Kenny Aronoff is about as successful as a freelance drummer can get. With credits that read like a top-40 list, Aronoff has cemented himself as a first-call drummer in the business of making gold records. He’s played with the likes of John Mellencamp, Paul McCartney, Sting, Bon Jovi, Elton John, The Smashing Pumpkins, Meatloaf—The list goes on and on, and then it goes on some more. And yet, even a man of such prolific success has had some faceplants in his career.

Before his road was paved with gold, Aronoff certainly had his struggles. He was gracious enough to sit down with DRUM! (at a safe distance—via phone, actually) and share one of the most difficult situations he’s ever found himself in.

drummer kenny aronoff

DRUM!: In a nutshell, what was your big failure?

Kenny Aronoff: First of all, I don’t believe in any failures or any mistakes. They’re just experiences and those experiences are what teach us to succeed. Now, as for that experience, this is one of the most critical, life-changing moments of my life. Some might call it a strike-out.

I had just gotten into the John Mellencamp band, and there had been 50 guys at the audition. Five weeks later we’re in L.A. recording at the famous Cherokee Studios. I’m 27 years old, I’m ecstatic, and I’d finally gotten my big break. After two days in the studio we have a band meeting and I am told by Mellencamp that I’m not playing on the record. My dream had just come true, and now this guy just took my purpose in life away from me.

How did you react to that unexpected turn?

I went into a fight-or-flight mode. This was my passion, my soul, my everything. This is where you find out who you really are. I said, “No, I’m not going home.”

I was devastated. I was embarrassed. There was no way I was going home. I was overwhelmed. So, in some desperate way I asked if I was still the drummer in the band. He didn’t know what to say and it was a very awkward moment. It was the equivalent of hearing someone tell you you’re fired and responding with, “No, I’m not!”

When he then said I was the drummer in the band but I wasn’t playing on the record, I replied, “I’m going to go into the studio and watch these other drummers play my parts and I’m going to learn from them. I’m going to observe them, and I’m going to benefit from that and you’re going to benefit too, because I’m your drummer.” And he said nothing. It was the most uncomfortable silence of my life.

Then I said, “Oh, and you don’t have to pay me.” That was it. He was fine with that. So, I stayed there for four weeks. I asked a lot of questions, I took notes, but it was embarrassing. And remember, I’d graduated from Indiana University, I’d worked with Leonard Bernstein, I had been very successful in the orchestral world, but that had nothing to do with this skill. Making records was a new skill.

“My ideas were coming from a fusion background, “more is more.” They weren’t radio-friendly drum parts.”

Did this experience cause you to make changes in your life?

Oh, yeah. I went home and redesigned my whole practice routine. I started practicing eight hours a day, seven days a week. I had to learn how to serve the song, how to play simple, how to play “less is more.”

The only thing I could think of doing was getting records by the Stones, Creedence Clearwater, AC/DC; records that were on the radio where the drummer was serving the song. That was the biggest lesson. I also made a vow to myself that I would be on the next record. That next record came two years later and it was the most difficult record of my life. Two guys got fired, I almost got into a fist fight with John, and John almost lost his record deal. It was hell, but that record won two Grammys and we had two hits in the top ten. John’s career blew up and my career was launched.

So that defining moment that some call a failure, that moment and how I handled it was hugely instrumental in putting me in a position two years later, when I had the opportunity to come up with one of the most iconic drum parts ever on “Jack and Diane.” [editor’s note: We originally mis-stated that this was a Tom Petty song. It is not. Apologies for the brain fart.]

Do you feel like their call to pull you from the record was appropriate in that you weren’t quite ready for that task?

Yes, it was appropriate, given we only had eight weeks to make the record. If we had had four months, then it would have worked out.

Was that whole episode a surprise to you?

Yeah, I was completely devastated, but I did sense something when I was called to the meeting. My spider sense felt it. Right away in the studio there had been a lot of tension. John had just fired his last drummer, and he was desperate. He’s the sort of songwriter that needs the band to come up with their parts, and my ideas were coming from a fusion background, “more is more.” They weren’t radio-friendly drum parts.

If you could go back in time, would you have responded to the rejection differently?

Given that it was John Mellencamp, that’s how you deal with John Mellencamp. He respected me because I stood up to him. I had to negotiate a deal between us that would benefit him and me.

In hindsight would you have preferred getting the gig, or was the learning experience more valuable to you?

The experience was absolutely perfect. It made me who I am today. That was a life-changing moment. I wouldn’t want to change it, even though it was a painful, devastating, and overwhelming experience that lasted a very long time.

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