Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Live Wires

Our love of our craft is way beyond anything any industry could touch. It's a religious thing with us. It's what we love and what we live for. We don't do this just for the money. When we started out we didn't have any money and I'd still be doing it even if I didn't make a living at it because that's just what I'm born to do.

-Mike Campbell


Photo of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers by: Dennis Callahan


In 2007, Tom Petty, Campbell and Tench decided to revisit their pre-Heartbreakers group, Mudcrutch. The group is rounded out by Randall Marsh (drums) and Tom Leadon (guitar, vocals). After a 30-plus-year delay, Mudcrutch put out their self-titled debut in April 2008 followed by a short, deliriously enjoyable California tour (see JamBase's review of their Santa Cruz gig here). Despite their many years in the business, the relaunch of this formational band carried a lively, back-to-the-garage spark that's nearly irresistible. Mudcrutch is the sound of men tapping into the things that made them pick up instruments and devote their lives to rock 'n' roll in the first place.

Mudcrutch by Martyn Atkins
"Oh yeah, exactly! That was the band I quit school to play with. I quit college and faced the wrath of my dad to play with Mudcrutch," says Tench. "My dad was a formidable guy, a very smart and wonderful guy with a great command of the English language. It was like facing – not in terms of physical size or anything – Orson Welles, in terms of his eloquence. Tom [Petty] helped with him not throwing me out of the house."

"When you first start playing you set up in a room with amps and guitars and say, 'Do you know 'Johnny B. Goode' or 'Honky Tonk Women'? Let's see if we can play that.' There's that joy of discovering, 'Wow, we sound like a band. We can do this. Let's write our own songs.' And Mudcrutch was our first band, so it was really fun to rediscover that germ," says Campbell, who is center stage in a rare extended psych exploration on Mudcrutch's "Crystal River," one of the standouts on the album. "I like that one a lot, and it was a one take, spontaneous recording. [The Heartbreakers] don't do that too much so I'm glad we got that one on tape to show what we can do. It's always a lucky thing when that happens."

"I love doing that [Mudcrutch] stuff. I love that band. I really, really love the sound that band makes. I was a fan of theirs before I joined, so I hope we do more," says Tench. "As far as I hear, we're going to do more."

There's a new Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album in the works, hopefully seeing the light of day next year, and the Mudcrutch experience has spilled over a bit into the new sessions.

"The Mudcrutch album was basically cut live-in-the-studio and this has the same approach. Honestly – and I know everybody says this – we're so excited about this record. It's a different record than anything we've done, a different flavor and a step up," says Campbell. "It's all live, which is really great. And Tom is so good. He's always got great characters and believable, pure music. He's a badass."


Trench, Campbell & Petty by Preston
Perhaps the only time The Heartbreakers have ever really strained onstage, at least in this writer's experience seeing them, was their legendary world tour with Bob Dylan in 1986-87, where at times it seemed like the musicians, while playing great, were in a form of sonic battle.

"Sometimes it was. Playing with Bob was really special. Sometimes it was really bad and sometimes it was transcendent. For me it was transcendent way more than it was bad, but sometimes it wasn't good," recalls Tench. "Sometimes it probably was a battle because he wanted us to be on his foot, and judging by his autobiography, he wasn't in that good a space then. We were trying hard though! There were moments with him that were... death defying. And there were moments where I don't know if we necessarily dodged death [laughs]. There was a 'Lay Lady Lay' there once or twice that was pretty funny. But there's nobody as good as Bob."

"[His songs] are not musically challenging the way you'd think. It's beautifully played, or if you hear just Bob play something on piano or guitar it's just beautiful," says Tench. "Anytime I've worked with Bob in a recording studio and he's started to show me something on piano, it doesn't matter how hard I try it always winds up with me saying, 'You're going to play piano on this one, Bob.' He's got a special way he plays piano, and he's got a spectacular feel on the guitar. It's one of those things where a line goes back to old folk players and blues players before that, and he actually carries the line down the way with a certain feel and rhythm. So the thing about playing Bob's songs is a lot of it is about the feel and for God's sake don't start playing a bunch of notes! If you're going to play a bunch of notes you better be Norman Blake, Mike Bloomfield, or Mike Campbell. You better play the right notes, and you can't be Mr. Lead Guitar unless it's the right thing. Charlie Sexton always does that. And every time I've seen Bob in the last 15 years his bands have been right."

Fame And The Future

In 2002, Petty and the band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers by Piper Ferguson
"It's a great honor. You're put into an echelon of artists a lot of whom we looked up to and made us aspire to be musicians. To be put into the same club is quite inspiring," says Campbell. "My son had the best take on it. When we got into the Hall of Fame, he said, 'Once you're in they can't kick you out, right? You're in for life?' I said, 'Yeah, you're in for life' [laughs]. It's something you want to be part of, and it's cool that members vote on who gets in. They send you a ballot every year with ten choices and you pick the five that you think deserve to be in, and from those votes they choose the candidates. So, it's cool that it has built-in artist protection."

Still, even with the big titles not much has really changed internally for the men making this grandly embracing rock.

"We just do what we do. [Tom and I] have always played together for as far I can remember, and we've always been able to reach the same groove and compliment what each other is doing, Benmont, too. It's an instinctual thing that we do," says Campbell. "When I do sessions with other players I notice that instinctual compliment of music is missing. Maybe it's because we grew up together, but even now as we're working on this new record, he hits a chord and I do something that goes with it. We're definitely blessed."

"The thing I want us to be able to do is invite people along instead of getting up there and being showbiz-y about it," says Tench. "I saw Ray Davies [The Kinks] perform the other night and he was so charming and inviting and engaging that you were with him from the first second. And if there was a sing-along it didn't feel like, 'Oh God, they're having a sing-along.' You wanted to sing-along, and to me that's the best kind of show, where you just know you're ALL going to have a really good time tonight."

"I am a fan of the band, and if I think we don't play well or do something hokey or I feel like we don't hit a groove then I get mad, like I would if I was seeing my favorite band and they blew it," says Tench. "It's really important to me that we do it and we do it well. And I think we do most of the time."

"Ultimately, the focus should be on entertaining the audience as opposed to entertaining yourself. Truthfully, if they're entertained that entertains you more than anything you could play to satisfy yourself," says Campbell. "We take it very seriously that they've come there to sit and listen, and we want to give them what they deserve."

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[Published on: 11/24/09]

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