As a member of John Mellencamp's band from the early '80s through the mid-'90s, drummer Kenny Aronoff's swift, inventive playing style drove a string of radio-friendly hits such as Jack And Diane, Pink Houses, Hurts So Good and Crumblin' Down to the top of the charts.
Since leaving Mellencamp under less-than-amicable circumstances, the 57-year-old powerhouse, who started out playing rock but studied classical, jazz and fusion, only to walk away from a promising career as a symphony orchestra percussionist to, in his words, "follow my heart into the world of rock 'n' roll," has become one of the most in-demand sticksman around.
Just a casual glance at his resume boasts names like Bob Seger, Melissa Ethridge, Elton John, Santana, Mick Jagger, Avril Lavigne, Joe Cocker, The Smashing Pumpkins, Puddle Of Mudd, Jon Bon Jovi...You get the picture: the guy's got the goods.
"I don't know if there's any one reason why I get the calls," Aronoff explains. "Part of it is listening to the music and hearing what it needs. I think the biggest thing is having the patience and the discipline to serve the artist, to go on their journey. A lot of drummers just want to go in, play and collect the paycheck. I'm not like that. I need to make sure that whatever artist I'm working with is happy with the end result. To me, if you don't do that, you're not doing your job."
Obviously, John Fogerty feels as though Aronoff is earning his keep: since 1996, the legendary Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer has utilized Aronoff's talents both in the studio and on tour, an experience that Aronoff calls "immensely gratifying. John Fogerty is one of the true artists out there. To be a part of his creative process is what it's all about."
In the following interview with MusicRadar, Aronoff dissects the manner in which he helps to bring Fogerty's music to life. In addition, he talks about his intensely physical playing (and some of its drawbacks, like constant nose bashing), how he's changed his kit around in recent years, his complicated relationship with John Mellencamp and the song that made it all possible. (Hint: it's a little ditty about two America kids growing up in the heartland.)
I think the burning question in everybody's mind right now is, are you bucking for the gig as the drummer in Rick K And The Allnighters?
[laughs uproariously] "Oh my God! The Drummer At The Wrong Gig guy? Oh man, he's wild, isn't he? So many people have sent me that clip. The first time I saw it, I was dying laughing. It's incredible.
"The second or third time I watched it, though, I thought, Waaaaait a minute. This guy's too good. I thought it was staged - you know, like they made a video clip to get attention or something. But I guess it's the way he really plays. I mean, the stuff he does - flailing his arms over his head and all the Buddy Rich-type hi-hat fills he throws in - it's just unreal. The man is brilliant. He's a superstar. He's going to be on the cover of drum magazines. What a player!"
Well, let's get into your playing. Now, you've enjoyed a very long and fruitful association with John Fogerty. I think you've played with him now longer than Doug Clifford from Creedence ever did.
"Yeah, I guess so. I started playing with John in '96. He had gone through 30 drummers till he got to me. And I just found out that his brother Bob suggested me after the second drummer. I think the first drummer was Chris Layton and the second was Jeff Porcaro."
So John went through all these great drummers, but they just weren't the right fit?
"Yeah. A lot of people."
What did John say to you as to why he picked you? Was there anything in particular that made you 'the guy'?
"Let me tell you how John works: When I was making the Revival record with him, we'd go into the studio on a Monday at 10am. We'd do two takes of two songs, no click, and we'd spend three or four hours on those two songs. Even though we were cutting what some people might call 'basics' - you know, bass, drums, guitar and John singing - he's only concerned about the drum track at this point. So we'd do those two takes and go into the control room to listen to them. Next day, we do the same two songs the same way. Day after that, same two songs the same way. This goes from Monday through Friday with no deviation. That's the John Fogerty way of recording.
"That might sound a little strange, but that's John's way of getting into his comfort zone. By the Thursday of recording in this manner, he's starting to find that he's getting what he wants. He strives for perfection. And I'm the type of drummer, or I have the type of personality, that I'm OK with hammering on, pushing through and trying to reach that same level of perfection. A lot of drummers would buckle under that kind of routine; they'd say the spark is lost or something. But I'm willing to take that journey with John and find whatever it is he's searching for. You never know what it is until you find it. He's got those kind of ears, too - when he hears the right take, he knows it, and he's not going to stop until it's there.
"The validation comes when we're sitting in the control room and we're listening to a take. We don't even look at each other, but he pats me on the leg and goes, 'I don't know how you do this at 10 in the morning, but that sounds amazing.' And I tell him, 'I don't know how I do it either, John. I like to sleep at 10 in the morning!'" [laughs]
When you work with John on a new song, does give you demo or does he play it for you in the studio?
"No, you hear it right there. He runs it down and that's it. The funny thing about John is, even if you're playing what might be considered a simple song with a simple beat, by the eighth or ninth day, you start getting inside it; you hear nuances and flaws; the things that he's listening for, looking out for; things you never would have thought about before. It's a meticulous approach, but it's one that works for him.
"Here's another thing that he said to me: We were recording once and he turned to me and held up 10 fingers. He goes, 'When I fired the band [Creedence], I practiced the drums for 10 years. Ten years I practiced, four hours a day, every day. And Kenny, I cannot play that simple beat the same way as you. I can't be a songwriter and a singer and a guitar player and a drummer, so I have to find guys like you who can do it. It took me five years and 30 drummers, but I found my guy."
That must've felt pretty incredible.
"Sure. John Forgery's a genius. For him to say that to you, that's what you live for, man."
When he plays a song for you for the first time in the studio, does he give you direction, or does he let you work things out for yourself before he starts tweaking?
"He lets me go for it. But if he hears something he doesn't like, he'll speak up right away. When we were working on the Blue Moon Swamp album, he tuned the snare drum. He'd come in and put the head on the snare, tune it to a specific note; he put moleskin on certain parts of the snare, with the idea of getting just the right amount of ring - but not too much. He knows what he wants.
"One day he said to me, 'Kenny, do you have any wood snares?' I said, 'I have 12 of them.' So he said, 'I want to record all 12.'
Good thing you didn't say you had more.
[laughs] "Yeah, right. And we recorded all 12. He took notes and wrote down what he liked and didn't like about each one. Then, when he was done focusing on the sound, he started analyzing my playing technique. He asked me once, 'Kenny, when you hit the snare, what percentage of the stick hits the rim versus the amount that hits the center of the head?' And I said, 'Well, I tend to hit the rim a lot, so I guess 50 percent, maybe 65 percent.' To which he said, 'Right. Could you hit the snare 80 percent in the middle of the head and 20 percent on the rim?'"
Wow! He really gets into details.
"He does. But the truth is, these percentages we're talking about really do affect the sound."
After he asked you to back off the rim, was he happy?
"Actually, no. [laughs] We recorded it his way and listened back and he said, 'Mmmm, I think it was better the first way, Kenny. I was wrong.'"
Would you call John Fogerty a 'tortured artist'? A lot of the time, when a musician dissects the playing to such a degree, he's never happy. Plus, the music starts to sound clinical.
"Yeah. I guess you could call John that, but he really knows what he's doing. All of his tweaking results in great recordings. Whether or not he could do it faster…maybe. But it's his process, and why would I question him or challenge him? I'm happy to take the journey with him."
Let's talk about your kit, which you've changed around a bit. What made you add a remote hi-hat to your right side?
"Playing as aggressively as I do, I've injured myself quite a bit. Over the years I've hit myself in the head, the nose, my mouth, in the eyes - I've had blood squirt out of my eyes like a boxer in the ring."
"Yeah, I can get pretty brutal on myself. So, anyway, I kept hitting myself in the nose when I played with my hi-hat on the left side - you know, crossing my hands over the way most right-handed drummers do. My right hand would come flying up and - whack! - right in the nose, you know? Plus, I have a deviated septum - I've played sports my whole life and broken my nose a bunch of times. As you can imagine, inflicting more damage to it…not exactly what I want to do. One day I was practicing to go on tour with Melissa Ethridge and I just grazed the stick against my nose. The pain was unbelievable - I thought I was going to pass out! That was that. I immediately went looking for the remote hi-hat and set it up on my right side. It's worked out well. I don't have to do that crossing-over thing anymore."
Did it take a while to get used to playing open handed?
"Physically, it was easier because it allowed me to sit straighter. My center of gravity and my spine weren't all twisted; I could sit in more of a straight line. The only real 'problem,' so to speak, was fitting the hi-hat amid my other cymbals. Face it: there's only so much real estate on a drum kit, and every inch counts.
"I've got the right hi-hat positioned between a crash and a ride. What that means is, when I come sailing around the kit - let's say I'm doing a cool fill on the toms - and I want to get back on the hi-hat, I have to be careful not to hit the other cymbals. At first I'd miscalculate those tiny little distances. If I was playing the ride, I had to be careful not to get the stick caught under the hi-hat; on the other hand, if I was playing the hi-hat, I had to be mindful not to bring the stick up too high and hit the crash cymbal. I lost a lot of sticks until I got used to the whole setup. But hey, it's better than tearing up my nose with a drumstick." [laughs]
Would you recommend the remote hi-hat to drummers who aren't in the habit of bashing themselves in the face?
[laughs] "I don't know. I'm of the 'whatever works' school of thought. Some drummers love playing open handed; others never get used to it. I can kind of go back and forth, but maybe that's because I've been playing so long."
To have your kit set up exactly the way you want it on tour, I imagine you must have a great drum tech.
"I have the best. His name is Jimmy Robison, and he's incredible. He has such a feel for drums. He really gets it."
You tend to play with a German grip a lot. I take it you find that way the most comfortable.
"Actually, I use all the grips. I hit my snare with the German grip, meaning my thumb is to the side of the stick. With that grip, you have to kind of use your whole wrist to get the rebound. I hit very hard on the snare and my hand motion is up, up, up, up! I put my whole body into it. But the right hand, if I'm moving around the kit, the thumb isn't to the side but it isn't facing up, either - it's between those two positions. My timpani teacher used to call this an 'oblique grip.'"
"Now, if I'm playing the ride cymbal, sometimes to get that lightness, I'll go with the French grip, with my thumb pointed up. But I don't really think about any of this while I'm playing; it all takes place very naturally. You really do get to a point where the body just knows what to do. It takes years, of course."
Shifting gears, do you miss being part of a band? You have a few steady gigs, like John Fogerty, but it's been a while since you were a full-on member of a group. The closest you came recently was The Smashing Pumpkins - and that was over ten years ago.
"Yeah, the Pumpkins thing was a possibility. I think Fogerty looks at me as being in the band. But what you're talking about, being a real true band member, that's a different thing. You're part of the organization, you share in the income and you're involved in the decisions. It's almost like you're a shareholder.
"I don't know if I miss it. There's a lot of great things to being part of a band; on the other hand, I get to pick and choose what I want to do, and I get to play with so many wonderful, fascinating people. You can't do that if you're in a band, or most bands I should say. I'm kind of enjoying my freedom."
But is there any group you would trade that freedom for? Do you have a dream gig?
[Without hesitation] "Yeah, the Foo Fighters. If Dave Grohl called me up and said, 'Taylor Hawkins doesn't want to do this anymore,' holy shit, I'd jump at that in a second. I consider Dave Grohl to be one of the most talented musicians in the world, and he's also one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. I could be around him all day, man. He's got it all.
"There's not many bands I would table everything for, but the Foo Fighters would make me think twice. Hey, I would do it even if they kept Taylor! [laughs] We could have our own drum core thing going on, especially if Dave joined us."
It's not just a rock show, it's a drum clinic, too.
"Exactly. We'd blow minds every night." [laughs]
What's your relationship with John Mellencamp like this days? Do you speak?
"It's good. Actually, it's really good 'cause we never see each other. [laughs] Listen, he's an intense motherfucker, and he'd be the first one to tell you that. But we did play together recently, or sort of recently, at the pre-inauguration concert for Obama at the Lincoln Memorial. It was good, a really amazing time.
"Before that, though, things weren't too cool. I don't know, I guess he said some shit about me in the press. I don't even know what it was, but friends were coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, why is John trashing you in Rolling Stone? He's really throwin' you under the bus, man.' But you know, I can't waste my time worrying about that stuff. I always try to keep my head down and keep moving forward."
"Anyway, I was the house drummer for the Obama concert. Bands like U2 had their own drummers, of course, but for the most part I was playing with everybody. So, before the show, I called John and we had a good conversation, some funny jabs back and forth, but ultimately everything was fine.
"I played with him two other times after the Obama concert, once at a MusicCares event and again at the Kennedy Center Honors when he was giving a speech for Bruce Springsteen. That was a a great event, the Kennedy Honors thing. John even complimented me afterward, which is a big thing for him. I'm sure if we were playing together on a regular basis we'd be at each other's throats like we were back in the day. John's a tough guy; he doesn't like many people."
I understand things were pretty rough for you when you first got hired to be in his band. Weren't you in danger of being fired just months after you got the gig?
"Oh, definitely. Yeah, I was on thin ice."
Your famous drum solo in Jack And Diane saved your butt, right?
"Absolutely true. Jack And Diane saved my ass, that's a good way of putting it. And the funny thing is, I came up with that on the spot. Here's the story: I practiced John's previous album [Nothin' Matters And What If It Did] till I was blew in the face. I wanted that gig bad. I knew every song inside and out, and that's what got me the job. So we go into the studio to record American Fool, and immediately things start going not so well.
"For whatever reason, I just wasn't giving John what he wanted. So he pulled me aside and said, 'Why don't you go home, Kenny? We'll still pay you for the rest of the week.' And I said, 'Wait a minute…You're firing me?' He didn't really give me a straight answer to that, but I said, 'No way. I'm not going home. Use another drummer on the record if you want, but I'm staying. I'll sleep on the floor if I have to, but I want to hear what it is you want, 'cause I promise you I can do the job. I'm still your drummer.' I think that threw him for a loop, like, 'Wow, this guy is dedicated.'
"So I did stay. I listened to the tunes, I made notes and I practiced my ass off. I promised myself that I wasn't going to fail.
"Anyway, Jack and Diane comes up and I got a shot to play on it. The song was kind of nothing at that point; it wasn't fully fleshed out. And somebody came in with a Linn Drum machine. I thought, Holy fuck, now I'm being replaced by a drum machine. How humiliating, right? But then I thought, OK, use this. Learn from this. So I took the drum machine and I programmed it using my drum beat, and everybody seemed to really like it. Even though I was happy about that, it somehow bummed me out even more because I thought, Shit, I really am being replaced by a drum machine. This is terrible!"
"Then came the middle section. Nobody knew what to do. The song wasn't together; it was missing something. All of a sudden, John shouts, 'Aronoff, we need a drum solo!' And I thought, Are you kidding me? A drum solo - on this song? So we spent five hours trying to get a drum sound. Everybody's getting nervous. Finally, it came time for the drum solo and John goes, 'Right here. That's where I want you to come in.' He didn't know what he wanted; he just knew he needed something. Something big and dramatic.
"Sitting down at my kit, I knew I was fighting for my life. I had to do something special. I had to save the song, the day, my gig. But I realized at that point that when John said 'drum solo,' he didn't mean an all-over-the-kit solo, he wanted some sort of statement. So I went 'boom, blam!' and I stopped - and John went, 'That's perfect!' So far, so good. But then I thought, OK, now what do I do? So I did a progression that worked, one which used a lot of space and told a story. It's not really a drum solo, it's more of a melodic hook, a musical composition. There was no wasted space."
Then what happened? You nailed the part, but what did John say to you?
"He loved it, but he never really gave me a compliment. He said, 'OK, we'll give you a shot to play on the tour.' That made me kind of mad, but hey, I knew I did it. And when I heard Jack And Diane on the radio and I saw audiences going crazy and air-drumming to the part, I knew I did my job."
It really is one of the classic drum moments in all of rock.
"Thanks. It is. I'm not saying that out of ego, but when you see that kind of response from the crowd, and when you see Jack And Diane and Hurts So Good go to number one on the charts…like I said, I knew I nailed it. Those drum parts jump out at you. When I heard those songs on the radio sandwiched between Eye Of The Tiger and Ebony And Ivory, it was…it was incredible.
"I never got that acceptance from John, but I got it from everybody else. It was hard, though. He's a tough motherfucker. But ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be in The Beatles - you know, a cool rock band. I knew I had to fight tooth-and-nail to stay in John's band. Jack And Diane was my make-or-break moment, and I wasn't going to fail."
It's funny you say you wanted to be in a rock group, because you started out playing rock but then switched your focus and studied classical, jazz and fusion. How did that influence your style when you returned to rock?
"That's kind of tricky. It did influence my style in that I like to perform musical compositions. Like with Jack And Diane - I don't know that most rock drummers would have been able to come up with that if they didn't have my kind of training.
"But yeah, I studied classical music and everything very seriously. It was very intense, and I had to learn discipline. Beyond learning how to read and write music, that's probably the biggest thing I took away from the experience. I learned how to be patient and to really work at my craft.
"When I was young, I thought I was going to be in an orchestra. Absolutely. I won awards and competitions; I played with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland - it was amazing. But around the time I was 23, I kind of changed and realized that I wanted to be playing clubs in rock bands, you know? So that's what I did. I'm sure a lot of people thought I was crazy, but I knew in my heart what I wanted."
"It was hard at first, but then I got the Mellencamp gig, and once that stuck, everybody saw that there must've been some kind of method to the madness. I don't know if I'd recommend the kind of formal training that I had to young drummers. They have to follow their hearts and be rock set drummers."
Does knowing theory ever impede your ability to play rock? There's music that comes from your head and music that comes from your gut. Take Ringo Starr: he probably couldn't explain why he played those parts with The Beatles - they just came naturally to him.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. You kind of turn your brain off to that. Even though you know it, you tune it out and respond to the music. I can jump between both worlds pretty easily. I know how to play from my gut. Rock is rock, and the only way to rock is to let it happen. I'm not saying my training doesn't help me as a drummer, but it's nothing I consciously think about when I'm up there on stage with John Fogerty. I listen to him and his songs and his singing."
What's the toughest session you ever played on?
"Hmmm. That's hard to say. I've definitely had them. There have been sessions when that little red light comes on over your head and you go, "This isn't happening. This song isn't going anywhere and things are going to get real ugly." So you kind of make adjustments and hope that the tide turns. It doesn't always, but most of the time it does."
Top-of-the-head answer: Who's the greatest drummer who ever lived?
"In jazz, I would say Buddy Rich. In rock, John Bonham. And between those two genres, it would be Steve Gadd. Nobody sounds like those guys. They really made an impact and influenced drummers so much."
Another top-of-the-head answer: What's your favorite song that you've played on?
"That's easy: Jack And Diane. For all of the answers and the story I just told you, that's my favorite. It might not be my best playing, but it means so much to me. A very, very important song in my life."