Just a couple of days before the Swedish Midsommar, we talked with the drummer who recorded Brian Setzer’s “The Knife Feels Like Justice”, the one and only Kenny Aronoff. This man has been sitting on the drum throne behind John Fogerty for the last two decades. He first became famous by playing with John Mellencamp but after that, he has toured and recorded extensively with literally a countless number of artists in many different styles. The albums in which Kenny has participated up to date amount the unbelievable figure of 300 million copies sold, over 40 Grammy nominatios and I am pretty sure that there is no home without an album in which Kenny has not participated. His ethics, hard work and dedication had made Kenny Aronoff one of the most -if not the most- solicited and recorded drummers in history. We talked about his background, Brian Setzer, drums and a few more things in this, I hope very nice, interview.
Hello Kenny. First of all, I would like to thank you for taking your time for this interview. It is a real pleasure.
Oh, no problem. You are welcome.
I would like to start this interview by asking you a bit about your background and how you became interested in the drumset.
It all started when I was 11 years old and my mother called me and my brother to go inside the house and I tought I was in trouble. There was really nothing to watch on TV at that time so we were always outside playing. So, we went inside, sat around the black and white TV and it was the “Ed Sullivan Show”. On that show, there were four guys dressed in suits, long hair, singing “She Loves You” (yeah, yeah, yeah!) and I was flipped out and I asked my mom who these were and she said it was The Beatles. I asked my mom to call them because I wanted to play in The Beatles.
Of course she didn’t call The Beatles so I started my own band called The Alley Cats. All I could afford was the snare drum and a cymbal. I stood up and played Beatles music. I just kept playing in bands. But the coolest thing about this story is that 50 years later I played on the CBS special called “The Night That Changed America” which honoured The Beatles for that TV show and I got to play with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, the two remaining Beatles along with Stevie Wonder, Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh and many more. It was a dream come true that I actually got to play with the people who inspired me to play rock and roll.
When was it that you realized that you wanted to be a professional drummer or to make out your living out of playing the drums?
It was at a later stage. There was no business model where I grew up. There was nobody who tell me how to make it. I had no mentor. I grew up in a county of 3000 people. So playing rock and roll was fun and it was something that meant the most to me but again, I did not know how to make it. I did not live in New York or London or Los Angeles. In my family everybody has gone to university and when it was time for me to go to university I chose music as my major.
I started to studying with the percussionist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra because the BSO was near from where I lived back then. I learned how to read and write music as well as to play timpani, marimba, snare drum… When it was time to go to university I got into the University of Massachusetts and became a major in classical music. I started to play in different bands and I was a extremely hard worker and within a year I ended up transferring to the one best music schools in the world, if not the best, Indiana University. The largest music school in the world for sure, very competitive. I was not the best but I worked my way from the bottom to the top.
For four consecutive years I auditioned for the number one studio orchestra in the USA which was run by the BSO. The first year, I auditioned for Vic Firth, the timpanist of the BSO, and I failed miserably. Second year, I failed. Third year I failed again but finally the fourth year I got in and I got to work with some of the greatest orchestra conductors. When I graduated Indiana University, I eventually got in to the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Yes, Jerusalem in Israel. That was for sure a great accompishment to get in such an orchestra but I did not go. I decided I really wanted to do rock and roll, to be a professional drummer so that I spent four years practising and working hard and make it.
I finally got my big break with John Mellencamp and the rest is history. But eight years after, John quit and I had to figure out how to make out a living so I went out trying to be a session drummer and then I became one of the most recorded drummers ever in multiple styles of music. So I had two careers, basically.
Now that you mention John Mellencamp, how does a man in his 20s assume the challenge that it implies: recording, touring, stress? How does a musician prepare for that both mentally and physically?
To be great or to prepare at anything there is a technich that I call RPS, which is the Repetition of any skill is the Preparation for Success. We are not born to be successful, there is no magic pill, nobody can give you that. You have to work very hard for that and for a long time.
When I was at Indiana University my mother asked to my professor if I would make it in the music business and if I was talented or not and my professor replied by saying to my mother to ask him the very same question in ten years. Ten years from that day that she asked that question was the same month in which “American Fool” by John Mellencamp came out. You know, the record with “Jack and Diane” which was number one on the radio. Ten years later. That is how long it took, just even an oportunity to be on a record. I was practising and practising every day. I practised until midnight, until I was thrown out of the music school. I took lessons and played every summer in orchestras or in bands. Never stopping. Working on my reading and listening skills. It was and it still is a full commitment. If you don’t work hard and you are waiting for it to come to you, I am the guy who is going to come and take out what you are waiting for. I mean, not from you but if you are waiting and I am the one who is going to grab it. You make your success. It is as simple as that. You have to create a plan and execute it to reach your goal.
When did you start to record in the studio with many different artists? Was there any circumstance that made you think, “oh, if I want to contitnue playing drums, making out a living out of this, I have to start recording with other artists too”?
As I mentioned before, what happened was that John Mellencamp quit at the end of eight years, of which we spent two years cycles. We rehearsed and wrote songs, we arranged them for the album and of course we recorded the album. And then we did promotion, videos, interviews and toured for a year. Then we would take a month off and start the whole process again. We never stopped. But at that point John decided to quit. He had made a lot of money. I did not, I was a hired drummer anyway even though I had been in the band for all those years. John quit, he wanted a break and I did not expect it. I had just bought a new home, I had my child, the car… you know, all kinds of bills so that I thought, “well, I had been playing with one famous artist for a bunch of years, why not play with some more famous artists?” I went to Los Angeles to try to make it as a session drummer. It took me about a year to really be working a lot and I started then another career as a session drummer. I did not wait for people to call me. I went to Los Angeles and every session, every recording I did, I was always socializing, meeting people, making contacts and making everybody know that I was a session drummer.
Back then, there was a lot of money in the music business. People would buy records. Now people do not go to recording studios anymore because they can do it at home. Nobody is really buying records. The whole industry has changed. But I was there when there were loads of money, peolple would fly me all over the world just to record one song and yeah, I created this massive recording career. Not only I have recorded rock but I have also recorded country with people like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings. I played with BB King, recorded with Celine Dion. I became a session drummer for multiple styles of music which is rare, not just one style. That is very rare, that you get accepted once you are famous for one style, to play other styles.
Now that you mention recording different styles of music, is there any style that you prefer recording or playing?
You know, somebody asked me that question at some point when I recoreded with the heavy-rock band Cinderella; then with Hank Jr which is country and finally with the Buddy Rich Big Band, which is jazz. This all happened within a week. I really like it all but if I had to make a choice, if I really had to… I am going to chose rock and roll. But I love all of it, I really do.
How did you meet Brian Setzer or in other words, how were you approached?
The John Mellencamp co-producer Don Gehman said he was doing an album with Brian Setzer and wanted to know if I wanted to do it, so I accepted the offer. That is, if I am correct, the first album I ever recorded outside John Mellencamp Band. It happened at the One On One Studio in Los Angeles. I met Brian and we inmediately hit it off. We are both from the East Coast. I believe I totally was the right choice for his record because he was trying to break out from Stray Cats and create his own solo career. They flew me to Los Angeles and we have remained friends over the years. We have seen each other here and there and I have gone to see him to some of his shows. I just played with Jerry Lee Lewis at the “Viva Las Vegas Festival” and Stray Cats were there. We became friends since as far as 1985.
Before recording with him his debut solo album “The Knife Feels Like Justice”, what did you expect? Maybe a bit more leaning towards rockabilly?
I honestly did not know what to expect because I did not hear the songs until I got there and then I realised what he was doing. He was trying to make a rock record, not a rockabilly one. More of a radio-friendly style of songs. That was perfect for me.
When recording with Brian Setzer, how did you approach the songs? Did the producer, Don Gehman, or Brian already have some ideas of how they wanted you to play or you played the way you considered more suitable?
I played what I thought it was suitable and then, like any other session, I get feedback from the producer and from the artist but Brian Setzer pretty much liked what I was playing. There were, if I remember, a couple of suggestions from the producer but pretty much they liked the way I played on the album.
Was it a live recording?
Yes, it was, which was great.
Which drumset did you use on the recording?
It was a Tama Artstar 2, I cannot remember the snare drum. Zildjan cymbals and Remo drumheads.
Apart from the songs included on his album and a B-side, were there, or do you remember if there were, any more intended songs?
Unfortunatelly, I cannot remember that.
If I am correct, I would say I remember either reading or hearing an interview with Brian Setzer and he said he wanted to take you on tour. What made it impossible for you to not participate?
Oh, yes. He did want me on tour but I was touring with John Mellencamp so I could not do it.
Since Brian Setzer is best known for playing rockabilly, have you ever recorded any rockabilly or country album?
Yes, with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings. I have worked with Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I played live with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It is not rockabilly but traditional rock field. With Wanda Jackson I did play live once. I did a show, it was the Buddy Holly 50th Anniversary of the plane crash, and played rockabilly there with a bunch of different traditional rockabilly artists. I also recall recording an album in the 90s with Jesse Dayton.
Kenny, you have played and toured with countless artists. First of all, how do you choose your gear/equipment? When does a drummer in this case know when to use a particular size of hi-hat or floor tom or when to use a metal or wooden snare?
It all depends of course on the sound that you are looking for but I usually start nowadays by having a 24”x16” bass drum, 13”x12” and 10×8 rack toms plus “16”x16” and 18”x16” floor toms. Then I have 15” hi-hats, 18” crashes and even 19” or 20” when playing live and my signature snare drum which is 14”x5”.
I am about to go to Europe with my band Super Sonic Blues Machine, with Fabrizio Grossi on bass and Billy Gibbons on guitar and the gear that I use over in Europe is basically the same as I have just described.
My signature snare drum is inspired on the Ludwig Supraphonic 400 from 1962.
In the studio, I would change that configuration a little bit according to the needs. I might consider a 6 1/2” deep snare drum for the Super Sonic Blues Machine live, but maybe, we will see.
Note: for the non drummers here, the drum sizes are specified first, in diameter and secondly, in depth.
Talking about gear, I have a question concerning your rack tom display. I have noticed that you use the bigger rack tom as the main tom and thus, leaving the smaller rack tom as the secondary. Why?
Right, when I was with John Mellencamp I had a big drum set but he wanted a smaller one for the visual part. You know, the standard one rack tom and one floor tom. But after the hit “Jack and Diane” came out, I had this drum solo in the middle of the song. And when it came to live situations, I would have one rack tom and two floor toms but they sounded too low and not good at big arenas so the engineer asked if I had a smaller tom. I said that John did not want me to use two toms but then I asked him and it was OK for him so I had the 10” tom placed as the second tom because I wanted the 12” tom as the main one. I felt that the 10” tom was too small and I had it there, kind of apart in a snare stand. I would not really hit it that much but sure I added some extra colour and pitches. I do a couple of fills here and there with it but for me the most important toms are the main rack tom and the first floor tom.
My former drum teacher Jorge Cambareli has also a question concerning the setting of your snare drum. You have it tilted very much. Is it possible for you to play rimshots?
Every shot I do is a rimshot (Kenny mimics the way he plays). Every shot I do not want as a rimshot I have to work hard for it. I tried to make it flat but my natural way of playing does not work with that and I play from my belly bottom, from my stomach as if I was doing martial arts with both my hands and my legs, all coming from the centre. Even if I want to play soft, I play it the same way. That is why you see me moving all the time.
I thought you were dancing to the music!
Hah! No, it is just the way I have always played.
As I have just said, you have toured and recorded with a different artists. How are you able to cope with all the songs? How have your approach/way of learning songs through your 35 year -and still counting- career?
I write every single note out. I have learned how to write everything and that is why I can do so many gigs. I can walk with a hundred songs I have to perform because I write them out. I write the tempos, cues, pretty much everything (Kenny shows his iPad with an example of a fully detailed music chart).
Imagine a show I did, like the “Tribute to John Bohnam” (Led Zeppelin’s drummer), there were 20 different artists, you rehearse for three days but also the day that you are going to film it surrounded by 15-16 cameras recording. I cannot make any mistakes. So everything is written out. I can play with a click-track, I can play while reading and without sounding like I am reading but of course, that is a process that took over 25 years.
How do you get inspiration for new ideas? Is there something you can still learn? I mean, is there something you listen to and say “oh man, this is great! I have to learn this”? Is there any room for improvement.
I am like Tom Brady, the quarterback for New England Patriots. I am always willing and trying to learn new approaches to health and mental awareness, teamwork… I am always trying to get better. As a human being, I am always improving and it affects my playing.
With all the big names you have shared studio and stage with, is there any artist you would have like to record or go on tour with? I narrow the question here by limiting it to the time since you started playing drums professionally.
I think a cool band would be Sting, Jeff Beck and me.
Note: there is a small communication glitch so I am unsure of the name Sting, but in the recording it did sound like that to me.
Kenny, you have your very own studio called Uncommon Studios LA. What can you tell us about it?
It consists of two rooms. One of them is the drum room. You can check my website Uncommon Studios LA and you can see pretty much all the gear that is there.
People send me e-mails all the time to record with me. It is all very professional, very high end quality. I send them a detailed reply with all I need and all they need.
For some months now, you have also been hired by some companies to give motivational speeches. Where does that idea come from?
It started when I had my book “Sex, Drums, Rock & Roll” published. I started asking myself how I recorded on 300 million records sold, how I played on all these bands, how I do all that. So, I realized that it all come from seven steps, seven ways to be successful in your life and in your career. I came up with this huge and whole show with videos and I perform. Now I have a new speech called “The Teamwork Speech”. I have an agent and I spent now a lot of money creating the website, filming myself speaking for corporations. This has become now a huge passion for me, to speak and perform, to tell my story and to motivate people. I am working on that every day, learning a lot about myself, motivating people, improving… This is all very important for me. I am very excited about doing that as I am excited about recording and touring.
Since you are a super busy man touring and recording, I would like to know what do you enjoy doing when you are on a day off and not recording with other artists.
I have always lots of things to do. I am working with different projects now, like for instance Super Sonic Blues Machine. I have replied a few e-mails today, been on the phone with Billy Gibbons for almost an hour. I have been working out. It is endless and I can work until past midnight.
We have a few drummers that follow our page, myself included. Could you give us a few tips about what to practice and how to practice efficiently?
I have a thing called functional practising, which consists on creating your own practise routine, something that works for you. For example, the practice routine that I have consists on 20-30 minutes and it is a very precise technique that will make me sound great before going on stage, in this case with John Forgerty. There is no waste. I go over specific fills, grooves that I am going to use that particular night. I usually practice this three times a day. I do that in the car on the way to the soundcheck, I will do that when I arrive at the venue and do the souncheck. Then, before the show and before going to bed. Today I will do it twice because it is a day off.
Do you follow the current drumming scene? Are you aware of any new talents?
I do not follow it as much as I used to because I am involved in so may projects that I do not have the time for it. But if somebody tells me to listen to somebody I will try to, but I have made my life a bit complicated -in a good way- by taking on more and more. I am writing a second book, a documentary about me is going to be made… I do not have time to do as many interviews as I used to do anymore. I work very hard to make my life very full and it has become very full.
As a member of John Fogerty or John Mellencamp bands, just to name a couple, you have participated in different video-clips. Do you enjoy the experience of filming?
Yes, it is fine. I do not mind it at all. I am very used to it, I am used to cameras so it has become normal. It is not longer as exciting as it used to be and I do not mean this in a negative way but it is part of my job.
A few years ago, Al Pacino starred the film “Danny Collins”. I remember seeing you on the film for a few seconds. Have you ever participated in other films?
I was asked to be part of a film this year and I travelled to Toronto and I acted in one scene. Unfortunatelly, they have not got the budget to make the film but if they do, I will be on it.
You have written a book called “Sex, Drums, Rock N Roll”. I am not going to tell anything about it because I would like you to tell me about it. What is is about? What can the reader expect from it?
Well, the book is about a child in a small town of 3000 people who sees The Beatles on TV and tries to become successful in the music business. It started as a hobby and turned out to be his job, his life. This can be applied to any career, but it is also about how I worked very very hard to make it. How I had fear, feeling overwhelmed, insecure… Wodering if I was going to make it and how I overcame all that. The ups and downs. It is a real story about becoming successful.
What is interesting is that since I happened to record and tour with so many people, 300 pages were cut out of the book. That was initially a 600 page book! I got stories, so many big, huge stories that they did not even got in the book. Some of the stories will never happen again.
You know, I was rehearsing with John Fogerty from 12 to 6 and then from 7 to 11 I was recording with Bruce Springsteen’s keyboard player who was producing a record. Later, from 12 to 5 in the morning I was recording with the Rolling Stones and at the weekends I would be working with Bon Jovi. Then I go to Elton John or Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash… It was endless, crazy, private jets…. The rock & roll dream! The unique thing about it is that it has been going on for three decades. One thing is to become successful and another and different one, which is even more difficult, is to stay, to remain successful. That is what the book is about.
If you want to purchase the book “Sex, Drums, Rock & Roll” visit Kenny Aronoff’s Website Store.
You mentioned before that a you are working on a second book. When is it coming out?
I do not really know, I have not decided it yet but for sure it will not be out until I am 100% satisfied with it.
Finally Kenny, I have just a small batch of questions so that people can get to know you a bit better.
- Favourite food: I eat a healthy diet, I try to eat very healthy but I like peanut butter.
- Favourite drink: I don’t know if a favourite but sure the best, water.
- City or place: I do not think about it very much but I like living in Los Angeles
- Hobby: If it is not music it is sports. Either watching or playing. Also working out. I love sports.
- Way of transport: Private jet.
- Drummer: Too many but in rock and roll it will be John Bohnam. In jazz I will say Buddy Rich
- Snare drum: I have three signature models and my favourite is the 14”x5” with die-cast hoops on top, triple flanged hoops on the bottom, Evans Heavy Weigh head on the top and Evans Hazy 3000 on the bottom. But this model and the 14”x6½” are modelled after the Ludwig Supraphonic 400-1962 version. So, after these ones, the Ludwig Supraphonic would be my next favourite.
Kenny, thanks a lot for your time. It has been a real pleasure to have had this interview.
Thank you too, it has been a very good interview and I have really enjoyed. Thanks again.
Photo: courtesy of Kenny Aronoff