One of the Greatest 100 Drummers of All Time.
A Jacobs School alumnus and voted the #1 Pop/Rock Drummer and the #1 Studio Drummer for five consecutive years by the readers of Modern Drummer Magazine, October Entrepreneur of the Month Kenny Aronoff continues to be one of the world’s most significant artists. He’s played on over 60 Grammy-nominated recordings, with 1,300 gold, platinum, and diamond certified records, and his performances have been heard on more than 300 million records sold worldwide. Rolling Stone magazine named him as one of the greatest 100 drummers of all time.
In anticipation of Kenny’s visit to the Jacobs School of Music this weekend, we recently had an opportunity to connect with him by phone for a Q&A.
PJ: You spent four years studying classical percussion at the Jacobs School and ended up as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. How did your time at IU help form your career?
KA: In many ways, the Jacobs School of Music gave me a phenomenal technical foundation as I formed into a multi-instrumental percussionist. My mentor and teacher, the great George Gaber had a deep influence on me. He instilled values that I draw from today: a realization that, if you don’t give your all, if you don’t perform at your best, you will be washed out. It’s like being a Navy Seal, being part of a special elite force. At IU, I learned to understand what it’s like to win and what it’s like to lose, to be accountable for everything. I believe that the rigor of training at IU enables a person to be great in this world.
People were more talented and more gifted than I was when I first arrived. Self-discipline, hard work, coupled with application of technique and persistence towards identifiable goals got me to where I need to go. That’s the story of my career – and I’m still going strong at 64 years of age! That’s some of where my Seven Ways of Being Successful and Staying Successful comes from. Nobody works as hard as Kenny Aronoff!
PJ: What were some of the most significant memories for you at IU?
KA: I was blown away by the sheer talent around me and was in some ways daunted by it. It was a motivator as well. By practicing obsessively, sometimes through the night, I worked my way to the top and by the second-semester in my junior year, I was timpanist in the top orchestra, received a performer certificate for my recital, and won the concerto competition. I’ll never forget the marimba piece I played in the competition, which was inspired by Itzhak Perlman who had performed an encore at the IU Auditorium (Introduction et rondo capriccioso, by Camille Saint-Saëns.) I practiced that piece for two hours a day for 365 days, which is what you do at IU. That’s what you do!
PJ: When you completed your degree at IU, how did it feel to re-connect with rock and roll?
KA: My story with rock and roll preceded my time at IU and is bookended by the Beatles; I was around pretty-much when rock-and-roll started. I saw them on TV when I was 11 years old and then found myself performing with Paul McCartney and Ringo Star 50 years later on the TV special “The Night they Changed America.” There was no school of rock back then. I had hair down to my shoulders and played rock in clubs, starting at age 13.
Leaving the Jacobs School involved major adjustments. I’ll be honest and say that I was frustrated that I couldn’t walk out and get a job. I realize now that my education prepared me to take steps towards something great, even though I didn’t know how it would end up. George Gaber didn’t necessarily train me for what I do now, but he made me into what I am today. Discipline and accountability are my hallmarks.
After spending time on the east coast, I found myself back in Bloomington, starting a band and living in a house that became known at the Roach Motel (near the corner of 7th and Indiana). The band was okay – but four years after leaving the Jacobs School, I was able to audition for this Johnny Couger guy (John Mellencamp) who I had heard about on MTV and American Grandstand. I was obsessed about winning the audition and wrote out every note of the drum parts. I memorized everything and smoked the audition. That was really the start of my career as a recognized rock and roll drummer.
PJ: Did things go as planned?
KA: Five weeks later, in the middle of a recording session in LA, he asked me to go home. This became a pivotal moment in my life. I didn’t yet understand what a drummer’s role was, what my role should be. I was incredibly naïve. I just didn’t know how to be a team player, how to help recordings become what they needed to be to get to #1. My playing was all about ‘me’ and not about ‘us’. So, I took a deep breath – and I refused to go home, remaining in LA (without pay) to learn how to become a team player.
Returning to Bloomington, I was able to stay on as John’s drummer and practiced 8 hours a day again to perfect the art of being a team player. I had to wait a year and a half to be given the opportunity to record with John and we made the single, Jack and Diane, which went to number 1 on the charts.
Reflecting back to George Gaber, my mom once asked him if her son was talented enough to make it and Prof Gaber said that the answer would be revealed in 10 years. Diamond Joe came out 10 years later. Real life became my doctorate.
PJ: What made you leave Bloomington?
KA: Around 2006, it began to feel that the music business model completely flip-flopped and I had to adjust, reconsider where I base my work to be available to opportunity. I realized that we were in in a completely new era, something similar to the horse and buggy period, when the car showed up. Before the change, Bloomington was my hub and I could work in Nashville with tons of famous musicians and at the same time be 4-5 hours from LA. People were willing to spend money on getting me places. Now, with reduced budgets, they expect you to be there.
PJ: How has technology impacted the way you can work as an artist?
KA: Incorporating recording technology and developing my own studio is probably the most significant thing that’s happened to my career in the past 6 years. I now have state-of-the-art recording gear in my own house, so that I can sound like Kenny Aronoff. Technology is transforming everything and you can never stop the progress. I’m now able to record my own tracks for most of my collaborations. People send me files from all over the world.
PJ: Tell us about people skills. It seems that one of your strengths is to get along with many famous musicians, to work with them, to help make them successful.
KA: I’ve always believed in self-discipline, hard work, and application – but early on, I also started noticing that there was something else that was getting me work: my team communications skills, an ability to get along with people. For instance, I’m with B.B. King and Bonny Raitt on Monday, Tuesday I’m on with Smashing Pumpkins, Wednesday I’m with the Stones, Thursday I’m with Elton John, next day it’s someone else. Everyone is different and I’ve had to learn to get along with a room filled with egos, lots of egos. Ultimately, one has to understand how to get the job done. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. Be positive, be uplifting. If you have something to say, it’s got to have meaning.
PJ: What will it feels like to return to Bloomington and reconnect with students?
KA: Bloomington means a lot to me. I spent 35 years there. In some ways, with my son there and so many friends, it still feels like home. It’s a positive light in my life in every way. Even though I’ve been involved in music the world over, I left Bloomington officially only 5 years ago. It’ll be great to be home again!