Heartbreakers Guitarist Mike Campbell on His Life With Tom Petty
Hours before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers wrapped up their 2014 Hypnotic Eye tour at the The Forum in Los Angeles, we conducted extensive interviews with three core members of the band: guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair. The conversations were intended for a special edition of Rolling Stone that chronicled Petty’s life and career, so we ran through the musicians’ entire history in the band. Here, for the first time online, is our discussion with Mike Campbell.
What’s your first memory of seeing Tom Petty?
I was living in Gainesville, and at that time the whole city was based around the college. There’s a lot of musicians, and bands would play in the college out on the lawn or whatever. The first time I saw Tom Petty, he was playing in a band called Mudcrutch with Tom Leadon. They were in a park doing country-rock type stuff. I think Tom was playing bass, and Tom Leadon was playing guitar. They had a couple of other guys, and they were doing a Flying Burrito Brothers style of music, which at the time I thought was really cool because most of the time bands were doing really bluesy, jammy stuff and here was this band with harmonies with beginnings and endings. The first thing I remember about Tom was that he was writing songs, and pretty good songs. Not many players I’ve been in bands with were that tuned in to the songwriting thing.
You spent the next few years playing guitar in Mudcrutch. Why do you think that band never made it big?
I guess it was timing and, maybe, personalities and frustration over things not happening fast enough. We got to California, went into the studio and things seemed to grind to a halt because we didn’t have any idea how to record. Long story short, the band kind of dissolved, and the label decided to keep Tom as a songwriter. Tom said, “You know, I want Mike with me, and Ben,” because he felt an affinity to us. So we kind of tagged along on his songwriting skills for a while, and slowly the Heartbreakers got together.
What impressed you about Tom back then?
Well, to be honest, that day, he didn’t stand out per se. He was the bass player in the group, so I didn’t focus on him particularly. I just thought the group was really good.
You transitioned from an equal member of Tom’s band to part of his backing band. Did that change bother you?
Maybe on a small level in the beginning, because we started out sharing every dollar as a group like a total democracy. When we changed it to a group with his name in front, there was a twinge of, “Well, wait a minute. That is not the way I’m used to doing things.” But when I stepped out of my ego and looked at it, I said, “Well, he’s writing the songs, he’s singing the songs, and he’s leading the band. He’s kind of the driving force behind it.” I’ve never had a problem with it since.
Tell me about the first time you wrote together.
First time we wrote a song together would be “Rockin’ Around With You” on our first album. At that time, I wasn’t as developed as a songwriter as Tom was. I guess I’m still not, but my input at the time was guitar riffs and chords and things. And that was just something I played in the studio one day. I had a little demo of it I think that I messed around with, and he took it home and said, “Maybe I can write some words to this.” Then he came back the next day and took some of the extraneous chords out of it and simplified into a nice song, and that was the first song we ever wrote together. It’s always a thrill to write with somebody.
What impressed you about Tom as a songwriter in these early days?
He had a knack for writing simple things that a lot of people can relate to. I don’t know if that’s something you could learn. Lord knows, I’ve been trying to learn it, but he just has an affinity for finding simple lyrics, simple melody that is instantly identifiable with a lot of different people. Also, I liked the roots he was drawing from, which were the same roots I was drawing from – the Byrds, the Beatles, the Stones. I really understood what he was trying to do, and I really felt like I could help. … He could take a simple phrase and make it instantly identifiable to large number of people. That’s a talent.
This was a time of punk and New Wave, but you guys were doing something very different.
We’ve never really joined any clubs. Even in Florida, too, when we were playing a lot, it was all Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers and blues bands. We were kind of an anomaly because that wasn’t really the roots we were drawing from. We love those bands, but the English groups and stuff made more of an impression on us, and that’s the stuff that we were drawing from stylistically. We’ve never really fit into any of these bags – New Wave, disco, grunge. I mean, we’re kind of our own thing. We’re still a rock & roll band, but we’ve managed to kind of establish our own turf.
Do you remember the first time you heard “American Girl” on the radio?
Not the exact time, but I remember it being a major exciting moment. We were like kids on Christmas. It felt like, “Wow, this might work. We could take this somewhere. We have a chance.”
You co-produce a lot of the albums with Tom, and you’ve co-written many songs with him. The other guys don’t really get those opportunities. Does that ever bother them?
You’d have to ask them. Bands are so complicated. You ask a guy that question, and they go, “Oh, I never had a problem with it,” but deep down they were jealous. I don’t know. I would assume they probably felt the same way when we became Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s also a free country. Anybody that wants to do songs outside the group is allowed to do that. So I don’t know. Ask ’em.
Bassist Ron Blair left in 1982. Did you think he was crazy to go?
It’s not that simple. But no, I didn’t think he was crazy. It was an unfortunate flow of energy that led to that happening. We were young and full of ego, and it could be tough in the studio at times. I think in retrospect, Ron got a bit of a bad rep. Maybe some stuff was blamed on him. You know, like, “Why is this track not working?” or “Why aren’t we doing this faster?” So I think it just got to a point where it wasn’t healthy. It just felt like, “This is what we need to do right now.”
Being in a band is harder than most people realize.
It’s hard to explain if you’ve never done it, but you’ve got five guys in the studio, and you’ve got high expectations. You’ve got a log of money involved, and your life and your dreams and all of your desires fall to making this song sound great for three minutes. You play it, and four guys were great, and maybe one guy was half-great, and the overall effect is “That’s not good enough. Do it again.” Maybe the next time, another guy didn’t get up to snuff, so you’re trying to get this five-headed beast to achieve nirvana all at the same moment. And when it doesn’t happen, you go, “It was his fault. No, it was my fault. No, it’s your fault.” It can get really rough because we’re striving for greatness, and when you fall short sometimes, it turns into some tough energy.
Southern Accents, from 1985, feels like three different albums crammed into one. What happened?
Well, there were some confusing chemicals involved at the time. We started off in one direction and went kind of “yippee” into another direction for a moment. We met Dave Stewart about three quarters of the way through, and he came in with a new energy, and we did a couple of songs with him. It was a concept album, sort of. Only if you really stretch your imagination.
I’ve heard Tom say the title of Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) really spoke to his mindset at the moment.
I think I remember having a conversation with Tom around that period. And I guess he was in a down state for whatever reason and he called me up goes, “You know, I think I’ve had enough.” I go, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, I don’t know, I think maybe it’s time to put a bow on it.” And I go, “What are you talking about? You’re going to break up the band?” And he goes, “Well, I don’t know. It might be time.” I say, “Oh, man, I don’t know. Call me back when you’re feeling better.” Maybe that was on his mind and maybe he pictured that as our last album and he wanted to move on to something else. Once again, the storm passed and here we are.
How did you feel when Tom decided to make Full Moon Fever a solo album?
I’ve never had a problem with that, really. Maybe I would have felt jealous if I hadn’t been working on it. If I’d have been faced with that energy, I would have dealt with it, but I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to do a solo record. Ben just did a solo record! So, no, but I was as much or more involved in it as any other Heartbreakers record, so it’s easy for me to say that.
I know drummer Stan Lynch wasn’t pleased with this.
We don’t talk often, but I can understand how he felt. I mean, he’s a drummer, and he wasn’t on the record. So partly out of sensitivity to that, we brought him onto the next record to try and get the two worlds to coexist.
He stuck around the band for another five years. Did his unhappiness cause tension in the group?
I can’t speak to Stan’s happiness. I love Stan as a person and as a musician, and I know being a drummer in this band is a hot seat because we’re brutal. We’re brutal on the rhythms, we’re brutal on the arrangements, and I think Stan, or anybody sitting in that chair, would probably crack and get fed up. That’s probably how it went down. I miss Stan. I especially miss him live. He’s a great live drummer, and we made some good records together.
Ron Blair’s replacement on bass, Howie Epstein, was struggling with heroin addiction when you made 1999’s Echo, and Tom’s marriage was breaking up. It must have been a tough album to make.
That was a tough time for a lot of personal reasons I don’t want to go into. Howie was sick, and Tom was going through a divorce. I’ll give Rick Rubin credit for even being able to get us together to make a record at that time, because there was a lot of life turmoil going on that made it difficult to make music. I still like the record, but I haven’t listened to it in several years because it brings back some not-so-great feelings. I can see Howie fading away.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony must have been bittersweet. You were back with Howie, but he was clearly in rough shape.
It was really heart-wrenching. If you’ve ever been through it on a personal level, it’s a helpless feeling, and I can’t watch that either, for the same reason: because he’s not well. He needs help and he won’t take it.
Bringing Ron back was a great idea.
When we lost Howie, it was a lot of soul-searching: “Should we even go on?” And this and that. Somebody mentioned auditioning bass players, but that just felt like going to the dentist. I said, “Well, I’ve been working with Ron, and he’s really good. You might want to give him another shot.” And so we did, and he’s perfect. He’s got the soul, he’s an original member, and he plays amazing.
Were you shocked when Hypnotic Eye hit Number One?
Yeah. I mean, what is Number One these days? But you look at the rest of the songs from the charts, we’re in the middle of Beyoncé or whatever the hell else is out there. But it was an amazing, pleasant surprise.
The most recent tour was less focused on hits. How did that come about?
It’s complicated now, because we’ve been around for so long that we can’t even fit all the hits in the show, and if we try to put anything new in, or any cover, that means a hit comes off. There’s somebody that wanted to hear “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or “The Waiting” – they’re going to be disappointed because they didn’t hear that song. So our challenge is, no matter what we put in there, to win them over in spite of not hearing the song they wanted.
What’s in store for the future?
Well, I know we’re not retiring this year. As far as I know, we’ll be business as usual. We’ll wait for some songs to come in, and call the guys up and go, “Let’s try out these new songs, and let’s see what we got.”
His hits have defined rock radio since the Seventies, and he never stopped writing great music. Here’s the definitive guide to Tom Petty’s best songs. Watch here.