Q&A: Tom Petty

On retiring the hits, teasing the Heartbreakers and smoking medicinal weed

Tom Petty at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on April 28th, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

"I'm too old to work with a producer," says Tom Petty, who's been co-producing a new Heartbreakers album with guitarist Mike Campbell and their engineer. "I know what I want to do at this point." Petty also knows what he wants to do on the road: re­tire some of his biggest hits. At 62, he can be mellow and ornery at the same time, and years after saying he was retiring from long tours, he's found a new way to stay interested. "I've written a lot of good songs that weren't released as singles," he says, citing rari­ties like "Nightwatchman" and "When the Time Comes." "I'd rath­er be known for that than for mak­ing a lot of hits."

Your set lists have been pretty stable for years. Were you feel­ing that the show was getting stale?
Yes, I was feeling that. We felt kind of obli­gated to play all the most popular songs, because people pay so much money for tickets. But I want to play some of these other songs, rather than just get trapped into what people expect.

That sounds like "Screw you guys, I'm not a jukebox."
I could be a jukebox, but I don't want to be. I just feel like we have more to offer.

You left Florida for California when you were 23. Are there ways in which you're still a Southerner?
I love the South. I don't want them all writing me letters calling me a deserter. But I was born this geeky, artistic kid, and I always felt like a duck out of water there. I didn't get a Southern accent, even though my whole family had one.

You probably didn't want one.
I don't think I did, to be honest. But it was good to come out of the South, because you had to be really good, especially your rhythm section. When we came out to L.A. in the be­ginning of '74 and went to clubs to see bands, our impres­sion was, "Wow! These guys suck" [laughs]. A lot of people associate us with Florida, but I really feel like we're an L.A. band. Some people don't understand that.

Like who?
About a year ago, the L.A. Times did an article on the 50 best L.A. bands. I didn't see us mentioned anywhere, and at the bottom of the page, with an asterisk, it said, "Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don't count, because they were formed in Florida." I thought, "God, that's a shitty feeling."

Your dad was physically and verbally abusive to you. Is he in any of your songs?
He might be. I can't really forgive the early part of my life with him. And when I became famous, it became part of his identi­ty, which I resented. With my entire family, they never said, "How are you doing?" Instead, it was, "Hey, can you sign this?"

You've known Mike Campbell for a long time. Do you ever tease him about his hair?
[Laughs] All the time. You don't see many 60-year-old guys with dreadlocks, do you? In this job, you're not ever encouraged to grow up. So we don't dwell too much on what we ought to look like. Maybe we should.

As a Californian, is the weed you get medical marijuana?
I don't have a prescription card, but I'm certain I've smoked some medical marijuana, yeah. It's everywhere. I don't smoke as much pot as I did at one point in my life. But I think the cat's out of the bag, and it's gonna be legalized. If you're gonna sell liquor, you have to sell pot. Liquor's worse for you. I don't think pot's addictive — I never felt like I had to have it, you know. Actually, no, I take that back [laughs]. But it is safer than alcohol.