Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers just wrapped up a triumphant five-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theater. When the band plays arenas and festivals, they rarely veer too far from their large catalog of hits, but these intimate gigs gave them an opportunity to resurrect deep cuts and covers they haven’t played in years. (Next week they begin a six-night stand at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles.) Midway through the Beacon Theater run we spoke with guitarist Mike Campbell about the tour, his long history in the Heartbreakers and playing on Bob Dylan’s 2009 LP Together Through Life.
I’ve seen you guys a lot, but that first night at the Beacon felt really special. Did it feel that way to you?
Yeah, we’re free from “Free Fallin’.” We’re free from doing 20 songs that people expect us to play year after year. These shows are a chance to play songs that aren’t on that list.
It’s just tough to connect with fans in a basketball arena. People are so far away from the stage.
In that situation, there’s a responsibility to the ticket buyer to give them what they want. We take that very seriously. We try to give them as many of the songs they want to hear, as well as a few surprises. They know that’s the deal going in.
I feel like a lot of your fans know more than just the hits. It sure seemed that way at the Beacon.
Well, every night’s gonna be different. I don’t even know what we’re going to play the next two nights. But that’s the exciting part of it. These nights are special. I guess that’s true for the fans, but we thrive on spontaneity. We can pull out a song, maybe we rehearsed it, maybe we didn’t, but we’re gonna make it work on the spot. That’s so exciting and so fulfilling as a musician, so the band is really enjoying it.
What was the impetus for this tour?
The main inspiration for this run of shows in New York and the Henry Fonda in Los Angeles is doing covers or album tracks that we don’t normally get to play. We did this back in late 1997 or 1999, somewhere in there. We did a Fillmore West run like this. We’ve always thought we should do it again sometime, because it was so much fun and such a great chance for the band to grow as players. We’re doing a couple of other shows to help pay for the party, but these two runs are the main reason we’re out here.
How long ago did you start rehearsing?
We rehearsed for about three weeks last month. Mostly we just learned a lot of covers and songs from the deep tracks that we haven’t played in years. We discovered a lot of songs that we had forgotten about, to be honest with you. We’d go, “Wow, it’s a shame that we haven’t played these before.” So we’re excited to try ’em out.
How do you decide it’s time to bring back something really obscure, like “Billy the Kid”?
The ultimate decision, most of the time, will be on the singer. He’ll go, “You guys know this one? I feel like singing it.” Then we’ll join in. Someone else in the band might say, “Remember ‘When the Time Comes?'” Then Tom might go, “Oh yeah. I don’t know about that one, but let’s give it a shot.” And if it sounds really good we’ll go, “Oh, hey, that’s worth keeping on the list.” But ultimately it’s up to the singer.
There are songs in the catalog you’ve just forgotten about?
I’m embarrassed to say there are. [Laughs]
Just the other day someone was asking me, “Are you guys gonna do ‘About to Give Out?'” I didn’t have any memory of that song at all. There are songs that do get lost along the way, but as soon as you pull them out it all comes back to you.
I’m thrilled you guys are doing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” I never thought I’d hear that live.
I like that song a lot. We’ve done “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line” before. One of us said, “Are we going to do a Wilburys song?” We said, “Let’s not do one of those. How about something else?” And Tom said, “How about ‘Tweeter and the Monkey Man?” I remembered the title, but it took until he played the chorus for me to remember how it went. But then it all came back to me, and we played it a few times. The band loved it.
It’s got 10 verses. It’s like a book [laughs]. But it’s cool. I love the way Dylan writes, just on and on. The story is like a movie.
Hearing “Stepping Stone” was great, too.
That was Tom’s idea. He came in Monday and he said, “I was listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders do ‘Stepping Stone.’ Not the Monkees version.” Of course, we grew up on that stuff. We listened to the record and we said, “That’s a great arrangement. This would be good live.”
We worked it up, and it always brings a smile. I feel like I’m back in high school at a teen dance. It reminds me of when I first started listening to music.
“A Woman In Love” really came across well, too.
I was surprised Tom wanted to do it. Every time we brought it up in the past he’d go, “Oh, that’s too hard to sing. The chorus line is wearing me out.” But this time he said, “Let’s try this one.” It was really nice to revisit that one. It’s very powerful, and the music and the words are very emotional and powerful. It really connects on stage.
I never thought I’d hear “Rebels” live.
Yeah, and I hope people understand what it’s about. [Laughs] I think a lot of times that song is misunderstood because of the title, but if you listen closely, it’s not a negative song in any way. It’s a politically correct song if you take the time to understand what it is. We kind of do a different arrangement, so it’s kind of new to us.
The encore of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” had a bit of a rough start.
I’m going to get technical here, but the song is in the key of G. Tom always starts it out with his signature riff and then the band falls in. For some reason, a roadie handed him a guitar that was tuned up for a different song. So he started in what he thought was G and the band came in on G, but his guitar was in A flat. We panicked and just looked at each other. We said, “OK, it’s in A flat,” and the band shifted into that.
But Tom was kind of left holding the wrong guitar, so he went back and changed it back, but he realized “Oh shit, the band is in A flat now.” He looked at me and said, “You gotta play the riff, man. I don’t know where I’m at.”
I love that you brought that up, because our band thrives on spontaneity. We were able to pull it together, and we played it in A flat. It was fun. It was beautiful. I saw that the band was able to pull a train wreck into something good. On this whole tour, that will probably be the moment you remember as something special.
I was also happy to hear “Billy the Kid” from Echo. That’s one of my favorite albums, and you rarely do anything from it.
Well, that was emotionally a very hard time for us. I haven’t been able to sit down and listen to it because at the time we were losing one of our players [bassist Howie Epstein] to a disease – drug addiction – and he was not there, but he was there, and it was just really hard to get through that process knowing what was happening to him and not being able to do anything about it. So I put that album aside. I’ll listen to it again at some point, but it’s emotionally just too difficult. It stirs up too many bad emotions . . . I know there’s some good songs on there, though. “Billy the Kid” is one of them. I like that tune a lot.
“Room at the Top” is an absolute masterpiece.
Thank you. Yeah, I’m gonna have to listen to that album if my head gets in a better space.
“American Girl” is a nice way to wrap up the show, going right back to the very beginning.
I think it’s a good gesture. After they’ve put up with us for that long, at least give them something I know they want to hear. I still love playing that song. It honestly gives me an adrenaline rush every time, still.
That song changed your life in a lot of ways.
In a lot of ways, yeah. We were in the studio and we actually found some little sound and harmonics and vibe that was ours – “That’s our sound.” That song is when it kind of happened, so it’ll always be special.
“Refugee” has the same cathartic feeling when you play it towards the end of the night.
The other night we were in rehearsal and we said, “Do you want to play ‘Refugee?'” Tom said, “I think we need to play it.” We ran through it and I said, “You know man, what a great song.” I hadn’t heard it in a very long time, but what a great combination of music and lyrics and energy. You know, I still love those songs.
In the middle of those huge arena tours where the set list never really changes, do you ever get bored?
No. I get, um, frusta . . . Well, there’s two levels to it. One thing is you’re doing your job and giving the people what they want. When I go see AC/DC, if they don’t play “Back in Black” I’m gonna think, “Well, that was good, but man, I just shelled out $400. I would have liked to have heard songs I like.”
I understand that, but my attitude is – and I’ve worked real hard on this – but I don’t allow myself to get bored. I try to get into a headspace where I pretend like this is the first time I’m ever hearing this song, and I get into that and I just try to discover it. I found that if I really put my head in that space then I can get into it. I can discover it all over again.
But if you let yourself say, “Oh, not this one again,” then you shouldn’t even be there. I’m not gonna fall into that trap . . . But there is a part of me after the show – not during the show, but afterwards, where I think, “Well, I kind of wish we didn’t have to play the same songs tomorrow night. It would be nice to change it up.” And here we are.
Starting the show with the Byrds; “So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is a great way to set the tone for the night.
That was Tom’s idea. Lyrically, it just sets everybody into the right frame of mind. Musically, it definitely shows our inspiration and roots. Twelve-string guitars are just fun to play. It’s a real tribute to Roger [McGuinn] and the Byrds.
It’s a shame they don’t tour. I know David Crosby and Chris Hillman are dying to do it. Roger just has no interest.
Well, I’ll tell you what – that’s why I treasure my band so much. It’s hard to keep a band together. There’s so many things that can derail it. There’s a lot of great bands that have . . . for personalities or women or money or whatever, they just don’t want to be in the same room.
There’s also bands that tour despite hating each other. You can often sense it when they’re onstage.
Oh yeah. What a terrible existence. I can’t imagine. It’s hard enough when you like each other, with the traveling and all.
One of the cool things about the Heartbreakers is that it’s the same guys from day one, besides [drummer] Stan Lynch.
I don’t want to be corny, but we love each other. As time goes on, we really cherish the longevity. That becomes something like, “Wow, we put a lot into this.” There’s something really valuable that very few people have. We’re really grateful to have that. We really protect it.
I think of groups like the Clash that had something so perfect and magical, and they pissed it away for no reason.
We met Joe Strummer once. It was really touching. He came to the studio about a year before he died. We’re sitting around talking and he said, “You guys are so great. You’re together.” Then he got real serious and said, “Don’t fuck it up man. Don’t fuck with it. Don’t fuck with it.” I could hear him. He was saying, “I really messed mine up. Don’t follow in my footsteps.”
A lot of bands like that were so young and angry. They couldn’t step back and see the big picture.
I know. We feel very lucky and fortunate to be able to do what we do.
You played guitar on Bob Dylan’s 2009 album Together Through Life. What was that like?
It was so much fun. I hadn’t played with him in so long. I got the call, and he did not let me down. He’s such a genius. The funniest part came on the first day. We walked in and I’m sitting there doing nothing. He walks straight over to me and he goes, “Hey, have you ever done a record on one microphone?” I said, “Well, maybe one song.” He said, “I want to do this album on one microphone, like a Bing Crosby record.”
I totally got it. We put one microphone in the middle of the room, and the engineer has just got this look like a deer in headlights, like “Oh my God, what am I gonna do?” But it was such a beautiful concept, and that’s pretty much how we ended up doing it. We would stand around the mic and the band would bleed into the mic and play in the room. If you were too loud you’d play quieter, since you know there’s no mixing it later. I loved that about it.
The whole thing took maybe two weeks. We did one or two songs a day. Bob is my ultimate favorite player of all time, so I was definitely honored to be a part of it.
What’s the status of the next Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record?
We are working on it. We need to write some more songs. It’s similar to the Mojo album, playing live and blues-based songs. There’s great songwriting and great lyrics. He really surprised me this time with some of the stuff he came up with. We hope to have it out next spring.
I’ve heard rumors you’re already planning a tour for next summer.
Hopefully we can have the album out and tour a little bit, maybe go to Europe next summer. I don’t really know yet, but that’s the idea.
Do you think that Mudcrutch are going to play again at any point?
Oh, I’d love to. We were talking the other day about that. We want to do another album, but with all the touring and the Heartbreakers albums we don’t have time to squeeze it in now.
The east coast got robbed on that last tour. It’s time to bring it over here.
That was a really great band. We played some gigs on the west coast that went really well. That was a lot of fun, so I hope we get to do it again.
That should do it. Thanks for talking, and I’ll be back for the Saturday show at the Beacon.
Awesome. It might even be polished by then [laughs]. Don’t hold that against us.