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

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The encore of Chuck Berry's "Carol" had a bit of a rough start.
I'm going to get technical here, but the song is in the key of G. Tom always starts it out with his signature riff and then the band falls in. For some reason, a roadie handed him a guitar that was tuned up for a different song. So he started in what he thought was G and the band came in on G, but his guitar was in A flat. We panicked and just looked at each other. We said, "OK, it's in A flat," and the band shifted into that.

But Tom was kind of left holding the wrong guitar, so he went back and changed it back, but he realized "Oh shit, the band is in A flat now." He looked at me and said, "You gotta play the riff, man. I don't know where I'm at."

I love that you brought that up, because our band thrives on spontaneity. We were able to pull it together, and we played it in A flat. It was fun. It was beautiful. I saw that the band was able to pull a train wreck into something good. On this whole tour, that will probably be the moment you remember as something special. 

I was also happy to hear "Billy the Kid" from Echo. That's one of my favorite albums, and you rarely do anything from it.
Well, that was emotionally a very hard time for us. I haven't been able to sit down and listen to it because at the time we were losing one of our players [bassist Howie Epstein] to a disease – drug addiction – and he was not there, but he was there, and it was just really hard to get through that process knowing what was happening to him and not being able to do anything about it. So I put that album aside. I'll listen to it again at some point, but it's emotionally just too difficult. It stirs up too many bad emotions . . . I know there's some good songs on there, though. "Billy the Kid" is one of them. I like that tune a lot.

"Room at the Top" is an absolute masterpiece.

Thank you. Yeah, I'm gonna have to listen to that album if my head gets in a better space. 

"American Girl" is a nice way to wrap up the show, going right back to the very beginning.
I think it's a good gesture. After they've put up with us for that long, at least give them something I know they want to hear. I still love playing that song. It honestly gives me an adrenaline rush every time, still. 

That song changed your life in a lot of ways.
In a lot of ways, yeah. We were in the studio and we actually found some little sound and harmonics and vibe that was ours – "That's our sound." That song is when it kind of happened, so it'll always be special. 

"Refugee" has the same cathartic feeling when you play it towards the end of the night.

The other night we were in rehearsal and we said, "Do you want to play 'Refugee?'" Tom said, "I think we need to play it." We ran through it and I said, "You know man, what a great song." I hadn't heard it in a very long time, but what a great combination of music and lyrics and energy. You know, I still love those songs. 

In the middle of those huge arena tours where the set list never really changes, do you ever get bored?

No. I get, um, frusta . . . Well, there's two levels to it. One thing is you're doing your job and giving the people what they want. When I go see AC/DC, if they don't play "Back in Black" I'm gonna think, "Well, that was good, but man, I just shelled out $400. I would have liked to have heard songs I like."

I understand that, but my attitude is – and I've worked real hard on this – but I don't allow myself to get bored. I try to get into a headspace where I pretend like this is the first time I'm ever hearing this song, and I get into that and I just try to discover it. I found that if I really put my head in that space then I can get into it. I can discover it all over again. 

But if you let yourself say, "Oh, not this one again," then you shouldn't even be there. I'm not gonna fall into that trap . . . But there is a part of me after the show – not during the show, but afterwards, where I think, "Well, I kind of wish we didn't have to play the same songs tomorrow night. It would be nice to change it up." And here we are. 

Starting the show with the Byrds; "So You Want to Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star" is a great way to set the tone for the night.

That was Tom's idea. Lyrically, it just sets everybody into the right frame of mind. Musically, it definitely shows our inspiration and roots. Twelve-string guitars are just fun to play. It's a real tribute to Roger [McGuinn] and the Byrds.  

It's a shame they don't tour. I know David Crosby and Chris Hillman are dying to do it. Roger just has no interest.
Well, I'll tell you what – that's why I treasure my band so much. It's hard to keep a band together. There's so many things that can derail it. There's a lot of great bands that have . . . for personalities or women or money or whatever, they just don't want to be in the same room. 

There's also bands that tour despite hating each other. You can often sense it when they're onstage.
Oh yeah. What a terrible existence. I can't imagine. It's hard enough when you like each other, with the traveling and all.

One of the cool things about the Heartbreakers is that it's the same guys from day one, besides [drummer] Stan Lynch.
I don't want to be corny, but we love each other. As time goes on, we really cherish the longevity. That becomes something like, "Wow, we put a lot into this." There's something really valuable that very few people have. We're really grateful to have that. We really protect it. 

I think of groups like the Clash that had something so perfect and magical, and they pissed it away for no reason.
We met Joe Strummer once. It was really touching. He came to the studio about a year before he died. We're sitting around talking and he said, "You guys are so great. You're together." Then he got real serious and said, "Don't fuck it up man. Don't fuck with it. Don't fuck with it." I could hear him. He was saying, "I really messed mine up. Don't follow in my footsteps." 

A lot of bands like that were so young and angry. They couldn't step back and see the big picture.
I know. We feel very lucky and fortunate to be able to do what we do.

You played guitar on Bob Dylan's 2009 album Together Through Life. What was that like?

It was so much fun. I hadn't played with him in so long. I got the call, and he did not let me down. He's such a genius. The funniest part came on the first day. We walked in and I'm sitting there doing nothing. He walks straight over to me and he goes, "Hey, have you ever done a record on one microphone?" I said, "Well, maybe one song." He said, "I want to do this album on one microphone, like a Bing Crosby record."

I totally got it. We put one microphone in the middle of the room, and the engineer has just got this look like a deer in headlights, like "Oh my God, what am I gonna do?" But it was such a beautiful concept, and that's pretty much how we ended up doing it. We would stand around the mic and the band would bleed into the mic and play in the room. If you were too loud you'd play quieter, since you know there's no mixing it later. I loved that about it.  

The whole thing took maybe two weeks. We did one or two songs a day. Bob is my ultimate favorite player of all time, so I was definitely honored to be a part of it.  

What's the status of the next Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record?
We are working on it. We need to write some more songs. It's similar to the Mojo album, playing live and blues-based songs. There's great songwriting and great lyrics. He really surprised me this time with some of the stuff he came up with. We hope to have it out next spring. 

I've heard rumors you're already planning a tour for next summer.
Hopefully we can have the album out and tour a little bit, maybe go to Europe next summer. I don't really know yet, but that's the idea.  

Do you think that Mudcrutch are going to play again at any point?
Oh, I'd love to. We were talking the other day about that. We want to do another album, but with all the touring and the Heartbreakers albums we don't have time to squeeze it in now.  

The east coast got robbed on that last tour. It's time to bring it over here.
That was a really great band. We played some gigs on the west coast that went really well. That was a lot of fun, so I hope we get to do it again.  

That should do it. Thanks for talking, and I'll be back for the Saturday show at the Beacon.
Awesome. It might even be polished by then [laughs]. Don't hold that against us.

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