Tom Petty: Something Good Coming


Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers by Sam Jones

Capturing Mojo

"We did [Mojo] at the Heartbreakers' clubhouse/rehearsal space and studio where all the gear is stored. Literally every piece of gear we've ever bought is there, and it's really handy and accessible," explains Petty. "Over the years it's morphed into more of a studio. We've built a nice control room there, but it's very casual. We'd just roll in and start to play. There's no headphones, and that changes things quite a bit to not be separated and playing in different rooms. So, we're playing with just floor monitors. We can't have them up very loud but that's what we're using. It's pretty much like a rehearsal in some ways. By the time we learn a song we've got a couple of takes."

"And [engineer] Ryan Ulyate (ELO, George Harrison) has really changed my life since he came into the picture. He's very good at understanding what I want without a lot of discussion, and I can stay on the studio floor and worry about the arrangements while he worries about the control room. It's a real good tag- team we've got between he, Mike and myself. And I didn't feel the need to bring a producer in. I felt I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do."

Over the years, Petty has built up his production skills, learning better and better how to capture the sound and vision inside his head on tape.

"The great thing is when it surpasses what you had in mind! I often didn't know exactly what I had in mind; I just had it with a guitar and could sort of picture what they'd bring to it. But they always surprised me and did something better than what was in my mind. I sometimes didn't know if I had that strong a song and they'd turn around and give me something incredible, like with 'Don't Pull Me Over' [on Mojo]. I didn't even intend to show them that song. It's got a slight reggae groove to it and I thought that might rule it out. But we ran out of songs [laughs]. So, I said, 'Well, I've got this thing, but I don't know…' They came out with this fantastic groove on it. We weren't going to put it on the record but anybody who came by the studio said we should put it on the record. So, it got us all thinking it was something."

"We all didn't want to quit. I felt so in the pocket – I was coming up with songs and the band was cutting them so easily and having such a good time doing it. I think we'd still be there but we had to quit because of the [summer] tour coming up on us. It could have very easily been a double album. We still have a few tracks that didn't end up on the record because of time constraints. I just never felt so comfortable recording. I could have just kept going."

The Trip To Pirate's Cove

The lyrics on Mojo have the density and intensity only a life deeply lived could produce. But, it's largely not sing-along Petty fare, instead delving into gray areas and culling memorable but not necessarily bright moments from Petty's long road. One number that slithers with a grimy, realistic underbelly is slow burn "The Trip To Pirate's Cove."

new album
"I think it's probably got some reality base [laughs]. That was a really particular one where I really liked the story so much and Ryan and I talked about it a lot. We really liked the story but when we started to do the song I had a whole different set of music to it. It was much quicker, a faster tempo, and it just wouldn't play," recalls Petty. "It was one of the only difficult ones, and I rewrote it three times and came in with different ideas that we'd try. We got a little discouraged and thought we might have to throw it away. But it was too good a story, so we felt we had to find the right groove for it. We finally found the music that we used, and I was really relieved. Now I can't imagine it any other way."

The track has the quality of Santa Cruz, California on a stormy day after the tourists and college students have left and only the locals move through quiet, windblown streets. Petty says, "That's what I kept thinking – that we had to find something that captured the feel of the story. It just took a while to find the feel and the groove and the melody."

One of the first shows on the brief 2008 West Coast Mudcrutch tour was in Santa Cruz, and it drew in a colorful bunch of bikers, aging hippies, curious roots rockers and Gainesville expatriates [see the original JamBase review here]. It was a marvelous affirmation of rock's power over some folk's lives, not the least of which the five guys up on stage.

"That was the second show we played, and we were just elated by it. That was such a fun little tour. I wish it could have gone on & on. We were just so happy to be back together. They were all staying at my house, and we were all just having such a great time," says Petty, who confirms the impression that what one heard inside the Santa Cruz Civic was the sound of guys rediscovering why they'd picked up instruments in the first place. "Yes, very much so. There was no other agenda other than to enjoy ourselves and play that music. It really did feel like the old days having those guys all together. Everything we played, all the covers, were things we used to play. It was really nostalgic for us. And Tom Leadon and Mike have such a cool guitar thing going together."

Bringing The New Into The Old

The tunes on Mojo seem readymade for the road and likely to thrive once they've had some time to breathe in front of a fired up crowd.

"I didn't ever use more than six pieces. The idea was to keep it down to combo size, and I didn't really go for any major production. I just wanted to get a nice sound on the band and let them play," says Petty. "When we've been rehearsing the new stuff has been very strong, very powerful, maybe more powerful than the record."

Vintage Petty & The Heartbreakers by Steve Wilson
Tom Petty and The Hearbreakers began their new tour last week. The challenge with any band that's been around this long and had as many hits as these guys is how to integrate the new material into the existing body of work in a live context, where, face it, many fans pony up the bucks to hear "American Girl" and "Free Fallin'" rather than what's happening today. It's part of the American tendency towards major brand loyalty and fear of the non-familiar that creates a challenge to Petty in balancing audience expectations with artistic needs.

"It's something we've really been talking about a lot lately. You really do walk a thin line when you've got this big a catalog. We can do shows where people sing the entire show, and when we interrupt their sing-along they tend to get testy. But I think it's time we really focus on the new stuff, and we'll give them enough of the old stuff. Okay, I'll give you what you came to hear, but I think it's important that we keep this a contemporary trip or we're gonna start to feel like this is some kind of oldie-goldie thing, which it isn't," states Petty. "I love the old stuff but I think this tour you're gonna hear a lot of the new stuff. And if you don't like that then don't come."

"I really believe we're gonna be able to play a great deal of this new stuff and no one is gonna go for a beer. It's really strong in the rehearsals. And I'm just really taken with how strong it is in general," says Petty, who knocked it out with the band recently on Saturday Night Live, shaking maracas and looking hell bent for leather [see the performance below]. "I did the run-through with the guitar and I just didn't feel good with it. And I thought, 'I'm not really doing anything here,' and I wasn't even playing it till the end of the song. So, I decided to put it down and try it without it."

One can see Petty egg Campbell on in this performance, literally motioning him into the spotlight and firing him up. This is what a great bandleader does – aids and abets his players, draws out the best in them – and Petty is surely one of rock's finest bandleaders at this stage in his career.

"That's my job – to get the most out of them I can get and to keep them focused. It isn't really that hard."

For more on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, check out JamBase's extensive 2009 interview with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.

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[Published on: 5/9/13]

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