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Author Topic: Band Member Spotlight: Kenny Aronoff - By Thad Requet  (Read 53759 times)
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« on: October 13, 2011, 04:01:29 pm »

Band Member Spotlight: Kenny Aronoff  - By Thad Requet

Kenny (left) with the John Cougar Band - 1982

After an 11 hour flight, former John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff goes to his apartment and WORKS for 8 1/2 hours. Then the next morning it's about two hours of work, then he works on electronic drum sets for seven hours for a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show. Meanwhile he's practicing for all kinds of jobs. He takes a break only to go get groceries and pick up his girlfriend's dog. Next thing you know it's 12:30 a.m. He works until 4:30 a.m., can't get to sleep until 5:30 a.m. He squeezes in five hours of sleep and does it all again.

"It can be hard to keep up with everything. I took my first vacation this year in about 15 years. Five days in Hawaii and it felt great. I've got to stay healthy and stay strong. I probably do push it a little bit too hard... yeah I definitely do.. but I love what I do...can't's so addicting," Aronoff said.

Aronoff, who lives full time in Los Angeles, recently sold his place in Indiana. "I can't keep both places going and this is where the music business is. So I'm just going to ride it out here. It's perfect for what I do," he said.

Kenny took time from his busy schedule to talk about his days helping create and deliver some of John Mellencamp's greatest hits.

Kenny from the Scarecrow Tour Book- 1985


He's respected as one of the best drummers in modern music...period. But, like so many others, Kenny had to work hard to establish himself. "When Nothin' Matters And What If It Did came out, I'd only been in the band for about five weeks. When we got in the studio, and my equipment wasn't up to date with what was happening out of L.A. The producer Steve Cropper was wanting to get the record done fast. There was a lot of tension. John wanted to get the record done fast. I didn't have the cool equipment and I was a little bit uptight because there was a lot of pressure on the band. John was demanding a lot. John has always expected all of us to bring a lot to the table. I was the new guy and I wasn't sure what he was looking for."

"We started recording and Cropper observed that I was new in the band, and things weren't really jelling yet. I had come from a totally different musical scene than what John was doing, so I had a lot to learn. Since they were wanting to get the record done fast, he decided it would be best to bring in two session drummers." Ironically Kenny would years later become one of the most in-demand session drummers around. "Guys like that could do three, four, five songs a day. I can do 10 songs a day now. But back then I just didn't have the experience. A good session drummer is like Peyton Manning with the Colts. You've got to know everything. It's not a genius thing, it's just experience that gives you the know-how to solve problems," Aronoff explained.

Hand To Hold On To - 1982


Kenny Aronoff has one of the most popular drum parts in modern rock-n-roll music with what he did in John Mellencamp's 1982 hit song "Jack & Diane" off the American Fool album. Mellencamp, who has talked many times about the struggles of trying to come up with an arrangement for that song that he was happy with, leaned heavy on Aronoff's creative thinking.

"We were all young and our ability to arrange songs was limited. We were all learning to be better at what we did. My job was playing drums and coming up with drum parts. For John's music, that's a challenge whenever you are trying to do something that's brilliant in a simple fashion," Aronoff explained. "With lots of notes you can cover up a lot of stuff. You can make a lot of noise and draw a lot of attention, but to make something simple and perfect, creative and unique, is very, very difficult, especially in the moment under pressure with everyone waiting for your results" he added.

Jack & Diane - 1982

"So "Jack & Diane" was a very simple song, the band knew it was a great song. The lyrics told an incredible story, but we didn't know how to arrange it. So I was playing a basic beat with my cross stick on snare drum and kick to the high hat. I didn't know much more what to do with it except maybe get off the cross stick and play with a stronger back beat on the snare drum and a couple fills, but it had nothing to do with the drum break," he explained.

The break in the song was something that the band hadn't worked out when rehearsing the song before going in the studio. "We decided we'd wait until we got in the studio, which never works because whatever your problem is in rehearsal room, will get magnified in the studio, and it did on that song."

Don Gehman who was producing the album, walked in the studio one day with a Linn 1 drum machine and suggested that John use a it on that song. At that time drum machines were starting to be a popular item. Phil Collins had used one on his song "In The Air Tonight" and Hall & Oats had used them on songs. Kenny didn't want to hear the words drum machine. "Now days it's no big deal, but back then it was kind of a unique thing. I felt like I was being replaced by a drum machine."

So Kenny programmed his drum parts onto the drum machine. Instead of a bass drum, he used a tom tom, for the hi-hat he used a tambourine, instead of the back beat he used hand claps. Each individual sound was run from the output of the drum machine into the sound board. So they had control of each individual sound on tape.  

"I remember going 'Ah man, this sucks, I'm not on this song and it's going to be a big song,'" Kenny said it was the next day he was in the lounge area of the studio and they called his name. "All the sudden I hear 'Aronoff get in here, we need a drum solo. I'm like 'what?' I'm's a ballad. Usually when you think of a drum solo you think of something fast, insane and crazy. You have to realize they were trying to create an entire different drum sound. Back in the early 80's most of your drums were recorded in a vocal booth. Even the album Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, those drummers were playing in vocal booths," Aronoff explained. "Now the drums were in the big room. We spent half a day, six or more hours easily, trying to get a drum sound...positioning mics in all kinds of places. We were trying to learn how to get this big drum sound, which today you can get in 20 minutes. It's not a secret anymore, but then we were trying to invent and create a new sound."
Jack & Diane Drum Solo

As Kenny made his way to the drum set, he was frantically thinking to himself 'what am I going to do. As he sat behind the drums he just reacted to what he thought would work. "I just went boom blam! The first thing I did...kick drum to snare drum. Two sticks on the snare drum at the same time. 1...2...3...boom blam! Then I stopped. I was trying to establish a powerful but simple entrance... like 'here come the drums' I looked at John in the control room. The whole band's in there, the producer and a couple other people. John goes 'I love it, yeah, perfect!' It was simple and right to the point. Now I've got to do a solo. I'm thinking 'I'm not going to go down the tom toms because everybody does that, so I decided to start down and work up. I thought I would refer to the drum program and use a rhythmic phrase that was already in the music. So I used the rhythm that was in the bass drum that I had programmed. So I played the figure up the toms and didn't like it... I was feeling a lot of pressure because I felt if I didn't come up with a cool part quick... I could get replaced again."

Kenny and the Scarecrow Band - 1985

Aronoff talked about what might have been one of the most stressful walks in his life, from the control room to the drum set. "I remember making that walk thinking, you've got 20 feet to save your career. I'm thinking if I don't get this drum solo figured out, I could be replaced with a session drummer again just like on Nothin' Matters. As I get closer to this drum set I keep thinking you've got 10 feet to figure this out...five feet, then I'm there and I turn around and I think to myself 'this is it man what are you going to do.' Somehow it popped in my head to play that same rhythm but start one eighth note later. That created tension and uniqueness, but yet it was a familiar rhythm, you can hear it. I went one...two...three...boom blam! one...then I came in right off of beat one." Aronoff said looking back now this was more than just coming up with a solo. "This turned into music composition. It's still played on the radio today and people are still air drumming to it. So I remember going up the drums and at one point I remember John saying hit a cymbal so I finished it by coming back down the toms and into a Phil Collins type of rhythm but then to make it Kenny Aronoff I added a triplet on the last beat four. The triplets created finality of that fill and drove you down into what was the groove." Aronoff said when he stopped at that point John said to keep playing so he played the groove, which would lead to everyone singing the chorus.. "so let it rock... let it roll... etc," he said.
Kenny had been listening to Steve Gadd one of the greatest session drummers of all time. He made a record with Chick Corea called Leprechaun, which had a really funky, Latin influenced sound. He was hitting the floor tom on beat four. "I tried to do the beat that you hear on the record where the high hat was going all the time. To get to the floor tom and the snare drum at the same time, the high hat opened up. John was saying there's too much high hat, so to make a point I played no high hat. John said 'no, give me some high hat.' That's how I came up with the beat that you hear on the record. The high hat opening up on beat three leading into four was all influenced by Steve Gadd. That's how it came out When that record came out the first song on the radio was "Hurts So Good" and there was no song before or after us that could match the sonics of that. We blew everything away on the radio. The drums were huge. There were records like "Ebony And Ivory" and "Eye Of The Tiger" and those records didn't stand a chance from a sonic standpoint on the radio. That launched us. We got album of the year, a Grammy. "Jack & Diane" was probably the beginning of me getting some attention," Kenny explained. It wouldn't be until 1985 when he would start doing session work for other people.

Kenny on the Scarecrow Tour - 1986



Kenny explained that on the Mr. Happy Go Lucky album that came out in 1996, he created some drum loops. "I started listening to some CD's with that style of music, plus I was doing some different stuff anyway. I was on a Waylon Jennings CD where I put triggers on my drums and had done some different things. I was going through loops that Junior Vasquez (the producer of the Mr. Happy Go Lucky album) had and that I had and I stuck them in my D-drum brain (the central logic device within an electric drum kit) that had a sequence sensor, and I would start it and play along with it. And then we also recorded it. So, it was cool," he explained. "You know, someone once told me that they thought we bridged rock-n-roll and R&B and hip-hop before anyone else did. And you know when we did the song "When Jesus Left Birmingham." Aronoff talked about the thought process of that song which appeared on the Human Wheels album in 1993. "What I did, just by trial and error, trying to come up with new ideas for John's records, which was always a challenge for me, was to come up with new beats and ideas that I'd never heard before. I was trying to find something NEW to put with John's rootsy, Woody Guthrie style...that became more and more of a challenge. John looked to me to come up with a cool beat...simple, cool and unique every time he wrote a song...that was my job... I'd only heard the song a couple of times and John would be like 'come on, give me a beat.' I'd be asking myself, what beat am I going to come up with that I've never used on John's record before.. It was really hard," Kenny explained.

Kenny on the Human Wheels era band
on the "When Jesus Left Birmingham Video Shoot - 1993

On the track "When Jesus Left Birmingham" Kenny was playing a brush and blast stick on a small snare. "It was a hip hop swingy type of groove and I overdubbed a bongo part on top of it. It created this chik chik ka, ka chika chika ka type beat. I didn't know, I was just kind of feeling it. We came back from a dinner break and John was like 'nah, swing and a miss' and I was like 'no dude, let me put drums on it.. I had this vision suddenly that made sense to me...I realized I had actually done the overdubs first and now I needed to ground the song with a strong beat or foundation... Suddenly I thought if I put a ch, ch KA, ka ch ch KA the entire song would groove...something made me think of a U2 song.. .some record they had done. I convinced John to let me lay down a drum track. John's eyes bugged out and he was like 'you're right, now lets finish it," Aronoff explained. "I think "When Jesus Left Birmingham" is one of the coolest songs he's ever written," he said.


During the Whenever We Wanted tour in 1992, the show would open with Kenny jumping on stage and sliding in behind his drum set and jamming out a beat as the waves of people would be moving and dancing. Other band members would fill in a little at a time as the powerful beat was joined by music one layer at a time. It would eventually work into the intro of "Love And Happiness." "I have to say that was our best intro period. That was the most powerful way to start the show. It just got everybody going."

Love and Happiness - 1992  
With the energy and emotion that Kenny gives off during a live performance he has to keep in top shape. "I've been training regularly since 1994. I'm very meticulous about what I eat, I mean I cheat a little bit, but I'm aware of what's going on every day."

Aronoff said he gets excited when he plays live and he thinks it reflects in his performances. "It's just my personality for one thing. It's live and I get very excited...I'm a fan and I'm playing at the same time. So it's like being at the Superbowl every night for me," he explained.


During the late 80's and early 90's, Mellencamp slowed down some with his recording and touring, so Kenny had the opportunity to do more session work. The session work picked up about as fast as a grassfire spreads. "Yeah, it was nobody's fault, I was just enjoying running wild. It was tough because I had gotten many offers to leave the band before that but I didn't want to, so I didn't. I loved being a part of John's band. It was exciting to grow with the band and be a part of the experience of playing small venues or even clubs to selling out one to four nights in an 18,000 seat arena. But at the same time I wanted to stretch my creativity by playing with other musicians and other styles of music. It was all good in my eyes, so that led me to doing sessions," he explained. "When John started taking a little more time off, the session work started to become my second income. During the Big Daddy time, he took three years off, and I had just gone through a divorce, so during that three years, I really had to work hard to create a session career. That's exactly what I did, and after I created it, I didn't want to let go of it," Aronoff explained.

Kenny recalled the first day in the recording studio for Bob Dylan's Under The Red Sky album in 1990. "The first day I got to record with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimmy Vaughn and David Lindley on one track. The only time Bob ever said anything to me was the very first day of recording. He came in the control room where we were waiting for him, and said 'Hey Kenny I'm Bob Dylan, nice to meet you' and that was it. That was the last thing he ever said to me," Aronoff said.

One thing that Kenny is very proud of is that not only is he in demand as a rock drummer, but also for country and many different styles of music. He has played for such a wide variety of people. "That is one of my greatest achievements for myself. I'm so happy I was able to pull that off, because that's what I've always wanted to do. People want to pigeon hole you as one kind of drummer or musician, and I feel I broke down those barriers about as well as I can." Aronoff said he's always been big into practicing. "I would practice all kinds of things that didn't have anything to do with Mellencamp music," he explained. That is another reason he has been in demand for such a diverse group of artists.
Now More Than Ever - 1992  


Whenever We Wanted - 1992
Operating with such a busy schedule can make for some very difficult situations sometimes. One of the toughest things Kenny ever did while juggling his Mellencamp career with his outside career was when he was touring with Bob Seger in 1996. John had a promotional gig for the record company in Hong Kong at the same time to introduce Mr. Happy Go Lucky. "We happened to be in a four day break (in the Seger tour), and the last show we played before that break was in Indianapolis of all places. The next show picked up in Detroit." Aronoff said he didn't think Mellencamp was very excited about making the Hong Kong trip for the show, and Kenny said he felt like John was thinking if Kenny wasn't able to make the show, it would be John's ticket out. Other people were telling John he needed to go, so they decided to do the show.

The Hong Kong performance was the night before Aronoff was supposed to play in Detroit with Seger. Kenny stressed to management that he had to be back, and he was told that they would surely be able to get some executive's jet after the show and make a connection on a commercial airline and get to Detroit with plenty of time to spare. However, a couple weeks before the Hong Kong gig, Aronoff finds out that the Hong Kong airport won't allow corporate jets to stay at the airport after they land.

"Suddenly now I'm in deep trouble. Now I have to let Seger's people know and they freak...rightfully so. So, now we asked them about moving John's show a half-hour earlier, which would have helped me leave Hong Kong on a late commercial flight to France and get to Detroit on time...they wouldn't budge on the time."

"So now I'm at Market Square (Arena in Indianapolis) getting ready to perform (for Seger) and freaking out over what I'm going to do after the show. John just kept telling me 'do the right thing.'" Aronoff said the Seger management wanted to protect themselves by taking a Loyds of London insurance policy out on him to cover all the expenses in case he didn't make the show for whatever reason and cover the expenses of rebooking the show in Detroit. "The price was like $30,000, which I was going to have to pay for," he said. Finally, Kenny decides, just go for it. "I flew from Indiana to Los Angeles, and from there to Hong Kong, and went straight to the hotel and then straight to the stage to soundcheck for five hours. John's in a bad mood, I'm tired, I'm like, 'what am I even doing here.'"

When Kenny finally got back to his hotel room, he just wanted to relax and get some rest, the phone rang, and it was Bob Seger's manager, Punch Andrews. "He say's 'Kenny, you have to make a decision right now, are you going to be here for the show (in Detroit). Punch said the Detroit Pistons got knocked out of the playoffs, therefore if Seger had to cancel, he could make up the date the next night. Therefore the insurance for some reason was a lot less. More like $3,500, So that's what I was charged," he explained. "After the Mellencamp show In Hong Kong, I flew from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and then Tokyo to Detroit. We landed in Detroit at 3:15 and soundcheck was at 4 p.m. There was no way I could make it in less than an hour from the airport to the Palace in Detroit rush hour traffic. So they got me a helicopter. I'm going through customs, and I grabbed my stuff and I was off running. A security guy stops me asking me...'hey, what are you doing'...I explain that I'm trying to get to the venue, I'm doing a show with Bob Seger, and another guy comes up and says 'hey, that's not Bob Seger's drummer, that's Mellencamp's drummer.' They start arguing over who I play with, and meanwhile I'm like 'get me out of here,'" Aronoff explained. He boarded the helicopter flew to the Palace, got in the arena, changed and was on the stage five minutes before the rest of the band showed up. "I remember doing the show and we're finishing up doing "Hollywood Nights" and the bass player Chris (Campbell) say's 'come on man, admit it, you're tired. I told him 'never say die.' But I was so tired," he admitted.

Hurts So Good - Solid Gold 1982


"There were a couple of songs John wrote back then I just knew immediately that they were going to be amazing. One of them was "Pink Houses." He played it for me on his acoustic guitar. I still remember that day exactly, the sunlight coming in his house. I mean you just know sometimes when a song is going to be great."

Pink Houses - MTV Unplugged 1992  


Kenny Aronoff has played in front of some important crowds in some very prestigious places through the years. In January 2011 he was the house drummer for the Kennedy Center Honors for the third year in a row. The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. He also was the drummer for all the artists at President Obama's inauguration. "I had the opportunity to meet (President Bill) Clinton four times and I just played for (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin and the Ambassador of Russia. Kenny was drumming for John Fogerty while he played a private party for the Russian leaders.


Kenny and John at the Neil Young MusiCares -2010
Kenny said he doesn't get to see John very much anymore. "We don't talk a lot because we are both so busy, but there's no question that we are friends. I thought he did a great job on the Letterman Show the last time he was on there. Performing by himself ("Save Some Time To Dream") was powerful and I thought he interviewed amazingly," Kenny said. The two have shared the stage several times in the past few years: at the President Obama inauguration, at the Kennedy Center Honors Bruce Springsteen and at the MusiCares tribute to Neil Young.

He said he felt John really pushed him to be the best he could be. "We both are perfectionists and have very competitive attitudes. I think we pushed each other during those times to make the music the best it could be," Aronoff said.

Down By The River - 2010


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« Reply #1 on: October 14, 2011, 09:16:50 am »

Great read....thanks so much.

only promises I know to be true, are the promises made from the heart. ~MQDU~
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« Reply #2 on: October 14, 2011, 09:26:21 am »

Great walk down memory lane!
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« Reply #3 on: October 14, 2011, 10:03:22 am »

Very nice.  Thanks!
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« Reply #4 on: May 04, 2019, 07:09:49 am »

I've always wondered: who's the guy between Toby Myers and Lisa Germano in the 1993 When Jesus Left Birmingham video shoot photograph? I think he also played accordion at the Chicago '93 VH1 show.
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« Reply #5 on: May 04, 2019, 09:11:28 am »

I've always wondered: who's the guy between Toby Myers and Lisa Germano in the 1993 When Jesus Left Birmingham video shoot photograph? I think he also played accordion at the Chicago '93 VH1 show.

His name is Michael Ramos. He stepped in and played with the band some in 1993 after John Cassella's death in late 1992, he was a member of The Bodeans at the time. He rejoined the band in 2003 after Moe Z MD's departure and toured and recorded with John through the end of 2005 when he left to work on his solo career.

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« Reply #6 on: May 04, 2019, 09:46:41 am »

Thanks Tony; your reply was sure quick on the draw.

The name rings a bell. Shame on me for forgetting.

Thanks again.
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« Reply #7 on: November 06, 2020, 06:31:08 am »

I am happy to see these superb videos of Band Members. Thank you so much.

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