Drum great Kenny Aronoff was never afraid to go for it



By Steve Newton

I’ve got a theory, and this theory, which is mine, is that everybody wants to be a rock ’n’ roll drummer. There’s just something irresistible about the idea of pounding away on a resonating circle until you’re sweaty and drained and then having people cheer you for it. Take my next-door neighbour Bob, for instance. A few weeks ago he rented a set of black Pearl drums, and now you can hear him and his roommates over there making like they’re on the warpath.

Kenny Aronoff, one of the most recognized rock drummers in the world and currently touring with Melissa Etheridge, thinks it’s great when people take up drums, no matter what age they are. Bob’ll be 47 in March.

“He’s not gonna make it into the Limp Bizkit band,” quips Aronoff from a Nebraska tour stop, “but I support that. That’s fantastic. That person is fulfilling their desire, their wishes. And they’re not afraid to go for it.”

Aronoff—who takes part in the Vancouver International Drum Festival’s master-performance concert this Sunday (November 28) at the Vogue Theatre—wasn’t afraid to go for it either. When he was 10, he started his first band, and before long his feisty drum sound was being heard everywhere on tunes by John Cougar, John Cougar Mellencamp, and plain old John Mellencamp. He played with the Indiana roots-rocker for more than 20 years, and his distinctive whump! can be heard on all of his big hits.

“It definitely made me a recognizable drummer in the drum world,” notes the 46-year-old rocker of his stellar career with Mellencamp. “And the sound was groundbreaking, because we were literally blowing up speakers when we were laying it to tape for American Fool. I remember John got into a big fight with the studio owner. The owner told him, ‘You can’t do that,’ and John said, ‘Oh yes I can,’ and the owner said, ‘No you can’t.’ John said, ‘I’m payin’ for this room, I can do what I want,’ and then he threw the guy down and started beatin’ on him.” (Note to self: This must be how Mellencamp earned his producer alias, Little Bastard.)

“I loved it,” continues Aronoff. “I thought it was great, because at that time, songs like ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ were on the radio, and when ‘Hurts So Good’ came on it completely blew those songs off the radio. I mean, sonically, the drums were so present, and that really made a big statement. But that wasn’t even really my sound until we got to, like, Scarecrow, when it really pushed the drums forward and gave it that sound of aggressiveness and attack combined with ambiance.”

Although Aronoff’s session and tour credits include work with Bob Seger, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Diamond, and John Fogerty, he veered somewhat away from traditional rock when he joined the grunge-spawned Smashing Pumpkins for a tour last year. But he says he didn’t have to make a big adjustment to his playing style to fit in with Billy Corgan and company’s alt-rock leanings.

“Naah—lookit, that alternative stuff is retro to the ’60s, to when I grew up. You know, there was certain licks and certain feels that he wanted to hear, but that adjustment comes with any situation you’re in—play soft or play loud, or less fills. I mean, if it was gonna be a major adjustment, I wouldn’t have got the gig.”

Thanks to the proliferation of music videos, Aronoff is one of the drum world’s most recognizable characters, with his closely shaved head, intense facial expressions, and muscular limbs flailing about. He’s played so hard that he’s bruised bones, and had drumsticks break and hit him, almost taking out an eye. So what’s going though his mind when he’s in the throes of such action?

“It’s everything you can imagine,” he says. “It’s like I’m thinking in terms of what I’m doing technically, what the form of the song is, the lyrics, listening to the rest of the band, making sure I’m keeping good time, making observations of how I sound, how I fit into the track, how my body’s feeling. I mean, it’s everything, just keeping everything in check but still trying to be natural. Isn’t that wild?”

Although he’s backed the elite of late-20th-century rockers, there are a few gigs Aronoff still yearns for, like playing drums in The Who. And he still wishes he’d had the opportunity to hammer out a backbeat for Jimi Hendrix, posters of whom covered the walls of Aronoff’s bedroom when he was 13. Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell was far and away his favourite skin basher when he was a kid, but when you ask Aronoff to pinpoint his fave of today, there’s no easy answer.

“There’s just too many,” he points out. “I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s why I feel so fortunate that I’ve managed to get to a point where I’m even having an interview, or where somebody cares to have me play. You know, I’m honoured to be asked to be a clinician in all these different drum festivals. It’s a rare thing for a drummer to even make it—where people know who you are—let alone to sustain that, especially in this day and age.”

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