Supersonic Blues Machine returns with their sophomore album Californisoul via Mascot Label Group.
This prestigious blues-rock trio is packed full of talent. The band features bass player and producer extraordinaire Fabrizio Grossi, uber-talented guitarist Lance Lopez and legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff at the helm. This is just for starters.
As with the debut Supersonic Blues Machine album West of Flushing, South of Frisco for this the band’s second record, once again they have invited a whole raft of their A-list musical friends.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Kenny Aronoff, one of the world’s most in-demand drummers and one-third of Supersonic Blues Machine to talk about their new album Californisoul, the secret to being a great session player, his lessons learnt from performing with John Mellencamp for seventeen years and his advice for aspiring musicians.
NRR: You’ve got a new album out called Californisoul, which is going to be released via Mascot Label Group. Much like West of Flushing, South of Frisco, the latest record it’s got a who’s who of guest appearances from the whole world of music including the likes of Billy Gibbons, Steve Lukather, Eric Gales and Walter Trout.
When you are recording an album like this, with so many guests, logistically it must be challenging to get everyone together and be creative. I was just wondering with the tracks recorded on this album, particularly the collaborations were they all done in the studio or did you come together online. How did it work?
Kenny: Well no, a lot of the stuff I did you know I did play with everybody all of the time. I had to do my drum tracks and overdub my drums but, and I’m not so sure that anybody would want me to say this but that’s what happened.
I’m an expert at making a drum track feel as if everybody is playing together. It’s like being an actor, a great actor in a movie doesn’t necessarily have to do a scene with somebody when they know what that scene is all about – they’ve done so many scenes and have acted for so many years they know how to act to make it sound like the other person was there, and that’s what I’m great at.
When I play a drum track, let’s say to the demos, really the only thing was that wasn’t there was the finished vocal. I mean there was a vocal, there was guitars and bass but they might not have the solo of the artist that’s going to be featured. So what I do in that case is, I go to every one of those musicians on the record, I play the drums knowing that they are going to be soloing and I know their style and it was a success, we did great.
NRR: Obviously, you work with a huge number of artists and you are constantly very busy. Do you feel at home within Supersonic Blues Machine?
Kenny: Absolutely, because it’s the style of music I can relate to because when I was growing up I played every style of music. I played rock, I played jazz, I played funk, I played RnB, I played country, I played everything because it was fun – I just played the drums because it was fun.
When I play these styles of music I try to be authentic, I would always try to serve the song, and serve the sound that we are going to. The older I got the more I would do that because it became more about the team and not as much about me – I already know how to play.
The more you serve the song, the more you do what is right for the song then you end up being good for me in the end because I’m part of that team. So I felt very at home with Supersonic Blues Machine because of all of the different styles I did related to our theme, which was music from 69-71 and I was alive and well then. Yeah, it was great.
NRR: You’ve performed with a who’s who of the music world. I was just wondering could you tell us a little bit about your connection with Fabrizio and Lance and how that came to fruition in the beginning?
Kenny: Well I was on tour with Fabrizio, we had a band called Goodfellas with Steve Lukather and Steve Weingart maybe eight years ago. We toured through Italy, Poland – I think that was mostly it. We had always talked about it. Fabrizio would hire me to do sessions like the Leslie West record, we had always talked about putting another band back together – so that was always in the back of our minds.
It was actually Billy Gibbons, he was maybe doing an overdub on a record that I played on and Fabrizio was producing and Billy suggested that man you guys should do a band … He planted the seed, and eventually, Fabrizio came to me – he was producing I think Lance’s solo record and he asked me to play on Lance’s solo record.
Then he said I might want to try this idea, starting a Supersonic Blues Machine and he explained it, it features special guest guitar players. I went that’s fine, that’s great – let’s go for it. So that’s how it happened.
NRR: We caught you over here in the summer at Ramblin’ Man Fair in Kent. That was your debut UK show and you’ve been performing all over the world including Holland, India and St Petersburg/Russia. How have the live shows been going for you so far?
Kenny: Oh it’s great man, it’s fantastic. The cool thing is that after the first record we did some incredible live shows that everybody loved. I have a lot of energy and a lot of passion so I know how to get a crowd going and it’s very natural for me and very comfortable for me to do that; drive the band which will drive the energy out to the crowd.
They love the band because it was featuring all of these different guitar players, it keeps the audience fresh with different styles. The cool thing was after doing a couple of shows – one was in Holland, one was in Norway – we made this record, I think it was before we went to India. We took all of that experience we got from playing live together into the studio.
NRR: Most bands they grow in strength and stature through their longevity. As band members get to know one and another and their personalities and their abilities that chemistry evolves and develops. On the other hand with session playing you are often dropped into the equation having to very quickly find your feet within a group of musicians. Obviously, you’ve worked on a lot of sessions I just wondered what do you think is the secret to being a great session player?
Kenny: To be a great session player, the number one thing is to serve the song, it’s not about you it’s about the song and the ultimate goal is to get that song on the radio to be Number 1, that’s the purpose of a session musician.
The other thing is to be creative and be a team player at the same time. You have to be constantly looking to be creative, but you have to be able to get along with everybody in the room, everybody in the control room – the band, the producer, the artist. The people that do that the best will be the ones that keep getting called back.
It’s not all about how talented you are, the talent is extremely important, having a voice but … People always ask why does Kenny work so much? Why does Kenny all of the gigs? It’s not just because I’m a great drummer, it’s a lot more involved – problem solver, team player, get along with everyone. It’s natural for me to try and make the room better/feel better, an environment that makes people want to work their asses off. So those things …self-discipline, hard work, communication skills that’s what makes a great session player.
NRR: Over the years you’ve obviously worked with many great artists and I just wondered if there is anyone on your musical bucket list that you would still love to work with who you haven’t had the opportunity to do so with yet?
Kenny: My ideal group would be Sting and Jeff Beck and me in a trio. I would love that. Sting can sing and play bass, Jeff Beck is just Jeff Beck and then it’s me. It would be awesome.
NRR: I was just looking at your Twitter feed earlier and just scrolling through it, I got tired just looking at it – you’ve got so much going on. Obviously, you’ve been out on the road with Supersonic Blues Machine, you’ve been playing John Fogerty and the BoDeans just to name but a few. With all of the various different projects that you’ve got going on do you ever feel overwhelmed?
Kenny: Yes, I feel overwhelmed right now (laughing). I have to write like twenty charts for a Kenny Rogers tribute I’m going to be doing with a rehearsal on Sunday.Tomorrow I fly to Indiana and I lecture – I have a speaking visit, I’m reworking a speech which you know I have to do my presentation, I have to write videos and pictures, revamping it for that particular event.
Then I have to learn a couple of new songs for the Brad Paisley and John Fogerty event the morning after I do this Kenny Rogers tribute. I’m not just a drummer in these things, I mean I’m really helping to run the show. I write a very, very, very detailed chart of every song, your writing/adjusting, everything – I have to know the tempo’s, when to count off, who to count off – I have to basically help run the show.
You are rehearsing the day of the show; you have three days of rehearsals and then show day a lot of the artists turn up the day of the show, you are rehearsing with them for the first time. I make changes on my charts. I usually have an hour to get ready to perform when they are recording and filming with fourteen cameras, you do not want to mess up.
I’ve got all of that going on and meanwhile I’ve got to learn like I said some songs for Brad Paisley and Fogerty. The morning after that show I’m on a plane at 6 am from Nashville to California and get off the plane and go to a big Navy aircraft carrier and get on there and do show that’s going to be televised on Kimmell or part of it. It’s a tribute to the veterans and the armed services.
So there’s that and then I come home and then after that show that night I’m honoured in the Rock Gods Hall of Fame. The next day I’m sure I’ll have a million things by then. Then two days after that I’ve got two live shows with Fogerty.
I come home I’ve got to start working on my book like crazy – my second book. My first book Sex, Drums and Rock n Roll is basically my autobiography, and this book is a self-help book. Then I have to get ready to go to Jamaica and do a speech there for A-Fest. I mean it just goes on and on and on and on and on.
NRR: You are the most in-demand drummer in the world right now and that explains it. Having had a long and successful career in the music industry and with all of the wealth of experience behind you what advice would you give to any aspiring artist thinking about starting a career in music right now?
Kenny: Well the advice I give to anybody in any career is the only way you are going to be successful and you can be successful if you are very, very disciplined, you apply yourself and try to work every day on your craft. Practice as many hours as you can, there are no shortcuts, there are no shortcuts to anything – put that right out of your mind and embrace struggle, hard work, challenges, up days, down days, feeling like crap you’ve got to embrace all of that – that’s just part of it, there are no shortcuts from that.
So if you are willing to work hard you will eventually stand out, and it’s not one year, it’s not two years, if’s not three years, it’s not four years – in my case, it’s been four decades and I’m still pushing hard.
Nowadays the music business is very difficult because there just isn’t the financial support there used to be. So when I used to think I’m going to make a rock band, I’m going to make some money – I did, but nowadays it’s harder and harder to do that because people aren’t buying albums or CDs. So I suggest to people trying to make it – you have to get a couple of day jobs to fuel your passion and your love and that’s what you do.
Learn how to read music helps too man if you want to be a session player you’ve got to be able to read music and just put in the time practising.
NRR: You began your rock career touring and performing with John Cougar Mellencamp and you played with him for seventeen years. Obviously, from that point, you’ve gone on to be one of the most successful and in-demand drummers in the world. I just wondered what did that time with John Cougar Mellencamp teach you about the music industry to put you in such good stead for the rest of your career?
Kenny: That’s a great question. I did learn a lot from John Mellencamp, I learned how to serve the song. I didn’t know what the purpose of a drummer was when I first got in the band. When I got in the band after five weeks we made a record in LA and after two days in the studio, I was asked to go home. I refused to go home, I told them I’m not going home I’m going to stay here and learn from these drummers when they play my parts and I’m gonna benefit and get better because of that. This is going to be better for you that I get better.
I said you don’t have to pay me, which obviously that was the thing that completely made the deal work (laughing). I did learn something, I went home and started practising and learning what the purpose of a drummer is which is to get the song on the radio to be Number 1 – I didn’t have that skill set at that point. It didn’t matter that I’d worked with Leonard Bernstein and got into the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and won a concerto competition on Marimba, that didn’t mean anything because I didn’t have enough experience doing that specific thing which is to get songs on the radio and be Number 1.
So I learned that in the Mellencamp band and I got really good at it. I started coming up with cool beats, and I mean I had to come up with them on the spot fast, but the bottom line is I did come up with beats that created the direction of a song. I mean “Jack and Diane” – John’s biggest hit ever, was off the record until I programmed a drumbeat for the beginning of the song on a Linn 1 and then created that drum solo on the spot. I was trying to save my career because I knew at that point I could get replaced by another drummer. I was trying to save my career and in the end, I hit a home run – I came up with an iconic drum part that made John millions of dollars and launched my career.
So I learned that there was no coddling in that band, there was no hand-holding – you were on, you were responsible for doing your job. He also taught something to all of us, he said listen you guys don’t own your instruments, if somebody can come up with a better drum part then you Kenny, you have to play it. It’s all about the song and getting hits, and that was big – that’s a big lesson.
NRR: Obviously, your collaborations cover a vast musical landscape crossing many different artists and genres from the likes of playing with John Mellencamp through to Supersonic Blues Machine and Bob Seeger through to the Smashing Pumpkins and Avril Lavigne, and also your background is actually jazz. Covering such a wide spectrum of music where do you actually find yourself musically at your happiest?
Kenny: One week I recorded with Hank Williams – Hank Jr from Nashville – that’s country, I recorded with the Buddy Rich Big Band and recorded with Cinderella. Somebody asked me that question and I said you know what, out of all of it I like Marshall stacks and I like to rock loud and hard, that’s what I like the most.
You are right I’ve recorded with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings – some of the greatest iconic country artists. I’m going to play with Dolly Parton next week. I did Loretta Lynn about two months ago, you know George Jones. But then I’ve done Tony Iommi from Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Smashing Pumpkins.
I’ve done Celine Dion, Alanis Morisette, Avril Lavinge, Michelle Branch, and Melissa Etheridge. Then I’ve done B.B King, Buddy Guy, Ray Charles. I’ve done Dr John with the swampy New Orleans style. Then the classics Elton John, like you said Springsteen, Sting, Chris Cornell – I’ve played with these guys. I mean it just goes on and on.
It took me years and years and years of trying to play authentically like the style of the music that these artists play and consciously always taking it seriously, trying to adapt and play these different styles that finally got me …you know maybe made it possible where producers felt like this guy can play anything. Not only do we want him in the studio because he can play anything, it’s because he knows how to serve the song. He’s going to do the right thing and he gets along with people. He’s a team player, he’s creative, serves the song and is a team player and knows how to communicate, solve problems and all of these things add up to why I get the call.
There are other drummers who are just as great – some might say are better, but there’s no question I’m asked to be there because of the qualities I just mentioned. It’s not just about how good you play the drums. Anybody who thinks it’s just about how good you play – you are missing the main ingredient, which is all of the other things I spoke about.
NRR: You’ve just been over here in the UK with Supersonic Blues Machine, do you have any plans to come back and do a full UK tour in support of the album?
Kenny: Well I plan to come back to England no matter what because my wife is from Devon (laughing), so I’m coming back. But with Supersonic absolutely – we have nothing on the books right now but yeah, absolutely. It seemed like they loved us there and I’ve gotta come back to England – we’ll be back.
Californisoul by Supersonic Blues Machine is out now via Mascot Label Group.
Supersonic Blues Machine
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