The Inside Story of Tom Petty's 'An American Treasure' Box Set - Rolling Stone
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The Inside Story of Tom Petty’s ‘An American Treasure’ Box Set

Guitarist Mike Campbell and producer Ryan Ulyate break down key tracks from the collection and explain why they felt musician was with them the whole time

Us Singer Tom Petty Performs During the Halftime Show of Super Bowl Xlii at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale Arizona Usa 03 Feburary 2008Usa American Football Super Bowl Xlii - Feb 2008Us Singer Tom Petty Performs During the Halftime Show of Super Bowl Xlii at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale Arizona Usa 03 Feburary 2008Usa American Football Super Bowl Xlii - Feb 2008

Tom Petty's producer and bandmates give an inside look at how singer's new 'An American Treasure' box set came together.

Tannen Maury/EPA/REX Shutterstock

When Tom Petty died in October 2017, he left behind a vault overflowing with hundreds of hours of unheard music. Much of it came from concerts, but there were also tons of demos, alternative versions of album tracks and even tunes he discarded completely over the years that have never been released. Once the initial shock of his sudden death subsided, his wife Dana, daughter Adria, producer Ryan Ulyate and bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench began poring through the material to create the upcoming four-CD box set An American Treasure, which arrives in stores on September 28th.

“We went back and listened to everything,” says Campbell. “We were like, ‘Is there anything in the vault that no one has heard before?’ Then we’d listen to a song and I’d go, ‘Hmmm, now I know why!’ [Laughs] But then we’d hear others and be like, ‘Oh, this is interesting. Let’s remix this and see if we can make it sound right.’ We were looking for gems that were overlooked.”

They were also looking to tell the story of Petty’s career, though big hits like “American Girl,” “Free Fallin'” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” that have been covered extensively on past releases were skipped in favor of lesser-known songs. When in doubt, Campbell tried to imagine what Petty himself would have included. “I just pretended he was sitting next to me,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Should we use this or not? Tom, what do you think?’ Yes? No?’ That became my barometer.”

Virtually the entire compilation is arranged chronologically, kicking off with “Surrender” from the 1976 Tom Petty sessions. “That song was like a Moby Dick that they were always chasing,” says Ulyate. “I don’t mean that in a John Bonham sense, but in the sense that they cut it again and again and were never happy with the results.” When Ulyate dug into the multi-tracks, he realized that the drums were squeezed onto a single track, creating a dull and distant sound. Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch overdubbed a separate drum track at the time to try and fix the problem, but it never quite lined up with the original recording. Using ProTools, Ulyate erased the overdubbed drums and simply raise the volume of Lynch’s original take. “All of a sudden it sounded great,” he says. “It came together beautifully.”

Other tracks, like an alternative take on “Louisiana Rain” from the Damn The Torpedoes sessions, required far less work. “I think it’s the take before the actual take we used for the record,” says Campbell. “And it’s great! We have overdubs on it and we put on guitars and harmonies. For some reason we decided, ‘No, we can do it better’ and we cut another track. The vocal on this one is little less studied and more spontaneous. I really love it.”

One of the more interesting songs on the set is “Rebels,” a Southern Accents tune that the group cut so many different ways that Petty eventually punched a wall in frustration and severely broke his left hand. The album version utilizes a drum machine that sounds very dated today. “We wanted to see if there was a better version of it and so I dumped every take – I think there was about 39 – into Pro Tools,” says Ulyate. “On one of them I found a live drum part that felt like it was a live pass by the Heartbreakers, and so I added it on. The version of it on the set has a completely different vibe than the vibe on the record. It’s just another perspective on the song.”

Ulyate also turned to lesser-explored areas of Petty’s career, like the Echo sessions in 1998 where he unearthed the outtake “Gainesville.” “Echo is supposedly his dark album,” says Ulyate. “‘Gainesville’ is this guy who is looking back on this early life with some nostalgia for a simpler time. I love the song. It’s just great, but I can see how it didn’t necessarily fit the vibe of Echo. There’s also ‘Bus To Tampa Bay’ from the Hypnotic Eye sessions. It’s a social commentary song, but the album ended up being a little edgier and so it didn’t fit.”

Most songs on the set come from the studio, though some of the best moments are concert recordings. A rare live rendition of “Southern Accents” from a 2006 show in Gainesville, Florida was included on 2007’s The Live Anthology, but the track’s supreme quality made it onto the new box set. “Any performer can sing a song earlier in their career and they can sing it later in their career and it’s got a whole different meaning,” says Ulyate. “In 2006, Tom was in a really different place than he was on 1985. It comes from a different place.”

The American Treasure curators were careful not to repeat anything from the 1995 box set Playback, which Petty curated himself. “It’s important that that thing sits out there on its own as its own statement,” says Ulyate. “It’s a statement where the guy is midway through his career, it’s the 1990s, and he’s able to look back a little bit. Obviously this a different perspective. This is the whole thing.”

Spending months listening to Petty’s voice coming out of the speakers was an emotional experience for everyone involved, but they’re glad they did it. “I miss him terribly,” says Ulyate. “He was the guy I worked with, but he was also my friend. In a really weird way, it felt like he was around when we were working on this thing. And the music holds up so well. I have even more respect for him now after doing this. It’s crazy.”

In This Article: Mike Campbell, Tom Petty


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