pressure on me because I’m the musical director’s right-hand guy as far as counting off and ending songs. And the President is there and half of Hollywood and there’s 14 cameras on you and you’ve got the best musicians in the country in that band and you can’t fuck up. And yet things will go wrong.
It’s like being on a football team in the Super Bowl. You have to come prepared and you know things will go wrong but you have to know how to adjust. You’re going on stage and you’ve got Sting coming up to you saying “can you do this in the last verse?”
There’s nothing casual about it at all. It’s like the Super Bowl. You gotta be cool and relaxed, but you just know it’s a high pressure gig.
TBDITW: Well, obviously you’ve got a lot of experience doing this kind of gig. Is there a secret to pulling it off?
KA: I’ve gotten really good at these through experience over the last few years. I did a Johnny Cash tribute that Don Was hired me for, which was about 20 artists. And then I did a Levon Helm tribute with another 20 artists. You know, you get to rehearse one time with people like Roger Waters or whoever, and then the day of the show comes and you hope they remember.
As the drummer, you gotta keep your eyes open, and I read everything because you can’t memorize that much material. It’s impossible. You’re learning it the day of the show. Six artists the day they’re going to film and record, and then you have others that you may have rehearsed with only once. Some of the songs I don’t even know how they go, but I have good instincts and I take notes, so as soon as I hear a couple of notes I go “oh yeah, its that song.” All your music is in order, and I get a script for the show and I just study it nonstop right up until the show.
TBDITW: How much prep time do you get before the show with scripts and stuff?
KA: About an hour and a half. And at that point I’ve been behind the kit for ten hours rehearsing. Like with a gig I did with the Dalai Lama, with musicians from all over the world.
And there’s other things that need to be worked on this whole time. Like monitors for example, I have to develop a very strong relationship with the monitor guy. He has to understand that if I don’t get what I need, this whole thing will shut down. I’m going to react to David Crosby and then the band is going to react to me. The band counts on me to lead them.
TBDITW: With all the different areas of experience and the list of so many artists, you always strike me as a “Band Guy”. How do you maintain that balance between the go-to guy for so many artists and a guy who comes across like a full-blown member?
KA: I love that. Well, I’ve been playing in bands since I was ten years old. It started with lessons. In my small town, there was a guy who I saw was getting better and I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was taking lessons from the percussionist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So I started doing that. And that dude ripped my ass apart. He was brutal. Had me in tears. And I made a decision that I either had to step up or walk away and that was a life changing moment. He taught me discipline. And so I went into the classical world.
When it came time to go to college, I ended up going to the University of Massachusetts and polished up on my reading to a point where I could get into Indiana University, which is one of the top three classical schools in the country. I did four more years there plus Aspen School of Music run by Julliard and Tanglewood run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When I got out of college I was offered two orchestral gigs, but I always was a band guy playing in clubs during summers, so I really walked down both roads.
When I got out of college I went back to my drum set full-time, and it was actually quite shocking to everyone I knew… that I shifted back to what I guess was my destiny and got into the Mellencamp band.
But those skills of writing and reading sheet music came back to help me when I became a session player, and doing TV and the things I do now, it really kicks in. I mean, if you can’t read, you can’t do the Kennedy Center Honors. You have to be an impeccable reader. You have to be able to read and take notes and shift gears, and at this point I’m great at it.
It’s really come full circle, because I’ll always be a band guy first.
TBDITW: Thats an amazing chain of events. I’m curious if you had that kind of a plan going in, where you had planned to be a session guy and acquired all these skills. Did you do college with the purpose of becoming a more well-rounded player?
KA: No, to be honest with you I didn’t have a big game plan. I mean, with what I know now, I would have really dove into the whole scene and prepared to get an audition for a big symphony gig. What I was really doing was developing a strong sense of discipline and a strong work ethic, but I didn’t have a plan. I mean, they didn’t even have a drum set teacher!
TBDITW: It’s very interesting that in the rock world, a lot of guys are self taught and here you come with this incredible level of discipline. Do you feel you had the foresight at the time to actively pursue that?
KA: Well, I don’t really want to take full credit for that. It’s really in my genes and it’s how I’m wired. I feel fortunate that I have good genes that allow me to just drive at something as hard as I can.
I mean, I never played a marimba until I was 18 and by the time I was 23 I won a concerto competition. I had seen Itzhak Perlman do this piece in my freshman year and I decided “I’m going to do that”, and you play violin music on marimba because they line up perfectly. So I was in a venue the size of the New York Met Opera House with a 60 piece orchestra. And when you hear that, what you hear is a young kid going for it so hard. It’s the same intensity as when I play drums. That’s my makeup. (Editors Note: You must check this out. Click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, click play on Indiana University Symphony Orchestra Senior Recital – Live (1976), and be blown away).
I think that intensity is what John (Mellencamp) saw in me. That attitude. When it came time to audition, they told me “just be familiar with the Johnny Cougar record and I Need A Lover,” and with that kind of discipline I memorized every drum lick on the whole album. I practiced 6-8 hours a day for that audition. That discipline made me be prepared and I won the audition. So it does pay off.
TBDITW: That orientation to a music career is extremely rare, especially with drummers and the reputation of the wild drummers like Moon.
KA: Yeah, because music is “supposed to be fun and cool” and “take it lightly” and you have that, but the discipline behind that is what allows it to happen. A lot of people think (not musicians, but fans) “oh, thats easy.” And with a lot of drummers, there’s no real idea of a long-term career. That’s why it’s such a compliment to recognize that I come across as a band guy, but not a lot of people understand the level of discipline it takes to make that happen.
End Part One: Next in Part Two – Jack and Diane, Iggy, John Fogerty, and Beyond