Podcast Transcript

Speaker 1:

Takin’ a Walk.

Kenny Aronoff:

What has made me successful, some of it is genetics and some of it is because I’m living my life from my truth, my passion, my deepest desires. I tell people this, whatever has made you successful, you keep doing that so you can stay successful. I wake up every morning and I feel grateful. I love it, but I know it didn’t come from luck. If you get a lucky break, well you better be prepared. You better be ready.

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Takin’ a Walk podcast, the show where Buzz Knight talks with musicians about the inside stories behind their music. Today, Buzz is joined by one of the most respected drummers in music history. Kenny Aronoff is responsible for keeping the beat for many years behind John Mellencamp. Kenny has a resume that extends across genres and eras, working with the likes of everybody from Lady Gaga to the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and many more. Let’s welcome Buzz and Kenny Aronoff on Takin’ a Walk.

Buzz Knight:

Well, Kenny Aronoff, welcome to this virtual edition of Taking a Walk. I’m so grateful that you’re on. Let’s talk about the new projects that you’re up to.

Kenny Aronoff:

Well, I mean, the newest thing I’m doing is my own project. It’s a podcast called The Kenny Aronoff Sessions, and I have guests like Sammy Hagar, Bill Burr. I had Anne Wilson recently. I had John 5, the guitar player. Phil X is up right now, the guitar player with Bon Jovi. I had Kevin Cronin lead singer from REO. I’ve had that level of people. Steve Lucas here, my buddy, a guitar player, Ringo Starr and Toto, and his own band.

And yeah, I mean, the main thing is these are all people I’ve either worked with, or toured with, or recorded with. And, it’s not like I’m some interviewer that doesn’t know these people. We know each other, which opens the door for all possibilities. But, my main premise on the thing is to share with people how these incredible people like a Joe Bonamassa, it was that one thing that happened in his life that made him successful.

And, all these people in many cases, they were trying to make it and it wasn’t, it’s not all, it’s not just luck. I mean, you work your butt off. And the real focus for me, this is what happened with me and with everyone else, say Dee Snider, Jack Blades from the bands he’s played with, Night Ranger and Damn Yankees, everybody started doing this because they love it. They absolutely love it, and I talk about it when I do public speaking. I’m a professional speaker too. I do these speeches for corporations.

But the thing is, when you find out, when that lightning goes off in your heart, that excitement, and you realize what your purpose in life is, that is the fuel. That is the fuel that’ll help you work hard, be self-disciplined, and persevere. Because it’s easy to work hard when everything’s going great and everything’s rocking. But if you are truly doing what you love, and as Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in a person’s life is the day they were born and the day they figure out why they’re here,” if you can figure that out, you are unstoppable, you’re undeniable, and you’re 100% emphatic. And, that’s how I became successful and have stayed successful in one of the most difficult businesses in the world, the music business.

Well, all these people I interview have pretty much the same story. They don’t give up because that’s what they’ve chosen to do in this life from a place in their heart of love, joy, passion, truth, bliss, whatever you want to call it. That’s one of my main things, and I’m learning a lot by doing it because it’s great to share with these people. It starts off, I mean, I have 35 questions ready, but I’ll go wherever it wants to go.

So anyway, that’s happening. I’m on the G3 tour right now with Joe Satriani, but also we’re playing with Steve Vai and Eric Johnson. Everybody gets a 45-minute set. Then I’m going to do March 1st through the seventh, the Monsters of Rock with Joe Satriani on one of those boats. And then Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, we’re going to go on tour for eight weeks and that’ll take me to May 12.

I have podcast sessions in my studio. I have a studio called Uncommon Studios L.A. People send me files, or they come to my studio. It’s the new business model I saw when record sales went to hell and the budgets went to hell. I decided, Hm, I got my drums out of New York City, Nashville, Indiana, and moved to L.A, got my studio there. I had drums in Japan, Germany. People fly me all over the world to make records. I’m on 300 million records sold, which will never happen again because there’s no more budgets.

So, I have my own studio. I’m still recording. I did an AXS TV episode there with Steve Lukather. No, it was Sammy Hagar, and the guest was Steve Lukather. I mean, it’s fantastic. I love it. And I love recording, and I’m a speaker. I have speaking gigs booked all over the country. I’ve been going to talk about innovation, creativity, connecting, communicating, collaborating, everything I do in music, which relates to any business and anybody doing anything in their life and it’s really cool. But, those are the main nuts and bolts of who Kenny Aronoff is. I have another book I wrote. I just keep re-editing it, and so eventually that’ll come out.

Buzz Knight:

Oh man, you are the best. Well, I know you were in the Massachusetts area where you grew up, the Stockbridge area, and then in the Boston area as well. And, Alan Dawson I know was a major influence on you, and I know he had diverse interests as well. Talk about the impact Alan Dawson had on you.

Kenny Aronoff:

Well, interesting enough, it wasn’t just Alan Dawson. Alan Dawson was in Lexington, but before that I was studying with Arthur Press from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Newton, which is in Massachusetts, which is ironically real close to each other. And, both of them taught me about discipline.

I wanted to work for those guys. I was already committed to being… Once I announced to the world I’m going to be a professional drummer or a percussionist, then it is a major commitment. I am wired that I do everything at 150%. I’m just wired that way. I work seven days a week, seven nights a week. I love it. And if it’s not the podcast, or the recording session, or I’m preparing for Kennedy Center Honors, or for this show, or that show, or this tour I love it. I love all of it.

But, I’m going to back up with Arthur Press. I went to his house. I was a sophomore in high school, and I show up because a friend of mine in my little town of Stockbridge, exit two, Arthur Press was Exit 14 near Boston. I show up and we’re outside, and he comes out and meets us. He says, “What’s your name?” I said, “Kenny.” “Kenny what?” “Well, Kenny Aronoff.” “What have you prepared for me today?” I went, “What? Nobody told me I had to prepare anything.”

“Do you have a mallet piece you can play for me?” I went, “Mallets, I don’t play mallets. That’s a marimba, xylophone vibes.” Well, I said, “I don’t play any of those instruments.” He says, “Well, did you prepare a timpani piece for me?” I says, “I’ve never played timpani in my life.” He goes, “What are you doing here,” and he says, “What do you play?” I said, “I play a drum set.” “Oh, a drum set.” I come down into the house. He puts me on a drum set. He puts Blood, Sweat & Tears, Spinning Wheel on. I start jamming. I already played to it with my stereo, and in 30 seconds he ripped me off of that set and pointed to a practice pad.

Now, it was at that moment, and I was very popular in high school. I was a three letterman jock by the time I was a junior, sophomore in high school. By 15, I was in three varsity sports, so [inaudible 00:08:22] everything. And, I had a killer rock band. I was very popular, like I said. So I didn’t need this guy, but I did.

I recognized, I went, “Wait a minute. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who is this guy? This guy’s intense.” I felt I can learn from this guy. This guy is not a coddler, a hand-holder. If you’re lazy, you get an F. And if you get an F, you deserve it. It’s that simple. You have to earn an A. You have to earn praise. I identified with that, and I knew this guy was going to set me on a new trajectory and he did.

And, I did five years of classical training, one at UMass and one for the number one school of music in the country, Indiana University School of Music. I worked my way from last to the top. Then, I started studying with Alan Dawson. When I got to Alan Dawson, it was all about drum set. The other schools were all about classical music, orchestra, percussion, ensemble, theory, conducting, everything but rock and roll. I did that on my own.

When I got with Alan Dawson, I was putting in, with these guys I’d practice, five, six hours a day, easy. And, Alan didn’t have to teach me how to practice. Alan didn’t have to make me work hard. I was already there, man. And because of that, he gave me so much material, so much material. I studied for a year with him.

So Arthur Press and Alan Dawson, and in the middle was Vic Firth, the principal Timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was no messing around with him. If you make a mistake on the piece you were playing for him, you get one more shot. If you don’t get it, next and your lesson could be over in 10 minutes. But, it never was with me because I practiced five hours a day for him.

Buzz Knight:

That’s outstanding. Well, did Alan Dawson play with Lionel Hampton?

Kenny Aronoff:

Oh, he played with a lot of greats. He was one of the great jazz drummers. He played with everybody. I mean, I can’t remember his discography right now, but he played with some of the greatest, greatest jazz. I mean, his skill was he’d teach you rudiments and you work out of books. But, he knew how to apply rudiments and exercises to being a musical drummer on the drum set. So if you’re practicing between the right hand and the bass drum [inaudible 00:10:45], if you’re doing a solo, he gets you to use that stuff, [inaudible 00:10:51]. He would take these technical things, and make them musical ideas. It was incredible.

Buzz Knight:

Well, full disclosure, there’s a friend of mine who lives near me. I live outside of Boston near Concord Mass. His name is Maury Shore, and he studied with Alan Dawson actually. That’s why I’m poking at this.

Kenny Aronoff:

Alan was one of those world-class, famous jazz drummers that was a great teacher, a great teacher, and I still use some of his exercises today. I took his exercises and turned them into a functional practice routine that I have. And, functional practicing is you practice exactly. Every note has a purpose to make you sound great today. Then you can go off and do whatever else you want, but always practice the things that make you sound great today.

For example, before I do a Joe Satriani tour, the one I’m doing right now with G3, I run the whole show by myself before the show, absolutely. I practice the count-offs. I practice the sequence of the show, so I’m used to going from that tempo, to that tempo, to that tempo. I’m not a robot. I’m a human. Humans make mistakes, and mistakes are just gifts on how we get better. So, that’s why I practice.

Buzz Knight:

That’s tremendous. Well, take me back to 1964 to that moment when you first saw the Beatles that made such an impact on you.

Kenny Aronoff:

Well, I’m living in Stockbridge, a town of 3000 people. There was nothing to watch on TV. There was no cable. So me and my twin brother were out playing like we always are, and my mom gets on the porch and screams to get into the house. I thought I was in trouble, which was usually the case.

And, we get into the family room ready to get yelled at, but mom’s pointing to this old black and white RCA TV set with the antenna to get reception, maybe even tinfoil clumped on the top. And there’s four guys on the TV set dressed in suits, but they were not your dad’s suits. They were cool suits, and they had long hair, which was the new thing. And, two guys had electric guitars, one had an electric bass, and the drummer was up on this big riser way up there looking cool, smiling, and they broke into some rock and roll.

I didn’t know they was the Beatles yet. They break into it, and I’d heard the song on the radio. I went, “Wow.” Well, first of all at that split second I went, “Oh, well, that’s what I’m doing. I want to do that. I want to be in a band like those guys. I want to be on a team of guys, musicians doing that.” I don’t know who they are, or where they’re from. And I go, “Mom, who are these guys?” She goes, “Oh, they’re the Beatles.” I said, “Well, I want to play in the Beatles.”

Call them up, get them on the phone. I’m playing with the Beatles and forget about the piano lessons, man. It’s drums now, drums, drums, drums, buy me a drum set. Well, she didn’t call up the Beatles, obviously, and she didn’t give me a drum set. I mean, they thought, “Well, the guy likes it. He wants to play drums, but we can’t afford a drum set.” So, they saw I was going crazy. Finally, they buy me a snare drum and a cymbal, and I started my first band called The Alley Cats and we played Beatles music. And I would shut my eyes and dream about being in the Beatles, and the long hair, and girls going crazy.

But, here’s the beautiful thing about that story. 50 years later, I get called to do a CBS special called The Beatles: The Night That Changed America, and I get to play with the two remaining Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. I mean, that’s a dream come true, a Cinderella at the ball fantasy right there. And, what happened in between is amazing, but that was one of the most pinnacle, most rewarding moments in my life.

Buzz Knight:

Oh my God, I love that story. I’m guessing the first album that you ever bought was a Beatles’ album as well?

Kenny Aronoff:

Nope, I wish it was. That was the second. Meet the Beatles! was number two. I get on my one speed fat tire of a bike and go to whatever store either in U Mass or Stockbridge. The first record I bought, which was another popular band at the exact same time, the Beach Boys, Surfin’ Safari, because in my band the Alley Cats, we did Beach Boys music and Beatles. So I got Surfin’ Safari and then Meet the Beatles!, and it couldn’t have been one week apart. I was gardening at 25 cents an hour, and I saved up my money for comic books and records.

Buzz Knight:

That’s outstanding. What a joy. When you wake up every morning and you sort of realize where you are in your career, do you pinch yourself when you consider all that?

Kenny Aronoff:

I feel grateful, but I’m very fully aware that what has made me successful, and some of it is genetics and some of it is because I’m living my life from my truth, my passion, my deepest desires, [inaudible 00:15:53]. The skill, I tell people, this, whatever has made you successful, you keep doing that so you can stay successful. You can’t set it and forget it. That’s the biggest joke.

I’m the type of guy who’s going to work hard until I don’t want to work hard anymore. But, I wake up every morning and I feel grateful. I love it, but I know it didn’t come from luck. If you get a lucky break, well, you better be prepared. You better be ready because that moment is a defining moment for you, and if you’ve done your homework, and if you are continuing to do your homework and work hard, and be self-disciplined, you’ll turn that lucky break into something great.

Now, I mean, I was on the number one hit single John Mellencamp, or John Cougar wrote Jack and Diane. The moment that turned number one I celebrated for two seconds, and from that I immediately went into, “No, no, no, no, no. You are not number one. Your song isn’t number one. You’re not the number one single. I need to prove to everybody I can do this again.” Holy shit, I’ve got to wait for John to write a song, so I can come up with a great drum beat to make that song number one.

That’s like a guy getting a touchdown. If you get a touchdown, it doesn’t mean you’re set for life. You got to get another touchdown and another, and another, and another, and another until you’re done. And, that’s the way I look at it. So, I’m grateful, love it, but I know what it takes to become successful and stay successful.

Buzz Knight:

You’re more energized than ever, aren’t you?

Kenny Aronoff:

Well, I’m as energized as I’ve ever been. Well, I’m 25, come on.

Buzz Knight:

My man, and by the way I’ve seen many John Mellencamp performances where you played. You just always knocked me out.

Kenny Aronoff:

Oh.

Buzz Knight:

I saw you in Columbus, Ohio when I worked at Q-FM 96, the radio station there. The show was just pure joy, pure joy.

Kenny Aronoff:

Energy, right? What year was that? What year was that?

Buzz Knight:

I’m talking 1988.

Kenny Aronoff:

Oh my God, the Jubilee Tour. We were selling out arenas, flying in private jets, staying at Ritz-Carltons. We were living, were living even before the Saturday Night Live shows. I mean, we were kicking butt, especially in the Midwest, but anywhere in the USA. And you saw one of the greats, and I was loving every minute. I had massive energy.

And for people watching this, it was a three-hour show with no opening act. We were the act, An Evening with Kenny, or Kenny, An Evening with John Cougar Mellencamp and band, and it was in arenas. So around 360, maybe 20,000 people a night. It was full-on energy, right, non-stop energy.

Buzz Knight:

Oh, I loved every second of it.

Kenny Aronoff:

Yeah.

Buzz Knight:

I think about that show all the time. It really takes me back.

Kenny Aronoff:

Yeah.

Buzz Knight:

Can you take me back to working with Bob Dylan?

Kenny Aronoff:

Oh, yeah. Well, I had become successful as a drummer in the John Cougar Mellencamp Band after eight years of just doing a two-year cycle. John would write the songs, then we’d help arrange them, then we record them, and then you throw some songs out. We do some more writing, and record them. Then you do overdubs, and you mix and master. That’s about a year. Then, you spend about a month doing press and videos. Then, you rehearse and go on tour, that’s about another year.

So, it’s a two-year cycle. We take a month off, and start right again. We did that for four records. American, let’s see, was it American Fool, Uh-huh, Scarecrow, and Jubilee, and we went from 200, 300, 400, 500 seats a night to 20,000 to 30,000 when we played the world later on, an outdoor venue in Chicago.

So it’s just hard work, hard work, hard work, and playing with John just launched my career, but then all of a sudden he quit. At the Jubilee tour, at the last show, he quit. “I’m done.” I went, “What?” I certainly went, “Oh my God, if he quits, I don’t have a job.”

Now, I had started doing sessions, but I didn’t have a lot of time to do it because I was with John. I was freaking out, and I had just had gotten divorced. So I’m like, I got child support. I got bills, I got a mortgage, I got this, I got that. I’m like, “Whoa.” I was backed into a corner, which was the greatest gift I could have gotten from John, because I went… The next morning, I woke up, I didn’t freak out. I went, “All right, I’ve been working with one superstar artist for eight years now, now I’m going to work with all the other ones.” So I went out to California and started to hit the pavement, trying to make it as a session drummer, eventually Nashville and New York.

Eventually, I had drums in Nashville, New York, LA, of course Indiana where I lived, and one day I get a call from this producer, up and coming producer Don Was. He goes, “Kenny, it’s Don Was, from was, not was. Hey, I’m making this Iggy Pop record. Do you want to play on that one?” Iggy Pop? Are you kidding me? So, he wants to meet you. So, that’s the whole story, that’s hilarious.

So, I end up doing Iggy Pop, and then next thing you know two weeks later he goes, “Hey…” Actually, it might be the other way around. It might’ve been he called me up. No, it was Iggy Pop. Then he calls me up and says, “Hey, you want to do a Bob Dylan record?” I went, “Are you kidding me? Yes.” So I think we did Iggy Pop first, and then we started doing Iggy Pop, or something happened where maybe it was Bob Dylan first but Bob was on tour, so then Iggy Pop came. It was all happening all at once and I’m going like, “Oh my God, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan.”

And, you can see it on my podcast. Don Was was my guest. He tells the story. Bob Dylan wouldn’t give Don, the producer, the songs, because a producer needs to look at the songs and make some decisions, have a conversation. Anyway, so Don decided, “All right, if you’re not giving me the songs, I’m not going to tell you who the musicians are on the sessions.”

But I got to play drums on the four sessions, one every month. Oh, it was incredible configurations of killer musicians. The first one was with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan, his brother, David Lindley, and me. Don was on bass and Jamie Muhoberac on the keyboards. The only time I ever talked to Bob Dylan was I’m sitting in the control room with my back to the door. He’s two hours late, and all of a sudden somebody taps me on the shoulder. I turn around, it’s Bob Dylan.

He goes, “Hey Kenny, it’s Bob Dylan,” and that was it. That was it. “Hey Kenny, it’s Bob Dylan.” The next thing you know I’m like, “Wow.” I was real nervous. He goes to the piano. He stretched his fingers out and he starts playing, and something told me to get on the drums and play with him, and I did. And, all the other musicians were in the lounge. They’d come running out and put down their instruments. The engineer hits record. We probably went through it a little bit, and then did it again, and that was it. The song was done, Wiggle Wiggle. And, that was the last time I spoke to Bob.

There was one session, he’s right in front of me in the booth wearing a baseball hat and a hoodie, gloves, glasses, all covered up. We’re looking right at each other and never talked. And, I was still kind of new in the session world. And I mean, this guy, I knew him when I was I don’t know, 11, 12. I had records. I bought Highway 61, and so I’m in awe. I didn’t want to talk to him. It looked like I would bother him, so I didn’t. I remember telling Don. He said, “Oh man, you should have come in and talked to him,” but at that point I was like, “[inaudible 00:23:52], it’s Bob Dylan.”

Now, I don’t care who it is, but back then I was twisted. I never spoke to him again, and I did MusiCares when we honored Bob. And Bob, for those who don’t know MusiCares, it’s kind of like when the Grammys are. I was supposed to do it this year honoring Bon Jovi, but if you’re in the band you play with nine artists. It’s incredible. And on that one, I think I played with Mellencamp and Tom Jones and Jack, Jack White from the White Stripes, I mean all these incredible, oh Jackson Browne and Sheryl Crow together, that type of thing.

And afterwards, Bob came up to me and goes, “Good job, Kenny.” That’s huge if you get Bob Dylan to come up to you. There is a funny story with that because we had a satellite stage. Well, the main stage is here, but we go out there and we do this song with about 30 verses, something, a lot of verses with Jackson Browne and Sheryl Crow. And also we’re told, “Well, we’re going to drop this verse, this verse, and that verse.”

I went up to Jackson, I’m like, “Dude, what are we dropping? That’s my favorite verse. Man, those lyrics are amazing.” And he laughed at me, he says, “Because that guy told me too,” and I’m like, “Who?” I look over, in the dark in the shadows was Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan told him, “Don’t do that verse, do that verse,” Bob picked the artist, picked the songs. He was very in control of how he wanted it to be presented. I thought that was really cool.

Buzz Knight:

That’s freaking awesome.

Kenny Aronoff:

Isn’t it great?

Buzz Knight:

So Kenny, in closing, who haven’t you worked with that you’d like to work with?

Kenny Aronoff:

Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and my favorite band for a while was going to be Sting on vocals and bass and Jeff Beck on guitar, and me, or The Who. That would’ve been cool. So yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at. Oh, I’d love to be in the Foo Fighters. That’d be fun. I love Dave Grohl, and I love all those guys.

And they’re a real rock band, they’re the real thing, and The Who, they’re still around. I would love to be with them. Anything that’s authentic like that where every musician has a voice and has a face, old school, the way it used to be. You knew everybody in the band. I love that kind of thing. It’s a band vibe, a team thing. I love that.

Buzz Knight:

You are a treasure, my friend. I’m so grateful that you got to be on the Takin’ a Walk podcast, Kenny.

Kenny Aronoff:

You’re welcome, man. I ain’t going nowhere because I’m Kenny Aronoff.

Speaker 1:

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Takin’ a Walk podcast. Share this and other episodes with your friends, and follow us so you never miss an episode. Takin’ a Walk is available on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.

 

About The Author

Buzz Knight

Buzz Knight is an established media executive with a long history of content creation and multi-platform distribution.

After a successful career as a Radio Executive, he formed Buzz Knight Media which focuses on strategic guidance and the development of new original content.