Admit it. You've done it. John Mellencamp's "Jack & Diane" is blaring from the speakers and when it gets to the best part - the drum solo - you air drum along. You might subtly be hitting your steering wheel or flailing your arms to the point where you strike the person standing next to you. But you've done it. What you may not know is that the drum part for that song (and the drum solo) was created by Kenny Aronoff, one of the most renowned and prolific rock drummers in the industry and author of the book "Sex, Drums, Rock & Roll," (Backbeat Books) a memoir of his career in the music business playing with everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Smashing Pumpkins to Brian Wilson. Kenny Aronoff took a few minutes out his absurdly packed schedule to discuss the book, his style of drumming and, yes, that iconic drum solo.
AXS: Congratulations on the success of the book. Why do you think people are relating to it so well?
KA: I think it's because I'm being honest and I think everybody can relate to working hard. I'm a rock star but I wasn't born a rock star. I'm showing how I made it. I'm just a common guy. Now we all have our own individual talents and I came from a small town of 3,000 people with no role models and nobody to help me get in the door. I earned it. I busted my ass. I made moves and I think people can relate to it because "If he can do it, I can do it." The bottom line is, it's the truth. I mean, I do reveal myself. I admit my faults. I talk about being scammed. So people feel they can relate to it, I think.
AXS: I want to talk to you about your personal style of drumming. You, to me, are a very melodic drummer. Do you think that stems from your training and the fact that you can read music and are a classically trained percussionist?
KA: All of that helps, of course, very much so. And also growing up in an environment where there was always music on the turntable. Really great music - the greatest classical, the greatest jazz, the greatest singers like Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, you name it. I was always around it so I was always drawn towards melody. I think all that classical training paid off. So that was a great foundation. But also, when I got into John Mellencamp's band I was being trained and educated and learning how to be a drummer that would come up with hook lines and parts that would make songs hits. "Jack and Diane" was off the album until I was forced into a corner to come up with something that would be suitable for that song and that song became a number one hit. Really, it was because of my drum part that that song became alive again.
AXS: The drum part and solo for "Jack and Diane" has really become quite iconic. It's very rare that an audience makes a connection to the drummer. What was it like for you, any time you play that song when you look out into the audience and see people air drumming along? Is that the ultimate compliment for a drummer?
KA: It's awesome! I got to live the dream as I I were in the Beatles. I did! I got into a band that broke. Huge! And that song was one of the songs that broke John Mellencamp huge. He already had 'I Need A Lover' and a couple of other singles. But this song and 'Hurt So Good' coming out of the chute and then 'Jack and Diane' coming out behind it, both in the Top 10 at the same time. It was unbelievable! Now, everybody still air drums to "Jack and Diane" and feel like "Wow! That's so cool that I did that!" It's still alive and I created that part. That was when I finally understood and effectively demonstrated the purpose of a drummer in a band like that. I killed it. I came up with a part that was melodic, that had a hook line and that everybody could relate to.
AXS: Listening to rock music in the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the 90s, it wasn't unusual to have a time signature change or tempo change within a song. But now we seem to get just a straight 4/4 in a rock song. Why do you think this is? Is it a lack of musical proficiency with the people coming up behind you or is the label execs not wanting their musicians to take risks?
KA: In general, society in the 60s, 70s and 80s, in my view, went from black and white to color. Society was blossoming, experimentation was really starting to come out. Everybody was challenging everything. With that, things became no holds barred. Everybody could be creative and people went for it. The Beatles and McCartney, they were listening to show tunes, jazz, country and R&B, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. The Beatles took all that and masterfully put all of it together. And then you got bands like Yes, King Crimson and Zeppelin who were really experimental. And then it became a business. People started making a lot of money and started wondering 'What should I write?' instead of writing what they felt like writing. Hendrix was just himself, you know? Now people don't want to do the work. They want short cuts to success. When people don't spend the time to be creative and make something their own, what happens is the music becomes mediocre. I mean, mediocrity is in. People are sick of it too. Music is dumbed down now. There's a lot of crap out there. There are a lot of people who haven't invested the time it takes to be genius. There are people who are just trying to copy what they hear on the radio. I hear country acts right now that are sh!tty versions of rock and roll and sh!tty versions of country and they're selling lots of records. I'll be the first to say "Man, they suck!" They may be popular but that doesn't mean they're good.
AXS: You do a lot of session work with up-and-coming artists. When you're given a song and asked to do a basic drum part, do you ever make suggestions when it comes to the arrangement?
KA: The bottom line is, I'm not the boss. My goal is to take their song and make it better than if they didn't have me. In most cases, that's what I do - I say in all cases. They'll send me the MP3 files of the song with and without the click track. Once those are in Pro Tools, I'll write out a drum chart with every note they way they programmed it. So that's my starting point. What I give them is great sound and killer feel in one take because that's how I was trained. I'll give them three versions: one that's simple and straight ahead, the next one will have a little bit more and then the third version I'll break out and give them some stuff they didn't think about. Now if the artist is there and they make a suggestion, I have to be open to that because it's their music and I'm being hired by them.
AXS: The list of people that you've played is extensive. Who haven't you played with that is on your drummer's bucket list?
KA: I played with Sting but I would love to tour with him with Jeff Beck in the band. If I had a lot of money, I would just call both of them up and hire them to play with me. If someone wants to get me a few million dollars, I will get you Sting and Jeff Beck and I'll take care of all the details.