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Q&A: Tom Petty Finishing LP 'Unlike Anything We've Ever Done'

Singer also discusses songwriting and criticizes modern country music

August 5, 2013 12:00 PM ET
tom petty bonnaroo tennessee
Tom Petty performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

"I always say this, but I'm tremendously excited for this one," says Tom Petty, discussing his upcoming 13th album with the Heartbreakers, which he expects out early next year. "It's not like anything we've ever done." In this exclusive interview, Petty opens up about the record, his meticulous songwriting process and his band's recent deep cut-packed tour. He also shares critical thoughts on modern country music, discusses his road peers Bob Dylan and Neil Young and plans for a new Mudcrutch record. Says Petty, "There's a lot to do!"

I saw two of the recent Beacon shows and Bonnaroo, and it seems like the band really stepped it up on the last tour. 
Yeah, I hear that from a lot of people lately. I think we have raised the bar a bit. We were saying on the plane [recently], "If we didn't feel this was getting better, we probably wouldn't be doing it." I think if we felt like we were sliding back a step or two, we wouldn't be as inspired about doing this. But we're in a good place right now mentally, and as a team we're all focused on the same goal and the communication musically is really fantastic right now. So yeah I think in many ways we have gotten better, yeah.

It was incredible to see you play songs by the Zombies, Paul Revere and the Raiders or "Green Onions." It's cool to see you guys going back to where you came from and doing them your own way.
Yeah, well you've got to bring something to it or there's no point in doing it, really. So that's really just roots music for us. We came out of garage bands in the middle Sixties. I mean, I started to play in a group when I was 14. That was when I first started to get paid to play, and those are our roots. We learned Rolling Stones, Them, Paul Revere, all the Animals, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, all that stuff was stuff you had to know how to play. And we were fortunate because it was a really good time in music.

And so in theory we were sort of learning the blues. But we didn't really know that at the time. From there, we discovered Muddy [Waters] and [Howlin'] Wolf and Little Walter and all that stuff. We just tried to assimilate that – and the Byrds brought us into country music, you know. Some of that came into the mix. And then you know we kind of went down that road for a while, so it's really just a big blend of American music that we're playing and we've kind of rolled it all into one thing that we can put our own stamp on. 

I wanted to ask about the way you write hooks that seem headed in one direction, and then veer off somewhere else that takes the song to a whole new level, almost like a second chorus. Is that intentional?
Well, I really focus on songs first. You know, you can have the best band in the world, but if you don't have material that's good, it won't matter. So really with us we're all focused on delivering a song first, you know, and I've always put a lot of care into writing. And when young musicians ask me what the most important thing is, I always say it's the song. You know, you can chrome a turd, but it's not going to do any good. You've got to have a song. So I put a lot of time into writing and a lot of care into it and hopefully you come up with something worthy of doing. 

Does that come from playing it acoustically alone, honing it that way? 
Yeah a lot of it does. I tend to write on an acoustic guitar or the piano. I have kind of a rule: if I can't sit down and play this and get the song over, I don't take it to the band, because most any good song, you can sit down and deliver it with a piano or a guitar. So I just roll in, especially lately. We've never rehearsed for an album, we just meet in a studio, I play the song on the guitar, and they just fall in and we work it out there and usually the first few takes are the best.

That's the thing with the Heartbreakers. Their takes are usually the very early ones rather than the very later ones. But you know, it's just the way we work. We've never really hard rehearsals for records. It's gotten where it’s so instinctual. They're so ridiculously good. If I play them a song that I just wrote, they'll do the first take and it's suddenly a whole different thing than I pictured. And we usually go in and listen after one take and then we'll say "Okay, you should do more of this and you should do less of that." And in a few takes, we've usually got an arrangement.

What's a song where the band really surprised you?
I think all of Mojo surprised me, because I had no idea what the songs would sound like. I knew what they sound like with me playing them, but as soon as I show it to them, everyone naturally goes their own way. I've gotten where I don't really give out many instructions or try and write a part for anybody else. I just let them try to find their own way and they're very good. We've all recorded so much, we've spent a lot of time in the studio and they're really good at knowing what's too much and what's not gonna groove. It's all about grooves too, you know. You've got to lay down a groove and – I mean I feel like we've got one of the best drummers there is, you know, and he's just a rock. Like, he's unbelievable – we never play anything that doesn't feel good, you know? [Steve] Ferrone just gets better and better and better – he's amazing.

You've played "Free Fallin'" or "Mary Jane's Last Dance" a million times. But when you see 70,000 thousand people singing along at Bonnaroo, does that push you to play it with energy?
Oh yeah, I mean that's very gratifying because some of those songs I've played many, many times, but every time we play it, you feel that joy in the crowd and it kind of re-inspires you to do a good job on it. In Indianapolis recently, there were times I was drowned out by the crowd – they were so loud, it was coming through my vocal mike through my monitor. But it's a wonderful feeling you know to just know that that has been around a long time and its been handed down and handed down you know there was a young girl in the front row at Bonnaroo and when we walked out she held out a big sign that said "I was raised on your music," and I thought, "That's really sweet."

How is the new music you've been working on? Have the songs developed on the road? 
We've worked on the album for awhile now. You know, I guess I always say this about the latest one, but I'm tremendously excited about this record and it's not like anything we've ever done. I think people are gonna like it. We're at a place where we're nearly done with it. I didn't play anything [live] because I've worked so hard on the sound of the record, I don't want people's first impression to be over YouTube, you know? We're nearly done with it so I would think early next year, it'll be out.

Do you have a title for it yet?
I don't have a firm title yet, no.

And when you said that it's unlike anything you’ve ever done before, what do you mean?
Well, you'll just have to hear it. I think we've kind of arrived at a style that is just different. The last album, we kind of went back into a blues. [This album] kind of started in the same place and then it moved into something that's morphed into something that's kind of like songs that we would've written maybe around [1994's] Wildflowers or [1979's] Damn the Torpedoes. But you know, it comes from a blues place and it's much more distorted [laughs]. But it's really got its own thing, and it's tremendously exciting for me, because I'm just so into it and I'm looing forward to getting back to the studio and finishing it. I just love recording. I just can't get enough of it.

One good thing about this point in life is that recording has gotten so much easier for us. We can really realize what's in our heads pretty quickly without a lot of stress, so it's tremendous fun recording. And Ryan Ulyate, who began as our engineer on Highway Companion has become like a member of the band almost, you know? He got promoted to co-producer on Mojo. He’s been a tremendous help to us. I looked all my life for that engineer partner in the studio that would be perfect, and we found him.

Are you listening to anything right now that you're excited about?
I haven't discovered anything recently that I think is great, you know. I'm racking my brain right now I'm probably forgetting something.

Judging by your radio show, it still seems like you spend a lot of time listening to deep vinyl cuts. 
Yeah, I have a big vinyl collection and I still think it's the best sounding format apart from the one Neil Young's got in his car. If they ever get that Pono [Neil Young's super high-definition audio platform] thing up and working, that’s something I'm really behind. I think that if people realize that with an mp3, you're only getting five percent of the sound that's there. But when you hear the entire thing . . . I think it would save the music business. It's such a drastic change.

At the Beacon, you described some modern country music as "bad rock with fiddle."
Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I'm sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they're just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that's the way it always is, isn't it? But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don't really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I'm sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don't want to rail on about country because I don't really know much about it, but that's what it seems like to me.

In addition to Neil, you have Paul McCartney, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan touring this summer. Is it crazy for you to think that everybody is still on the road?
Well, we certainly didn't think we would way back when. The good thing is that you can grow as a musician, and if you keep some dignity about it, it's a viable thing. I can go see those artists and expect them to really give me something. It isn't going to be a rehash nostalgic evening.

Are you going to tour next year off the new record? 
I think so. I want to do a Mudcrutch record in between there, so my next move is to get back with those guys after this. 

You guys never played the East Coast, right? That would be amazing.
No. I saw Tom Leadon recently and we were talking about that, going to the East Coast with Mudcrutch. So there's a lot to do.

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