The Malibu home studio where Tom Petty worked featured a sign reading "Beware: Cranky Hippie." Every time Shelters frontman Chase Simpson arrived there, however, that's hardly the man he encountered. "He was that great, genuine, loving person that you saw onstage," says Simpson, who grew up with Petty's stepson, Dylan, and considered Petty a father figure, and in recent years, his band's biggest champion. "He really was our best friend and our guide through life. He taught us everything – not just about music, but about life and the world."
In recent years, the Shelters spent countless hours with Petty – typically at his studio, where he gave them free rein to rehearse, record or simply seek counsel from one of rock's great minds. Petty co-produced the Shelters' 2016 debut album and even took them out on the road with him. They opened for Petty's band Mudcrutch last year and also at the Heartbreakers' recent shows in California. It's no surprise, then, that their mentor's passing earlier this week devastated the garage rockers. "We're completely crushed," Simpson tells Rolling Stone. "Tommy was everything to us. He was there since the beginning. He was a co-founder of the Shelters in many ways. We're just trying to get through it one day at a time." Adds lead guitarist Josh Jove, "You can only imagine being close with him how much extra it hurt us. He's everything people think he is and more."
When not on the road with the Shelters, Simpson and Jove were permanent fixtures at Shoreline, the fully functional studio Petty built in a small guesthouse on his property. "Tommy called us the Shoreline Recorders and flipped his lid about having a full-blown record-making factory at home," Simpson says. "He really just loved being surrounded by creative energy and we were all just so excited about making new music together."
Having suffered the loss of his father as a teenager, Simpson says he viewed Petty "like a second father." The pair first bonded over their shared love of music. "That's how we always connected," he says. Following the breakup of Automatik Slim, Simpson and Jove's band with Petty's stepson Dylan, Petty gave the pair the keys to his studio and instructed them to discover what came next.
"He allowed us to go in there and essentially explore and find out what band we wanted to be," Jove remembers. During those times, Petty would often "poke his head into band practice and see what was going on," Simpson recalls. He might offer encouragement, wisdom or tell them a story about his earliest days playing with the Epics and Mudcrutch. Simpson recalls Petty's songwriting advice around this time as being particularly valuable: He stressed the importance of nailing down succinct lyrics, and how the best songs should be able to played simply with only an acoustic guitar. "All the things that he would teach us every day we'd work on and he'd see that," Simpson says. "And we'd just absorb it. And to us it was like this fuel. And he kept pouring a little more gas on the fire."
As they were workshopping the material that would eventually make up their debut album, Petty even occasionally joined in on the bass guitar. "He was the original bass player of our band," Simpson says with a laugh. In time he agreed to produce the record and even enlisted his longtime engineer Ryan Ulyate. "Since we were around so much, I think it was a natural thing," Jove explains.
Petty's generosity with the Shelters, which includes drummer Sebastian Harris and bassist Jacob Pillot, extended to his own music. As he and the Heartbreakers were working on their 2014 album, Hypnotic Eye, he enlisted Simpson and Jove to assist with its creation. "I think Tommy started to consider us a part of this big machine of creativity," Jove says. "We were honored to be anywhere near him and the band while they were making new music. Some days we'd be less helpful than others, with no real excuse to be there other than our own desire to hear the music. Other days, we'd plug in different amplifiers or fuzz pedals just trying to aid him in his endless search for something new. It speaks volumes about him to not rest on his laurels and instead trusting a couple of young, extra ears to give a different perspective every now and then."
Simpson points to him, Jove and Harris turning Petty's garage into a live room for the studio as a key moment when Petty began trusting their instincts. "Since Josh and I knew the studio inside and out, probably better than anyone else at that point, it was only natural that he wanted us to stick around to help out," he says.
Each musician has a favorite memory from the Hypnotic Eye sessions. Jove remembers Petty instructing him to capture a quick cell-phone recording of him strumming the melody to "Forgotten Man" on an acoustic guitar so that he wouldn't forget it. Simpson remembers Petty confessing to him that "All You Can Carry" was inspired by a time his wife Dana sent him outside to face a raccoon that his yellow lab Ryder was barking at. "'There's something moving in the dark outside/I gotta face it when it hits the light/No one can say I didn't have your side/No one can say I left without a fight' – that's Tommy versus. the raccoon," Simpson says.
Petty had been working with the Shelters on new music shortly before his passing. In a Los Angeles Times interview conducted last week, the musician sounded enthused about their work together. "They played me some of their new stuff and I was just blown away," Petty said.
"We have a handful of songs that we've worked on with Tommy," Simpson confirms. "We were definitely all really excited about it and he was super excited about it. It just was a progression of the band, a new chapter of the Shelters."
Last month, in what would turn out to be the final time Jove saw Petty, the guitarist met up with his mentor at Shoreline Recordings and played him some new music the Shelters had been working on. "When he would listen to something, he would just sit at the soundboard and close his eyes and he would rock back and forth," Jove recalls. "And afterwards he would just open his eyes like he had come out of a dream. It just showed how much he loved music. That's going to be my memory of him forever."
The best Tom Petty music videos – from the Alice-in-Wonderland–flavored "Don't Come Around Here No More" to the youthful "Free Fallin'" and more. Watch here.