Something Else! Interview: Chickenfoot's Kenny Aronoff

When superstar drummer Kenny Aronoff — on tour now with Chickenfoot — starts recalling his sideman projects, they spill out with no rhyme or reason. He’s, almost literally, played them all.

Of course, today it’s Chickenfoot, an all-star rock group featuring vocalist Sammy Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony, late of Van Halen, and sizzling guitar hero Joe Satriani. Aronoff is filling in for Chad Smith, who did the record but is now on tour with his main band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Chickenfoot announced a new U.S. tour this week, after a string of successful European stops in January. (The complete list of shows is below.)

[ONE TRACK MIND: Legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff goes in depth on key moments from his career — including songs with John Mellencamp, the Buddy Rich Big Band and John Fogerty.]

Chickenfoot is just the latest stop in a dizzyingly diverse career for one of music’s most in-demand drummers. There was “Celine Dion and Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath,” Aronoff reminds us. Then: “Smashing Pumpkins and Waylon Jennings. Willie Nelson and Buddy Rich. Beyonce and Josh Groban. Santana and Will.i.am. Mellencamp and Stevie Wonder.”

Aronoff stops himself, taking it all in: “I mean, are you fucking kidding me?”

What makes him such a successful cross-pollinator, able to shape shift at will between such disparate situations? “I was born with a personality of wanting to fit in, wanting to do a good job,” Aronoff said, in the latest SER Sitdown. “The other thing was having an open mind, wanting to play all styles of music — and after many, many years, you find that you’ve learned a lot.”

Join us as Aronoff talks about his new gig with Chickenfoot, his very successful but sometimes tumultuous 17-year stint with John Mellencamp, and the lasting joys of jazz …

NICK DERISO: The concerts so far with Chickenfoot seem to be loose knit and collaborative. Is it as much fun as it seems?
KENNY ARONOFF: Very much so. First of all, the musicianship is extremely, extremely high. You look on stage — take me out of the equation — and it’s just ridiculous. Sammy is one of the greatest frontmen ever. He’s got everything you need in a frontman. He sings amazing. He talks to the audience. He’s uplifting. He’s positive. Yet he’s still a rock star. He’s a natural-born entertainer. I could just go on and on. Then there’s Joe Satriani, who’s flawless. He just does everything right. Forget about Joe’s solos, everything else he does is amazing, too. His feel, his choice of what he does, and how he reacts — he’s so in tune. Then there’s Michael Anthony who, in my opinion, is amazing. He’s always in time, great feel. His vocals are flawless. Great vibe, great personality. I focus on locking in with Joe, because of his feel. When Joe’s feel and my high hat are locked in, and then Michael locks in with me — then we’ve got the cake and Sammy’s the icing. Right away, you’ve got those three guys — without even talking about me. This band has the monsters up front. It’s like, where do you begin? It’s amazing. The talent pool on that stage is amazing. I’ve probably played in more bands and on more records than anybody, so I bring a lot of knowledge from that. Everybody, really, brings in so much from playing in such significant bands. You’re starting with an incredible talent pool.

NICK DERISO: You showed up after Chickenfoot’s album had already been recorded, with Chad Smith on drums. But then he had a preexisting commitment to tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Was it difficult to fit in on the fly?
KENNY ARONOFF: Chad Smith kept saying to Sammy and the guys, Kenny is the guy to do it. He just knew from being in the band who would probably fill his shoes the best. Chad had seen me play. We met in 1986 or ’88 in Australia, when Mellencamp was playing a series of sold-out shows in Sydney. The Chili Peppers had just had their first hit, the ‘Bridge’ song. So we knew each other from that far back. Chad figured I was the right guy to fill in the slot. I could fit in with the band. I can improvise, I can play songs. I could basically do the job that he does, but a big factor with Sammy was the getting-along part — not just the playing. Sammy called me up, and said: ‘I have to tell you, man, there were plenty of drummers who can do this gig, I’m looking for someone who can fit in. Chad has this magic in the band, so I’m really sensitive about who’s going to replace that. I want to get along with the guy. I want to be able to hang.’ So it was a personal thing, too, more so than the playing, in some ways. Lots of drummers can play. They had to find the right chemistry.

NICK DERISO: Most people’s first association with you is probably John Mellencamp’s breakout 1982 hit album American Fool, and the song “Jack and Diane.” That was a make-or-break time for you as a drummer, too.
KENNY ARONOFF: In life, there are pivotal moments — things that will literally change your life. How you handle them is life changing. “Jack and Diane” was one of those moments. I had been in the band for the album before that, Nothing Matters and What If It Did, but I had just come out of music school — so my head was more up in space. I was going for the more difficult stuff. I thought what they were doing wasn’t technically difficult, as far as what I understood. But yet it is. Anything is difficult to do right. I ended up spending hours practicing that first record, before realizing that I didn’t even understand the language of it — the simplicity of this music, and that style of drumming. There was a lot of tension between me and John, because he was looking for help with the arrangements, for song ideas. He wanted you to come up with things he had never heard, but yet they needed to be simple. My beats were coming from fusion, and from more complex stuff. I didn’t know how even to begin. But eventually I became the drummer I used to make fun of when I was in college: The guy who understood that less is more. That moment was humongous, so crucial in my life.

NICK DERISO: Eventually, that tension reached a breaking point, and your working relationship with Mellencamp ended in the 1990s. But I remember seeing you on stage with him at the Obama inaugural, and thinking maybe you guys have sorted it all out. Do you see yourself working together again?
KENNY ARONOFF: Yeah, everything is great. I just did something with him. I played at the Super Bowl, a private party, with John, Stephen Stills, Mike Mills from R.E.M., Mike Wanchic from Mellencamp, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the keyboard player from Mellencamp. We played a private party for Jim Irsay, the owner of the Colts — played about 16 or 17 songs. It was great, man. It was cool. I have to say, I know John’s music so well that, there were two songs I’d never played before, but I get him. It’s almost like we grew up together, learning music. Seventeen years, we played together. It was a very crucial time in all of our careers. So I understand him, and he understands me. It’s great. We’ll work together again some day.

NICK DERISO: People associate you with rock music, but I also hear a lot of jazz in your playing. I remember you participating in the Burnin’ for Buddy tribute album for Buddy Rich. Take us through your earlier influences, because clearly there’s more there than John Bonham and Mitch Mitchell.
KENNY ARONOFF: Absolutely. The reason why I was drawn to those old English drummers was because of my background was jazz. My dad and mom were both huge jazz lovers. They grew up in New York City, and their rock ‘n’ roll was jazz and big bands. My house was filled with that. So I have been listening to jazz since I was a little kid. I was always around it, and I was always trying to play it. So by the time I was 18, in the summer, I was playing in a jazz trio — five nights a week. It was huge influence. The other thing was, I had a heavy influence early on in classical music. I was so open to any kind of music. I think basically I liked music so much, and I liked playing the drums so much, that I didn’t care what it was. I always was trying to make it great, and to have a good time. With that attitude, whether it was polka or swing or a shuffle or rock or Latin, I wanted to do it all. After 40-something years, if you have that attitude of trying to be the best you can, you end up with a lot under your belt. That brings me up to now, when I’m playing — and I told Sammy: ‘I’m not trying to sound like Chad. But the things that are similar are: We both are rock drummers, we both like R&B and played it, we both know how to swing. But I’m going to be able to bring my own thing to the table — and that’s listening and improvising and reacting.’ That’s what you do when you play jazz.

NICK DERISO: Certainly, you had your dust ups with Mellencamp. There was also a stint with the Smashing Pumpkins, and Billy Corgan has his own reputation as a taskmaster, as well. It must make the fraternal atmosphere of Chickenfoot all the more appealing.
KENNY ARONOFF: Oh, you nailed it. I always tell people: This is the band that everyone wishes they could be in. There’s nothing but good to be said about it. Musically, personally, everything. Everybody gets credit for that. It’s a dream come true.

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Here are the dates and venues for Chickenfoot’s newly unveiled 20-date North American tour, which will begins May 4 in Lake Tahoe, Nevada and concludes June 10 in Los Angeles. For more, head over to http://www.chickenfoot.us/tour:

04 May: Lake Tahoe, NV – Harrah’s Hotel & Casino
05 May: Lake Tahoe, NV – Harrah’s Hotel & Casino
09 May: Denver, CO – The Fillmore Aud.
11 May: Minneapolis, MN – The Brick
12 May: Chicago, IL – Chicago Theater
14 May: Detroit, MI – The Fillmore
16 May: Boston, MA – Orpheum Theater
18 May: Atlantic City, NJ – House Of Blues
19 May: Uncasville, CT – Mohegan Sun
21 May: New York, NY – Beacon Theater
23 May: St. Louis, MO – Fox Theater
25 May: Thackerville, OK – Winstar Casino
27 May: Pryor, OK – Catch the Fever Festival Grounds (Rocklahoma)
29 May: Houston, TX – Bayou Music Center
31 May: Tucson, AZ – Anselmo Valencia Amphetheater
01 Jun: Las Vegas, NV – The Joint
03 Jun: Portland, OR – Schnitzer Hall
05 Jun: Vancouver, BC – Queen Elizabeth Theater
06 Jun: Seattle, WA – WaMu Theater
10 Jun: Los Angeles, CA – Greek Theater

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.