Heartbreakers Keyboardist Benmont Tench: My 40 Years With Tom Petty

In this 2014 interview, Tench reflects on seeing Tom Petty play in high school to becoming his lifelong keyboardist

" This is my life, and these guys are my family. I'm on this ship, but I’m not steering it," keyboardist Benmont Tench says of 40 years with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Hours before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up their 2014 Hypnotic Eye tour at the The Forum in Los Angeles, we conducted extensive interviews with three core members of the band: guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair. They were intended for a special edition of Rolling Stone that chronicled Petty's entire life and career, so we ran through their entire history in the band. Here is our complete, never-published discussion with keyboardist Benmont Tench. 

What is your first memory of seeing Tom Petty? 
I was probably 12. I was at the local music store in Gainesville [Florida], and there was this gang of local boys that were around 15. They looked like problem children, and one of them had blond hair. That was Tom.

How did you meet?
About five years later, I was at boarding school in New England, and my friends from Gainesville were telling me about this band called Mudcrutch. I went to see them play, and that's the first time we ever spoke.

What impressed you about him as a musician?
Mudcrutch was Tom, Mike Campbell, Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh when I saw them. Every one of them had presence, though Tom’s was slightly intimidating. They also swung like the Beatles. In a bar, they could really swing. I started sitting in with them on keyboard, and Tom said, "Any time you're in town, come play with us." I went to college in New Orleans, which was just an eight-hour drive away.

How did you wind up joining the band?
I kept playing with them on school breaks. One night, I was studying for some lame, unnecessary final at 2 a.m., after they'd finished a set at a bar. Tom called me up and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm cramming for an economics final." He said, "What the hell are you doing?" When the semester ended, I just didn't go back to school.

How did your parents feel about that decision?
They figured it out before I had the courage to tell them. My father called me on the carpet, and my mom was pretty upset too. Tom spoke to my father at some point and said something like, "Look, let him try 'cause we've got something good here, and if it doesn't work out, he can go back to college." My dad was pretty cool about it. He wasn't someone you could con. He was a circuit court judge, a very smart and serious man. It was pretty badass of Tom to be able to talk my father into this.

When did you realize Tom was an especially gifted songwriter?
Early on, before I quit school. I went to see them play at a club at the University of Florida. I was talking to my friend Sandy, who helped them haul gear. They played something beautiful, and I said, "Who wrote that?" He went, "Tom wrote that a couple of years ago, when he was, like, 17." I was extremely impressed.

Why do you think that Mudcrutch never really took off?
Tom thinks we had too many cooks. I think we had a lack of focus musically. I think the strongest writing voice in the band was Tom, but Tom and Mike were already a writing team. We had another fella in the band who switched between guitar and bass with Tom named was Danny Roberts. He came from more of a like southern blues kind of a thing.  I was writing songs, but I was too shy to sing them, so Danny was singing my songs and my songs were somewhere between trying to be folk rock and trying to be smart like Steely Dan. If you throw a guy who sings with a Johnny Winter-type voice, that ain't gonna fly. Danny's a really talented guy, but It was a mismatch.

How did you feel about going from an equal member of Tom's band to technically part of his backing band?
I got the need for focus and I got the need for a focal point. I certainly preferred his writing to mine. I was just happy to be playing with him and Mike again. When you're in a band for 40 years your ego is going to be bruised in some way or another, but it wasn't a big deal to me that his name was first. 

"We recorded a song called 'American Girl' on July 4th, 1976. I thought, 'Well, if anything comes from this, that will be worth knowing,'

When you guys first cut "American Girl," did you realize you'd just made a classic?
I saw it as a big song. I remember thinking it had a really cool structure because you go a long time without a rhyme until "Oh, yeah, all right/Take it easy, baby/Make it last all night." Until that I was like, "Where's the rhyme?" But I thought it was really good. Also, I noted that we recorded a song called "American Girl" on July 4th, 1976. I thought, "Well, if anything comes from this, that will be worth knowing." I remember first hearing it on the radio. It was around October of 1976, and we'd gone back to Gainesville to woodshed. The local station would play two or three new albums every night. One night the DJ introduced a new song by "Ted Petty and the Heartbreakers." He played our whole record and then followed it with the Eagles’

After Ron Blair left, in 1982, how did Howie Epstein’s arrival change the band?
It was worrisome when Ron left because we didn't know if the chemistry was still going to be there. We didn't want someone that was going to be a ringer. We wanted someone that fit in because we had that inner dynamic. Tom wanted Howie mainly because he had those great harmony vocals. He knew him from a Del Shannon record he produced. Howie came in to rehearse, and we jammed a bit. He asked to play "Surrender," a song we had never released. He knew it from the bootlegs. He fucking knew it. He was a badass.

How did you feel about MTV when it arrived on the scene around this time?
Probably like half the people felt about the 1980s. I was like, "What the fuck is this? I’m confused." It was like, do another line of blow, feel more confused, but get happy about it. I never felt comfortable in front of the camera. I was like, "I'm a piano player." When they yell "roll tape," I start to look nervous and self-conscious. It did wonders for record sales, but I hated that I didn't enjoy the process of making videos.

"We weren't a 1970s band or a 1980s band or any kind of band. We were a band with a great songwriter, you know?"

So many 1970s bands couldn't adapt to the MTV era and faded away, but you guys just kept on going.
We were just a band. We weren't a 1970s band or a 1980s band or any kind of band. We were a band with a great songwriter, you know? Trends can come and go. We might use a drum machine on "Don't Come Around Here No More" or use a synthesizer if they put a gun to my head, but that's about it. We had a very straight-ahead sound.

How did you feel about Tom's decision to make Full Moon Fever as a solo album?
I was pissed off and hurt. I was also worried he'd split up the band because there was conflict within the group at that time. There wouldn't be anybody coming to blows, but Tom and Stan [Lynch] would have disagreements, and Stan would leave the band, or get fired, and then come back less than a week later. Stan was always worried that Tom would go [solo], or just grab Mike and pack up. So when he did that, that's how it felt. I was also pissed by the way I found out about it. We were supposed to make a Heartbreakers record. I called the main guy on our crew about a week before we were supposed to start to ask what time we were coming in. He just said, "Uh. . . ummmm." He hemmed and hawed and finally told me they were making a solo record. Nobody told me.

Wow.
So that’s one side of the story. The other side of the story is that I was out of my mind on cocaine and alcohol. I was a very high man and deeply troubled with drugs and alcohol, so I thank Jeff Lynne. I had nothing to do with Full Moon Fever, so I got to go to rehab, and it saved my life. Also, hell, I'd been doing session work for years by that time. Why the fuck shouldn't Tom go play with someone else and have fun too?

Stan Lynch had a different take on the situation.
That may be. My take on that record is that I like bands that count to four and play loud. Jeff [Lynne] is a constructionist from the Brian Wilson school. It's a gorgeous school, but it's very different. I prefer the way we play the Full Moon Fever songs live to the way they sound on the record, but the 7 million people that bought Full Moon Fever might disagree.

After Stan left, is it true that Dave Grohl was offered a job in the band?
I think that did happen, but Tom is the one that offers jobs. Steve [Ferrone] played on Wildflowers, but we had to do some TV, and he had commitments. As I recall, Tom just cold-called Dave Grohl. We loved Nirvana, and we loved the way Dave played. We did SNL, and it was one of my favorite TV performances we've ever done. I remember talking to Dave around this time, and he played me this little cassette he'd been working on. It was unfinished and unmixed, but it was the first Foo Fighters record. I was like, "Shit, Dave, you should do that." He had too much energy and too much talent to just be the drummer in our band.

I loved seeing you guys play those shows at the Beacon Theatre last year.
If I had my way, that's all we would do. Maybe we'd do festivals and do theater shows at the Beacon, the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles and maybe the Fillmore or somewhere.

You don't like playing arenas?
They've got their own kind of fun and excitement, but you're not going to get the level of connection you get at the Beacon. Also, we can do different songs at theaters. Tom is such a good songwriter that it's a crime to leave out so many of the songs he's done. But when we do a big show, everyone wants to hear "Free Fallin'" and "Refugee." It's almost wrong of you not to play them, but you also have to do something for yourself and your fans that aren't just casual fans. At our show, the bulk of the fans want to hear 20 or 30 of our songs, and it sacrifices the stuff that I want to play. So it can't even be expressed how much I love playing the Beacon.

What does the future hold for the group?
Going all the way back to Hard Promises, I always thought we were breaking up at the end of every tour. But now I don't think that's going to happen. This is my life, and these guys are my family. I'm on this ship, but I’m not steering it. We'll see what happens, but I would love to make a Mudcrutch record. The only thing that would stop us would be if it started to feel like, "Uh-oh, this feels like work." 

The tour ends tonight. It must be nice to wrap things up with a hometown show.
It's nice in a weird kind of way, but there's also a bit of a disconnect. We're doing these last few shows based out of our homes. You're in this sort of Twilight Zone mode on the road, but once you settle back into your home routine it's weird to go play a big show. It's strange when you sell out the Forum and on the way home you stop by the supermarket because you realize you're out of dishwasher fluid.