Tom Petty's Last Rolling Stone Interview

In his only sit-down interview on his final tour, he talked loving the Heartbreakers, hating "Zombie Zoo" and why he was having so much fun onstage

In Tom Petty's only major interview on his final tour, he opened up about the Heartbreakers' longevity and why he was having so much fun onstage. Credit: Sam Jones

When Rolling Stone reached out to Tom Petty about following the Heartbreakers around for their 40th-anniversary tour this year, Petty had one non-negotiable request: I had to see both an inside show and an outdoor show. Petty thought the experiences were so different that you couldn't judge the band without seeing both. He was right, of course. An indoor St. Louis show had a controlled energy to it, men who had been playing together for over half their lives blasting through everyone's favorite songs like the world's most professional bar band. The outdoor show at Red Rocks was different, a happy mess. After the gig was delayed by a thunderstorm and lightning flashing on the cliffs, Petty and the band re-took the stage and improvised through wet and disabled monitors. Petty, in a ragged scarf and jean jacket, looked like a rock & roll survivor out of The Road.

The next day, I sat down with Petty in a suite at Denver's Ritz Carlton. He looked frailer in a fancy chair than he did onstage, impossibly skinny, his hands slightly shaking. He alternated between Marlboros and vaping in the no-smoking room. He mentioned that sleep was now his friend. Outside, longtime band member Mike Campbell took his mutt to the dog run while fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench walked the streets. Petty talked about them all and asked what Netflix shows he should catch. An assistant popped in after an hour but Petty had more to say. It was his only sit-down interview during the tour.

Tell me what happened with the rain last night.
The whole monitor system went down. It had something to do with them getting wet. They told me, "We gotta reboot these things, gonna take a while." So I'm like, "Great" [Laughs].

Does a moment like that give you any anxiety?
I don't think it gave me much anxiety. I think if it had gone on a lot longer, I would have been pissed.

It was a good time to have a band that you've been playing with for 25-to-40 years, depending on the individual members.
It's handy. We could have done 40 or 50 minutes of just calling out stuff we know. But it didn't come to that.

Benmont joked to me that you're having a real love affair with your drummer, Steve Ferrone, right now.
We were doing a MusiCares [benefit] recently, and Booker T. Jones was playing organ in the house band that T Bone Burnett put together. I don't really know him that well, but we had a pretty good talk that day. And Booker says to me, "You are so lucky, man." "What do you mean?" And he was like, "Your drummer. That's the best drummer there is." This is Booker T. He said, "When Al Jackson died, we went through a really hard time of finding a guy to play with." He meant the M.G.'s. And, you know, Al Jackson's history, playing on all those Al Green records. The guy had the deepest pocket I ever heard. And Booker T. said to me, "That's the best drummer since Al Jackson." When I told Steve that, he just started laughing. He goes, "Well, it's a good thing Al Jackson's not around."

What was it that made you want to do this 40th-anniversary tour – that made you think, "OK, it's time to do big places and do it as a proper tour rather than just a few shows"?
There was, among us, a desire to do it. It's not what I would have thought of. We get together and do one little thing, and then you go, "My God, it'd be good to carry on." I think it was almost a year ago that we decided we would do the tour. And as far as the venues, the demand is huge.

I'm sure you could do 80 dates if you wanted.
You want everybody to get to see it, you know? I wouldn't count on us next year. I don't know how much more of this we're gonna do. So every show is precious, and I'm just really having fun playing.

Do you savor each show a little bit more just because ... Not to sound morbid, but you've probably got fewer shows ahead of you than you have behind you.
I do savor them. This is the most ... I've really enjoyed being onstage so much, this tour. I don't know exactly why, but it's so much fun, you know? This is an extraordinary bunch of musicians. It's very rare. I don't think that's always been in the front of our minds, but lately, it feels that way.

When you were in your thirties, forties or fifties, did you feel like it was more of a duty to go out and –
It was just what I did.

"We communicate in a way that I really haven't seen many people do. If I go play with someone else, it always amazes me how complicated it is."

It's your job. You love it, but –
Yes. I loved it, but it was what we did every day, you know? It was a ridiculous pace all the time, whether I'm on the road or not. That's what people don't understand: I might be away for two years, but I've worked myself to death on different projects. I produced Chris Hillman's upcoming record. Right up to the day of rehearsal [for this tour], I was involved in that. I've been more and more into production lately, and I really, really love that. I love recording. I don't know. We're enjoying playing. I think we're good at it.

After 40 years, I think you can safely say that.
I mean, I humbly say that I think we're pretty good at it, and there's not many rock & roll bands from our era. ... We have all kinds of American music in what we do. And we've really studied the music. We're fans. Every one of us listens to a lot of music. And we talk about it and trade it back and forth and we have an incredible shorthand of naming this or that and ...

And everyone understands.
Very rapidly. We communicate in a way that I really haven't seen many people do. If I go play with someone else, it always amazes me how complicated it is.

Yeah. And Benmont says that, I don't mean to be corny, but it's blood.
We all get along, is what's strange. We have this deep, brotherly love for each other, but ... You know, nothing ever lasts long. If Benmont explodes, we're all so used to it that you just kind of let him go, and then he'll be alright. We used to call him Mad Dog because of his explosions. And so now, what happened, what became tradition is when he was losing it, Bugs, our roadie, would put a bowl of water by the piano. He is a genius, he's playing since he was four. Can play anything.

I wonder if you could talk a little about your relationship with Mike. He's been on all those solo records. He hasn't missed anything.
He actually engineered Full Moon Fever. He's always there. Mike is special, you know? I'll tell you one thing interesting about him is apart from each other, neither of us makes the same sound. If we play together, it's a very natural give and take. And I think that just must have happened from so many years of playing together. We know who's gonna go treble and who's gonna go mid-range, and if he's gonna play here, I'm gonna play there.

Do you approach touring or, like, getting your rest or anything in a way that you didn't –
When I was in my twenties? Well, I eat very sensibly. I've been a vegetarian for almost five years. I don't eat fish and chicken and all that. But I will have some eggs. So I'm not technically a vegan. But I eat pretty sensibly, and before a tour, I will usually work out a lot. I'll get a trainer, or I have a guy I've known a long time.

We box and lift weights, and so, I get my body strong where I feel like I'm in shape. And I get a lot more rest than I used to, you know. We used to hit the town pretty hard, you know. And that's a habit we got into in our twenties that carries over for quite a while. Then you realize, "Wow, if I don't get some sleep, I'm not gonna be able to sing."

So tell me, like yesterday, you had a show the night before and you had a show that night. What did you do ...
Between those shows? I was asleep. My hours get kinda backwards. Most of the time, we're basing out of one town, flying out, doing the show, then flying back. And it's a pace that no one would believe, really. Unless you've done it, you really can't understand what it is. And if you're not really experienced and know how to do it, you will fall. Nobody can really run with this for very long, but we can because it's all we've ever done. We know how to pace ourselves and know what to do. And there is a pace to it, that you have to observe.

And you're talking about the pace leading up to the show –
Just getting through the whole thing, it's a wild thing, you know? It might be the only comfortable place there is that ... That, this and the studio, I am completely OK. And in any other life situation, I'm terribly retarded.

It would be easy for you to like ...
I wish I could play more. There's So. Many. Songs. An average show is two hours. And that's usually right up to the curfew or the union triple time. I always feel like, I could have played a little longer, or something, but it's hard for me to pay attention to anything for longer than that.

Do the guys ever say no? Do they ever say, "You know what, I'd really rather not do ..."
Oh, yeah. They speak right up. They don't view me as the boss. They view me as the petulant brother that you sometimes have to listen to.

Talking to the other guys, it's like, "We can speak freely, but then Tom has the final say." But they're not a backing band by any stretch of the imagination.
Not at all.

I'm just trying to think of another analogous band and I can't really think of one.
There isn't one. It's a good dynamic because you can't really have a rock and roll band that's a democracy. It will not work. So there's gonna be that person within a group that drifts toward alpha-dog, and to keep us all happy, they indulge me. They know I'm the best songwriter and singer in the band, so that gives me some extra weight.

Tell me about playing with Dylan as a band.
It was essential. It made us what we are. Simple as that. Bob gave us a lot of courage. There's an improvisational air in his music, no matter how much he's rehearsed it. It's bold to be doing that to huge audiences, you know. So we came out of that experience knowing that what you could get out of this was so much broader than we had known to that point. It widened us as far as our knowledge of the music, and how to really really trust each other. And we just came away from those two years as different people. Bob loved playing with the band, and he knew that we could pretty much follow him wherever he went.

During the Dylan years you didn't have to be, as you said earlier, the big brother that the guys had to occasionally listen to.
Yeah. It gave me this incredible perspective of being in the band completely.

It gave you a little more, I don't know, empathy?
Yeah. It did. I don't think of them as a backing group, and I'm sure they don't either. But sometimes, I gotta be that person that makes decisions. We've decided over the years when we try to make decisions together, it's a disaster, you know? And they trust me, thank God.

"So many people tell me, 'Oh, we got married to "Here Comes My Girl,"' or things like that. That's really wonderful. I'm so blessed."

In Running Down a Dream, the documentary by Peter Bogdanovich, there was a moment where they're interviewing Eddie Vedder and he was saying something like, a 14- or 15-year-old remembers exactly where they were first time they heard "Free Fallin'." Maybe you've always realized this, or maybe as you get a little older you savor it a bit more.
People come up to me fairly often. They want to say hi, or whatever. Doesn't bother me, really. A lot of them say, "Thank you for being the soundtrack of my life," you know? And I always thought that was a really nice compliment because I know what that means. You know, the night you finally hooked up with your dream girl, and "American Girl" is playing, it becomes your song. So many people tell me, "Oh, we got married to 'Here Comes My Girl,'" or things like that. That's really wonderful. I'm so blessed. I really do understand it. I think more so now than ever that, you know, an extraordinary thing has happened here, you know?

We've had an amazingly long run of songs and they reach people and they mean something to them. One night I was pulling out of a place in L.A., and there were some fans on the street at the gate. Some young, like college-age girls. You know, we stopped and rolled down the window to sign their stuff, and one girl had an Echo album and she said, "I know you don't like this album, but it helped me through a really hard time." And I was like, "Well, cool," and I signed it. And then I thought later, "Well, see, things can work when you don't even realize it," you know?

There's a lot of great songwriters who hit that peak, let's say, between 22 and 28. There's a period of time where there's something instinctual about it, and then as you get older, you're thinking about it too much.
It gets much harder when you get older because you've covered a lot of ground already. And let me tell you, songwriting is work. It's hard work. Most people don't want to put that kind of work into it. And that's one difference between now and, say, the Sixties or early Seventies. People really wrote songs. I had to always dedicate my life to spending a lot of time on my own, writing music. And when you get older, you have more distractions, especially if you're successful.

For a long time, I just felt like I had to turn out another hit song, you know? And that's what I did. So as I got older, I would just make myself say, "Look, here's a block of time, you're gonna commit that to writing and see what comes out."

You mean you do it in your studio?
I never work good in places that would be easy to work in. I have a little office at home that I like to play in. The building next door is a full-on studio, but I don't go in there until I have a song. That's old-school advice that we got that was really good: Don't come in if you don't have a song that you could play to me on one instrument and I will go, "Wow, that's a good song."

Is there any song that you hate?
It's funny. Sometimes, 10 years later, I like something that I [didn't like before], or vice versa. But I hate "Zombie Zoo." I do not understand how that got on the record [1989's Full Moon Fever], when I had better stuff that didn't get on the record. What frame of mind produced that, I don't understand. 'Cause normally, I would have thrown that away. God knows we've thrown away far better. That was nearly a perfect album until the very end [laughs].

We know how to work the studio. I don't see a record like a concert. I thought Mojo was really good. Mojo grabbed a part of the band that had never been grabbed. That was probably created during the Dylan period. It's like, if you go on to play the blues, play it right. You know? Here's how it actually goes. Bob's take would be, "Well, check out this, you know? Here's how Howlin' Wolf plays that." And so we got pretty good at that and it never really got featured before that record. There are things like that I love that I don't know if people know about it.

So this is not the end. Or – well, you tell me. People have said it may be the end of you doing 50-show tours.
It is.

It's the end of that, but not the end of the Heartbreakers.
No. I don't know that we can end it. It's bigger than us. I mean, it really is something that drives us, in a way. And yes, we're in the back sixties now. We'll probably, certainly cut back on doing this kind of tour, but to stop playing is unimaginable to me. I think we'll still play.

His hits have defined rock radio since the Seventies, and he never stopped writing great music. Here's the definitive guide to Tom Petty's best songs.