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Tom Petty Guitarist Mike Campbell: 'We're Free From 'Free Fallin'''

On Petty's rarities theater tour, next album and recording with Bob Dylan

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
John Davisson/Invision/AP
May 30, 2013 12:15 PM ET

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers just wrapped up a triumphant five-night stand at New York's Beacon Theater. When the band plays arenas and festivals, they rarely veer too far from their large catalog of hits, but these intimate gigs gave them an opportunity to resurrect deep cuts and covers they haven't played in years. (Next week they begin a six-night stand at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles.) Midway through the Beacon Theater run we spoke with guitarist Mike Campbell about the tour, his long history in the Heartbreakers and playing on Bob Dylan's 2009 LP Together Through Life.  

I've seen you guys a lot, but that first night at the Beacon felt really special. Did it feel that way to you?
Yeah, we're free from "Free Fallin'." We're free from doing 20 songs that people expect us to play year after year. These shows are a chance to play songs that aren't on that list.

It's just tough to connect with fans in a basketball arena. People are so far away from the stage.
In that situation, there's a responsibility to the ticket buyer to give them what they want. We take that very seriously. We try to give them as many of the songs they want to hear, as well as a few surprises. They know that's the deal going in.

Tom Petty Finishes Beacon Run With More Rarities, Covers and Heavy Jangle

I feel like a lot of your fans know more than just the hits. It sure seemed that way at the Beacon.
Well, every night's gonna be different. I don't even know what we're going to play the next two nights. But that's the exciting part of it. These nights are special. I guess that's true for the fans, but we thrive on spontaneity. We can pull out a song, maybe we rehearsed it, maybe we didn't, but we're gonna make it work on the spot. That's so exciting and so fulfilling as a musician, so the band is really enjoying it.

What was the impetus for this tour?
The main inspiration for this run of shows in New York and the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles is doing covers or album tracks that we don't normally get to play. We did this back in late 1997 or 1999, somewhere in there. We did a Fillmore West run like this. We've always thought we should do it again sometime, because it was so much fun and such a great chance for the band to grow as players. We're doing a couple of other shows to help pay for the party, but these two runs are the main reason we're out here. 

How long ago did you start rehearsing?
We rehearsed for about three weeks last month. Mostly we just learned a lot of covers and songs from the deep tracks that we haven't played in years. We discovered a lot of songs that we had forgotten about, to be honest with you. We'd go, "Wow, it's a shame that we haven't played these before." So we're excited to try 'em out. 

How do you decide it's time to bring back something really obscure, like "Billy the Kid"?
The ultimate decision, most of the time, will be on the singer. He'll go, "You guys know this one? I feel like singing it." Then we'll join in. Someone else in the band might say, "Remember 'When the Time Comes?'" Then Tom might go, "Oh yeah. I don't know about that one, but let's give it a shot." And if it sounds really good we'll go, "Oh, hey, that's worth keeping on the list." But ultimately it's up to the singer. 

There are songs in the catalog you've just forgotten about?
I'm embarrassed to say there are. [Laughs] 

Like?
Just the other day someone was asking me, "Are you guys gonna do 'About to Give Out?'" I didn't have any memory of that song at all. There are songs that do get lost along the way, but as soon as you pull them out it all comes back to you. 

I'm thrilled you guys are doing "Tweeter and the Monkey Man." I never thought I'd hear that live.

I like that song a lot. We've done "Handle With Care" and "End of the Line" before. One of us said, "Are we going to do a Wilburys song?" We said, "Let's not do one of those. How about something else?" And Tom said, "How about 'Tweeter and the Monkey Man?" I remembered the title, but it took until he played the chorus for me to remember how it went. But then it all came back to me, and we played it a few times. The band loved it.

It's got 10 verses. It's like a book [laughs]. But it's cool. I love the way Dylan writes, just on and on. The story is like a movie. 

Hearing "Stepping Stone" was great, too.

That was Tom's idea. He came in Monday and he said, "I was listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders do 'Stepping Stone.' Not the Monkees version." Of course, we grew up on that stuff. We listened to the record and we said, "That's a great arrangement. This would be good live."

We worked it up, and it always brings a smile. I feel like I'm back in high school at a teen dance. It reminds me of when I first started listening to music. 

"A Woman In Love" really came across well, too.

I was surprised Tom wanted to do it. Every time we brought it up in the past he'd go, "Oh, that's too hard to sing. The chorus line is wearing me out." But this time he said, "Let's try this one." It was really nice to revisit that one. It's very powerful, and the music and the words are very emotional and powerful. It really connects on stage. 

I never thought I'd hear "Rebels" live.

 

Yeah, and I hope people understand what it's about. [Laughs] I think a lot of times that song is misunderstood because of the title, but if you listen closely, it's not a negative song in any way. It's a politically correct song if you take the time to understand what it is. We kind of do a different arrangement, so it's kind of new to  us. 

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