Tom Petty: Something Good Coming

By Team JamBase May 9, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

Original Article By: Dennis Cook – June 8, 2010

Today we kick off a new series of posts called JamBase Rewind in which we present some of the many wonderful features we’ve published over the last 13 years. For our first installment of JamBase Rewind we look back at an article Dennis Cook wrote about Tom Petty in 2010. Petty, who hits the road with The Heartbreakers on May 16 for a six-week tour, discussed his new-at-the-time album Mojo, his reunion with Mudcrutch and much more with Cook.

Gris-gris, jack ball, hoodoo bag – all different names for the same thing, a totem that signifies rejuvenation, root energy, life force. When one’s mojo is workin’ they hum from the inside out and their actions strike like a marksman’s arrow, sharp and true. So, it’s fitting that the latest long-player by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is dubbed Mojo (arriving June 15 on Reprise/WEA). Despite 35 years and counting on the ramparts, this band sounds like they scored a swell new mojo hand, coming on as fired up and ready to wave rock’s banner as they did back in 1976. Mojo feels engaged on every level, the unadulterated sound of a rock band making rock music.

“That’s exactly what it was. We had a terrific time doing it. I don’t think we could have had more fun,” says Petty. “We recorded it live-in-the-studio. We did a few overdubs, not a lot, and the rule was to try and not do any. We like it and feel really good about it.”

Mojo is the first Petty and the Heartbreakers studio release since 2002’s The Last DJ and the first time recording together again after the 2008 self-titled Mudcrutch record, where Petty and Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench reformed their pre-Heartbreakers band. That record was similarly cut with a live approach and influenced Mojo‘s general feel.

“I think the Mudcrutch record turned a lot of things around for me in terms of how I approach recording. That was such a pleasurable thing. It was a record that we made that I actually like to go back and listen to [laughs]. I don’t normally do that; I’m usually fed up with it by the time I’m done with it. [Afterwards], I thought, ‘Why would I do it any other way?’ and let’s see how it works on the Heartbreakers,” explains Petty. “With the Heartbreakers, we hadn’t made a record in so long I really wanted it to be really good.”

The new record has a darker hue in places than some chapters in the Petty catalogue, with a thick, present sound and lyrics so sharp they draw blood. A bit of Mudcrutch’s psychedelic bent also finds its way into the proceedings, particularly on standout “First Flash of Freedom.”

“The takes were usually very early takes, and I wanted to leave room for improvisation. We didn’t really demo this up. I just came in with my guitar, played them a song on it and took it from there,” says Petty. “So, everyone had a lot to contribute. I guess ‘organic’ is an overused word but it is pretty organic because it was created right there on the studio floor. We didn’t polish it up. We just took it as it wa

The new record has a darker hue in places than some chapters in the Petty catalogue, with a thick, present sound and lyrics so sharp they draw blood. A bit of Mudcrutch’s psychedelic bent also finds its way into the proceedings, particularly on standout “First Flash of Freedom.”

“The takes were usually very early takes, and I wanted to leave room for improvisation. We didn’t really demo this up. I just came in with my guitar, played them a song on it and took it from there,” says Petty. “So, everyone had a lot to contribute. I guess ‘organic’ is an overused word but it is pretty organic because it was created right there on the studio floor. We didn’t polish it up. We just took it as it was. The groove was the important thing. I wanted everything to have a deep pocket, and I think we succeeded pretty much on that level.”

In 2010, rock has largely lost its hips, ceded the dance floor to urban soul and mainstream pop and country, forgetting its early primary purpose of getting folks to sway and grind together to the beat. Thankfully, masters like Petty and his running partners haven’t lost the script.

“Swing is the key word. The swing has kind of gone away, and it’s become a little stiff to me. I really admire what Booker T & The MGs do, that sort of groove. JJ Cale has a great groove, too,” offers Petty. “This is what the band has grown into [laughs]. This accurately reflects what we’ve turned into. We’ve got a lot deeper pocket than we used to. In the early ’80s I don’t think we would have or could have made this record.”

Even Rock Stars Get The Blues

There’s a blues undercurrent to the album, from the title to opener “Jefferson Jericho Blues” to something more indefinable and haunted in the shadows. If anything, Mojo hews close to the blazing blues-rock of early Fleetwood Mac.

“I love Peter Green! He’s one of my idols. I could listen to Peter Green all day. And that’s very much what I had in mind on a lot of the [new] stuff. I wanted to get a sound that mixed up say the Chicago Chess stuff and John Mayall, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, early Jeff Beck Group. These were records I played to the engineer a lot before we began the project,” says Petty. “I told him, ‘I want the guitars right up loud, as loud as the vocals when [Mike] plays,’ and I think we succeeded at that. Mike’s just amazing. He really stepped up and did his part.”

Campbell is right out front on Mojo. It’s a refreshing change of pace and perhaps a chance for folks who haven’t paid close attention the past 35 years to discover just how tremendous a guitarist Mike Campbell truly is. Often he’s an extremely tasteful, subtle, respectful player, working into the muscular of the music rather than riding on top.

“I tried to kinda drum that out of him [laughs]. It was like, ‘Okay, let’s show ’em what you can do. Just rip and have some fun.’ He never let us down,” enthuses Petty. “I’ve known Mike and Ben for so long and they still amaze me. I couldn’t dream of playing with anyone else.”

Tench, Campbell and Petty have played together for close to four decades, and yet their chemistry and obvious camaraderie make each new chapter feel fresh and exciting for them, which in turn sparks off fan enthusiasm in a very tangible way. Nothing compares with the force of a shared endeavor that guys put their backs into, and these three do that again & again.

“What else would I want? I’ve always been so satisfied with them and the position I’m in with them,” Petty says. “When we came together we had very similar record collections, very similar tastes, and that’s always been important to us, that our reference points are really clear. But I’ve always felt it was a little bit of luck that they walked into my life when they did. And I think we all respect each other and we’re who each of us wants to play with.”

The impression from the outside may sometimes be that this is Tom Petty’s band but spend a little time talking with the man and it’s clear he sees this as a full-blooded collaboration. And it always has been in his mind.

“We’ve never looked at it as me and a backup group. We’ve always treated the band as equals. Maybe I’m sort of the final stamp of approval, but I think everybody has an equal input. And it’s not something we work on; it’s very natural. We don’t talk about it a lot, we just do it,” says Petty. “I’m very grateful for whatever force of nature brought them to me.”

“Mike has always understood [me]. If I have a song he’ll play something better than I picture it. He’ll always hand me something better than what I handed him. There’s very little to say but, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great.’ It’s a great little group and I’m really glad I’m still in it.”

Continue reading for more on the new album, new tour and Mudcrutch…

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.”

“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.”

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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