Kenny Aronoff
Photo by Lissa Wales

“I’m real thankful for where I am. I’ m going to keep doing this gig as long as I can get something out of it mentally and musically. I hope I can play rock’n’roll forever.”

That’s not the sort of thing one would expect to hear from someone with a background in classical percussion; someone whose credits include a B.M. degree in Music Performance and a Performer’s Certificate from Indiana University, a First Place award in a concerto competition (on marimba), summers spent at the Aspen and Tanglewood festivals studying with teachers such as Vic Firth, George Gaber and Arthur Press, and performances under the batons of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland and Seiji Ozawa. But Kenny Aronoff, drummer with the John Cougar band, has those very credentials— and a few more besides.

Kenny’s first involvement with music was humble enough, however. “When I was in the fifth grade, I played my first gig with a snare drum and a cymbal. We played at a Grange meeting at the local town hall. There must have been about ten people there—mostly the parents of the kids in the band. The name of the group was The Alley Cats, and our theme song, of course, was ‘Alley Cat.’ That got me going because I realized that I liked to perform.”

Throughout grade school, junior high, and high school, Kenny continued playing in various bands—usually rock ‘n’ roll or r & b. But his parents were making sure that he heard other types of music also. “They let me play whatever I wanted to, but they were trying to say that there was more to music than just the Beatles. They were always trying to get me into classical music and jazz. Dad was the one who turned me on to Coltrane and Dave Brubeck. Or then Dad would say to me, ‘Kenny, you want to hear something really neat?’ He’d put on Ravel’s Bolero and say, ‘Listen to that’ When I was little they’d take me to hear people like Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, and they’d take me to Broadway shows. They were trying to ‘culture’ me.

“My biggest influence in high school was Arthur Press. I had a friend who was studying with him, and I thought, ‘What the heck, I ‘ l l study with this Boston Symphony guy.’ So I went with my friend to his lesson, and Arthur said, ‘Hi Kenny, what do you play?’ He had timpani and mallet instruments sitting there, so I said, ‘I just play drumset.’ He put on a Blood, Sweat & Tears album and said, ‘Sit down behind the set and play a bit with this.’ I couldn’t keep with the record very well, and he looked at me and said, ‘YOU DON’T HAVE ANY TIME!’ He sat down behind the set and blew me away. I’ll never forget that; this guy was an orchestral player and he was smokin’. He was so funky and so hip and his time was so good. So I started studying. We didn’t work on drumset. We went back to quarter notes and 8th notes, and Ted Reed books and Stick Control. We worked on reading and syncopation, and slowly and surely—and painfully—he got me into mallets and timpani. I was fighting it but he really opened up the doors for me.

“When it was time to go to college, I decided I wanted to be a music major, so I got into the University of Massachusetts where I studied with Peter Tanner. He pushed me hard and made me do a lot of things, and so I became real good. But then I went to the Aspen Festival the following summer with all these Julliard kids, and man, everybody was better than me. George Gaber was teaching there that summer, and he was so hip and so understanding that I told him that I wanted to come to I.U. [Indiana University] and study with him. He said, ‘You know, you’re just going to be one of a hundred percussionists there.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ I auditioned, got in, and spent four years at I.U. The thing about I.U. is that you get to play a lot. They have bands, orchestras and various ensembles, including jazz bands. I was playing timpani, bells, percussion—the whole thing. And I kept the drumset going the whole time. I won the I.U. Concerto Competition on marimba, and I played the timpani part to the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion on my senior recital. I also did a jazz drumset piece on that recital. They tried to tell me that I might not earn the Performance Certificate—which was a high award—if I did that piece. But the drumset is part of music so I did it, and I still got the Performance Certificate.”

The summer before he graduated from I.U., Kenny went to the Tanglewood Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony, and there he studied with Vic Firth and Arthur Press, and played under Leonard Bernstein, Gunthur Schuller, Aaron Copeland, Seiji Ozawa and Arthur Fiedler. He found that working under all of those great conductors was beneficial to him. “It teaches you to be able to work with somebody and to be in a situation where you just do what you’re supposed to do. Working with John Cougar, he’s like a conductor. He doesn’t actually conduct, but he’s the guy who wants something; he, in his own way, is trying to get something out of people. And that’s what Bernstein and Ozawa are trying to do. They’re all looking for something and I’ve got to come up with it.”

After leaving I.U., Kenny went back to the Boston area where he studied with Alan Dawson for a while. He then went to New York and played with a funk band, and studied with Gary Chester. At this point, he decided that he really wanted to play drumset with a good band. “I went back to Indiana and started a band. We invested a lot of money, lived in a house together for two years, rehearsed and wrote songs. But we knew nothing about the music business as far as how to get a record deal. We just tried to play as many clubs as possible and thought that we would eventually make it. After three years I was ready to quit the band and move back to New York City.

Kenny Aronoff
Photo by Eric Demme

“Then a friend of mine told me that they were looking for a drummer to play with Lou Rawls. I called the manager and he said, ‘Fly out and we’ll audition you.’ I got all the albums and practiced them and I had to leave the next day. A few hours before my flight, I stopped in a restaurant to eat. After I finished, I started to jump up to go to the airport, but I said to myself, ‘Just sit down and cool it for a minute, man. Digest your food.’ Had I not done that, I would not have run into this girl I knew who came into the restaurant a couple of minutes later. I told her I was going to L.A. to audition for Lou Rawls and she said, ‘Do you know John Cougar? He just lost his drummer.’ I walked out of the restaurant with her, right to a pay phone, called and said I wanted to audition. He said to call back in a week. I went to L.A. and auditioned for Rawls, but there were a whole slew of drummers auditioning, and one of the others got the gig. I went back, called again, and was told to learn some stuff from Cougar’s albums. Then I auditioned for them and they took me.”

And so, having landed a gig with John Cougar, Kenny’s problems were over, right? Wrong. “We started practicing for the album that was coming up in five weeks [Nothing Matters and What If It Did]. All of a sudden, I’m in this rock ‘n’ roll band. I went from using a fusion set-up with a lot of drums and cymbals to using a five-piece set with only three or four cymbals. That was a big change for me. It was a much different philosophy of music. It’s all based on groove and backbeat. Joining the Cougar band was a real heavy thing for me because I didn’t understand the language. The guys in the band were working with me and giving me ideas, and I was going home and practicing as many hours as I could. We’d have a four-hour rehearsal during the day, another four-hour rehearsal at night, and in between I’d practice every hour I could. I was so far behind, but I wanted to be on that album.

“They wanted me—their own drummer—to be on the album. When you get a studio drummer in to play, I don’t care how good he is, it’s not going to sound the same as if you have a drummer who ha been working with the band for a while. That drummer becomes an integral part of the personality of that band. Well, it ended up that it just wasn’t happening. After one day in the studio, I got axed from the album. The feel wasn’t there. Also, I had never recorded a big album, and there was a lot I didn’t know about recording and about tuning the drums.”

An experience like that can be devastating, but Kenny was determined not to be conquered. “I hung around the studio for about four weeks. It was real hard to watch another drummer play my parts. At one point they rolled in a set of vibes, and they were going to let the piano player play them. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t believe this. I’ve studied these things for years and they’re not even going to let me play.’ But then the piano player said to the producer, ‘Man, this guy can play vibes. We should let him do it.’ So I got to play vibes on that tune [“Ain’t Even Done With the Night”], which ended up being the hit single from the album. And then I played some percussion overdubs. It was hard being there, but I learned a lot about recording.

“Then I went home and practiced my ass off. I was practicing six, seven, eight hours a day, learning to play like a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I had to apply a different grip, different pressure, I had to reposition my weight—everything. I had to learn to play with power and yet be relaxed. I practiced to lots of records—just simple rock ‘n’ roll things—and concentrated just on grooving.

“It makes me laugh to remember that when I was in college, I wouldn’t listen to what was on the radio. It had to be bebop, or good fusion, or classical. If my girlfriend would turn on top-40 radio in the car, I’d turn it off. Now I’m making my living from this, and I love it!

“But I think you’ve got to go through all that stuff. When you’re young, you’re into the licks and the flash and the technique. You’ve got to go through that. Eventually you settle into things like making it feel right. I mean, playing ‘2’ and ‘4’ with personality is so important. But when you’re young, you’re not thinking about personality. You’re thinking about how you look, and how you dress, and girls and parties. You have to mature and get tuned into yourself and learn how to put that on the drums. It’s real hard to learn to focus on feel and groove, and I think it’s a continual process.”

One thing that Kenny learned was that he could change the whole feel of a particular beat simply by reversing his hands. “This band plays pretty traditional rock ‘n ‘roll, and it doesn’t call for a lot of drums. I wanted to come up with something new to keep myself from getting bored, so I started practicing things backwards, with the left hand on the hi-hat and the right hand playing the snare drum. Then I went in one day and John was playing the song “Hurts So Good” for the first time, I started playing a beat to it and John stopped and said, “That’s a great beat. Use that beat for the song.” John didn’t realize it, but that was the same beat I used in a lot of the songs. But the difference was that I was playing it with my left hand on the hi-hat. My left hand has a sloppier sound on the hi-hat compared to my right, and that gives it more of a laid-back feel. That was the difference that John heard. Now, I play about half of the show left handed, and it gives two different personalities to the music.”

Another thing that Kenny discovered is that how a song feels depends a lot on how the musicians themselves feel at a given time. “One thing that’s hard about getting a band to click together is that everybody’s different. You might feel up one day and down the next. Everybody in the band is like that. Some people are more consistent than others, but people depend on the drummer to always be a certain way. So you’ve got to learn to channel what you feel and make it basically feel the same way every day. If I feel hyper today, I have to sit on the beat. If I feel mellow, I have to push it so it basically sits at the same tempo. I use a Dr. Beat onstage to check my tempos at crucial moments.

“It’s a real interesting thing. I can play the same tempo everyday, but if I’m feeling mellow, the feel is going to be a little more laid back and it may appear a bit slower. But it’s just the feel. John may come on stage fired up, and he’ll look at me and say, “Man, it’s too slow!” It might be right where it should be as I look at the metronome, but he’s feeling up and so it’s feeling too slow to him. Another day he’ll say it’s too fast because he might be feeling more relaxed. It’s the same thing with me, and with all the other guys in the band. But John’s the one who’s out front; he’s the one the world sees. So we’ve got to cater to his needs.”

Having found out—the hard way—that schooling doesn’t always prepare one for the real world, Kenny is understandably concerned about what is being taught these days. “I think a lot of schools don’t make you aware of what’s going on out there. They don’t teach rock ‘n’ roll, they don’t teach studio playing, or how to do a jingle. Like anything else, you have to constantly evaluate what’s happening out there in the world. The options are changing all the time and the schools have to be on top of that. I’m not saying to forget the classics and just concentrate on rock ‘n’ roll, but they should have a lot of stuff going on. To be a good studio musician you’ve got to play Latin and classical and rock and jazz and funk, and it goes on and on. That should all be taught.

“When I was in school, I was all caught up in technique and reading. From being in this band, my time is much better and so is my feel. If I could study with Vic Firth now, or Arthur Press or George Gaber, I’d be a better student in that I’d put more into playing music, and not just reading notes. I hope that I can play in an orchestra again sometime. I think I’ll have a better feeling for the whole thing.

“I’ve learned a lot about recording and the studio from being in this band, and someday I’d like to be doing studio work. That’s what I think my background will help me with, in the long run. Classical training helps make you aware of the instrument. People don’t realize that even with something as simple as a tambourine, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. They think that anybody can play these instruments; all you have to do is pick ’em up and hit ’em. Well, anybody can hit them, but not everyone has the awareness of these instruments to go after the best sound. You don’t have to shake a tambourine all over the place. You can hold it in front of a microphone and shake it within a six-inch diameter and get a much better sound. And then there’s the triangle. Everybody thinks, ‘What’s so hard about triangle?’ But there are a lot of considerations. There’s a certain place on that triangle where it sounds good. It takes time to find out which triangle to use, what beater to strike it with, where to hit it, and how to hit it in exactly the same place every time. And you don’t have to hit it hard. Hit it soft, with the right mic’ on it , you know? So those are things my classical background has helped me with, and hopefully I can use that at some point in my life.”

For the present, however, Kenny’s activities are centered around the John Cougar band. “Right now, all we have time to do is rehearse the album, make the album, rehearse the tour, do the tour, and then start rehearsing the next album. The whole thing—an album and a tour—takes about a year and a half. It’s just that now, you’ve got to put out a great album. The album can’t just have one single; it’s got to have at least two or three because the competition is so great. And in this field, the turnover is so great. To stay in this business, you’ve got to work all the time, as if you’d never made it. So hopefully we’ll keep at it for a little while. We just have to make the same simple things sound different and better, but without losing the original idea. You can lose focus real easy, so my job is to sit there and focus on time. Just lay down the groove and concentrate on making it feel good. If you can’t groove, then you’re not going to move anyone.”