“Do you know any other band that can do that?” Tom Petty asks, grinning, over a fast, taut crossfire of guitars, blues harp and ivory-lightning piano. “I don’t,” he answers himself proudly.
Petty is in the control room of his home studio in Malibu, blasting the 11 tracks on his next album. Hypnotic Eye, tentatively set for release this summer by Reprise Records, is the singer-guitarist’s first studio effort in four years with his long-standing band, the Heartbreakers. It is also Petty’s decisive return to the concise Sixties-rock classicism and drive of his first great New Wave-era albums, 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It.
The echoes shoot out of the speakers, mostly in three-minute shots: the power-treble and clipped-fuzz guitars in “American Dream Plan B” and “Faultlines”; the swamp-snake organ lines coursing through the psychedelic voodoo of “Red River”; the bar-band charge of “Burn Out Town” and of the album’s snarling finale, “Shadow People.” Over everything, there is the cutting tone and seething impatience in Petty’s still-youthful Florida drawl.
“That’s what Mike said: ‘You sing like you did on the first two albums,'” Petty, 63, says, referring to Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. “Maybe this album does sound like that. But it’s that band 30 years later.”
This is the first time Petty has played Hypnotic Eye for anyone outside his band or management. Campbell, keyboard player Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, and producers Petty, Campbell and Ryan Ulyate have been working on the record since August 2011 – “Burn Out Town” was cut in the first round of sessions – and Petty is still just shy of done. He was up late last night, fine-tuning the mix for “American Dream Plan B,” a song about diminished expectations, delivered by a guy who still believes in a fighting chance: “I’m half-lit, I can’t dance for shit/But I see what I want, and I go after it.”
“I knew I wanted to do a rock & roll record,” Petty says after the playback, sitting in the performance room of his studio, surrounded by a cool armory of vintage guitars and tube amplifiers. “We hadn’t made a straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end, in a long time.”
But he justifies the three years of periodic recording here and at the Heartbreakers’ L.A. rehearsal space, the Clubhouse, this way: “You must get the songs. It takes time to write 10 or 11 really good songs.” That first run of sessions in 2011 yielded several new originals that Petty put aside after deciding they were too close to “the blues bag” of 2010’s Mojo. And he wasn’t sure about “American Dream Plan B” even after he first played it with his bandmates.
“Silence,” he says, recalling their response. “I said, ‘Listen, I think we have something here, but we’re going to have to get excited about it.’ ” In fact, Petty adds, laughing, the Heartbreakers loved the song – he just had to drag the affirmation out of them. Petty also acknowledges that while he is the undisputed leader and songwriter, the Heartbreakers hold a vital, unspoken veto in the studio: “They can’t hide it. If they’re not lighting up, something’s wrong. It would be very hard to make this record without a band that has been together this long, with those kinds of instincts. I’m relieved to have that.”
Petty has another release that could be out by Christmas: a two-disc reissue of his 1994 Top 10 solo album, Wildflowers, which includes 10 previously unreleased songs. Petty claims one of those finds, “Somewhere Under Heaven,” came as a surprise when he heard it again: “I did not remember writing it, recording it, anything.” He smiles. “And it was really good – uptempo but very unusual, in some strange time signature.” There is also a live album hanging around, culled from Petty and the Heartbreakers’ theater residencies in New York and L.A. last year.
“I never thought I’d be this busy at this point in my life,” says Petty, who promises to go back on the road this year to support Hypnotic Eye. “I never expected to be at this point, doing stuff and figuring out how to get it to people.” But, he notes gratefully, “This band just grows and grows, and that’s an incredible gift. I can’t see us calling it off. They’re still the guys I want to play with – and the guys who understand my songs the best.”
This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.