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Sex, Drums, Rock n Roll

Kenny Aronoff is a much sought-after drummer, professional speaker and author. He began his rock career performing with John Cougar Mellencamp for 17 years. Throughout his 40-plus-year career, he has also toured or recorded with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Sting, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Elton John, Dave Grohl, Johnny Cash, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart and many more. Today, Kenny spends time touring, performing in the studio and teaching people how to embrace adversity and gain confidence in their personal and professional lives. His life lessons, stories and music have made him one of the most sought-after speakers and entertainers in the world. His memoir, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business came out in October 2016 and is already in its second printing.

 

 

Kenny talked to us recently about how to turn challenges into opportunities in the music industry. He also shared tips for those trying to earn a steady income and sustain rewarding careers in the music industry.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Thanks so much for taking some time to chat, Kenny. I was very struck with something I read in your book, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll. There’s a line where you’re describing being worried about how you’d make a living during a hiatus from your work with Mellencamp. You said, “My glass is never half-empty. My glass is always full, always.”

 

As someone who has been in the music business for as long as you have, who has seen a lot of the trying experiences that people have, how do you manage to maintain that kind of positive attitude?

 

KA:

 

I’m lucky. Some of that I have to attribute to genetics, I guess. But ultimately, I’d rather be happy than unhappy. So, I just naturally go towards feeling good, even though I don’t always feel good. I still try to steer the ship into a positive light.

 

One of the ways I do that is to take action. I make things happen. And it doesn’t mean it’s easy. For example, my book took four years. I wanted it to take two years. Actually, I never even wanted to write a book. I was talked into it by my co-writer, Jake Brown. I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t. It was not easy, and I eventually took over re-writing everything so it sounded like me. I was anal about so many details, every picture, the order, etc. It was just a lot of work, but I made it happen.

 

When John (Cougar Mellencamp) took a hiatus, he said he wanted to quit playing music for three years. He didn’t mean it, but we all thought he meant it. He said he was burnt out.

 

So, I took it literally, and I got worried. I had worked for two years and had just gotten divorced. I wasn’t making the big bucks, I was a hired gun, even though we projected as a band. So I desperately went out to LA (from Indiana), trying to survive and trying to get session work.

 

I got a workout from the moment I got there. I hustled like crazy. This was a time where the music business was all about big budgets, and it was like a beehive with lots of bees flying around. So, it was really possible to get hired and make a lot of records if you were good. That’s what I meant about the glass being full. And I did see what appeared to be a disaster – John taking a couple years off –but it became an opportunity. I started to see it differently.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And Mellencamp was your first real foray into the pop music business. A lot of guys would’ve been terrified when that gig paused, but that just wasn’t you.

 

KA:

 

Yeah, that was my business, but, no, no way, I wasn’t scared when that paused.

 

Music Consultant:

 

That’s commendable. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because there are a lot of talented guys out there who are good at meeting people, but they don’t secure more gigs.

 

What do you think you have done in terms of networking and meeting people that others didn’t?

 

“Continuing to find work in the industry is about saying yes all the time and doing your best to be available. And it’s also about keeping your commitments.”

 

KA:

 

One of the biggest things I do is never say no. I always say, yes, and then try to make it happen. As a matter of fact, I’m dealing with a situation right now where I’m trying to play a gig in India and then fly out the next day in the early morning so I can get back to San Antonio to do a gig with someone else that’s really big. It’s possible to make it happen, but it’s pretty scary for the person on the other end because it was a little bit of a booking mix-up. I took one gig in India, and then the other person booked the other one.

 

And I want to do the San Antonio gig, but they want me to cancel the gig in India so that I can get to San Antonio a day early. And I can’t, because I’ve been paid and committed to them and my name is on the bill. So I figured out how to fly from Mumbai to Dubai then to San Antonio – in time for the gig! And I have another drummer on standby just in case.

 

Continuing to find work in the industry is about saying yes all the time and doing your best to be available. And it’s also about keeping your commitments.

  

Music Consultant:

 

And in your book you said that as a starving musician you learned to say yes to every gig and that you still do. I didn’t think it was quite so literal! But it’s great you’re still living that out.

 

KA:

 

Yes. I’m very passionate about what I’m doing. And I think I also just have a hustle nature in me, though I don’t call people up constantly like I used to. Now I’m creating work by having my own studio, and I wrote this book, which then has led into doing speaking engagements, creating different ways to work off of what I’ve already done. I’m not a retiring type of guy. I like to be busy. I like to have a lot of things on the table. And I’ve worked hard to create that environment. And now that the music business isn’t doing great, I’m doing a lot of good.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Some people would be happy just to be in a band, and that’s it.

 

KA:

 

I was happy to be just in a band, but then all of a sudden, I had to find a way to make a living. And then I started recording, and people were calling me. I mean, there was Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Elton John, Iggy Pop. I got to meet Bon Jovi, the Indigo Girls … it goes on and on.

 

And that was just the beginning of it all. I also got to work with all the country people like Waylon Jennings and then also with people like Steve Cropper.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And you seem like the kind of guy who has tried to learn anything and everything from anyone. You went to music school after music school and lesson after lesson. A lot of musicians get stuck in doing one thing really well, but you have diversified and sought out new things whenever you can.

 

KA:

 

Yes. It’s really because playing music makes me feel great. And you meet so many people and hear so many different types of music playing the drums. Even if I was just playing country music in some bar somewhere, I’d try to play it authentically. After years and years of playing, suddenly, I broke the barriers that most musicians can’t and started getting hired to do everything. I was working with B.B. King, Ray Charles and then with Cinderella. Then I found myself working with the Buddy Rich Big Band and playing jazz songs.

 

Because I’ve played so many different types of music, at this point, I’m an expert at knowing what to do. I know how to prepare and how to play in order to hit the right tone in any environment. Different types of music require different types of drumming, so my goal is to make sure I do each one authentically.

 

Music Consultant:

 

You went to a lot of different music schools and have humbly said you were not always the most talented guy in school. From the way you made it sound, you have been in a relentless pursuit of excellence. Do you think success in music and becoming a great musician is all hard work, a God-given talent or a combination of both?

 

KA:

 

Success in music is definitely a combination of talent and hard work. I mean, I was talented enough to get into these schools, but it isn’t like you get in and then they just let you coast. They crush you. They literally crush you. They’re about washing you out, because they want the best musicians in the world coming out of their school. For example, at Indiana University, they had an opera hall that was the size of the New York Met, and they were putting people there after graduation. I was playing full-blown productions.

“The thing is, you can have somebody who is medium talented and working his butt off, and that person will score touchdowns. A person who is incredibly talented and doesn’t work as hard will not score as many touchdowns as the other person. That second person could be brilliant. But the person who is working his butt off is going to really transcend.”

 

 

I’ve seen guys have nervous breakdowns. I was the perfect guy to succeed at these schools though, because I was talented enough and I really worked my butt off. I went from the bottom to the top. On Friday and Saturday nights, when everyone was partying, I partied, but only at midnight after I had practiced three or four hours. And that was three or four hours everyone else wasn’t practicing.

 

The thing is, you can have somebody who is medium talented and working his butt off, and that person will score touchdowns. A person who is incredibly talented and doesn’t work as hard will not score as many touchdowns as the other person. That second person could be brilliant. But the person who is working his butt off is going to really transcend.

 

And other people see that work and talent coming through and gravitate towards it. That has been me. My other thing has been that I have an extreme amount of passion and desire that shines through in everything I do. People like to be around that.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I realize you’re a master drummer, but is there even time for a lot of solo practice, or are you at the point where you’ve been playing these different patterns so many times that you’re writing the fills on the plane on the way over?

 

KA:

 

I do practice. I have a routine that’s 30 minutes long, and in a perfect world, I do it three times a day. In a little less perfect world, when I am busier, I fit it in two times a day or at least once a day. It’s a very, very efficient routine that deals specifically with techniques that I’m going to use when I play the drums. I don’t have the time I used to, but I do also write music really well, and can read it really well. So, that’s how I handle the massive amounts of work in different genres. I write the music out as sheet music and read it so I don’t have to memorize everything if I have limited time to prepare for a gig. Sometimes I have a month to prepare for something, but other times it’s a matter of days.

 

Music Consultant:

 

You’ve said before that repetition – just playing things over and over and over again – is the key to honing your craft as a drummer. I’m curious as to how you have managed to maintain that given your schedule.

 

KA:

 

It’s tough. Sometimes I’ll practice for a tour right before I go to sound check and then go from the stage to a jet and fly to the next venue in our next city. I end up going to the hotel and doing my practice routine right before bed so I wake up warmed up.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And your situation is a little different from some of the up-and-coming drummers today because you had a name established before the Digital Age. I know you work with some younger drummers as a teacher and mentor. How has the game changed for them in the music business?

 

KA:

 

The big change is that you don’t have to lay down a track from top to bottom with everything perfect with maybe just a few tweaks by the guys mixing. Personally, because I started playing and recording before the Digital Age, I am always thinking that every note I play has to be perfect with feel, sound, rhythm, groove, everything. I see every performance as one take with no edits. And then if there are a few edits, it’s minimal. Nowadays, people don’t have to have a perfect take.

 

It can be fixed by sticking it into this program or that program. And drummers and other musicians are okay with that. I think that’s a huge difference between the old music industry and today’s industry. The technology has made it possible for a lot of people who aren’t great to sound pretty damn good.

 

Music Consulting:

 

Yeah, it’s a little disheartening to me. When I do research and go through the charts I realize that 90-percent of the songs sound like they use the exact same drum samples.

 

KA:

 

Yeah, exactly.

 

Music Consulting:

 

I guess that would change the game fundamentally for somebody trying to get work, because there are a lot of mediocre players who can play based purely on a relationship, rather than establishing a brand, so to speak.

 

KA:

 

I’ve heard some mixes where they put samples on everything, which can completely take away the whole feel of a song. The samples have the same decay and every note sounds the same. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m aware of the space between the notes now. I know how long to hit a kick drum to get that sound to go to the next note on the snare drum and also the overall sound I need to achieve. When you put samples on that, it takes away the individuality. If you have the ability to naturally get different sounds, it separates you from somebody else. There are producers who like to use EZdrummer – the sampling software – and earbuds. This is so far from real music, in my eyes, but it’s what it acceptable now and what people are used to hearing. So, that’s a big change in the industry. I think it impacts how people get gigs and who gets gigs.

 

Music Consultant:

 

 

You have a pretty remarkable worldview and know so many A-list players because you’ve been playing so long yourself. What qualities do the people who are really making a living in music share?

“The bottom line is, if you want to work a lot, you have to be willing to please the person who is hiring you and give them whatever they want.”

 

KA:

 

I think that’s a broad question, because a lot of people are making a living. Musicians are in a service-oriented business; you’re providing a service to others.

 

The bottom line is, if you want to work a lot, you have to be willing to please the person who is hiring you and give them whatever they want.

 

If I had every gold, platinum and diamond record I played on, I would have 1,300 records. But when somebody hires me to play on their track, it doesn’t matter who they are; I’m working for them. I might make some suggestions. But, ultimately if they don’t like what I suggest, they’re paying me to play on their records. It could be a 10-year old kid or a 90-year old lady. When they’re paying, my goal is to please them. That’s what keeps me working all the time.

 

That being said, getting work is always about communication skills and being able to get along with the people who hire me. I do this speaking event called “An Evening with Kenny Aronoff.” At one point I ask, “Why would you hire Kenny Aronoff?” It’s not just about how well you’re playing; it’s about who you want to have next to you in the room. When I book a band, I want to book people I get along with – people I like.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Sure. You want to be around people who are a good hang. That makes a lot of sense.

 

KA:

 

Yes. As John Mellencamp would say, “We’re only on stage for three hours. The other 21 hours are going to be getting along with you guys.”

 

Music Consultant:

 

He sounded like quite the taskmaster. I imagine that’s why you all made it.

 

You’re still going, and you’ve obviously seen how technology has changed the music business during your lifetime. What else do you see evolving?

 

KA:

 

Unfortunately, the budgets are gone. Music’s free, and people don’t buy records or CDs that much. The monetary end of the business is going way down. Record labels don’t have money, some don’t invest and others can’t invest in developing new artists. Breaking an artist still costs money, and they can’t invest $1 million to get a new band on the radio anymore. I’ve seen this firsthand: I just made a record with a private investor this year.

 

I’m sorry to say, but the music business definitely will not be what it was in our lifetime. How are you going to convince people to buy records when they can get them free? That technology has affected a lot of businesses beyond music too. But music is still important, and it will always be out there.

 

When it comes to building a career, you’re on your own. The other issue is, how do you reach a lot of people anymore? You get very minimal support, so building a career is hard. Radio used to be everything and the place where everyone heard the latest song. Now, people are searching the Internet. There’s not one place to go anymore. It’s all scattered, so artists have a hard time grabbing people’s attention in one area. Even as I’m speaking, it’s changing.

 

I still think music is a super valuable thing to do and have as a part of your life. But there are fewer and fewer people able to make the big, big bucks doing it.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Well, and there’s more competition. So, that makes sense.

 

KA:

 

There’s more competition and not as much money out there. And if you’re not selling records, the producers aren’t making as much money, the artists aren’t making as much money, and the songwriters aren’t making as much money. It affects everybody.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I think we’re all looking at the music business right now and scratching our heads. Thankfully, it seems like the live part of the business is doing alright.

 

KA:

 

Absolutely. And hopefully that’ll keep the artistry up. And I’m still always excited to do new projects. That’s what keeps me going. There are still some really great people in the business with the right attitude that got them where they are. I’m one of them.

 

You can learn more about Kenny Aronoff and the work he does on his website. His book, Sex, Drums, Rock N’ Roll: The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business is a phenomenal read. You can check that out here.

 

This interview came to us courtesy of the folks behind the Hired Gun documentary, which features Kenny Aronoff, Rudy Sarzo and many other great session musicians. It is a must watch! Read more about it on the official Hired Gun website and follow the film on Facebook.