An interview with Kenny Aronoff 

Former Mellencamp drummer plays the Obama Inauguration

The news broke a few days after the inauguration: Yo Yo Ma and the other three members of the quartet that played during the ceremony didn't play live. The weather was too cold, and strings go uncontrollably out of tune when the temperature is below 40 degrees, so a recorded version of the John Williams piece written for the occasion was broadcast while the musicians went through the motions.

But at least one concert that weekend was live: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, a Jan. 18 concert featuring a cross-genre selection of stars (Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and Bono), with a keynote address by President Obama and a rousing sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" led by progressive folkie Pete Seeger, his son Mike and Springsteen. Well, it wasn't entirely live: The string parts were recorded for the Inaugural Celebration as well, but all those that could physically play their instruments did, including the drummer for the proceedings, Bloomington and Los Angeles resident and one-time drummer for John Mellencamp, Kenny Aronoff.

Aronoff has been on the A-list of professional drummers for the past two decades, a "sideman" who hasn't stuck with just one band since his early years with Mellencamp in the '80s, who can reliably play a studio session or arena show with little preparation or warning. But while Aronoff has played with plenty of big names, and he regularly tours with John Fogerty, Joe Cocker and Melissa Etheridge, it might be said that he's recently picked up the kind of high-stress gigs that prove he's crept up to the top of the list. He played both the George Jones and The Who segments for the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, and played behind Fogerty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard for the 2008 Grammys.

Born in Massachusetts, Aronoff made his way to Indiana University in Bloomington to study classical percussion in the mid '70s, then stuck around after graduating in 1976, joining a jazz-fusion band, Streamwinner. In 1980, he earned a spot in John Mellencamp's band, touring and recording his first album with the group, Nothing Matters and What If It Did. Aronoff played with the Mellencamp band until the mid '90s, helping the songwriter to transition from a generic, manufactured hard rocker (Johnny Cougar) to a more diverse and sophisticated roots rocker who drew on sentimentalized but honest visions of his old Indiana home for a string of solid albums during the '80s that included American Fool and Scarecrow. Along for all the hit singles - "Jack and Diane," "Hurts So Good" - Aronoff can be seen clapping his hands in the background of the "Pink Houses" video, wearing a plaid shirt, balding, not stealing any limelight or style from the forearm-baring, chain-smoking frontman.

Aronoff's personal style has changed quite a bit - he's long since shaved off any remaining hair, and opts for an almost stereotypical L.A. rock star look, wearing plastic wraparound sunglasses, thick silver rope necklaces and tight tank tops that show off a muscled body that demonstrates the benefits of careful living and physically demanding drumming.

Aronoff began picking up work outside of the Mellencamp band in the mid '80s, beginning with musicians that recently went out on their own: the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer, The Go-Gos' Belinda Carlisle. By the start of the 1990s, he had begun to record and tour with household names: Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, a reunited Jefferson Airplane, Neil Diamond, Bob Seger. In 1993, Aronoff became an associate professor in the School of Music at IU, teaching drum set to jazz students, something that he wasn't able to study during his own schooling.

In the summer of 1996, a scheduling conflict brought his time with the Mellencamp band to an end: After Aronoff was unable to make a sales convention that the singer had asked him to play because of previous commitments, Mellencamp, according to Aronoff, asked the drummer to choose between those other commitments and his band. Aronoff chose to leave. At the time, he smarted from the experience - "After 17 years, I thought he should at least treat me like a guy who has been there for him for 17 years," he told the Berkshire Eagle in 1996 - but it also opened up a wider array of opportunities.

I called Aronoff early on a recent Sunday afternoon as he headed to his Los Angeles apartment to grab a bite to eat before his next studio session. He still has a home in Bloomington, but he goes where the work is - much of his studio work is in Los Angeles, while tours this year with Cocker, Tina Turner and Fogerty will take him across the U.S., into Canada, then Europe. He managed to carve out a little over an hour to chat before he was on his way.

NUVO: I'd like to talk about the inauguration concert. It had to have been an outrageously difficult show, if just because of the weather alone, but it was probably also quite rewarding, especially afterwards thinking back on it.

Aronoff: Absolutely, you touched on all of it. We were hand picked. The e-mail I got was, you guys are going to be overworked, underpaid, tough conditions, long hours, 16-hour days. You've been picked because you can play all styles of music, and you are people that can work under these conditions, get along and congratulations.

The first two days were indoors, 16-hour days, we were learning arrangements. You have to be able to read, you have to be able to rewrite. We had to record things, send them out. We had to send a version of "The Rising" to Springsteen. There was another song he wanted to possibly do; we had to send that out. We had to record for Beyonce, then Josh Grobin's segment, so that the orchestra could record over us the next day, because the strings go out of tune under 60 degrees, and the day of the show was in the low 30s.

Not to mention soundcheck. Soundcheck with Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette was minus two degrees on stage. The heater I had was the size of a laptop. There was no heater; it was a joke. I was dressed in thermal underwear, sweatshirts, ski gloves, ski parka, hat, snow boots, you name it. And I was thinking: How are we going to play this show? But it warmed up: By the time of the show, it was 34 degrees. It was like beach weather: I could take my hat off.

Being a drummer, it's like the director of the show, the musical director and then me. I have to know when to count off, who to count off to, what that count off is. I have to learn the script of the show. Nobody's telling me this; I just know this. Doing Kennedy Center, the Oscars, Grammys; whenever I'm the guy the music director picks, I have to know how to run the show. It's not like - whoo-hoo! - just get up there, click your sticks and it's a party. This is like the Super Bowl; you make a mistake, you lose the game.

The day of the show, it's just crazy. It's a lot of excitement. I'm talking to Tom Hanks - we'd become friends because I did the movie That Thing You Do; I was the drummer on that. He'd seen me play many times with Melissa Etheridge. He came into the green room and said, "Kenny, what are you doing here? Are you playing?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "The show is going to rock; we've got Kenny Aronoff here." That's what he said!

When we got on stage, I'm looking out at like a million people, and suddenly you're realizing, you're looking down and you see senators and congressmen that you know. And it's cold. And you're thinking, this is the Super Bowl, stay focused. Just don't even think about this. And the biggest distraction is when the president walks up. There's the guy, right across the stage.

NUVO: You don't have the option of getting tongue-tied or shy or nervous or anything like that.

Aronoff: You can't, but you could. You could go, "Wow," and all the sudden, you've missed a cue. And I was thinking, this is going great but stay focused. All of a sudden Stevie Wonder doesn't come in; his keyboard wasn't working. So I'm just thinking, groove, groove, groove.

NUVO: So this was your first time playing with Mellencamp in 15 years?

Aronoff: It was cool. The day of the show, I went into John's dressing room and we hung out for about 45 minutes. It was a great hang. We just talked about everything, you know.

One of the things I remember I said to him: "Dude, I remember dropping off an equipment truck or van at your house when you lived on Lake Monroe when we were just kids." And he said in his serious tone, "Aronoff, come in here." We went in the house, and he says, "Listen to this song I wrote. I played it for my dad, and he thought it was the best song I ever wrote." It was "Pink Houses." He played it on acoustic guitar. And me, in the little I knew about songs and music from a songwriter's perspective - I was coming from it as a musician - I went, "Oh my God! This is incredible. These lyrics are incredible." It gave me goose bumps.

When I played it live - even in rehearsal - I was telling John, it gave me the same goose bumps and feeling. And John said to me, "God, I don't even remember playing it for you." God, I do. I remember it was a fall day; I remember it was one of the few moments I was alone with him. He was my boss, it was all new; I'd been playing in clubs at the Patio, the Vogue, the Bluebird. I'd been on tour with him - opening up for the Kinks and Heart - and all the sudden, this was exciting, the opening to my career as it is in the big leagues, and then I'm listening to John playing this song.

NUVO: I assume there's no hard feelings at this point between you two - you just haven't worked together since then.

Aronoff: Yeah, just haven't worked together. He's a workaholic like me. That's why I think, in many ways, we both are very competitive, real aggressive, like music jocks or something. We used to play football - we had the MFL [Midwest Football League, minor league football] - and we would play opposite each other. It was like ... grr! It was highly competitive. The edge he had on me was, No. 1, he was the fastest white kid I've ever seen in my life - that's the truth. And he was my boss, so I couldn't hit him too many times or I could get fired. And trust me, there were many times we played flag football, but it was the opposite of flag football. We saw a guy coming, and nobody thought twice to stick your forearm right in the guy's face and take him out. But he was my boss so I had to think about that a little bit. [Laughs.]

It was cool. He's the lead singer; he's the car and I'm the engine. He's a tough, fast hot rod and you need a fucking bad-ass engine in there. So I thought we were good like that together.

NUVO: So has this been a busy day for you?

Aronoff: Every day is, and that's the way I like it. I'm a workaholic, and that's just what I am. Instead of fighting it, I just go with it. I enjoy my life like that. The way I look at it now is I feel really fortunate I have something to be so passionate about.

In 20 seconds I could say what I want to do, and in that 20 seconds I would need like 200 years of life to fulfill it.

I've got this Zeppelin band I play in out here in L.A. called Zep Set. I was doing this record with this guy called Mitch Perry, who's a gunslinger guitar player, and he asked me if I wanted to play Friday night at midnight at this club called the Cat Club. I remember thinking, God, do I take on that challenge? I'm not going to sit there and be like, "Yeah, I know 'The Ocean.' Let's do 'Rock and Roll.'" I sat there with a piece of paper and I wrote out every single note, and then I listened and listened to hear the way that those guys played together. There was a deep, deep amount of talent, a deep amount of thought each guy put into learning how to play a certain style.

These guys listened to each other. They weren't at skin level; they were getting into the bone marrow. They listened; they had a vision; they stepped out of their own instrument and played the ensemble as a unit.

NUVO: What's that 20-second version of what will take you 200 years to do - perfecting your craft and really listening to others?

Aronoff: To really understand your craft, you have to be skilled technically, and you have to be educated. Then you have to see beyond yourself and incorporate your self in the group or ensemble you're with. Boy, that's not really narrowing it down, but that's sort of it. It's not just being great at what you do, but the way you fit yourself in the environment you're in that makes you great.

That's how I record or play live: I step out of my body, and I put myself in the audience. I go, "How's that band sounding. Well, that drummer's rushing. Slow down, Kenny! Oh, you're the drummer, that's right. Kenny, you need to sit a little bit back with John Fogerty or Mellencamp or Bon Jovi, whoever I'm playing with, and play like this. That's how to do it now."

NUVO: That's kind of trippy. You wouldn't want to stay in the audience for too long and not come back.

Aronoff: You know what, I've done that, and I've been like, "Dude, you've been out there a little too long. Better come back." I do split my brain. It's like I've developed a muscle where I'm being very technical at times, and I get to a spot that's tricky and I think, execution, very technical, hands, foot. Then I go right back to listening to everyone on stage to make sure I'm in the right place.

NUVO: You're always on the road, or maybe a little more often in L.A. doing studio work.

Aronoff: I really like recording; that's where so much creativity is; that's where I get to really invent and create; and that's my way of songwriting, and I really like that. It's very difficult for people to break into the recording scene because it's diminishing - it's not what it was, with people recording out of their houses. When I say recording, I'm talking about the way they do it in Nashville, which is you play together. That to me is music: People playing together, reacting to each other. That's where the magic is.

We're humans. Humans need to touch. Humans need to interact. I don't care how much technology you've got, we're still humans; we're not computers. And the human condition, in my opinion, is touching, interacting, talking, feeling, expression amongst each other.

A kid asked me a while ago, "Hey, what do you think of this song?" He's a really great singer, and he wrote a cool song, and he asked, "What do you think?" And I said, "It misses interaction. I don't feel anybody interacting." And he says, "Oh wow. What should I do?" How about that? He didn't even know what to do. I said, "I'll tell you what you should do. Redo the drums and have a bass player. You'll have two people on the track reacting to each other and going for it. That's what you do." And he went, "Oh, wow!" See it's gotten to that point where some people may not have even considered it.

NUVO: Can you talk about how your interests in your early years transitioned from rock to classical and then back to rock?

Aronoff: In my sophomore year of high school, I started studying with a percussionist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra because I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and in the summer, that's where the Boston Symphony Orchestra came. When I got with this percussionist, Arthur Press, he didn't teach me drum set; he wanted to get me into classical music. When I took my first lesson, he said, "What did you prepare for me today?" And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Did you prepare a tympani piece?" I went, "No." "Well, did you prepare a mallet piece?" I went, "No, I don't play mallets." He looked at me like, what the hell are you doing here. And he says, "What do you play?" I said, "Drum set." He said, "You do? Well come here - why don't you play for me?" I played and he went, "All right, that's it. We're starting from the beginning." He says, "Here's a practice pad. I'm going to start teaching you some technique." And that's how we started, from the ground up.

But I was always open to different things, and that ended up paying off big time for me. Hence the Kennedy Center Honors where I'm playing in the Who segments, and then I'm playing in the George Jones segments. That's, stylistically, two different things, and radically different. You know when I learned to play country music? When my son was born, I played the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Ind. Then all the sudden I started recording in Nashville; I had that skill.

Graduated from college at IU, and I got offered jobs at the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and Quito, Ecuador, both of which I turned down. I went back to Massachusetts, lived with my parents, started practicing eight, nine hours a day, studying drum set in Boston and in New York, and realized, shit, this is where my heart's at.

I didn't understand what I got out of that classical training until later in life. Really, I didn't. The first thing I thought was it gave me discipline: I know how to practice hard. It gave me way more than that. At IU, I played with everybody; it gave me an opportunity to play all kinds of music, medieval music, classical music, jazz, R&B bands, funk bands, rock bands, fusion bands, polka bands. It taught me Latin rhythms, playing tambourines; all this different stuff that, later, becomes different colors in the palette of what you do.

NUVO: Someone who knew you at that time said he was surprised to hear you with Mellencamp's band after hearing you in this fusion jazz band.

Aronoff: Absolutely. Everybody said, "What are you doing that for?" Rod Morgenstein from the Dixie Dregs, who we opened up for with Streamwinner - I invited him to come see me at the Omni in Atlanta with Mellencamp; 17,000 people, sold out. We were opening for Heart, I believe. And he said he wanted to stand up and say, "No, Kenny can play way more technical things than that." He didn't understand. I said, "Dude, first of all, I recorded 'Hurts So Good' and 'Jack and Diane.' That's all over the radio, and I get to play this to people up dancing. Yeah, it's not as technical as playing jazz and fusion but there's other rewards I'm getting from this." Five years later, he called me and said, "I get it," because he was playing with Kip Winger or somebody, and he had never played simple music before and he realized how hard it was.

It's very, very difficult to play simple with the right feel and the right meaning. I became the drummer I made fun of as a kid. The drummer who does what a drummer is supposed to do: pick the right beat, keep it in time, make it feel good and then be creative on top of that. [In college], I was thinking, pop music, rock music, nah, bullshit. I didn't get it. I was a musical snob. But you know what? That simple type of playing is so difficult that I'm even getting better at it now. It's just like a bottle of wine: It takes a while for it to become great.

NUVO: And how important is teaching and doing drum clinics to you?

Aronoff: I love doing the clinic thing, because it's a show and it's a way for me to perform a lot of different recordings I've done. That's what I do: I perform about 12 different songs that I've recorded, and they're all over the map, from the Buddy Rich Big Band to Mellencamp to Black Sabbath to Puddle of Mudd and Alanis Morissette. Every song has a story and something educational I can talk about.

NUVO: How do you maintain balance in your life, given your non-step schedule of work and travel?

Aronoff: The way I work, it is definitely an imbalance. There is no balance, it's out of balance. There's no question. [Laughs.] But there is no perfect situation; if I was to balance it, I probably wouldn't be as happy as I am right now. This is Kenny Aronoff. It's not even a matter of right or wrong, it's just the way it is and that seems to make me the happiest. Nothing is perfect, but this seems to be the best for me at this point in my life; the best way for me to operate.

A brief history of Kenny Aronoff's working life

1953

Born in Stockbridge, Mass.

1972

Begins studying at Indiana University after transferring from the University of Massachusetts

1976

Graduates from IU

Rejects offers to work as timpanist for orchestras in Ecuador and Israel

Moves back to Massachusetts

1977

Returns to Bloomington

Begins to play with jazz fusion band Streamwinner

1980

Lands spot with John Mellencamp's band

John Cougar Mellencamp, Nothing Matters and What If It Did

1982

John Cougar Mellencamp, American Fool

1983

John Cougar Mellencamp, Uh Huh

1985

Farm Aid

John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow

Brian Setzer, The Knife Feels Like Justice

1987

Farm Aid III

John Cougar Mellencamp, The Lonesome Jubilee

Belinda Carlisle, Heaven on Earth

1989

John Mellencamp, Big Daddy

Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Airplane

1990

Roy Orbison tribute concert

Farm Aid IV

Bob Dylan, Under the Red Sky

Iggy Pop, Brick By Brick

1991

John Mellencamp, Whenever We Wanted

Neil Diamond, Lovescape

1992

Indigo Girls, Rites of Passage

Michelle Shocked, Arkansas Traveler

1993

Becomes associate professor of percussion at Indiana University in Bloomington

Willie Nelson 60th birthday celebration

John Mellencamp, Human Wheels

Lisa Germano, Happiness

1994

John Mellencamp, Dance Naked

Lyle Lovett, I Love Everybody

1995

Rod Stewart, A Spanner in the Works

Melissa Etheridge, Your Little Secret

1996

Percussion scholarship established under Aronoff's name at IU

Begins touring with Bob Seger and Melissa Etheridge

Celine Dion, Falling into You

That Thing You Do soundtrack

1997

Leaves Indiana University

Begins touring with John Fogerty

John Fogerty, Blue Moon Swamp

Buddy Rich Big Band, Burning for Buddy, Vol. II

1998

Fills in as drummer for Smashing Pumpkins on the Adore tour

John Fogerty, Premonition

Richie Sambora, Undiscovered Soul

1999

Introduces signature snare drum line

Melissa Etheridge, Breakdown

Garth Brooks, In ... The Life of Chris Gaines

2000

Begins touring with Joe Cocker

Equality Rocks! Concert

Ricky Martin, Sound Loaded

Jennie DeVoe, Ta Da

2001

Melissa Etheridge, Skin

Mick Jagger, Goddess In the Doorway

2002

Women Rock! Lifetime TV special

Joe Cocker, Respect Yourself

Travis Tritt, The Rockin' Side, The Lovin' Side

2003

Spends year touring with Michelle Branch

Willie Nelson USA Network special

Michelle Branch, Hotel Paper

Meat Loaf, Couldn't Have Said It Better

2004

Ashlee Simpson, Autobiography

Melissa Etheridge, Lucky

2005

Santana, All That I Am

Trey Anastasio, Shine

2006

Tribute to Johnny Cash CBS special

Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose

The New Cars, It's Alive

2007

Puddle of Mudd, Famous

Avril Lavigne, The Best Damn Thing

2008

Kennedy Center Honors concert celebrating George Jones and The Who

Plays with Fogerty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard at the Grammys

Gavin DeGraw, S/T

BoDeans, Still

2009

Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C.

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