He hasn't written any set lists yet, but Tom Petty has his priorities in order for the two residencies he will play with the Heartbreakers in May and June at New York's Beacon Theater and Los Angeles' Fonda Theater. "You try to keep yourself entertained," the singer-guitarist tells Rolling Stone, laughing through his deep and gritty Southern drawl. "I'm gonna be there every night, and I want to enjoy it."
Petty and the Heartbreakers will play at the Beacon on May 20th, 21st, 23rd, 25th and 26th, then move to the Fonda for concerts on June 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th. The shows – part of a U.S. tour that includes arena dates and festival appearances, one of them a headlining slot at Bonnaroo – will be Petty's first small-hall runs since a five-night stay at the Vic Theater in Chicago in 2003. Petty and the Heartbreakers also held epic stands at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1997 and 1999.
"This is a good thing to do every now and then," he contends. "It gets the band members in tune with each other in a way that you don't get on a big tour. There's a different challenge than you're used to. We got together the other night, the band and I, and everybody is up for this. There's no telling what we'll do."
That includes the possibility of debuting new material. Petty and the Heartbreakers are interrupting the sessions for their next studio album to go on tour; they resume recording in July with a probable release in 2014. "I'd rather people heard the record before we perform the songs," Petty says. "But I also like the songs and want to play them. If they're sounding really good and I get the okay from the head office, I'll do it."
He adds, "We have this great little rock & roll band. I want people to see it in a setting other than a big arena."
Birth of a Notion
The idea of going back to intimate halls and playing long, deep-catalog sets came out of Petty's European tour last summer with the Heartbreakers (guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboard player Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston). The group played two shows at London's Royal Albert Hall, and Petty says, "That just felt so good. We were in close quarters. We felt free. And we came back with a renewed collective interest.
"I don't want to do a 'greatest hits' night," Petty says of the New York and L.A. shows. "We should push ourselves, do things we don't even remember. It's about getting the best out of the band and to show people there are a lot of sides to us, the different kinds of music this band can play. We are a very good blues band. And we're a pretty good bluegrass band, believe it or not. We just don't get a chance to do that very much. You only get so much time in a concert – you can't do everything in one night. But I'm just gonna go where the wind blows us."
Full Speed Ahead
Petty describes the new album, not yet titled, "as kind of like [2010's] Mojo – to a new power. It's not as strict to the blues as that one is. But everything comes from the blues, and we've found something new – a new way to stamp the blues."
The album is also "born the same way as Mojo," he goes on, "where we perform everything together, with very little futzing around with it after it's done. But more than anything else, it's about the songs. Writing a song is such a gift from God. You have to be patient and attentive, and I gotta stay at it a lot. But things turn up, and when they do, it's exciting and makes you want to go back and try it again."
So far, Petty and the Heartbreakers have cut a dozen songs for the new record. "And of those, I hear six that I'm sure about," he says with obvious delight. "There may be more, but I'm definitely sure of those." He laughs again. "If I'm sure about one, that's exciting."
Into the Great Wide Open
Petty and the Heartbreakers begin rehearsing for the tour – especially the New York and L.A. runs – in April. "We'll sit down and go over everything," he says, "look at all of the old albums and see, first, what sounds good, which ones really resonate. I lead the way, but I work as a member of the group. I may have the final vote, but there's no one who's not going to tell me what they think."
Still, he says proudly, "When I'm out there, they can pretty much do whatever I want to do. The interesting thing about these shows will be to see what happens in the heat of battle: 'Let's do some acoustic music. Let's switch instruments.' In the  Fillmore run, there were times when it truly amazed me how they could follow me into crazy territory. There were days when we'd get to the Fillmore in the afternoon just to learn another song to play that night. That's the magic of a residency."
Petty pauses thoughtfully when asked if he has considered doing full-album nights at the Beacon and the Fonda. "That could be done," he responds. "It's never come up before, but that might be nice." He shoots down another suggestion: songs by Mudcrutch, his early-Seventies proto-Heartbreakers band with Campbell and Tench, which reunited for a much-belated 2008 studio album. "There is a rule against Mudcrutch songs," Petty declares, "unless all of Mudcrutch is there."
"But we're gonna have fun," he insists. "I promise you that. And I like to play these festivals. We're one of those old, lucky bands: Young people come to see us. It makes a difference. There are people who have picked up on you fairly recently, or they're just learning about you. It brings a different excitement into the crowd."
"The last few years have been so wonderful for us," Petty says with a grateful sigh. "We're such happy campers – sickeningly happy." There is another low, grainy laugh. "It's going to be kind of disgusting if we get much happier."
Here are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' tour dates:
5/16 Evansville, IN – Ford Center
5/18 Gulf Shores, AL – Hangout Music Festival
5/20 New York, NY – Beacon Theatre
5/21 New York, NY – Beacon Theatre
5/23 New York, NY – Beacon Theatre
5/25 New York, NY – Beacon Theatre
5/26 New York, NY – Beacon Theatre
6/3 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/4 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/6 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/8 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/9 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/11 Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theater
6/15 Noblesville, IN – Klipsch Music Center
6/16 Manchester, TN – Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
6/18 London, ONT – Budweiser Gardens
6/20 Pittsburgh, PA – Consol Energy Center
6/22 Dover, DE – Firefly Music Festival
6/23 Saratoga Springs, NY – Saratoga Performing Arts Center
6/28 Milwaukee, WI – Marcus Amphitheater/Summerfest
6/29 Minneapois, MN – Target Center