Before the concert starts, the two-tier stage is relatively empty: no stacks of amplifiers, no banks of keyboard instruments, no guitars sitting on stands. About the only thing to look at is a set of drums at the center of the upper level. It’s not a particularly large kit either, by today’s standards—just your basic take-care-of-business drumset.
The house lights go down, the stage lights come up, and the John Cougar Mellencamp band runs out onto the stage. The guitarists tear into the opening riff from “Small Town,” but the thing that’s capturing everyone’s attention is the sound that’s coming from the drummer. His left arm is going high in the air between each hit, and the sound is cutting through the entire arena. It’s not so much that the backbeat is loud; it’s more a matter of it being so solid, so aggressive, so confident.
Confidence can be built on different things, from pure ego to actual accomplishments. One thing that Kenny Aronoff’s confidence is definitely not built on is a lot of praise from his boss, John Mellencamp. “John is not the type of guy who hands out a lot of compliments,” Kenny says, “so I was blown away when I read an interview he had done where he said that I was really good. My first thought was that he had just said that so he would look like a nice guy in the interview.”
It would be easy to dismiss Mellencamp as being a jerk and to contend that his nickname, “Little Bastard,” is well deserved. I mean, would it really kill the guy to give his drummer a few pats on the back now and then? But having grown up across the river from Mellencamp’s Southern Indiana turf, I’ve known enough Hoosiers to have an idea of where the guy is coming from. To put it simply, people from small towns in Indiana are not prone to handing out a lot of flattery. Life is hard in those communities, where farming is the primary industry. There’s a lot of insecurity built into the life-style, so you tend to measure success in very real terms. You don’t waste a lot of time making noise about how hard everyone is working or what a great job everyone is doing, because that is taken for granted. The only thing that counts is the result: Are you making it? Is there food on the table? Is the rent paid? Have you managed to hold onto your farm? If you’ve got those things, then they are their own reward. You don’t need praise from others, and you don’t expect it. You’ve got the confidence that comes from being able to take care of yourself, but you quickly learn not to be cocky about it. Just because you made it this year is no guarantee that the bank won’t foreclose on you next year.
Sounds like the music business, doesn’t it? A hit album this year doesn’t guarantee that you’ll sell records next year. The trouble is, it’s sometimes hard for musicians who have tasted success to keep a perspective. There’s a lot of hype in the music business, created by people who are paid to tell everyone how wonderful you are. After you’ve read your own press releases, seen your name and picture in a few magazines, been on MTV, American Bandstand, and Entertainment Tonight, had musical instrument manufacturers begging you to use their equipment (for free), and generally been treated like a star, it’s hard to believe that it’s ever going to end.
The Mellencamp band gets its share of the star treatment, especially on the road. But when the band members get back home to Bloomington, they don’t have press agents, record company PR people, fans, or anybody else who might lead them to take their success for granted. They’ve only got John, and he ain’t taking shit for granted. Chances are, while he was on the road, a couple of guys he grew up with lost their farms. He knows that the business he’s in has just as many risks, so he’s not going to sit around and reflect on past glories. He’s going to work his butt off getting ready for next year.
And so is his drummer. The only way to work for a guy like Mellencamp is to meet him on his own ground. You have to care about the stuff just as much as he does and work just as hard. Your confidence has to come from within—knowing in your heart that you’re doing the job. And that’s just to stay where you are. If you also want to grow to the point to where you don’t have to be dependent on any one person, then you have to start defining your own priorities. It might mean spending a lot of your own money on equipment to enhance your live drum sound, even if your current boss says he’s satisfied with the way it’s been in the past. It might mean spending time developing your writing skills, even though you can be reasonably sure that your tunes will never be used by the group you’re currently in. Mostly it means that you are always looking for new experiences and for opportunities to learn new things.
That was the position Aronoff was in after the Mellencamp band, returned home from the Uh Huh tour. John needed some time away from the group to write songs for the next album (Scarecrow), so the members of the band had some time on their hands. Kenny decided that he wanted to spend that time playing, so he took a gig with a country band at a place called the Little Nashville Opry, in Nashville, Indiana. “It’s modeled after the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee,” Kenny explains. “I was in the house band. Every week, we would have a rehearsal on Wednesday night where we would learn 15 to 20 new songs. Then, on Friday night, we would play for two and a half hours. On Saturday night, we would open for people like Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Tammy Wynette, or Willie Nelson.”
Aronoff did that gig for nine months, and with 15 to 20 new songs a week, that was a lot of material to remember. “By the time I finished that gig,” he says, “I had a repertoire of 500 new songs. I had each one written out on a little recipe card— the tempo, the basic beat, and a little chart. That was the only way I could keep them straight, because I wouldn’t get a song list until 20 minutes before a show. But by having the tempo and the basic beat written out, I knew that I would start off right, and as soon as I heard the song, I was okay.”
But that wasn’t the end of Kenny’s “education.” When Mellencamp regrouped his band to start preparing for the Scarecrow album, he wanted to get them in shape, as they had not played together for several months. So Mellencamp brought in some of his favorite songs from the ’60s and had the band learn them. “We did maybe 50 songs,” Kenny recalls, “and so, again, I wrote down a basic chart of each one. I had all kinds of things: Young Rascals grooves, Motown beats, a lot of Hal Blaine’s stuff, Four Seasons—you name it. It was like an incredible vocabulary that I had stored on paper. The result was that, when we started writing songs for the new album, I went back and looked at that stuff, and came up with great ideas. I wasn’t just stealing beats, though. I was taking these grooves and adapting them to our music. Even though a lot of the same ideas have been used over and over again, you take something and apply it to what you’re doing, and it will sound unique in that context.
“For example,” Kenny continues, “there’s a song on the album called ‘Justice And Independence ’85.’ When John first brought the song in, I was just playing a basic beat that would sound right for the song. All of a sudden, I went into this corny rock ‘n’ roll beat that everyone used to play all of the time. And wouldn’t you know it, John turned around and said, ‘I love it!’ He flipped out, and the more adolescent I made it sound, the more he loved it. But I was thinking, ‘How can I put this corny beat on a record?’ I just didn’t feel good it. So I went home and started working with the beat—dropping a bass drum note here, adding a snare drum note there, and creating combinations that went with the lyrics. I still kept the characteristics of the basic beat that John liked, but I had little variations that flowed in and out of it.” [See “Developing A Basic Beat,”.]
It’s that very approach that has enabled Aronoff to come up with interesting drum parts, even though the music he is performing calls for a very basic, just-take-care-of-business style of drumming. Many drummers, when put into such an environment, have trouble coming up with different ways to approach “simple” drumming, and while simplicity can be a virtue, it can also be boring. That’s a problem that Aronoff has learned to overcome, as a result of having to deal with it on a regular basis.
“When I first joined the band,” Kenny says, “I noticed that I was playing the same beat on every song. It wasn’t because I couldn’t think of anything else; it was just that all of John’s songs seemed to work best with the same beat. For the first couple of albums, I didn’t worry about it too much, because I was concentrating on making it feel good, and learning how to sound good in the studio. But after I got those things under control, I started thinking more about being creative. Not only are we talking about the same beat, but the kind of music that we’re playing doesn’t demand an excessive amount of notes. That’s when I started experimenting with taking a basic beat, and then adding or subtracting notes from it. Before you know it, you’ve got four variations of the same beat. Then you start running different combinations of the beat together, based on what the music and the lyrics are doing. You end up with a flowing kind of beat. You’re not repeating yourself too much, but you’re not losing the characteristic of the song either, and it’s still a basic, simple beat.
“After a while, you learn that you can just play a song the way it sounds. When John brings in a new song, usually what I call the ‘characteristic’ beat will immediately pop into my head. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes I have to be more creative and come up with a beat that doesn’t sound like it should be there, which makes the band members rewrite their parts to fit around that beat. On a lot of our songs, if you change the beat, it becomes a different song. That’s the way simple things work. They approach perfection. The more trimmed down and simple something is, the more it has to be exactly right. If you alter that perfect thing, it becomes something different.”
Kenny is so identified with basic, simple beats that it’s difficult to imagine that he ever had trouble with them. But, in fact, one of the biggest challenges Kenny had when he joined the John Cougar Mellencamp band was simplifying his style, as he had come from a fusion background and was used to playing a lot of notes. How did he manage to turn his play- ing around to such a degree? “I did what anybody has to do when he or she wants to commit to being good at something,” Kenny answers. “I practiced. I practiced timpani for five hours a day when I studied with Vic Firth, and I practiced five or six hours a day when I was getting mallets together with George Gaber. That’s the only way you’re going to get good at something. So when I started seriously playing rock ‘n’ roll full-time, I knew what I had to do.
“Instead of playing with my heels down on the pedals and only playing with my wrists and fingers on the drums, I practiced with my heels up, doing things with the full leg and full arm. I had to learn to swing from the arm and from the leg, which I hadn’t done before. I practiced real simple stuff over and over again, until I could groove using the whole limb for power.
“People have asked me, ‘Why do you play so hard?’ But the way you hit a drum is who you are. That’s your soul. That’s your spirit. That’s your happiness or your anger. Sure, the mic’s can make you louder, but hitting it hard is your personality. If I played softer, it wouldn’t have the same energy that it has when I play loud. I’m not saying that loud is good and soft is bad. I’m just saying that the way you hit a drum is a distinct reflection of who you are—especially in our music, because everything is so exposed.”
Kenny became aware of how much personality can be expressed in a simple backbeat when he recorded “Hurts So Good” with Mellencamp back in ’82. “I was coming out of the fusion thing,” Kenny says, “and I was still sort of thinking, ‘This is such a great song. I wish I could play more notes and really show people more about who I am.’ But I remember going into the control room to listen to the playback. I was staring at the speaker thinking, ‘Damn! I can hear my spirit coming through that. I can feel my personality.’ I realized that, even though people weren’t getting a lot of notes from me, I was giving them something better: my soul. I believe that that’s really the root of music. After that, I knew that I could be happy playing that way, because the results were pretty neat.”
Even though Kenny had reconciled himself to simple playing, he missed the technical challenges of his fusion days. He wanted to push himself a little bit, so he started working on something that he had learned about from Gary Chester: lefthand lead. “I was just playing the same beats,” Kenny says, “except that I was riding the hi-hat with my left hand and hitting the snare drum with my right. Then I went to rehearsal one day, and John brought in the song ‘Hurts So Good.’ I decided to try the left-hand lead on the song, and when I did, John turned around and said, ‘Use that beat on this song.’ What amazed me was that it was actually the same beat I used on a lot of his songs, but I realized that it felt different because of the left-hand lead. My left hand wasn’t as developed as my right, so it had a looser, more laid-back feel.” Kenny now plays several songs left-handed, giving his playing two slightly different personalities within the same style.
Of course, when one has spent so many years developing technique, it’s hard to completely forget about it. “There are times,” Kenny laughs, “when I just say ‘To hell with it,’ and I start throwing that stuff in. As soon as I do, John turns around and says, ‘What are you doing?’ For example, on the last album, I threw in a Steve Gadd type of fill on one song. It was sextuplets that I played like a double-stroke roll between the snare drum, bass drum, and hi-hat. It sounded really cool when I did it, but when the album came out, it wasn’t there. They had mixed it out because John just doesn’t hear that stuff in his music.”
Another way that Aronoff has found to keep his simple beats interesting is to come up with different sounds. Again, he picked up a couple of ideas when he was doing the country gig. “One technique that’s effective,” Kenny says, “is to use a cross-stick with the left hand, and to smack a regular rimshot with the right hand at the same time. That gives a really flammy, flat sound, like something I heard once on an Everly Brothers record. I ended up using that effect on two songs from the Scarecrow album: ‘Minutes To Memories’ and ‘Face The Nation.’ ”
Aronoff experiments with his drums a lot, too. In a Rolling Stone review of Scarecrow, Kenny’s snare drum sound is referred to as “enormous.” On one song at least, that was literally true. “We were looking for a different snare drum sound,” he explains, “and so I brought in a whole bunch of different snare drums. One of them was a 5″ Noble & Cooley drum that I had gotten a hold of because Gary Gauger told me that it had a nice crack to it. Well, it had plenty of crack, but not enough sustain. So we tried adding echo and AMS reverb to it, which sounded okay, but we decided that it sounded too processed. So then I tried a 7” wood drum. That had the depth and natural sustain, but it didn’t have the same crack.
“By this time,” Kenny continues, “it was late at night, and everyone was getting frustrated because we had been fooling with this for several days. Finally, John said as a joke, ‘Why don’t you just tape the two of them together?’ So I said, ‘That sounds ridiculous, but what the hell.’ So I took the snares and the bottom head off the Noble & Cooley, took the top head off the other drum, and duct taped the two of them together. I didn’t have a stand that was deep enough, so I had to raise my tom-toms up, and I was almost standing up to play. We recorded the song ‘Rumble Seat’ with this drum. I still got the crack of the Noble & Cooley snare, but it had all of this resonance because it was now 12” deep.
“We only used that drum on the one track, because even though it sounded cool, we decided that it might be too much for the whole album. I used a 5″ metal snare drum for the rest of the tracks, which gave a different sound for this album because I had always used wood snare drums before. We went through about ten different snare drums, looking for that special sound that would have its own little space on the tape. John’s description of what he wanted was, ‘I want it to be real aggressive, but not necessarily turned up real loud.’ To do that, they placed the snare drum on the track very carefully so that it wouldn’t have to compete with any other frequencies from the guitars or other instruments. When you do that, you can really hear it without having to turn it up a lot. As for the sound being enormous, I don’t know all of the technicalities, but by the time they were finished, they had put echo on that drum about eight different times. So my ‘enormous’ snare drum sound was only a 5″ drum.”
In between the recording of Scarecrow and the subsequent tour, Kenny was invited to participate in former Stray Cat Brian Setzer’s first solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice. The fact that Aronoff got the call ties in with a recent trend in recording: More and more, producers are using musicians who are associated with bands, rather than studio musicians. To Kenny, that makes a lot of sense. “There’s definitely a different attitude involved,” he says. “A band player tends to care more for a couple of reasons. Just speaking for myself, I haven’t played on that many albums—four with John, and one with Mitch Ryder. So this project meant a whole lot to me. I was really eager to play on someone else’s record so that I could apply some of the stuff I learned with John to another musical situation, and learn something new to take back to John’s situation. If I were doing 12 albums a year—or 12 albums a month, as some people do—it would be hard to keep that same level of desire. It’s like eating the same food every day. Even if it’s great food, after a while it doesn’t taste so special anymore. Studio players have great technique, great time, and great ideas, but with as much recording as they do, I wonder how they can care so much. When I got in the studio with Brian, I was really into giving him everything I had. I was very excited and committed.
“As soon as I heard the tape, I knew that I liked Brian’s music and that I could identify with it. I wanted to play his music, and I wanted to play it well. I think that’s why a lot of producers want to use band drummers. They want someone who knows how to play and who has had experience making records, but they also want someone who is excited about the project and who really has that desire to make it great—that fighting feel. Sometimes producers hire different band players for different tracks, just to keep that level of excitement up.
“Another thing about band players,” Kenny continues, “is that we have developed the endurance to put up with a lot. Studio musicians have to put up with the people who hire them for a few hours, and then they don’t have to see them again. But when you’re in a band, it’s like a marriage, and you have to learn how to get through the tense times. Of course, with an album project like Brian’s, you’re only with these people for five weeks, so it’s not as big a commitment as being in a band permanently. But still, you have to know how to get along with people and work together.
“As it turned out, the guys who did the Setzer album not only played well together, but we all got along well together, too. Whoever was in charge of putting that band together was very smart about it. It was a real happy situation, and you can hear that on the record.”
Although Setzer asked Kenny to tour with him, that was impossible because of Ken’s commitment to the upcoming Mellencamp tour. But he did get to play one live gig with Setzer: the Farm Aid concert, where he also played with Mellencamp, John Fogerty, and Bonnie Raitt.
While he was in L.A. doing the Setzer album, Kenny came face to face with modern technology—and ethics. “A producer I know wanted to use me on a record,” he explains, “but I couldn’t do it because I had to get back to Indiana to start rehearsals for John’s tour. So then he asked if he could sample me. I got nervous about that at first, because I didn’t know what that really meant. I thought that maybe once I did that, it would mean that anybody could have my sound. But we drew up a contract that said that, anytime he used my snare drum sound, I would get paid. If he used my bass drum, it would be the same thing. And if he used my whole kit, I would get a residual. So he sampled me, and he’s going to use my sounds on the record. He’ll either get another drummer to play and combine my sounds with that, or he’ll just program a drum machine with my sounds in it.”
But couldn’t this producer alter the sounds a little bit and then use them without Kenny ever knowing about it? “Well, I’m going to have to trust him,” Kenny answers. “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t known the guy personally. Oh sure, I could get screwed, but I trust this guy so I’m going to let it go at that.
“Besides,” Kenny continues, “how much does one person’s drum sound matter, anyway? I’ve talked to engineers about this, and they have said that it’s not just the sound of the drum; it’s the attitude. It’s the way you go from one drum to the next. I’m sure that some people would disagree and wonder how I could let someone have my sound. But I try to change my sound a little bit on every album anyway. It’s not like I’ve got this one sound that I should market. By the time this guy uses my sound on an album, I’ll have gone to something else.”
But that experience did get Kenny working on an idea for the Mellencamp tour. “I started thinking about enhancing my live sound with some of the electronic devices that are out. But instead of using Linn sounds or Simmons sounds, I would have chips blown of my own sounds from the Scarecrow album. We had created a unique sound in the studio, but I knew that it would be difficult to reproduce those sounds consistently in all of the different environments we would be in on the tour. I felt that it was my responsibility to get as good a sound live as possible, so I began researching the possibilities.”
Kenny quickly discovered that, although there is a variety of electronic gear on the market, what he wanted to do was going to involve more than merely buying a couple of pieces of equipment and plugging them in. He was going to have to have something custom-built. His search eventually led him to Vince Gutman, maker of the Märc MX1 triggering unit. “The basic concept,” Kenny explains, “was to get the same sound live that we had in the studio. So by miking my drums live the same way I always have and triggering my studio sounds at the same time, the sound engineers could blend the two sounds together.
“The rack we ended up with is a unique piece of equipment. It was designed not only for its ability to enhance my sound according to my personal demands, but also to withstand the abuses of a tour. The best way for me to explain the rack is to follow the signal from beginning to end.
“First, I had a Detonator installed in each acoustic drum to pick up the signal that is produced when I hit the drum. We ended up with four different types of Detonators for the kit, because different Detonators respond differently depending on the size of the drum and the head tension. The ideal is to have a Detonator that responds to every dynamic level and to every rhythm that you play. The signal from the Detonators is sent to the Logic Switcher in the rack. This device is simply a vehicle by which I can turn my sampled sounds on or off with a box that rests at my feet. For example, when I play cross-stick passages during the show, I turn off the sampled sound so that I only get the acoustic sound. In a lot of songs, I go back and forth between using a cross stick and hitting the drum in the normal fashion, and the Logic Switcher gives me the flexibility to do that.
“Next,” Kenny continues, “the signal goes from the Logic Switcher to an MX1+. That adjusts the signal from the Detonator so that it will pick up every stroke at every dynamic level, without double triggering. The MX1+ sends the signal to a ddrum brain, which is where my sounds are stored. There is a module for each drum with functions such as treble, bass, decay, pitch sensitivity, signal sensitivity, and pitch of drum. I usually tune the ddrums to the same pitches as my acoustic drums. That way, they reinforce each other tremendously, and it helps us compensate for the different acoustical problems we run into at the various halls we play.
“Next there’s a Balanced Line Driver, which basically keeps the signal quiet, and gives a good quality signal to the sound engineer and monitor mixer. Then there’s a Quad Meter Package, which works parallel to the Balanced Line Driver. That makes it possible to monitor the dynamics and tracking of all my strokes with four LED bar graphs. At sound check, my roadie—Larry Yager—will watch to make sure that every stroke at every dynamic level is being registered. Since the rack is under the stage, he makes all of the adjustments after we discuss the situation, but once everything is set up and working, few adjustments are ever necessary.”
Considering all of the time and effort spent on this system, one might suppose that the bulk of Aronoff’s live sound is produced electronically, but that is not the case. Essentially, 75% of Kenny’s live sound is still being produced acoustically. The electronic sounds are basically used to add a degree of control to the ever-changing situations a touring band encounters. Although, occasionally, the electronics help in other ways. “One night,” Kenny laughs, “I was playing so hard that I broke the bottom head on my snare drum, so all of a sudden, it sounded like I was hitting a tom-tom. As soon as our sound engineer heard that, he boosted the electronic snare sound all the way up, and that got us through the rest of the song, when I could grab my backup drum.” It’s little wonder that Aronoff has dubbed his electronic setup “the drum buddies.”
But the key to Aronoff’s sound is still his acoustic drumset. Starting at the top, the cymbals are all Zildjian, but the specific models are in a state of constant change, depending on the situation. Take ride cymbals. Kenny recorded Scarecrow with a 22″ A Zildjian. But when he went to California to do the Brian Setzer album, that cymbal wasn’t making it. So Kenny paid a visit to the Zildjian West offices, and went through a variety of ride cymbals. “I ended up with a 20” Amir ride,” Kenny says. “It cut through real well, but it didn’t have too much ring. It was perfect for recording.”
When it came to live playing, however, Kenny needed something different. He settled on a Z series ride cymbal. “To me, it sounds kind of weird up close in comparison to the Ping ride I usually use,” Kenny says, “but it cuts through great, and that’s what I need live.” Kenny started the tour with two 18″ crash cymbals, but to get more volume he soon changed to 19″ crashes, which are Platinum series cymbals. Rounding out his setup are 14″ New Beat hi-hats, two 22″ China Boys, and a 12″ splash—all Platinum series.
The drums and hardware are all Tama, as Kenny has used for several years, but for this tour, he changed from Superstar shells to the Artstar series. “I’m using smaller drums on this tour,” Kenny explains, “and the Artstar shells ring a little more. Also, all of the toms are mounted on RIMS, and that gives them even more tone. I’ve got 10″ and 12″ toms, and a 14″ floor tom. It’s not a regular 14 x 14 floor tom, though. The depth is only 13″. It’s the smallest floor tom I’ve ever played in my life, but that son of a gun kicks. Here I am in a rock ‘n’ roll band with almost a jazz drumset”—almost, except for the bass drum, which is 24 x 16. “Here’s the interesting thing about that baby,” Kenny says. “I figured that, with a two-and-a- half-hour show, I would need an Emperor head, but it was too mid-rangy. So I went back to the white-coated Ambassador head, which is what I use in the studio. I have it changed every day, but that’s the head I need to get the sound I want. Using the right head makes all the difference in the world. Also, I had the drum Vibrafibed, which makes it sound fuller. Everything I did improved the sound.
“From six years with John’s band, I now feel more knowledgeable, so when the pressure is on, I know that I have options. Right before the tour started, when I was still working out the sounds, there were a couple of days there where the heat was on. John was laying this stuff on me, like, ‘I don’t know about you Kenny. I don’t think you’re as good as you used to be.’ I had to have the confidence to say, ‘Come on, John. I know I’m better than I’ve ever been.’ John was simply frustrated about what he was hearing at the soundcheck, and the problem was just the bass drum head. But I had to really maintain my confidence and be diplomatic while we got the problem worked out. The bottom line is that you really have to be on your toes and open to different things. What worked last time might not work this time. No matter how big you get or how much experience you have, you still have to have a learning mentality.”
If anyone has a learning mentality, that person is Kenny Aronoff. Whenever time permits, he loves to teach and do clinics. “I’ve always been into education,” he says, “probably because I spent so many years being taught. I had so much instruction that it feels very natural for me to be involved with that, and it’s exciting to be on the other side of the fence as a teacher. I get a kick out of sharing my experiences. I know what it’s like to want to know the answers, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to give a few answers to people who are looking for them.
“The clinic thing is great, because it gives me the chance to put together my own little show. It keeps me very organized about who I am, what I’ve done, and what I’m doing. It also gives me the chance to do some different things. For example, with John Cougar Mellencamp, I use one bass drum, but on clinics I’ll use a double bass pedal, and I’ll play some of my old fusion stuff.
“One of the most important things I cover,” Kenny continues, “is how to practice and how to utilize your time. When I was in music school, I had hours and hours of time to practice, but now I often only get a couple of hours a day—if I’m lucky. So I had to learn how to practice efficiently. There are a lot of drummers who are in the same position. They’ve got nine-to-five jobs, and they play drums on weekends. The only time they have to practice is at night. But you can accomplish so much in just a half hour if you get organized and set your mind to it. So I’m into teaching that along with many other concepts.”
Besides doing clinics, Kenny enjoys working with people in a one-on-one situation. “Teaching keeps me in tune with what’s going on, because they come in with questions about all sorts of things. With some kids, we work on technique. Others want to know about the music business. Some of them want to learn how to work with a click track. Some of them want to know what it’s like to make records and videos. But I can relate to that because I used to wonder about those things. Every kid is different. I once had a guitar player come to me for a lesson. It was great; we talked about time and how to approach different rhythms. I even had a whole band come to me once to talk about playing in a band. I was able to tell them things based on all of the knowledge I’ve gained from being in the John Cougar Mellencamp band. I’ve also got a couple of students from Indiana University who come to me. I can really relate to them, because I went to that same school for four years. I think that they feel good about that, because they figure, ‘This guy has been through the same scene that we’re going through. How did he get from there to where he is now?’ Occasionally, I’ll do a clinic at the university. A year or so ago, one of the percussion professors over there passed away, so they were bringing in different people to teach. I felt very honored that Mr. Gaber asked me to come in and teach for a week, and do a few master classes.” to drive
A lot of Kenny’s private teaching is done at various music stores in and around Indiana. “If I can,” he says, “I like to do a clinic and then stay over and teach privately, because a lot of kids don’t get to ask the questions they want at the clinic. There are several music stores scattered around not too far from where I live that I can go to and teach at from time to time: The Percussion Center in Fort Wayne, Mom’s in Louisville, Drum Headquarters in St. Louis, Rick’s Drums in Toledo, Lou McMahon’s in Indianapolis, the Owensboro [KY] Music Center, the Columbus Percussion Center, D.O.G. Percussion in Nashville, and Roselle Music, near Chicago.”
Kenny particularly enjoys the relationship he has with these local music shops. “At stores like these,” he says, “the people really care. It’s the small music stores that exist in small towns that really give musicians the personal service that they need at all levels. Not only can they educate you about equipment, but they also have teachers who can teach you how to play. And as you develop into a player, the local music store can also be the place where you meet other professional musicians. A lot of people just deal with the big mail-order warehouses, because they think that they can save a few bucks. But in the long run, they are getting shortchanged, because they’re not getting the special attention that a small store can give them. When I was young, I got an incredible education just by hanging out in some of the smaller music shops, and I still like to do that today. I’m constantly getting advice about equipment from these stores, because they deal with the stuff every day and they know more about it than I ever will. So I think these stores are providing a great service for the music community, and it’s a shame to see some of them closing down because people would rather save a couple of bucks than support their local stores. It would be pretty depressing to live in a town that didn’t have a music store. It doesn’t really inspire kids to get involved in music if they can’t even see a drumset or a guitar in their town. So I try to support these small stores.”
Perhaps the reason why Kenny feels so strongly about the importance of having a music store in town is that the town he grew up in didn’t have one. Although a lot of articles about Mellencamp refer to his “all-Hoosier band,” Aronoff is not a native of Indiana. He hails from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the town that was immortalized by Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Kenny went to school with Officer Obie’s son.) While it may have been possible to get anything you wanted at the restaurant, the town itself was another matter. Stockbridge is your basic small town (not unlike Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, Indiana), and for Kenny to taste big-city life, he had to drive three hours to get to either Boston or New York.
But Stockbridge did have one very important musical asset: The town is located next to Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There, Kenny had the chance to meet and study with Arthur Press and Vic Firth. When it was time for college, Kenny enrolled at the University of Massachusetts as a music major, but after studying with George Gaber at the Aspen Music Festival the following summer, Kenny decided to continue his studies with Gaber at Indiana University—thus becoming a Hoosier.
After graduating from I.U. with a bachelor’s degree in music performance and an I.U. Performer’s Certificate, Kenny went first to Boston to study with Alan Dawson, and then to New York to study with Gary Chester, but ultimately went back to Indiana and joined a fusion band. After three years with that group, Kenny was considering moving back to New York to try his luck there, but a chance meeting in a restaurant led to the John Cougar Mellencamp gig.
Today, the Mellencamp band lives, records, and generally operates out of Indiana, and the state figures very much in the band’s identity. Is this a sign that bands can now make it from anywhere in the country, rather than having to go to New York or L.A.? “The bottom line is this,” Kenny says. “If you have good material, it’s just as easy—or just as hard—for people from the Midwest to get tapes to someone in L.A. as it is for people in L.A. to get tapes to someone in L.A. It’s just that, if you happen to live in L.A., you can maybe drive downtown to see those people, and if you’re from the Midwest, you might have to fly. But even if you live in L.A., if you don’t know someone, you don’t have any better chance of getting your tapes heard by a record company than someone does who lives in Florida.
“There’s a beauty about all of these bands coming from different places,” Kenny continues. “These people sound different coming from cities other than New York or L.A. Music is a reflection of culture and environment. Listen to the song ‘Scarecrow’; I’m sure that people in New York are concerned about the farming situation, but how many of them see a scarecrow standing out in the middle of a cornfield every day when they drive to work? By the same token, we don’t see the things that are going on in New York. So the music coming out of Bloomington, Indiana, is going to be different than the music coming out of New York. I think that can be very interesting.
“At this point, living in Bloomington is a great advantage. We’ve made it, so we don’t have to be anywhere else. It’s a great town and a wonderful place to raise a family. It’s a college town—the university has about 30,000 students—and I think it’s a really healthy environment. Also, it’s kind of cool for a rock band not to be seen too much. People start wondering, ‘Who are these guys from the Midwest? What do they do out there?’ You don’t get caught up in the same kind of scene that everybody else is involved in; you create your own scene.”
That all sounds fine for an established band, but what about for an individual musician? “Good point,” Kenny says. “Right now I’m in the John Cougar Mellencamp band, so I belong in Bloomington. But if I wasn’t in that band, I would be in New York or L.A.—unless I joined another band that was located in a specific place. Here’s the thing: When I was in L.A. doing the Brian Setzer record, I was running into all sorts of people who wanted me to work on various projects with them. Those things could all be done if I lived there, but they might think twice about flying me in from Bloomington. Let’s face it: There are plenty of good drummers who can do a great job; I feel that anybody can be replaced. There’s no reason to fly a drummer in unless there’s really a big budget or the people involved just happen to be friends. So for that kind of work, you have to go to where the work is. Of course, John has his own studio now, and people can rent it. If I happen to be there and they want to use me, fine.”
Mellencamp isn’t the only one to have a studio; Kenny now has a small studio of his own, located in his home. “I’m trying to write some songs,” Kenny says. “I don’t know where it’s going to take me, but I think it will help me have more input when I’m with a band. And if I write a song that someone wants to record—great! That gives me more credibility and more diversity. So I built my home studio to develop that aspect. I think that every musician should try to write music. It helps complete your musical education and your understanding of other instruments and music.”
Having his own studio paid off in another way, too. “After I started recording myself,” he explains, “I gained so much knowledge and understanding about what’s going on in the studio. It really helped me have more input and be more involved with my sound. On the earlier albums, I usually said, ‘You’re the engineer; I’m the drummer. I’ll just play, because that’s the only thing I know.’ But on the last album, the engineer could ask my opinion, and I knew enough to be able to say, ‘I think we need to do this.’ The more input you can have, the more valuable you are in any situation.
“That brings up a point that I’ve been thinking about lately,” Kenny continues, “which is the longevity of a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. How long can I do this? Right now, I have a ‘sound.’ But maybe the time will come when no one wants to use that sound anymore; it will be washed up. That’s why it’s important to keep growing. Another thing is that I spent years playing classical music and jazz, and in a matter of two records, I was typecast as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. Rod Morgenstein came to one of our concerts once, and afterwards he came back and said, ‘You sounded great, but if only those people in the audience knew about all the other stuff you can do.’ But that’s the situation with most musicians; you never get to play everything you know. I think that I will be able to play music for the rest of my life, because I try to do different things and throw myself into different musical situations.
“Right now, I love being a rock drummer, but I’m concerned for a couple of reasons. Physically, I play so hard. It’s part of my sound, but I wonder how my body will be able to deal with this later on. We’re doing a two-and-a-half-hour show, and that takes a lot out of you. I wonder if I’ll be able to go out there ten years from now and hit the drums the way I hit them now. My mind wants to do it, but my body will be going through changes, and that can affect the mind.
“I’m really trying to pay attention to my mind. Everyone knows that you’ve got to take care of your body, but I don’t think that people take care of their minds enough. If you want to develop your body, you exercise it. If you want to develop your single-stroke roll, you exercise that. If you want to develop your speed around the tom-toms, you exercise that. The mind is the same way. If you want to learn to write, you write and write, and you keep writing until you get stronger at it. If you want to develop a positive attitude, you have to work on that, too. It won’t just happen.
“So I’m looking more and more into working on my mind. There are many ways to do it: You can be religious; you can meditate; you can study philosophy: Whatever it is that keeps you together, you need to do it, just like you practice drums. I was always bumping into walls. I would wonder why I couldn’t get myself focused in certain ways. It was because I wasn’t doing anything about it. The mind is like a muscle, and it needs exercise. It’s like football; you need to build yourself up so that, if somebody hits you, you can take it. People can hit you mentally, too, so you’ve got to be able to deal with it. People get tired and exasperated, and they snap at each other. But there are things you can do to have a better understanding of the people around you and to keep yourself happy, which in turn, makes people around you happy. You get back what you dish out.
“That’s where I’m heading now, because when I feel happy, I play happy. When I’m angry, I play angry. I want to sound happy. I have a lot of joy inside me, and when it flows, it’s great. But for some reason, I have a way of shutting it off when I get depressed or bummed out. I want to be as happy as I can all the time, so that other people can feel it from me and maybe be influenced by it.”
Developing A Basic Beat
by Kenny Aronoff
When John Cougar Mellencamp first brought in the song “Justice And Independence ’85,” I just played the first thing I thought of, which was a silly beat I learned when I was 11 years old:
I would never have used that beat on a record, but John liked the feel and started arranging parts to go with it. So I went home and started experimenting with ways to vary that original beat so that it grooved more, but still had the same basic feel that John liked.
For the intro to the song, I left some notes out on the third beat of the measure. That created some space at the beginning of the song, and it allowed me to have room to build as the song progressed. I also varied the hi-hat pattern a bit to make the simplified pattern groove more.
In the first verse, I varied the patterns in the snare drum and bass drum, but I never deviated too much from the original beat. When I worked on this beat at home, I came up with a “vocabulary” of patterns that all worked together. Then, when we recorded the song, I just listened to what the band was doing and let the drum part simply flow out of me.
To lift the song up a little in the releases at the end of the verses, I switched from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal. Then, for the chorus, I needed something special, but it still had to be related to the basic beat. So I combined the ideas from the verse and release sections by playing two measures on the ride cymbal, two measures on the hi-hat, and finally four measures on the ride cymbal. I also added some basic fills and some activity on the bell of the ride cymbal to lift the chorus even more than the releases. But throughout all of this, I was still working around the same basic beat.
Every song has a certain characteristic—or personality—that remains consistent throughout the song. One of the strongest characteristics is the beat, so I always try to determine the characteristic beat first and then develop variations of that beat that will help make the song groove more and hopefully inspire the other musicians without disturbing the personality of the song.