Gary James' Interview With One Of The Most Influential
And In-Demand Drummers In The World
He is one of the most famous and hardest working drummers in the Rock business today. The list of people he's worked with reads like a Who's Who in Rock 'n' Roll. We're talking John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Smashing Pumpkins, Sting, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash, Melissa Etheridge, Alice Cooper, Alanis Morissette, Goo Goo Dolls, Jock Cocker, Dave Grohl, Steven Tyler, B.B. King, Avril Lavigne, Elton John and Paul McCartney. He's played drums on the number one hits, "Jack And Diane", "Hurts So Good", "Pink Houses (Ain't That America)", and "Small Town" by John Mellencamp, "Blaze Of Glory" by Jon Bon Jovi, "I Will Do Anything For Love, But I Won't Do That" by Meat Loaf and "Heaven Is A Place On Earth by Belinda Carlisle. In all he's played on recordings that have over $300 million in sales, with more than 1,300 having been R.I.A.A. certified Gold, Platinum or Diamond and 60 that were Grammy nominees or winners! Rolling Stone magazine counts him as one of the "100 Greatest Drummers Of All Time." He remains one of the most in-demand 'live' and session drummers in the music business today. He calls Los Angeles home where he operates Uncommon Studios L.A. And if all that isn't enough, he's just written his autobiography; Sex, Drums, Rock 'n' Roll: The Hardest Hitting Man In Show Business (Backbeat Books) We are talking about the one, the only, Mr. Kenny Aronoff.
Q - Kenny, one thing that really jumps off the pages of your book is the enthusiasm you have for what you're doing. You genuinely liked the people you worked with.
A - Yeah.
Q - Sometimes it seems that you're almost too good for the people you're performing with. You read music. You've played with full orchestra. You've played with so many different artists. Not many Rock musicians can say that.
A - That's true. I've worked with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland, two of America's greatest composers in our time. I worked my way from not being a very good orchestral player, but after five years worked my way to the very top of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. It came from discipline and hard work. That's all there is to it. I pounded my way like a running back and made it happen. When I got in the Mellencamp band nobody in that band could read music. They made fun of me for having the skills I have. But, I wanted to defend myself back then. I was playing in clubs when I was 13, when I couldn't read music. I was playing in bars. I was doing what they did, but I just went on and did more. Not to say I'm better. I had that appetite to learn and grow. I took a lot of crap. I didn't tell people when I started getting into full-time when Rock 'n' Roll became my profession. I left that whole subject matter out about Classical music. But now that I'm at this point in my career, it was a journey to get to where I am. When I was doing sessions I could write charts out. I've got files and files of different sessions I did. In one week I played with The Bo Deans, John Fogerty and this band I have called Super Sonic Blues Machine. I couldn't do that if I couldn't read music. There just would not be enough time to memorize. So, the skills I learned from this orchestral training and the discipline, oh my God. There was no entitlement or hand-holding at Indiana University, the number one music school in the country at that time. They basically would wash you out. They had that reputation they only had the best musicians there. It's a very difficult school to get into and it's even harder to stay in there. They will wash you out. I had a teacher that crushed people. But that attitude and that training and really coming from a background where you worked your butt off to get something in life, and basically I'm just a happy guy, those were the tools that propelled me to always move forward. Always fall forward like a running back in football. The best running backs don't score touch downs every time, but they constantly, play by play, game by game, they're looking for that end zone. I'm sure people are laying in bed sometimes at four of five in the morning when the caffeine has rolled off and the dopamine and serotonin levels are low and you're thinking oh, my God. What am I doing? What do I do to myself when I get like that. I go, hey, chill out, man. You're going to be fine. Everything you execute you eventually get if you stay with it. It could take four or five years, but you will get what you want. If you really want something bad enough you will succeed. And even if you don't get to that exact goal, the journey getting there will bring you success in so many different ways.
Q - I saw Creedence back in 1972, in concert, at the Onondaga Country War Memorial in Syracuse, New York.
A - Oh, wow!
Q - Then I saw you on TV playing with John Fogerty. Doug Clfford never played the drums as hard as you play the drums. He had more of a swing to his style. Did John Fogerty ask you to really hit those drums hard?
A - Yeah. He told me not to sound like Doug Clifford. When I was recording with him I was the 30th drummer on an album he made, "Blue Moon Swamp". The 5th year I was the 30th drummer. He pointed to me after a couple of days and went, "You're the drummer I've been looking for my whole life." That's what he said. I went, "Are you kidding me" I was just doing what I do. He demands me to play hard. He loves it. I love those Creedence Clearwater records, a lot. I have more than he does. I think they're amazing. Everything about them was amazing. It's one of the blueprints of my childhood and America for that matter. The songs are all over movies still. They're everywhere. He said they never rocked the way he wanted. That band played the songs the best they could, but it was never the way he wanted it. He wanted it to rock much harder. So, he loves my energy. And to this day, he's 72 years old, if I'm like laying back even in sound check, he'll come up to me and say, "Hey Kenny, did you get enough sleep last night?" (laughs) I'm not kidding, man. I've seen criticism about me. In the book I put one of the worst reviews ever to make point. I was playing at the Hollywood Bowl maybe four years ago (2003). John wanted everything fast. Sometimes he just wants everything fast. Every night I have to watch him like a hawk. I have my own monitor mixer and everything to try and understand where his head's at, because it can change at any moment in the show. He might want a song faster. He's feeling it different. He's not hearing me. So I have to play on top of the beat. This guy kind of threw me under the bus, saying I wasn't playing like Doug Clifford, the tempos were on top, I didn't understand what Doug did. I was trying to make a point in that article, look, I've known John now for twenty-four years. You would think if I wasn't playing the way John wanted me to play he would've fired me by now. I listened. I learned. I lead, but I'm not the boss. John's the boss. John is in control. He knows what he wants. That's what I wanted to say, after all the reviews, I'm doing what John wants me do do. That's why I put that in there. It's just what it is.
Q - On page 48 of your book you talk about Ringo and Charlie Watts. Jagger tells you, "No Charlie, no Stones."
A - Yeah.
Q - Okay. I can understand what Jagger is saying. But if I was there I would've said, "Excuse me, Mick. No Brian Jones, no Rolling Stones."
A - (laughs) The reason why I said that specifically was I was recording at probably four in the morning. That was a crazy two weeks where I would rehearse with John Fogerty from 12 to 6, playing the Creedence songs for the first time in my twenty years. We're going on tour. From 7 to 11 I was doing a recording session with Roy Bittan of Springsteen and from midnight to 5 I was recording with The Stones. So, that's to start with. On the weekend I did Jon Bon Jovi's solo record. Jagger said that because we started this song and I was playing with Charlie and I was playing a gourd with a brush. It had a gourd with beads on it. It was sort of a clickety, clackety thing. I was trying to do this intro with me, Charlie playing hi-hat or it might've just been me and Mick playing acoustic guitar for the intro. That's when Mick said, "Don't get in the way of Charlie's hi-hat. It's got a vibe to it." I went, "No kidding." He was basically saying that Charlie was that important. That's why I put it in there. I wanted people to understand that just because he plays simple doesn't mean that his contribution isn't extremely valuable to the other musicians.
Q - That' right! That gets into the second part of the question. You used to hear people say that Ringo couldn't play drums. I've had several people say the same thing to me. I always counter by saying if you replace Ringo with a Keith Moon or Ginger Baker or Charlie Watts it would've been a different sound and band altogether. And more importantly, Ringo was left-handed.
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - He was playing the drum kit backwards, which helped give The Beatles' songs that unique sound.
A - Absolutely! Trust me, I had to play when we were honoring The Beatles on the CBS special The Night that Changed America, two years ago, celebrating their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show where 72 million people saw it in America. I had to play these parts and there were some parts that, like in the song, "Something", that triplet, two groups of three, I had to start it with my left hand on the tom-tom and go down to the floor-tom and hit the first crash cymbal with my left hand. That's a left-handed lead and then switch back to a right-handed lead. That was natural for Ringo. For me to do it I literally had to practice it at that tempo. You got Joe Walsh there who is extremely talented about tempo and memorizing. As a matter of fact, he said in rehearsal, "Kenny, it seems like it's a little laid back." So I had to make a decision. Do I bring the temp up or do I just play a little bit on top of the beat? I chose to play on top of the beat. It's natural when you play a slow song to kind of lay back because you're feeling this kind of laid back vibe. But Joe wanted it specifically on that tempo. My point it, I was so concerned about that, that when they did a set change between the artists, I just played with it. It might have been Stevie Wonder and then now to Joe Walsh, I was practicing that fill for ten minutes with a click track and practicing the count off so that when I got the cue from the stage manager to start, I just nailed it. A simple little fill like that to do right is not that easy. For Ringo it might've been much easier 'cause he was a lefty and it was just a normal thing for him.
Q - When you first heard "Hurts So Good" and "Jack And Dianne", did you realize that John Mellencamp was a good songwriter?
A - (laughs) Well, it was sure confirmed. It was a little bit of a learning curve when I first got in the band 'cause prior to getting into the band I was not a super fan of John's. He had one big song out I guess called "I Need A Lover". I was into Steely Dan, Earth, Wind And Fire, Foreigner, The Weather Report, Stevie Wonder. I thought these Pop songs that John is writing, I didn't think they were that great. There was that moment in the book when someone said, "John Mellencamp is looking for a drummer. He must be because he just fired his drummer last night." Suddenly I put the whole thing together. On, my God! Radio. MTV. Touring. Opening up to the kids. Oh, my God! That's my Beatles. I always wanted to be in The Beatles. I always wanted to be in a Rock band that was doing those kinds of things and there it is in the little town of Bloomington (Indiana). Then I got his record and started listening very carefully and then I started to understand what really makes The Stones and The Beatles, Creedence, amazing. The songs of course were the most important thing, but there's this energy and vibe and this unity of a band, the sum of all the parts making it magical. You almost can't describe. It's a lifestyle. They all as a group come together and show that. I suddenly started practicing to those records, six, eight hours a day, to understand the simplicity. The thing that really got me was the vibe, the energy. I could feel John's just absolute million percent commitment to what he what he was doing. When he wrote "Hurts So Good" and I started playing this beat left-handed, I was trying to learn what the purpose of a drummer is, for all these people I've recorded with, the purpose of a drummer for all those listening. Obviously keeping the beat and groove. The real purpose of a drummer in a band like that is to get their song on the radio and be number one. That is the ultimate purpose. That's just like working for Microsoft. The purpose of you getting hired by Microsoft is to make them billions of dollars. Well, in this case "Hurts So Good" and "Jack And Diane" became number one and number two hit singles. "Jack And Diane" was probably his biggest success. I made John millions and millions of dollars. That song is still played today and he gets his royalties. That's my job.
Q - Since you're a "name" drummer and in demand and you're playing on all of these artist's songs, can you get more than just a session fee? Can you demand and get points on a record?
A - That's one of the most delicate, tricky requests you could ever ask anybody, an artist or songwriter, because notoriously, especially coming out of the '60s, guys like Mellencamp, Fogerty; the standard record deal was really bad for an artist. You gave up...
Q - Everything.
A - You gave up everything. It was a standard contract. It wasn't like just for one guy. Nobody knew that records would sell back then. I think it was a ninety percent, ten percent deal where everything went to the record label and the manager, and then the band got the worst deal you could get on songwriting back then. You'd give up all your publishing, which means if you look at a piece of pie, the label, or whoever got your publishing, they got half the pie. You still got the other half because by law they couldn't take that. So any point is where the artists started realizing they were getting screwed, like Grand Funk selling out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles and those guys each got like $350 a piece. The manager took all of it. Those kinds of deals made artists and bands very, very defensive about giving up publishing and points. I was not in a band where I was a royalty sharer or a merchandise sharer. I was on salary. That was it. I knew and I had heard and I could tell that if you start talking about points with John Mellencamp you'd probably get fired because he'd gotten screwed in his eyes by his manager and his label and now he's not going to get screwed again. That's just the way it is. So, that's always a delicate subject. But there are some bands where they do share. I know U2 does. I know REM did. They split things. There are different combinations. Sometimes bands will split everything but the publishing. Let's say Bono and The Edge write a song. Well, they wrote the song. But the band splits everything else. And that's what keeps them unified. I even had this conversation with John once and he hung on me. That was it. I was trying to make the point that REM splits everything.
Q - Are you talking John Mellencamp or John Fogerty you had this conversation with?
A - John Mellencamp. John took three off unexpectedly at the peak of our career, the "Lonesome Jubilee" career. At the last show John throws me a bonus check and he said something like, "Don't spend it in one place. I'm quitting the music business for two years." Well, the way he said it was so believable, it was hard not to believe it. I said, "Oh, my God!" I'd just gotten divorced. I was only making a salary. It was not huge. So I figured I had about five months worth of money saved. I was pretty frugal with my money. Just divorced. Had a mortgage. Had a car payment. And he's taking two years off? Oh, my God. I immediately put two guys in my house and I went to L.A. where I built this session career where I was making more in one day than I was making in a whole week on tour with John Mellencamp. So, when he started calling us back together and I was booked, there was a little bit of head banging. I was going, "I can't make it this week." I took myself off retainer because it wasn't that much. I was making more in one day than my net dollars in retainer. If I were John I would've said why is he taking himself off retainer? What's the value in having Kenny in the band? We're going to have schedule conflicts. So, we started banging heads. I didn't get royalty sharing money. I saw an opportunity to make a living, and I saw that I was at the mercy of him deciding when we play, when we don't play. I'm going to take two months off. I'm going to take two years off. That was an awareness for me that you are your own man. You have to look after yourself 'cause nobody is looking after you.
Q - There have been guys in bands who've played drums and then made the move to get out front of the band. The two most celebrated examples of that are of course Ringo and Phil Collins. Have you ever thought of doing that?
A - Yeah. I am doing that. When I wrote my book I asked myself in the dark room of my office, wait a minute, how do I do this? The publisher wanted to know how many records I'd played on. It took me literally weeks and weeks of research and the best I can figure out, I've recorded on over three hundred million records sold, not individual. I'm on three records that sold forty million each. Celine Dion's records and Meatloaf, "Bat Out Of Hell Two". Another Meatloaf record, fifteen million there. If I had to explain to somebody how I did it, I came up with seven ways I believe a person can be successful in their life and career; the same seven ways that led me to an extraordinary career in one of the most difficult businesses in the world for four decades, the music business! Then I put together an inspirational, motivational show. It's called The Kenny Aronoff Experience: Seven Ways To Rock Your Life And Career. What that does is it puts me out front, literally for an hour, an hour and a half, all by myself. It starts off with a movie for about a minute and a half. I'm on stage and I start performing a Tony Iommi/Glenn Hughes song we wrote together. Then the movie continues and in the background we're playing. Then I step forward and start talking about these seven ways with some stories. I perform for entertainment purposes, do a Mellencamp medley, a session medley, and I end with a blazing song from the Believe It Big Band, purely as an encore. It puts me out front and I've rehearsed this thing. It's my own show. I love it. I think it's fantastic. It's almost like it was a natural progression for me to move forward and be up front. I would be talking in front of a million people or ten million people or a hundred people. I'm very comfortable in that place. That's kind of my own way of having my own band. I enjoy it a lot.
Q - Page 114 of your book you write about Nashville. "It's about playing and how you fit on the team." How you fit on the team I suppose is more important than your playing. If you don't get along with other musicians you could find yourself out of a job, couldn't you?
A - Oh, yeah. There are plenty of people who can replace you. Everybody is replaceable. I've heard, "You're not replaceable." Yes, I am. John Mellencamp did fine without me. It's not the same drummer. It's a whole different band, but they can move on. When I speak about those seven things, the fourth thing is team communication skills. It is so true that being a team player is why a producer will hire Don Was, who is one of my dearest friends who is in the book. He hired me in 1989 to play on an Iggy Pop record. I've worked with him ever since. He just called me up as I was about to do a presentation in California. I got a text, "Kenny, are you available January 2018 to do a Music Care to honor Fleetwood Mac?," which means I'll play with twenty artists, big artists. I went, "You know what? Hold on. I am available. I can do it." He said, "No joke. I want you to do October blah, blah blah in Nashville a Kenny Rogers tribute in a big 15,000 seat arena." Don hires me and other musicians that are team players that he can work with that will serve him. In my case Don and I work so well together I just called him that I may be on in New York City later this year and I thought it would be great if Don was there working with me because we work so well together. So yeah, the people hiring will put together people not just because they're great players, but because they are great people to have around them, onstage or in the studio to make the 'live' session or performance go better.
Q - Page 125 of your book, you talk about being on John Fogerty's tour bus. It had a bathroom but you could only pee on the bus. What if you had to do something else, would the driver pull into a rest stop along the highway?
A - That's a fact, Jack. (laughs)
Q - Kenny, I feel that down the road there should be a Part Two of this interview.
A - That would be awesome. There's three hundred pages that got cut out. I've done too many sessions. The thing I'm lucky about is there was a famous drummer from Rochester, New York, Steve Gadd. I always thought about Steve Gadd that it was cool he played on all kinds of people's records. He played all styles. When I was a little kid I enjoyed playing everything, Classical, Jazz, R&B, Country. I didn't care. Just playing drums was fun. People used to make fun of me. Eventually I got good enough at everything. Rock 'n' Roll was my expertise. How many musicians got to record with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Jr., Conway Twitty, George Jones! I could go on and on. Great, amazing artists, but then I'm playing with Tony Iommi of Sabbath, touring with Smashing Pumpkins, Alice Cooper, then I played with Ray Charles twice, played with Buddy Guy, recorded with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, the Blues people, Celine Dion, Buddy Rich Big Band. That's huge, man! You couldn't make that happen if you tried. Somehow, I did it.