The Passion of Unbridled Energy-Kenny Aronoff Interview By: Dick Beach
Written by Staff on December 6, 2021
By his own admission, is a workaholic. School, sports, homework
then rock band. Rinse and repeat. This classically trained percussionist is now the go to drummer for everyone who is anyone.
RRX: First, thank you. Kenny KA is my victim today for an interview
KA: Yeah. I am a busy man, that’s for sure. The list is so long and in so many different realms, I can’t even begin to…
RRX: One of the impetuses for this is, we’re a small, monthly, free arts magazine up here in beautiful upstate New York. I’m looking for people and I go, wait a minute. Kenny KA was born in Albany, grew up in Stockbridge? How long were you in this area before you decided that you were going to be a musician, and travel, and get all the education, and everything else?
KA: Well, I was born in Albany. I think I was there for maybe a year. Then, we moved to Pittsfield and then eventually Lee, Mass, where my dad worked in a mill.
Then, my parents, thank god, moved two miles or three miles from Lee to one of the most iconic little New England towns in America, called Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Which, if you read my autobiography, I just take a walk out of my house.
The first house to my left is Norman Mailer, one of the greatest authors. Eventually, Patty Hearst moved into this big, huge, old country house, with a field and stone walls.
RRX: You took the circuitous route I’m reading this and you’re going to schools that have affiliation with Julliard. You’re doing all of these programs, and you’re at Tanglewood.
There are two pieces of this that I find fascinating and I’d like to ask you about. First, when you were doing the programs at Tanglewood… you mention two iconic figures: Bernstein and Copeland. How did that affect where you ended up with your passion for drumming, whatever it might be?
KA: I spent four consecutive years trying to get into Tanglewood, which is the number one big student orchestra in the country, if not the world. That orchestra could be a professional orchestra. It’s loud, powerful, precise, exact. These are the best orchestral students in the country.
I failed the first year. Come back the next year and I’m auditioning for Vic Firth, who was one of my dear friends, but he passed away. He created the biggest stick company in the world.
RRX: Okay. I am a lousy trap player. I’m a really lousy trap player, but even I know to use Vic Firth sticks.
KA: There’s other people that make great sticks, but he reinvented the wheel completely. Anyway, I go back a third year and I don’t get in. I’m like, damn. Most people would probably go eh, I don’t belong. I went back a fourth year and got in.
Anyway, all this type of training was so beneficial. I get into Tanglewood and this brings me back to your question. It was there, the first day, the first day of rehearsal, I’m nervous as shit. It’s Seiji Ozawa, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
RRX: Oh, I love him. I saw him conduct the BSO.
KA: It’s insane how he conducts. It’s like ballet. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. He walks in. He’s a control freak and he’s got an impeccable memory. He’s wearing white, these cloth pants, they’re flowing. He looks at you and he doesn’t even say anything.
The end of the rehearsal, everyone scatters. Bam, bam, bam. But I’ve got all this percussion to pick up and I’m in the back. All of a sudden, I hear two people talking. I pick my head up, peer over. It’s Leonard Bernstein talking to Ozawa. Here’s the point. Ozawa’s already proven to us he’s a genius. I’ve never worked with somebody that can hear fly shit hit the floor.
Bernstein comes up to him and Ozawa’s going, “I don’t understand. This orchestra is supposed to be the best orchestra in the world and they’re not performing for me. They’re not performing. They’re not that good.” Bernstein smiles and he puts his hand on Ozawa’s back and goes, “Seiji, they are the best orchestra in the world. Show some love and show some compassion. They will play for you.”
I thought about that. I thought, wow. In my book, I talk about two different methods of getting people to perform for you. The first week, I’m working with Ozawa.
All the guys that were there besides me were from New England Conservatory, Vic Firth’s students because he was the head of the department here. The first week, three guys get the timpani part. The second week, three guys get the timpani part. The third week, I’m the last guy. I get Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, which features timpani, and Leonard Bernstein is the conductor. So, I get to work with Leonard Bernstein.
RRX: First, your goal was not to be a classical player and be a timpanist in an orchestra. You had other goals. You worked hard for those goals because at the time, there was nothing else for you to do.
RRX: You finally decide that you’re gonna go into rock and roll full-time. I read and I see that you’ve this, that, and the other thing. Then, of course, in ’85, you get the audition for John Cougar Mellencamp.
KA: Actually, it was ’77. Wait a minute. Hold on. Wait a minute. 1980.
RRX: You do, I guess, a 16-year stint with Mellencamp. You’ve played on all the records everybody knows, and this and that and the other thing. But it was a rough road. At one point, you finally had to say I’m done here. I have to do something else.
You’re the drummer on the first hit from Belinda Carlisle.
KA: Number one hit single.
RRX: I look around, I see things, and say, you played with Iggy.
RRX: Elton John. Come on. You’re on Bat out of Hell II. I will not ask about Meat Loaf because that’s the obvious question. We lost Steinman this past year, which was a very sad thing. What was it like working with him?
KA: Steinman was a genius and he treated me with so much respect. He really appreciated because all that classical training, I always was wondering, how is this gonna help me in rock and roll? I didn’t understand it. For years, I couldn’t figure out why did I do all that? But the bottom line is where it really helped me was my ability to read, massive discipline, focus, never giving up, being able to work 20 hours straight.
What Jim loved about me was that I could read music and that I was so intent on doing a great job for his incredible compositions. I wasn’t some casual rocker. I had lots of passion and excitement, which Meat Loaf loved.
I’m always saying, I’m not bragging, I’m just saying. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years. He said, “Dude, I can’t believe that your career, people hire you because you make their shit better. You elevate the room. You motivate.” The only person I can thank for that is my mom and dad or God. Whoever created me gave me that gift because I can’t say I fucking consciously did that. I’m wired this way. I just walk into a room and I can ignite what’s going on in that room because I get excited and motivated.
Jim loved that I was there because he saw me trying to make his compositions better than what he wrote.
RRX: That leads directly into a question I wanted to ask you. It’s a funny thing with, in particular, percussion for me. Back in the day, James Brown, in his band, were the two Collins brothers. James Brown taught Bootsy Collins the concept of what he called “the one.” Then, Bootsy taught George Clinton “the one.” “The one” is not about precision of striking on one. It’s about understanding when the piece needs you to be just a little ahead or just a little behind. To me, Charlie Watts, the man had “the one” stuck in his back pocket the entire time. It was in pocket, period.
Did anyone ever speak to you about “the one” or is that just something that you’ve picked up
KA: I get what you’re saying about “the one.” You can be going all over the place. When it gets to one, especially a drummer doing a fill, you better hit the one so that everybody knows when one is. You got to hit the one, but when you get to two, man, that tells everybody where, boom, bam!
You got to hit the one exact, but when you hit two, you are justifying time. The measurement between beat one and beat two is a certain length of time. The idea is to reproduce that over and over and over and over and over again. Now, you have established time. Then, you make it feel good and now, you’ve got something in time that feels good.
RRX: One of the programs that I watch on a regular basis is Sammy’s show.
KA: Oh yeah!
RRX: I know you’ve filled in and played with Chickenfoot because I love me some Chickenfoot. That’s a cool band.
KA: It is.
RRX: But when I saw the episode where it was Sammy and Michael, and three drummers, no waiting. You had three drummers, no waiting, doing “Wipeout.” You’re there, playing with Jason Bonham and Sheila E. I got to tell you, I love me some Sheila E. That had to be a piss.
KA: It was great. Sammy called me up and said, “Dude, you got to come in, we’re gonna need someone to fucking control the situation.” Because of my classical training, I’m not counting wrong, I’m gonna have the right tempo, I’m gonna remember the form, blah, blah, blah. That was so much fun. That was killer. Jason Bonham is a riot. Sheila E, she’s a badass player, percussionist, drummer. No matter what she does, it’s… And she’s gorgeous to look at. So, there you go.
RRX: Well, that doesn’t hurt. I saw a YouTube thing that was in an article.
You’re playing with John Fogerty, Keith Urban, there’s yourself. I’m looking and going, who’s playing bass? Don Was.
KA: Yep. He’s the one that hired me.
RRX: Okay. Was (Not Was) was a big favorite of mine back in the day. Is he as just plugged into what works as I think he is?
KA: Absolutely. He’s brilliant. He’s the type of guy that, like a great movie
director. They surround themselves with great talent and all they do is direct them to do their thing. Don is always, he said it in my autobiography, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll! He said, “Yeah, I hire Kenny. What am I gonna tell Kenny? He’s gonna do whatever I’m thinking, and better.” That’s what Don said. “I hired Kenny ’cause I know he’s gonna do the right thing.”
I worked with him, oh my god, since 1989 now. That’s a long time.
RRX: That’s a long time.
KA: That’s 30 years. When I worked with Don the first time, yeah, he was in Was (Not Was). He produced a Bonnie Raitt record called Nick of Time.
RRX: This household loves some Bonnie Raitt.
KA: Oh man, she’s a riot. Man, I’ve had so many funny stories with her. But Don, when we were doing the Iggy Pop record, I was like Grammys Shammys. Who gives a shit? I just want to do this Iggy Pop record and get it right. I’m focusing.
Don had to leave one day to go to the Grammys. Then, all of a sudden, the engineer comes in – I pretty much had been doing overdubs or something – Ed Cherney, says, “Come in here! Don just won a Grammy!” We were like, oh my god! He’s barefoot, got glasses on, hair all puffed out, Afro-ed out. He’s being super cool. Then, he wins another Grammy.
Well, from that day forward, everybody was calling him to produce their records and he was calling me, I’d say, 75% of the time. I was his guy.
RRX: A couple more things here. First, outside the travel, and the touring, and the things, and the stuff, you have been doing recording in your own studio.
KA: Oh yeah.
RRX: Do you have your own project coming out, or is this for other folks?
KA: I was recording yesterday for nine hours, some of the most intense stuff for movie and TV. I couldn’t even finish doing four songs for another artist. This year, during COVID, I did three books. I did the audio version of my Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll!, which you can get on Amazon or wherever.
RRX: I’ll end the formal part of the interview because we all have something to say. When I say that, I mean something that you would like to be a statement about yourself, the world. Something really that’s important to you that may not have to do with this particular business. If you had to leave a three-liner or a four-liner for the world to chew on, what would it be?
KA: Well, I have a statement that is a humbling statement I came up with. I tell people this. Look, life is full of challenges. The journey is not always fun. But we’re here to learn and get the most value out of every experience. I don’t believe in mistakes; I don’t believe in failures. These are just experiences that get us to the next place. Sometimes, you have to repeat the same experience 100 times till you finally get it; that’s fine. That’s just the way life is.
The statement is, I will never be as great as I want to be, but I am willing to spend my entire life trying to be as great as I can be. That is everything I do.
RRX: Thus endeth the official interview.