Kenny Aronoff is one of the world’s greatest drummers, although it’s unlikely he’d acknowledge himself as such, undoubtedly deferring to the artists that influenced him during his formative years. His list of recording credits includes a diverse array of artists from Meat Loaf & Bob Dylan, to the Smashing Pumpkins & B.B. King, and his sense of feel is second to none. Listening to him talk, ostensibly about his involvement with Supersonic Blues Machine (whose album, ‘Californisoul’, was released earlier this year), but more often about his philosophy as a musician, it’s clear that Kenny’s primary motivation is a simple love for the work he does. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that Kenny would attack his kit with the same passion regardless of whether he was playing on a million-selling album or a garage project, and the passion he has for music, and for life, sparkles through the flow of the conversation.
As with anyone who has an all-consuming passion for their art, it’s impossible to speak to Kenny for more than a few moments before being infected by the same sense of excitement and enthusiasm that drives him. When he speaks about his first experience of the Beatles, watching them on the Ed Sullivan Show at the tender age of eleven, it’s as if he’s still there in that moment, the child in him marveling at the fact that he’s been able to make a career out of something so magical, and his experience will neatly chime with anyone who’s ever found themselves lost in a performance, the goosebumps prickling their flesh as a solo transports them out of time and mind, if only for a fleeting moment. As such, the conversation frequently heads off in unexpected tangents, always insightful and wonderfully spontaneous. Take a moment, and step into the world of Kenny Aronoff.
This is a real pleasure for me to talk to you because I’ve followed so many records that you’ve been on, from Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell II’, which was one of the first albums I bought, through to the latest supersonic blues machine album, so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Oh that’s awesome man, well, there are a lot more records to come, so yeah man, that’s cool! Ask me any question you want!
Thank you! The first thing that always interests me when I talk to a musician with such an eclectic back catalogue, is what attracts you to a project in the first place?
Well, the main thing that attracts me to a project is that I get to play drums!
I’m not kidding, because a lot of records I record now in my studio are unsigned artists. They’re people that are doing it as a hobby. I just did eight songs for a man who’s very, very successful at real estate but he has an SSL mixing board in his studio in his house. He’s made so much money he can afford to have an amazing recording studio and he can afford to hire Kenny Arronoff to play drums on his songs! These songs aren’t as good as, let’s say, you know queens of the stone age or something, or anybody at that level, but I still enjoy the fact that I get to go in there and play the drums and play the music. I have incredible sounds in my studio and I still feel rewarded by doing a great job. So, I don’t sit there… I could easily go “wow – those songs are not really good…” but then I wouldn’t be working as much. You know the budgets are gone, most people can’t afford to make a record anymore and nobody’s writing them, so why make a record? But I’ve managed to record, I mean… I’ve done really well in my studio. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. I love it. So, yeah, basically I’m not…
I’m available,. I will record your songs.
People send me songs from all over the world. I did unknown artists, but I did Avril Lavigne recently, I did Supersonic Blues Machine in my room and I just did Sammy Hagar and DMC from Run DMC. You know, the sounds are so good, and my drums are set up with mics on them and have been for six years. I’ve got very expensive gear and it’s great man, I get great sounds and great product out of my studio.
One of the other things that really interests me in composition, is how you go from the original demo to the final version. Do the songs you like to work with come with guide drums, tempo guides or do you prefer to get them with nothing so that you can develop your own?
Well what I ask for is this: I ask for their demo, you know the thing I’m going to put drums on, with the drum sequencer or drum program. That’s the starting point. I ask for an MP3 of that. Then I ask for an MP3 without the drums, because that’s what I put into Protools. Then I ask for an MP3 of the click track they use, or the recording session, so… if I don’t like their click track I can replace it… Oh and I want the tempo also. That way I can put my own click track in the bottom line.
I import their song, the demo without drums, I put in the click track they have or I recreate it. That doesn’t take very long. The demo I get with the drums – I write out a very detailed chart. Every single note; every cymbal crash, every tom fill, everything. I’m really well-known for the most detailed charts you’ve ever seen. When I walk into the studio, I run through the song once and then I’m ready to record in three takes and I’m done. And if I don’t like it, I’ll do another take and another take, but basically I’ll do three attempts. I read so well now and I make it sound like I’m not reading, and I’ve done all this prep work before I walk in, so that, for me it’s exciting to perform. From the first time I’m recording, I know I’m going for it. I’m going to get a take and it’s going to be out there forever. And still it gets me excited.
So, that’s the process.
Then what I do is I get three takes and I create folders and I send them back to the people through email, using a certain program called Hightail that can handle that kind of information and then they pay me in Paypal. I tell them I’ve got the songs, they pay me in paypal and then I send the songs back to them. It could be, ten mics, it could be sixteen mics, it could be eighteen mics. It depends on the sound I’m going for. I have a lot of very expensive gear, so it sounds really analogue and really real. Also, the other thing is, my takes rarely have any punch ins. They’re complete takes from top to bottom. None of this editing crap. I grew up in the ear of magic in three takes, top to bottom. You did not want to make mistakes because you were slowing the session down because they had to cut tape. So, when I grew up, we had to get great sounds, great feel, you had to play your parts right. You couldn’t fix it in Protools so you had to be professional.
It’s not just about the professionalism though, is it… you get so much more feel when you have the spontaneity of the three takes rather than something that’s been micro-managed…
Oh yeah! Yeah! Exactly. You nailed it man! The thing is, the human condition… you know that we’ve got all this technology around us now. It’s so stimulating and so exciting. But being human has not changed. We are born with feelings and emotions and spirituality and all these intangible things that make us human. And when you feel a human play with that kind of natural spontaneity, you’re… whether you know it or not, you’re feeling something of that musician or that song or that band, that makes your humanness light up.
It’s like if you were a light bulb and you heard a great John Bonham track or Led Zeppelin track, that light bulb would get brighter. If you heard a very stiff, non-feeling, pro-tooled fixed thing, the light bulb would open up a little bit because of the perfection of it all is kind of interesting, but then the light bulb would dull down because it doesn’t go anywhere. So, you nailed it, when you do complete takes and you go from one take to the next and the next, you can feel this human growth. It’s a thing. It’s experience. That’s why I like to go from take to take to take, that… and if my engineer is slowing me down, I’ll say “dude! Dude! I’m at 100% right now! Any second I’m going down – 99, 98, 97… I’m, in the game. Now, now, now!” So I can get something really special in my recorded. That’s exactly what you’re talking about.
It’s amazing to me that you recorded the drums for ‘Californisoul’ away from the rest of the band, because listening to it at home, you’d never know that record was not tracked live in the studio…
Aaaaah! OK, Well! Yeah! Now, that is a conscious effort! I’m at the point now where I’ve made so many records that I know what it sounds like when I’m reading and I know what it sounds like when I’m not playing with anybody. So what I did is, when I was recording… at first there were vocals. There were some keeper guitars and some keeper bass. And if it wasn’t keeper, there were still bass and vocals. I made a very detailed chart. Then I think about “who is the guitar player who’ll be on this track” So, was the solo with Billy Gibbons or Steve Lukather or Robben Ford. And when I played and got to the solos, I’ve played with all these guys, so I pictured their style and the way that they’d solo, so I built this whole thing as if they were soloing. I was singing solos that I thought they would play, so all the emotion and the fills, I was going after it. I know what it should sound like if they were playing live and that’s what I tried to recreate, and they picked up on it and then they were playing to me as if they were in front of me on stage. Now I couldn’t react to that, but I was recording, predicting as if I were reacting to them. So, it was really forward thinking and it was a conscious effort and I’m so glad that you acknowledged that and could see that your question – like “man, it sounded exactly like you were playing with the band!” – well, there you go, that’s exactly what I want you to say!
It’s really important, the drummer is the engine room of the band. If you’ve got a bad drummer, the band will still survive and go forward but if you’ve got a good drummer, it elevates the music to a whole new place…
Yeah man, I agree, I agree! Yeah, I mean, it is the engine. You replace the engine, and I mean shit! It’s like I’ve been replaced and it’s never the same. I’ve replaced… and here’s a good example: I replaced Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins….
I can’t play like Jimmy! I wouldn’t even try. His style is so amazing and so unique and just… we’ve talked about it, we’re friends. And what Jimmy said to me is that “you were the best drummer that ever subbed for me because you did it your way. You didn’t try to sound like me. You tried to sound like Kenny!” And that was because Billy Corgan told me to do that. And when he told me that, I was like that was the smartest thing he could ever do. Because all I would do is try to keep time like Jimmy, no way would I sound like him. He’s so exceptional at what he does, so I tried to be exceptional at what I do, so that people would go “Woah! I wish Jimmy was here, but goddam! Look what he’s doing man! It’s so authentic, it’s so real!” And that’s what was happening on those tours, man. They were angry that Jimmy wasn’t there, they were like “who’s this fucking bald guy with glasses playing?” and then I started to hear comments like “God! I hated it at first and then I thought, wow man! This guy’s really trying hard. This guy’s really playing his ass off!” So, I won them over, or some of them over. You know, you can’t please everybody!
You know, I see on the internet people commenting because I play with John Fogerty and people are saying “God! Kenny’s not playing like John Clifford!” Huh! What they don’t realise is that I’ve been with John for twenty-four years! Wouldn’t you think that John told me how to play? Which was: “do not ever like Doug Clifford!” And I love Doug Clifford’s playing on the Credence records, but John is my boss. John wants me to play on top of the beat. He wants me to push, he wants me to rush. John’s old school!
I’m going to play with Jerry Lee Lewis this Friday because Jim Keltner wanted to, but couldn’t do the gig, so they asked me if I could do it. If you go and watch… Oh my god! Jerry starts and he just takes off! That’s old school, that’s how a lot of those guys played back then. So, yeah, I can’t play like Doug Clifford, but I’m not trying to and John didn’t want me to. It’s that simple.
You mentioned the Pumpkins – they were, and still are, one of my favourite bands…
… and one of the key things is the passion of the music and I think if you’ve got someone trying to be someone else, that’s very difficult, but when you put your own personality into it, then it becomes the musical thing that people want to hear. It’s very cool!
Oh I totally agree! You’re saying all the right things! You are! You know most unique thing and special thing and brilliant thing that a person can do in life is just be themselves. Because, no one can be you. No one can imitate you. You are you. I have an identical twin brother and we’re different. You know, the thing is that nobody can be you so try to be as much that people go like “wow! That’s different!” Because there’s only one of you! I remember my mum and dad trying to tell me that when I was a kid but I didn’t understand it, and I was like “yeah, but John or Dave or yeah, this person, I wanna be like that” And they’d say, well, you can try to be like that, but try to be yourself. Then I didn’t understand it, but now I get it, now I get the value of it.
I’ll sit there and play like a simple beat, like ‘Kashmir’ or ‘back in black’, they’re basically the same beat, and I own it, I enjoy playing that, I can see the value of being able to play that simple and keep the band in place. A million drummers can play those simple beats but it wouldn’t sound… if you’re not into it, it sounds like a cover band or something. When you own that, hear the personality of the person playing and you feel the commitment and the power of their emotions coming through when they play, that’s a really cool thing. That’s a hard thing for a drummer to realise. You’re always trying to play as many licks as possible, because, let’s face it the drums are like a race car, you want to put the pedal down and go as fast as you can, it’s natural that you wanna do that.
I think you see the same thing, particularly with lead guitarists as well, it’s very important to learn to serve the song, rather than your own ego. Everyone wants to be the person out front, the person who everyone thinks is the rock god… but the song is the thing that’s first and foremost, it has to be.
Oh man! Let me tell you something, you are talking right out of my speech about teamwork that I do. I have a whole show I do, speaking, performing and it’s all scripting and I’ve worked on it for four years and you’re talking exactly what I talk about. You said it almost word for word – the number one thing about being on a team (which is being in a band) – that’s an epic team – the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Cream, Hendrix… you name it. It’s an epic team. It wasn’t about you, it wasn’t about the ego. It’s about serving the song and the ultimate goal of the session or whatever when you’re recording is to get the song on the radio and to be number one. That’s the ultimate goal, and it doesn’t have anything to do with just you. It has to do with what’s the best thing to serve the song and to make it great. That’s where it’s at! You said it again! Man you’re doing great! You’re batting 100. Every time you open mouth you say something I believe in!
I believe that one of your key influences was the Beatles. You’ve played with so many different styles of music over the years – is there any particular genre or style of music that appeals to you more as a player and as a listener?
I can get everything if it’s done right. I just love it all. Miles Davis to the Beatles to Zeppelin to Foo Fighters to Queens of the Stone Age to Tool, to, you know, Nine inch Nails. If it’s done right and you feel something. People ask me who my favourite drummers are and it’s pretty much that everybody I listen to is doing something that I wouldn’t have thought of and it’s like “wow! I’m impressed with that”.
I mean I have some favourites over others, but man! I’m open to greatness, whatever it is. But one week I recorded with James Williams Jnr, who is a country artist, Cinderella, a heavy hair band, a hard rock thing; and the Buddy Rich big band and somebody asked me what my favourite style was. And if I had to pick… if I had to, I’d always pick rock ‘n’ roll because to me, that’s the emotion and feel of my entire upbringing and my life.
And yeah, I did… I was playing outside at eleven years old and my brother and my mum yelled at me to come inside the house and I thought I was in trouble, but on the TV, a black and white TV, was the Ed Sullivan show. And on the Ed Sullivan show were four guys dressed in suits, tapping the beat, bopping their heads, playing and singing “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” and I was flipping out. I’d never felt anything like that before. It was like a drug and I was… that was the beginning of me chasing after it. I asked my mum to call the Beatles. First of all I said “who were those guys?” and she said “they’re the Beatles,” and I said “well, can you call them up? I wanna play with them! Call them up, get me in the band!” And, of course, she didn’t do that, so I started my own band and I played Beatles music. It just took off from there. And the cool thing about this story is that years later, I played the Beatles in LA honouring them for that show. The Ed Sullivan Show, 50 years later. And, you know, Ringo and the Beatles set me on the path that I’ve been on ever since.
But very, very quickly after that, Hendrix came into the picture and Mitch Mitchell really influenced me a lot because he was a jazz drummer playing rock, and I actually tried to play jazz, as a little kid, first… before rock came. That’s what my dad played on the turntable. All this jazz. So, they’d take me to jazz concerts all the time – the greatest jazz musicians in the world. So, I was used to hearing that sound and Mitch Mitchell had that sound, he was a jazz player. And he was good, and it just takes off from there. All these other colourful drummers… it’s endless.
That jazz influence, that’s where you start to get something really interesting, because when you start to get musicians with eclectic tastes, you start to get something that’s so much more than just copying other bands in the same genre.
Exactly. Exactly! That’s why it’s really important to always try to learn. I have this thing where I say to myself “I’m never going to be as great as I want to be, but I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to be as great as I can be.” It’s the human condition, it’s like there’s so much to learn. That’s why my 92 year old is taking a course in college. She doesn’t want to die, her body’s falling apart, but she wants to keep learning. I love that! And she’s trying to get the most out of her life while she’s alive and I feel the same way, even though I’m only 21 years old…. Oh shit maybe I left a few years off! Well, that’s my maturity age… at the most!
It’s just spot on with what you were saying. The more you listen, the more you keep your ears open, the more you embrace, the more it affects the style of music you play. From playing jazz… it adds a swing element to my playing. It’s like John Bonham did, or definitely Mitch Mitchell. Then Ginger Baker… even Keith Moon. These guys all listened to jazz drummers. Sometimes I’m recording, and I’m replacing a drum machine and the producer will say ‘don’t swing so much’ and I’m like, “oh you mean don’t make it feel good? You want to make it more stiff?” That’s basically what they’re saying – make it stiff. Make it’s so tight that it’s stiff and that’s a certain sound and I have to work very hard to make stiff, it’s kind of funny you know.
I guess if you’re playing with a band with a lot of technology / samples or whatever – that can make it really difficult, I guess, to get that feel?
Yeah. It is. It’s trying to… Well, what I did, like with Avril Lavigne – I did four songs for Avril on her new record, and she has all these loops and programs and sequences and they said “do your own thing!” and I said, “well, do you want me to… I write out every note I hear on the demo and I could play it,” and they thought it was brilliant. I was trying to play the loops, the drum machine, so I thought we’d do that, and then I’d come up with a drum part that goes with the loops and sequencers and they were all going to be left on the record, and they flipped and they opened up weird percussion and they just loved it. I was bringing in… these people spent so much time programming – the producer does all these rap guys – their eyes were bugging out with the feel that I had, they weren’t used to it. They just loved the combination of human feel, big sound, going against this very tight, very strict drum sequencers and loops. It’s cool as shit!
You can get really cool sounds layering drums over sequencers – I mean Nine Inch Nails took that sort of thing to a whole other level and it’s like “woah!” when that beat kicks in…
Are you going out on tour with Supersonic Blues Machine? Is there a plan for that, or is it strictly studio?
Yeah, we’re trying to book some work next year – 2018. Yeah. We’re definitely working on that right not. We’ve done some shows, and they’re always successful. People love it, because we always feature a whole bunch of guitar players. It’s so coll. So, yeah, we’re trying to book something right now.
I love the idea of it and I love the new album, because it’s like one of those old school review shows, only built around one coherent core band. It’s something you don’t see a lot of now…
Yeah, I agree. Totally! It’s a cool concept and it took a while to get it but I love it, I think it’s fantastic.
I think that’s pretty much all the questions. But it’s been such a pleasure listening to you and being able to put these questions to you. Again, one of the first records (well CDs) I ever bought was Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell II’ and the second track, ‘life is a lemon (and I want my money back)’ was just mind blowing to me. I was maybe twelve years old and that song was just so heavy – that huge drum beat… big guitars – that was a very influential song for me.
I’ll tell you what, as a side note. When they were doing ‘I’ll do anything for love (but I won’t do that)’, I was like “are you kidding me?! A nine-minute (or whatever it was) song? You’re wasting your money! Radio won’t play that song, that’s stupid!” They called me a year later and said “we want you to fly to New York…” (because I did the other part in LA) “… to do more recording on the album. We’re going to add a two and a half minute intro to ‘I’d do anything for love…’” and I was like “man! Are you fucking kidding me?! No one’s going to play that record… OK, fine, pay me, I don’t care!” Sure enough, that song was number one in twenty countries in the same week. The album sold over forty million, that was a huge hit, it completely brought back Meat Loaf. So, now, I’m like if you want good advice from Kenny, do the opposite of what I say. If I say it’s not gonna work, it probably will! Oh my god! I was so wrong! That song blew up. Even the short version was like seven and a half minutes long and it still did really well. I love records like that, like concept records, you know, and all the songs work together!
That’s what I love – those old school records where every song matters… it’s so cool.
Well, cool man, nice talking to you man.
And you, thank you so much for your time.
Find out more about Kenny by visiting his informative website.