In the world of music, you need two things to survive and thrive. You need passion and persistence. This episode’s guest personifies both. Rich Redmond and Jim McCarthy sit down for a lively discussion with musical legend Kenny Aronoff. Kenny shares his experiences playing with some of the greatest artists in the world. He talks about why working hard and perseverance is important and why you need passion to succeed. Tune in for more fascinating tales from the world of music.
Jim McCarthy coming to us, I65 South, 30 minutes South of Nashville. How are you doing?
Just over the border of Alabama.
I love seeing the S.H.I.E.L.D and all the Marvel stuff. It’s always great to see you. For those of you that are not in the know, Jim and I do 2 or 3 of these things a day. We put them in a queue and then we drip them out. This is a special day because my childhood hero is here. This is one of the greatest drummers of all time. This is our friend, Kenny Aronoff, and we’re going to get into it, but I’m just going to lay it out here. If you guys have had your head in the sand, I want to level the playing field here. This is one of the world’s most influential drummers. Matter of fact, Rolling Stone Magazine calls him 1 of the 100 greatest rock drummers of all time. That is a good list to be on. If you’ve read Modern Drummer Magazine, he was voted number one pop and rock drummer and studio drummer for five consecutive years.
Take note of some of these names of these people he’s recorded with, John Mellencamp, The Stones, Bruce Springsteen, McCartney, Ringo, Tom Petty, Sting, a bunch of Slackers, The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Gibbons, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Bob Seger, the list goes on. Like many of us forward-thinking individuals, he said, “I’m going to get into speaking.” Kenny is doing keynote speeches and the focus of his talks is living your life with your purpose by developing your teamwork skills, using innovation, your creativity, hard work, self-discipline, and perseverance to stay relevant and to live the life of your dreams. If that wasn’t enough, a few years back, he put out this book that we were all eagerly waiting for. Its Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll!: The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business by Kenny Aronoff. Ladies and gentlemen, my guest, Kenny Aronoff. How are you doing?
I’m great. You said everything. I’ll see you next time.
That set it all up, so just people know what we’re dealing with here, and then we can get in to talk about your book. It’s so great. I consumed it. There are so many great books. Look at our buddy, Liberty’s got a book, the Jeff Carl book just came out. I got a little book here. It’s for sale at Hudson now. We’re drummers. We’re smart guys.
I wouldn’t go that far. We’re survivors. We know how to survive. It’s like you’re in the back of the playing field. You have to figure out how to execute your field, read the whole thing, and then execute and survive.
That’s true. For you, is it a similar story, because the year 1964 is so cited by so many people that are like, “Yes, that was the Ed Sullivan. That changed my life. I wanted to be a Beatle?” Was that right? Is that where you started?
Yes, I grew up in Western Mass. I was playing outside. I was just a ten-year-old little kid with my twin brother and my mom. There’s nothing to watch on TV, by the way. We were out there playing and my mom is on the porch yelling, “Boys, get in here.” I thought I was in trouble, which was usually the case. We go running across this big lawn and I’m coming with my head down. She’s pointing to a black and white TV set with the antennas because we had no computers. It was The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. That was the first time I saw rock and roll. This was exhilarating and all I knew is I wanted to be a part of that. I talk about purpose. That’s when I realized what my purpose in life was without understanding what those words meant. All I know is it was a feeling. I got to do this. That’s when I turned to my mom and said, “Mom, who are those guys?” She said, “They’re The Beatles.” I went, “I want to play in The Beatles. Call them up.” That’s what moms do.
I was taking piano lessons and I went, “Forget about the piano, it’s drums.” My mom didn’t call The Beatles up and she didn’t give me a set of drums. I started my band and I only had a cymbal and a snare drum. As a matter of fact, my parents went down to Manny’s. Do you remember Manny’s Music store? She got to stare them down there. Back in the ‘60s, my mom goes, “I don’t know if my son’s any good. He’s never taken lessons.” She said, “Mrs. Aronoff, if your son doesn’t want to play this drum, you can bring that drum back and I’ll give you your money back.” I started playing in bands. We played Beatles music and then the long and short of the whole story is fifty years later, I get asked by do I want to do the CBS special call The Night That Changed America, honoring The Beatles to the Ed Sullivan Show and now I get to play with the two remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Can you imagine how I felt? It was unbelievable.
It only took fifty years. You planted that seed fifty years ago.
To turn that into what that book is about, the book is about a kid working hard and staying on it like a running back. A running back keeps pounding it. They don’t get touchdowns every time, but they keep pounding it. At the end of twenty years, they look at their stats and all of a sudden, it’s like, “You’re one of the greatest running backs ever.” All they focus on is end zone, touchdown, and sometimes you drop the ball, sometimes you break your legs, sometimes it’s negative yards. Bottom line is that perseverance. That led me to getting the call fifty years later. If I’d been sitting on my ass, waiting for somebody to call me, it would never have happened. I worked hard like you did, like all of us here that we work hard. I have to sit and I talk about called RPS. It’s the Repetition of any skill is the Preparation for Success. It doesn’t matter if it’s lifting weights, sports, drumming, music, diet, relationships, we’re humans. We’re not robots. You repeat the skill over and over again and you get better at it.
It reminds me of the three Ps. I like to talk about the three Ps, which are your Personality, your People skills, and your Presence. Put your cell phone now when you’re in the presence of other people, give them the gift of your time, give them your full attention, and exceed those expectations. You took that to high art. Eventually, you get this gig with this Johnny Cougar guy, this lasts for years and you create a body of work, you cultivate a reputation, and then you could have said, “That’s good. I’m going to stay here or I’m going to just take this salary.” No, you were on red eyes. You’re New York, LA, London. You got to make the effort to get the drum sets there. You got to get on these red eyes and lose sleep and go. The year would end, you’re like, “I did two tours, but I played on 35 records as well.” That’s not for the faint of heart. That’s for somebody who has blood and guts and gumption.
I tell people, “I didn’t make this car. I’m just driving it. If you don’t like the car, talk to the manufacturer. I’m trying to keep four wheels on the road.” Back to purpose, I was so passionate. When I got in the Mellencamp band, and everybody knows the story, I was only in the band for five weeks and I got fired after two days recording because quite frankly, the producers said, “That guy has no experience getting records on the radio to be number one hit singles.” He was right. It didn’t matter that I’d worked with Leonard Bernstein, gotten to Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and all this classical stuff. It had nothing to do with playing the drums on the record and getting on the radio. That was a great life lesson. When I go back and connect the dots and when John said, “You go home.” I said, “I am not going nowhere.” That’s like someone saying, “Rich, you’re fired,” and Rich goes, “No, I’m not.” I go, “No, you’re fired,” and then Rich says?
“No, I’m going to stay here and I’m going to watch your drummer. I’m going to sleep on the floor and I’m going to watch this guy so I can learn why he was chosen over me.”
That’s what happened. It was survival. By the way, I thought John was firing me. It wasn’t John. It was the producer, Steve Cropper. He had only eight weeks to get this record done. This is when they recorded with tapes. There were no tools and fixing. They got to get the drum tracks first. In my mind, John was taking away my passion, my desire, and my purpose. “I made it. I finally made it. I’m 27 years old. I made it, I’m here,” and then he says, “No, you aren’t.” “F you, I’m not going anywhere. This is all I got now.”
I turned down the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which I call certainty because you have a paycheck. I turned that down for complete uncertainty, as you well know the music business for drummer. I don’t care how many degrees you got. You got nothing until you got something. It’s like if you become a doctor, you pretty much got a gig. If you become a lawyer, you pretty much got a gig. If you become a drummer like you went through four years of college at North Texas, you got nothing. I don’t mean nothing. You have no guarantee.
No one cares. When I established myself as a top drummer in Dallas after I got my Master’s at UNT, everybody moves into Dallas and they play fusion and top 40, and they do jingles and you save your money and you move to New York or LA. When I moved to Nashville, no one cared about any of that. I had to get down to lower Broadway and get up in that front room at Tootsies in the window. How much for the drummer in the window? I had to start from scratch.
There’s one thing about that story, though, that you would mention. I watched the movie Hired Gun. You told that story. I’m familiar with it, but there’s one thing that you’re leaving out. You closed John at some point. What was the question you asked him? Do you remember? “Am I drummer or what?”
That’s true, Jim. What happened? He boxed me into a corner. All I could think of was I’m fumbling. I’m like, “Am I still your drummer in the band or what?” The rest of the band, their eyes are bugged out. If anybody knows John Mellencamp, he is not exactly the easiest guy to work with. He grew up in a family. They work their problems out with fistfights.
Seymour, Indiana. I’ve been through there. I stopped and got the pizza there one time. The guy serving my pizza was like, “I’m good friends with John’s dad. He comes in here all the time.”
It’s a small town. That’s what I fumbled around and said, “I’m going to go to this studio and watch these guys play. I’ll learn from them. I’ll benefit and you’ll benefit because I’m your drummer.” He said nothing and I’m like, “Oh my God.” That’s when I said, “I’ll work for free and sleep on the couch,” and then he went, “Perfect.”
This is my takeaway from that if you might be able to set me straight on this. Those 1 or 2 drummers, I believe, that played on that Johnny Cougar record that you were watching. I know one was Rick Schlosser and was the other one, John Guerin?
No, Ed Greene.
Ed Greene was on our show and we did it in person in Nashville. Ed is still active. What about Rick Schlosser?
You’re going to love this. I got an email from Rick Schlosser several years ago. He was a great drummer, the perfect radio drummer, like James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt’s pop music. He decided to focus more on raising his son, single parent, and eventually moved to Mexico. He emailed me and said to me, “Kenny. Rick Schlosser, you know what? I knew you. Congratulations, I had a feeling you were going to make it. You’re asking all the right questions. You were the nicest guy in the studio. You were humble.” He said all the things that I didn’t know, I was just being me, but he was so cool that he reached out to me. That was heavy.
That’s amazing, Kenny. Why did he wait several years to say, “Good job, kid?” You’ve only been the fabric of the music business for several years.
I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t have my email address. Back then, there was no email.
That portion of Mexico just probably got dial-up or something.
Those moments are just so amazing. You know how I got into the recording thing was, when I was with Mellencamp for eight years. I should back up. Obviously, I redeemed myself two years later with that Jack and Diane, that big hit single. I came up with the triple, I ran out of drugs. To make it different but also to bring it into that, it seemed like the blight musical phrase to bring it seems logical to me.
I worked so many times with the engineer on that record and he passed member George Tutko. He’s been gone now.
He was the engineer on the second half of that American Fool record. The first half who recorded those drums was Don Gehman. We did that in Miami. I didn’t know making that record. When I got fired from that first record, nothing happened when it did. I went home and redesigned my whole business model, like, “I got to serve the song, serve the artists, get songs on the radio to be number one.” Fusion. When we were playing fusion, it’s as if we were looking through a telescope and there’s so much out. Getting songs on the radio, I attributed more like, “Now you’re looking through a microscope the other way.” It’s a different direction but that world is just as big as the telescope. I had to look at everything differently. Several years later, I swear, I’m going to make the next record, that American Fool record, which won two Grammys and had John’s biggest single. That was the hardest record I’ve ever made.
John was going through a divorce. I didn’t know it, but he was about to lose his record deal. I saw John almost die in front of me on a Harley going 80 miles an hour down a cornfield road. We were on a road coming out where he lived to Bloomington and a dog jumped out and it was dark. All I saw was, it looked like a motorcycle, sparks flying and then it hit the tree and blew up. We slammed on our brakes, “He’s dead.” All of a sudden, he’s hopping from one end of the road back over to the other. He’s in panic mode and shock. We’re down there a week later making a record. He’s in a cast, he bought his motorcycle down there.
This is a criterion in Miami?
Yes. Two guys get fired. I almost get in a fistfight with John. John was a complete idiot. It was difficult. The point is literally at one point we were standing face-to-face fist up and he said, “We’re going to do this?” I knew if I hit him, it’ll be the last time I see him. The ego was going to be, “You’re fired.”
There is self-discipline there because he is a tough son of a bitch. He was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day what got up four packs of cigarettes.
He had a heart attack in ‘94.
Did he trim it down to a pack now or quit?
I think so. He went to the American Heritage. It didn’t matter if you broke your leg or if people would puke in, we played. One day I get a call. We were doing two shows at the Jones Beach in Long Island. The tour manager goes, “We’re canceling the show.” I’m like, “I know we did both shows and then we had a day off then we were going to play a show somewhere.” They said, “We’re canceling. John got bad flu.” I’m like, “That doesn’t stop John Mellencamp.” We toured, took a day off, then we continued to run and John was weak. He gets home and found out he had a heart attack. That was shocking.
Needless to say, to get back to the story, we did with the record, I thought, “Nine weeks I did it. I’m done. Yes.” John calls me up two weeks later, he goes, “Aronoff, Mellencamp. The record’s not done. We got four songs.” I’m like, “What?” It’s like going to Vietnam or Afghanistan, you survive, and then they say, “Got to go back.” That’s when we went back and that’s when I met Tutko. We recorded Hurts So Good with Tutko. That was a pivotal moment. You relate to this both you guys since you are drummers. I remember walking in, and by the way, I played that left-handed because I was trying to dumb my playing down and kind of like simplify my playing. That was coming out of the fusion thing, too. I couldn’t play it as complicated left-handed. In one day, this tells drummers how important timing and groove is and the right beat.
One day he walks it, and then he got the song Hurts So Good. I go, “I am going to play left-hand, play real softly.” John goes, “What’s that beat?” I’m like, “Oh no.” “Why haven’t you played that beat before? That’s incredible.” I’m like, “He thinks it’s the new beat.” I’m pumped because I got this beginner, sloshy feel.
On the left hand.
Yes. I was like, “He loved the feel.” John was all about vibe and feel. I recorded left-handed. I’m crapping in my pants because I’m trying to prove myself. Remember, the album hadn’t come out. I’m in the same studio, Cherokee, where I got fired from the record before.
Cherokee is on Fairfax here by the Genghis Cohen and now it’s Condos. That sucks. Kenny, here’s a story for you. You’re going to get a kick out of this. All the teaching that we do in between tour dates or during the day on the road, I get a kid on a set of drums and I say, “You know the song Hurts So Good? Sing that song in your head while you’re playing the beat. It’s going to make you playing more confident, solid, and musical.” That’s the first song I get every student to play. The time is going by so much, these youngsters, the young whippersnappers, they haven’t heard the song. I’ll pull it up for them. It’s a great teaching vehicle. Thank you.
You played that open-handed.
When you listened to me, do the tom-tom feels, the hi-hats’ still going, It’s like a shaker. We were being inspired with, at least, I was, Back in Black, by AC/DC. This was the first time we learned how to do less is more. The band was like, “It’s got to be more complicated than that.” Finally, we chilled out and we realized, “Look at AC/DC. It’s not a lot of notes, but it’s sounds and feels great.” That song was me trying to do a Phil Rudd simplified Charlie Watts but play left-handed.
When I walked into control room and they had George Tutko had the drums way loud. Thank God, John wanted to blow every song on the radio that came before him and completely dwarf any song that followed us by having sonically and have the drums way loud. I’m coming and going, “I’m stuck playing this stupid, simple beat Jeff Porcaro gets to play, Cruisin’, Rosanna, Steve Gadd, Neil Peart, and John Bonham. I’m stuck,” and then they play it back and I go, “Oh my God.” It hit me.
I can feel every single vibe, every moment, thought, and emotion. I saw the validity in playing less is more and there was a whole another value to it. When you’re young, you just think more is more. Suddenly I got it. That was a pivotal moment in my career where I went, “Okay.” When Jack and Diane became number one, from that day forward after John would play a song on acoustic guitar once or twice, she turned to me, “What do you got Aronoff?” I had made the corporation, John Mellencamp, millions of dollars.
We all make a million of dollars.
I made him millions of dollars. He’s like, “Make me millions of dollars again.” That was my career. That was constantly, if you look at all those Mellencamp songs. You know the song, Wild Night, how different that was. He was like, I took a cabasa with plastic, with beats and I used the dreadlock, like a coat hanger, on the crasher instead of hi-hats. Snare drum was a plastic board with beads as my backbeat, African drum over there. I completely made it different sounding. They compress it and pushed it way up and all of a sudden, “What?” I was constantly trying to reinvent myself, but John wanted me to. There were budgets back then, so we could spend months coming up with ideas.
I tell kids all the time, like, “Buy yourself a djembe cajon, some shakers, some tambourines, learn this stuff because it’s going to add this another sonic layer to your drumming. You’re going to be so versatile. If someone sees you playing percussion, they’ll hire you to play drums. Vice versa, they know you can double.” It’s so smart to do.
I was creating loops for John in the early ‘90s before we even knew what loops were because I was running out of ideas and set percussion thing. There was a song called When Jesus Left Birmingham and I was doing the overdubs first, not thinking that was it. What I do is I took a snare drum, a little piccolo stamp, ten-inch splash on it and then I played with like maybe brushes and blast sticks, like a hip hop beat. I moved the sticks around to get different sonics and then I took bongos and muffled them and then played on top of that. They took the shaker then they took that compressed it and made a thing out of it.
People put some parts on, went to dinner, came back, and John goes, “Swing and a miss.” Suddenly I heard, I went, “No, those are the overdubs, John. Let me go out and play a cool beat.” The beat was just an RNB, like all the loops end. John kept saying, “Don’t go out there as soon as I went.” After that, I went out there. Before I got done, the bass player was out there, which means John was like, “Yeah.” I was using that to create a vibe before I even played the drums at one point on the Mellencamp.
That was such a big chapter of your life. Was it a good seventeen years or something like that? I saw you at the Greek Theater because you hadn’t seen the band.
You were there, I saw you backstage. I’d never seen them live since I left.
That was several years ago. Right maybe after you taught at my L.A. drum camp, the kids loved it. That was such a great experience. Thanks for doing that. We partied afterward at Miceli’s. We had some Italian food.
You are Italian.
Jim, are you trying to jump in here? I want you to get a question in.
There was a time when you’re playing with Michelle Branch. You played in the Hard Rock in Vegas.
I’ll tell this story. When you played with her, I had worked for a bunch of radio stations out there that we had tickets to go, meet and greet and everything. I had no idea you were playing with her. I certainly knew who you were but I swear it’s the one time I’ve ever seen a drummer get almost the same level of applause as the artist. Do you remember that? I do. I was going to my wife because my wife saw you with Ms. Melissa Etheridge, too. The guy crushes it.
The whole Michelle Branch thing was like the turning point in the music business because we’re used to have to get the drum tracks first and then they build on top of that. With Michelle Branch, I walked into the session that my buddy, John Shanks, was producing and co-wrote and we were on the Melissa Etheridge tour together and they had everything done. They had guitars left and right, keyboards loops, background, vocals, lead vocals, bass, everything, done. I listened to it. I said to Johnny, “Are you keeping all this stuff?” He said, “Yeah.” To get the drums to fit in sonically, everything I had wasn’t working. I went from a 24-inch kick drum to a 22. I’m going to speed this up, took the front head off, had to pack it with a blanket then they put a mic about fifteen feet away to get ambiance but we needed to get something punchy that was low that would fit into all that stuff, snare drum.
I got a mixer. I bring my mix up, click, everything. I record. I got it. I looked in the control room and they’re all like, nothing. I went, “Oh.” This is what I always do. When I see trouble, I take my headphones off, put them down, went right into the control room, said to John, “Is there a problem?” He says, “You tell me.” I went, “Oh my God.” I go up to the mixing board and I go, “Give me the click track and the drums.” I was spot on, “Give me the loops, the click tracks, and the drums. Perfect.”
Somebody’s rushing because I sound behind. I said, “Give me the rhythm guitars,” because rhythm guitar is like drum and hi-hat. Bring that up with the click on top of the beat. Guess who played the rhythm guitars? The producer. The songwriter. You can imagine my brain is going. He says, “I’m on top of it.” I said, “No problem, you sound great. Don’t worry.” I’m thinking you could easily say, “We’ll have to get another drummer.” I go out there and I took the loops out, put everything down, and brought the acoustic guitars up. I played to them and that were on top. All of a sudden, I look.
It wasn’t the slamming with the loops a little?
They kept the loops low.
I remember that period where there’d be an intro and in the first verse is this gurgling lo-fi loop. You come in. That model, I remember that period.
That was when it was starting. I did a Hilary Duff. She didn’t do loop. That was before that. Alanis Morissette. Avril Lavigne, my Happy Ending, which was just me playing drums to a loop in a click and the producer singing. She wasn’t even there. This is a crazy story because I’m listening, it sounds like a folk song. I’m like, “That’s nice.” I said to the producer, “What are you trying to do here?” He says, “You got to make this the biggest, most powerful hit like a stadium.”
I can do that.
You’re going to relate to this, Rich, because I was looking at myself as an actor in a movie or a scene. I’m trying to figure out, “What is my goal? Who am I? Am I Robert De Niro in Godfather or Meet The Fockers? What am I?” I’m listening to these loops, but I was being the actor like, “I’m in a stadium.” It didn’t even make sense. Here’s where drummers can get screwed. They did an overdub everything to me, she could have come in at one point, had a bad day singing going, “Get out. I don’t like the tempo, the drum sound, and the drum part.” They could have blamed everything on me. Instead, it all worked out and it became a number one hit single. To me, that’s like crap going deer hunting blindfolded in the dark with a bow and arrow and killing the deer. It’s a miracle.
It’s interesting, where you are in the creative process and how that can influence things and you have to have a strong intuition as a session drummer to read the room and know like, “Where is this going? What is the ultimate goal?” A period of your career that interests me is when you were in Mellencamp span, but you wanted to start expanding as a session drummer. You were an entrepreneur. You’re like a creative entrepreneur businessman. You’re like, “I’m going to move a set of drums to Nashville.” You were consciously going after Nashville, where you knocking on doors and going publishing companies, record companies, producers going, “I’m Kenny, I played on a couple of number one songs. I played this guy named Mellencamp. You may have heard of him. Can I be of service to you?” Was it methodical like that or was it just one relationship?
Nashville was exactly what you said, except that I used a fax machine because there were no emails. I had faxed twenty-five producers. I got two drum sets to Nashville. I was already doing a lot of work in LA and New York. I had drum sets there and they do with budgets. People would fly me. I remember seeing John at the Milwaukee Fest, which I’m sure you played a Summer Fest up there. John, at the end of the Jubilee tour, like everybody, we’re flying. We’re one of America’s biggest acts. We’d been on Saturday Night Live, four times. We’ve won Grammys. We’ve done every TV show possible. We’re selling out arenas by ourselves with no opening act. We’re in a private jet. John refused to have opening acts. I even turned down Elton John’s tour to stay with John because we were that big.
John suddenly quits. He said that at the end of that show, hands on your bonus check when they used to it bonus checks, and he goes, “Listen, don’t spend this in one place. I’m quitting the music business for three years.” He didn’t but when he said it, it was so believable and I had just gotten divorced. I had child support, the mortgage car, the regular stuff and I’m like, “What? I’m out of a job.” This is what I said to myself. I freaked out that night. The next day I woke up, I went, “I’ve been working with one superstar for eight years. Now I’m going to go work with all the other superstars.” I made a conscious effort to go to LA. My drum sound was so big on the radio but people wanted to hire me enough so I could make some records.
I got a call from this guy Don Was, and he wasn’t a big producer. He goes, “This is Don was.” I swear to God, I thought he was a black man. I was like, “Dig it.” They had three black singers and a sax player. How did I know? He says, “I’m making this record with Iggy Pop. you’d be perfect for it.” I’m like, “Iggy Pop?” He says, “Come and meet me down at Record Plant.” I go down to the record plant the next day and I see the three background singers, black guys, and I go up to them and go, “I go up to Sweet Pea. Are you Don Was?” “I am not Don Was. What do you talk about?” I’m like, I’m freaking out, “I’m so sorry.” I go over to these white guys, I’m like, “Does anybody know when Don’s coming and done?” I’m done.
Sweet Pea didn’t like that. Did you guys bury the hatchet?
It sounded like he didn’t like me. That’s his style. He loved me. That’s succinct. He’s from Detroit. Did you know that Iggy was a timpanist and a percussionist in high school?
I did not know that.
He grew up in Detroit, where John is from. Iggy slumped down. He was checking me out. Anyway, I make that record. While I’m making that record, I’m just focusing, “I’m doing an Iggy Pop record. I’m breaking into the music scene.” Don can’t come in that day because it’s the Grammy’s and all of a sudden, somebody says, “You guys got to come in here. Don just won two Grammys.” He won two Grammys for Nick of Time for Bonnie Raitt, then he wins another one for Love Shack for the B-52’s. Don now becomes this guy.
I get called to do Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bob Seger, who I eventually went on tour with, Elton John has to go on tour, everybody. My discography gets so huge because he asked me to all those TV shows.
The Kennedy Centers and MusiCares and all that.
MusiCares, not Kennedy Center always. There’s a list I could have sent you. It’s stupid. It’s just as impossible. It’s like everything from Johnny Cash, The Smashing Pumpkins, Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion, The Buddy Rich Big Band, Rod Stewart, Elton John, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Ray Charles, a lot of this stuff came through Don Was. I’m playing on like a, let’s say a Merle Haggard tribute right there in Nashville, Johnny Cash tribute, or the Gregg Allman Tribute. I’m playing with people I would never have been called to play with but because I was the house drummer, I’m now suddenly playing with 500 people. The most bizarre people you would never put me with.
From one relationship that you didn’t know where it was going to happen and you cultivated, it seems like a theme where it’s like, you’re working with Tutko. You’re working with Don Gehman, Don Was, Rob Mathes, and there are these people. They trust and champion you. You never mail it in for them. They keep calling you.
You don’t get a great musician or a great anybody doesn’t get hired just because of their skill. Don said, “I want Kenny in the room because he motivates the room and he saves my sessions.” That’s just not a playing thing. That’s a personality thing. That’s a vibe, a presence, and a big part of it, there are so many drummers. How many drummers did you know at North Texas that were amazing, but you’ve never heard of them ever since?
There’s a couple that had practice rooms next to me, and their skill was insane but just because of personal preferences or their distorted DNA, their makeup, their desire, the fire, they never went to where the watering holes are, which is New York, LA, or Nashville. If you’re not there, you must be present to win.
I call this thing, connecting, communicating, collaborate. I get called to do Elton John’s session. I walk in Elton John 75 albums. I got to go right to him and say, “Elton John, I’m Kenny Aronoff.” He hugs me and everything. That will connect, communicate. We have a relationship. Now I can go out and we can look at each other and play music but it’s got to happen in 45 minutes. The next day it’s B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt, then the next four days is Bob Seger. That literally happened with me, who was Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King on Monday. Elton John Tuesday, Wednesday. Bob Seger, Thursday through Sunday. Fly to Athens, Georgia, Indigo Girls, which I’m the first male guy on the records. I fly back and do Willie Nelson for one day, four more days with Bob Seger, then Bon Jovi, Blaze of Glory.
If you think about it, every one of those artists, I could do another corporation. It’s a separate entity. I’ve got guys like us to have to connect with. You were serving the artist, the band, engineers, the producer, the assistant engineer, and the other musicians. We have one goal and purpose, and it’s only this, how can I help you get the record on the radio to be a number one hit single? That’s it. It’s not about me. It’s about them.
The funny thing is, I know Jim will agree, is that this was like perfect timing in time and space in human history and the health of the music business. I call it the Velvet Rope, Cocaine era of the music business, where even if you tried to do that again, I don’t know if it’s ever good. You could have a great musician. Kenny, you caught fire. Even if you’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s nowadays, I don’t know if there’s that much work.
You nailed it, which you just took the words right out of my mouth. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when the music business had money. There was money as soon as simple. I’m on three records that sold over 40 million copies. For all you reading, the record labels making $0.82 or $0.85 on the dollar times $40 million.
They got all this money. They can fly guys like me all over the world and then I could spend two weeks in the studio. The studios are $2,000 to $3,000 a day. I was flying all over the world, and because the people could afford to make records and do it blight. They had money to get the bands on the blow, get publicist, make the records, and market to get it on the radio. It took money to make money. Unfortunately, that part of the music business died. Music is free. That brings us to right now, where this unfortunate pandemic took the only thing left to make big money, which was live performance. That’s gone. Thank God, I got my studio. I started that several years ago when I saw the records business falling apart and I went, “Wow.”
I remember asking you about that, that you saw the writing on the wall. It was like, “I got kits in three cities.” You were still maybe living in Indiana or something like that. You’re like, “Put of the three major cities, I need to set up shop somewhere. I like the sunshine.” You got all your drums and you just said, “I’m open for business. You come to me.” I remember the first drummer to create an ad home recording facility in Nashville. Tony Morra had a place called The Downtown Batterie. He took his garage. He floated the floors. He did the right things, had all the clients come to him, plays on a lot of contemporary Christian records. It’s assumed you’re going to have your own space.
It’s like that we adjusted and adapted to the situation. That’s why I can probably now do my speaking virtually from my studio. I had to adapt and adjust, get the right lights, get the right cameras to adapt. I’m doing the same thing with the speakers, with the music. You adapt. As soon as the COVID hit, I literally made a list of what am I not able to do and what am I going to do to replace it. It’s that simple. I’m surviving.
You got to go for pain in order to grow.
Grow is the keyword. The way you do grow is you embrace adversity and struggle. It’s a math equation. Remember in math, zero equals zero. You do nothing, you get nothing. Nobody’s born successful. We earn our success. If you’re waiting for success to land on your lap and I’m walking around and I see that same thing, I’m going after it. You’re not going to get it because I’m taking action. I’m doing something to get what I want. If you don’t, you’re going to lose out. It’s the way it is. It’s do or die.
There’s a lot of working drummers out there that saw your business model over the last several years. I know it was inspirational for me. It was like, “I’m going to cover my ass. I got kits in LA and in Nashville. I got people that I work within both markets. I’m going to expand the stuff that I do within drumming and beyond drumming but it still fits in entertainment and education.” You go after these things unapologetically and you’re going to have haters and you know you’re doing something right when you have haters.
It was a great business model that they worked out and you’re not stopping. In my speeches, I talk about the growing, changing, and evolving. If you’re rotting on the vine, you are not making fine wine. To make great music and great wine, you got to change, evolve, grow, stay relevant, and move forward in all areas of your life, and it’s exhausting. I know you don’t put in an eight-hour workday, you put in a 15, 16-hour workday. At the end of the day, that glass of wine, that time with your loved one, or whatever, it’s going to be more special because you worked hard.
That’s improvise overcome.
I wrote a second book that I haven’t put out. I finished it several years ago, but anyway, I talk about you. Are you living your life loud or are you dying on the vine? Not grapes. I completely crushed lazy Millennials. I’m one of the guys. I don’t believe everyone should get a trophy. Do you want a trophy? You earn it. That’s the way it goes. I grew up in that world. People, who think everybody should have a trophy, where’s the motivation?
Do you want to be good at something? You bust your ass, that’s it. There are no handouts and shortcuts. If you don’t make it, you learn from that. Not everybody becomes a winner. It doesn’t work that way. I’m wired hot. I have a saying, it goes like this, “I’ll never be as great as I want to be, but I am willing to spend the rest of my life trying to be as great as I can be.” That’s it. There’s a running back at a touchdown every time. Hell no, but he keeps trying to go, “The guy hit me too hard.” What? No.
I don’t know how many times this has happened to you. We’ve had opening acts over the years and every opening act that opens for us, the drummer gets married, has to go to a funeral, has to go to a wedding, breaks his foot, breaks his hand and you get to knock on the door an hour before the show, you’re with the opening act tonight. If we couldn’t read music and playstyles and play with a click, we couldn’t save the day. You end up saving the day for the person. It’s one more notch on your bedpost, one more tool in your toolbox, and one more story that you can tell. It’s incredible.
I’ve got a chart here. I have the worst memory in the world. I write every note out. I got ten songs to record. I don’t have time to learn them.
Do you know what I’m going to do? I have saved every number chart in Nashville in every transcription and every free chart I’ve ever used in the last several years. Eventually, I’m going to put them in a book and sell it.
Me, too. People keep telling me that.
You need an intern to get somebody to put it all together.
I did the same thing. I will eventually. It’s not the priority, but I’m going to just send that. That’s weird. We both do the same thing. For some reason, I saved these charts and a lot of them are unsigned artists, but I saved them. I don’t know why.
It took the time for you to learn the song, chart it out. It’s part of your life story. It’s like, “I didn’t want to throw them away.”
Me either. That’s weird and funny.
Are you in Nashville or LA?
I’m in West Hollywood. I live right over by the Four Seasons on Doheny with my girlfriend. She’s a fashion designer and we’re going to try to most likely get over to Studio City, North Hollywood, Glendale. Cat’s out of the bag. In Los Angeles, she needs $700,000 for a starter home, a fixer-upper. I’m still working feverishly towards that.
It’s insane. I happened to buy my house because I still had my house in Indiana and I had an apartment out here. Apartments are expensive. Then I got a second apartment because I needed more space. They went, “That’s getting close to a mortgage.” I eventually sold my house in Indiana and I bought a house out here right at 2010, which was good timing. What happened, supply and demand. Every time it went to put up a down payment or an offer on a house, by the time I got back to my place, it had been bought with cash plus $20,000 over the asking price. I’m like, “What is going on?” I realized, it went down to the bottom, and now people with cash, you’re buying everything. It was hard to find a place. That house, when I refinanced a year later after I bought it, went up 70% in one year. Once you come here, as you well know, it’s hard to leave. It’s a cool place to live.
I miss all the kibitzing and things that you get to do in this fun city. At the same time, I spent the last several months, trying to be as productive as possible during all of this.
You do the best you can. Doing nothing, you get nothing. I’m the type of guy, at the end of the day, I got to have done something. I’ve got to, or I feel like I wasted a day in my life.
Jim, is this that time of the show? We’re going to hit you with some random questions.
Did I play on that song?
That was programmed by it.
It’s entirely possible.
I hear songs on the radio. I go, “That’s a cool song.” I don’t even go that far. I go, “Who wrote that? I wonder who that is,” then I find out who it is, and then I realized I played on it. Sometimes there’s a couple of takes and then you’re done. How would I know? Hit me with a random question. I’m ready.
Which movie sequel do you wish you could erase from history?
Are you going to give me the sequel or do you want me to add it?
Tell me, which movie sequel do you wish you could erase from history?
I never thought about that.
It could be like Jaws 2, Aliens.
I like all of them. Maybe what movie would I erase. I can’t remember what it is, that’s why I hate it so much. I can’t remember it.
I’ll say Ocean’s Twelve. That’ll be my answer.
All the Ocean’s that you can get rid of. I don’t care. I’m not a big fan of the Ocean’s.
They were clever movies.
Sometimes you have to be in the mood for something.
What do you think, Jim, one more?
I’m looking for something. It’s got to be a good one.
What is something that is considered a luxury but you don’t think you could live without?
It is a luxury. Every time I see where we are having a cocktail, you’re like, “I’m not supposed to be doing this, but I’m doing it.” Everything in moderation.
It also depends. The luxury part is the expensive wine that you go, “I’m going to get that real expensive wine.” I liked it.
I feel like most wine, if it’s like between, say it’s over $15.99 and then you go to $50.99. I don’t know if you could tell the difference between $15 and $50.
I got a perfect example. Some guy, very wealthy man. He poured me a glass of tequila. I don’t drink tequila, but he said, “You’re not going to believe how smooth this is.” $80 a bottle. He says, “Check this out. I got a $10,000 bottle that somebody gave me.” He pours it to me. I said, “That might be $900.” That is not, all of a sudden, $10,000 better or whatever. Are you kidding me? I’ll go into a store. I’ll go, “Give me the $20 bottle that tastes like a $50.”
They love getting those questions, the wine people at the wine store.
I thought I invented that. I’m not the only one that says that?
Kenny, I remember when I took a lesson with you in 1999, I asked about everything because even then, I recognized it’s not all about talent. It’s the big picture. I was like, “What are you eating?” You’re like, “A scoop of designer protein and then a salad with some chicken breasts on it.” Are you still eating like a bodybuilder?
Pretty much. I make my mistakes. The main thing is it’s up here. If you get off the track, you go, “I better pull it back in.” Sometimes I’m just dying for some ice cream. I eat it.
Who cooks in the family? Are you doing the cooking or your wife?
Gina does. She’s way better than me. She’s from England. She’s got that European flavor thing. I’ll cook, too, but nothing like her. I’m the type of guy, I just throw things together and get it in my mouth.
I like the presentation. Kara is much better. She’s like, “What do you want tonight?” She’s like, “We’re doing burritos,” but she’s like, “I got gluten-free tortillas and we’re just going to do like half of one. I got brown rice,” and I’m like, “Now you’re talking. We can have a burrito, but it’s more healthy.”
Calories are a big thing and then how much you burn during the exercise. The thing is, the interesting transition was on tour. It was a two-hour sound check, sometimes three at full volume. “Are you playing full volume?” “I can.” Full volume for three hours, then a two-and-a-half-hour show. That’s five and a half hours of serious cardio. John likes everything fast, on the edge, pushing, driving. If it’s not, he’s turning around. He wants me to kick his ass. He was in his 70s. He’s insane. All of a sudden, I’m not doing five and a half hours at that level. You have to adjust a whole bunch of stuff to still maintain that the way I want to look. I look in the mirror and go, “That’s not good.”
Through COVID, I’ve been getting up and doing running like 5.5 and 6 miles every day. I got this little thing called the Mutt Bars. It’s an American-made product. It’s 33 pounds, but you can hit most of the major muscle groups. You like a little prison workout. I get next to the bed and I do your squat thrusts and your pushups and you can keep it together.
You keep it together between diet and exercise. You got to be healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You have to be. Especially now to survive, what we’re going to. There’s a lot of new things that are happening to us that we’re not aware of because we’ve never experienced it, which affects your whole mental state. You’ve got to figure out what you need to do. It could be meditation, exercise, whatever it is. Figure out how you can keep yourself up happy, positive, joyful, and not the negative.
We should get me, you, and Mark Schulman on an event and we will blow some doors off the place.
That’d be awesome.
That’d be like a triple threat. People will be like, “What just hit us?” Can you imagine that? Kenny, Thanks, I don’t want to take too much of your time, but for the readers out there, this is the book. Go get it. Sex, Drums, Rock ’n’ Roll!: The Hardest Hitting Man In Show Business, Kenny Aronoff. You like to be found on the interwebs. You got KennyAronoff.com. What’s the best way for people to say, “Kenny, I want to make it in the music industry. How do I do it?”
You go to www.KennyAronoff.com, it’s my website, and there are email addresses there. You can reach out to me. You can follow me on Instagram, @KennyAronoff, Twitter, @AronoffOFFICIAL and then on Facebook. People ask me, “Add me as your friend.” I tapped out several years ago. I have a fan page and then LinkedIn. I’m not on TikTok. That’s how you can find me.
I am not doing TikTok. Jim and I talk about it all the time. He’s like, “Maybe you should try doing it.” I’m like, “I don’t need another thing.”
Have you seen, what’s that Netflix movie?
The Social Dilemma. I took a week off Instagram after I watched that. They’re tracking us, Jim and Kenny. They know our buying habits. They know what we like. It’s scary. It’s been great. I’ve been studying you and learning from you for a long time. It was so cool to have you at my drum camp. We’re right up the street from each other. When it gets safe to see each other through this pandemic, we’ll get together and do something fun. We appreciate your time.
Thank you so much, guys. I will see you soon somewhere.
To all the readers out there, thank you guys so much for reading. If you dig the show, subscribe, share, tell your friends rate, leave us a review. It helps people find the show a lot faster. Jim, as always, thanks for your time and talent. JimMcCarthyVoiceOvers.com. Keep coming back for the good stuff and we’ll see you next time. Thanks, Kenny.
What do John Mellencamp, Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Sting, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Dave Grohl, Elton John, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jon Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler, The Smashing Pumpkins, Meatloaf, B.B. King, Rod Stewart, and John Fogerty have in common?
All of these rock ‘n’ roll superstars have performed with Kenny Aronoff as their drummer, keeping the beat in the studio or on the road.
So how does one become such a sought-after drummer? It all began in 1964, when a young Kenny watched The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show. He asked his Mom to call The Beatles because he wanted to play in their band. Little did he know that fifty years later he would get to perform onstage with Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as countless other professional musicians, during the CBS Special The Night That Changed America.
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