Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers guitarist and Petty songwriting partner Mike Campbell was recently on tour in Australasia with the new version of Fleetwood Mac, proving to the doubters that the Neil Finn/Mike Campbell combination works a treat as Lindsey Buckingham’s replacement. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips had the pleasure of sitting down with the amiable Mike Campbell for a chat about the tour, his guitars, his other band The Dirty Knobs, and of course his time with Tom and The Heartbreakers. Photos by Jason Rosewarne.
It became apparent very early on in the interview as Mike peered out of the Park Hyatt window across the Melbourne skyline, that he is still well and truly in mourning at the loss of his long time friend and music collaborator Tom Petty. Even though it’s been two years since Tom left us, at times during the interview Mike still had to pause occasionally to compose himself. I had so many questions for Mike and wanted to cover as much territory as I could, while at the same time being respectful of his situation. I decided to go way back and start at the beginning.
Do you remember the moment that the music bug bit you?
Absolutely. There were two events in my life that did that really. My dad was in the airforce and he loved Elvis and Johnny Cash … and that’s all! So he would come home from work and put one of those records on and lay on the couch and just zone out. So I heard those records a lot and I loved the guitarists, Luther Perkins and Scotty Moore. That was the beginning of the journey but with my generation, The Beatles came on Ed Sullivan and it was like, boom, everything is different. The Beatles have changed the world and music is going to be different. Those were the two events which really led me down my path.
And was it your dad who bought you your first guitar?
My first guitar was almost unplayable but I didn’t know it. I saw The Beatles and I wanted a guitar but we couldn’t afford it. Eventually my mum got me a $15 pawn shop Harmony acoustic with the strings way high. I was like god, these guys are so good, how do they do that? Then I went over to a friend’s house and he had a Gibson SG and he said play this. So I did and I thought, oh it’s not so hard at all, then I was hooked. My mum bought me my first guitar and then my dad bought me my first electric guitar, which was a Guyatone. He was in Okinawa and he mailed me one, a sixty dollar guitar and I learned to play on that.
Was there a particular local music store that you frequented in the early days that looked after your guitar needs, strings etc, a store that you’d peer in the windows of?
I grew up in Jacksonville, there was a store, Jacksonville Music I think it was called. It was lined up with Strats and Gibsons but then when I went to Gainesville, to college there was a place called Lipham Music that Tom and I used to go to and they had all the new stuff. We’d go down there and goggle and wish that we could afford stuff.
How important have music stores been to you?
Well everyone buys online now but I just went down to a store here in Lygon Street, I think it was and it was great. There was this all old vintage guitar. It’s like … religious … like going into church, old vintage instruments. It was mostly vintage, they had some new stuff but you can go in there and pick up a guitar. They had a great ’66 Gretsch White Falcon. It’s not like online where you can just see a picture, you can pull it down and hold it, play it .. interact with the instruments, so yeah I think it is important.
Tell me about the first time that you met Tom Petty and what you thought of him.
We immediately became friends from the first time we met. (Mike pauses to gather himself). I was in Gainesville and I had seen Tom play with a group called Mudcrutch, a country band at the time. I was in this other band. I’d seen them around college and I thought they were pretty good. Tom was playing bass. I didn’t notice him so much as the overall band. Then I saw a thing on the bulletin board that Mudcrutch was looking for a drummer. I was living with Randall Marsh, who became the drummer in Mudcrutch. Our band had broken up and I said to him, you should check these guy out, they’re pretty good. He called them over to our house to audition. I was in the back room. It turns out that day they had lost a guitar player as well, so they were asking Randall if he knew any guitar players. He said well, there’s guy in the back room. I came out with my cut off jeans and short hair and Guya guitar and they were just thinking fuck, no this is horrible. I said, well what do you guys like to play, do you know Johnny B Goode? (mimics the riff) By the end of that, me and Tom were joined for life! Something happened, we connected and we respected each other. He was playing bass … we took a break and he said, you know I wrote this song. He was the first guy I met who was really focussed on writing. I said, yeah I’m working on a song too, so we started talking about songwriting and he showed me some songs and I realised that this guy is going to be a great writer. We ended up, 50 years later … we followed the dream all the way.
In general what was the process of you and Tom working out guitar parts together?
It was very democratic. He was really open that way, he respected me a lot and Benmont on the keyboards. The process was … if it was a song I wrote with him … which we wrote quite a few songs together … it would usually be that I would present some music. I would record a little demo or something and say this is what I think the record would sound like. If he liked it, he would sing over it. Then he would arrange it a bit and we would then go in and make a record. If it was a song that he wrote, he would usually write it on an acoustic guitar, or electric but mostly acoustic. He’d come in and sing a bit (Mike sings American Girl as an example). I’d listen and then start to play along. Stream of consciousness .. and he almost always liked it. We just had an affinity and he just seemed to know what he wanted to hear and what would make the song better. As the years went on, we’d get in the studio and occasionally he’d say well you know I like what you are doing but maybe you could play it more like The Kinks. It would be vague, it wouldn’t be play that note or that note, it was more … can you do it more like House of The Rising Sun sound? He might communicate that way and I would go, I know exactly what you mean. It was a very harmonic, cooperative working relationship. We rarely argued about arrangements or anything.
You said in an interview that I read that you thought that the song American Girl created The Heartbreakers’ sound…
That’s what I felt. I think we found our sound with that song because we found the harmonic and the vibe. There’s a character about it that was ours. Nobody can do this type of thing better than us, in my opinion.
Some guitarists just see their instruments as tools and others have an emotional attachment to their guitars. Would I be right in saying you belong to the latter category?
Oh yeah, I am a guitar disciple. I love guitars, they have changed my life … made my life. I have emotional connections to them but also they are pieces of art. I was just telling my friend, it’s a win win for me. It’s a great investment. I love the vintage guitars, I get to use them as tools. I enjoy them and if my kids ever want to sell them, they are going to get more money back out of them, so it is a perfect world.
You’ve had some pretty great deals along the way too…
Along the way I used to get a lot of great deals. I just got a good deal on this tour. It rarely happens anymore because of ebay, the internet, the word is out on vintage guitars but I found a guitar for $500, a Gibson Firebird. It was mid 70, not that old but old enough. My wife, god bless her. Her name is Marcie, she supports my guitar habit. We were in Philadelphia earlier in the tour and we saw a pawn shop. She said you should go in there and I said nah, I’ve got enough guitars. We walk in and the first thing I see up on the wall is this white Firebird. I used to have a red Firebird when I first met Tom but he actually broke the neck, he sat on it one day and it was never the same. I have always liked Firebirds and I said to the guy behind the counter, could I see that and he said oh you wouldn’t want it. I said why and he said, well the neck has been broken and it has been repaired. I said well did they do a good job and he said I guess but you wouldn’t want it. It was like 900 bucks and I said let me see it anyway. I saw that the repair job was really solid. I played it and could tell that it was fine. By then he kinda figured out who I was and he said we’ll let you have it for $600 because it’s you. I gave him my credit card and it didn’t go through. He comes back and says your card is not working. I said I have $500 pretty on me, will you take that and he said ok. I go to the sound check the next day, plug that thing in and the sound guy goes, what is that? I said I just got it for $500 and he said it sounds better than your Les Paul, you should put it in the show. It turns out it has a signature from Johnny Winter on it, I guess he had signed it at some point along the way. I love Johnny Winter but that’s not why I bought the guitar, it sounds great. Now I use it for almost the whole show. It’s a $500 Gibson guitar. I have all these hundreds of thousands of dollars, vintage things sitting at home in lockers but the one I am really using is the workman.
How long did it take exploring guitar and amp combinations before you were happy with a tone, the first tone you settled upon?
The first time? I think on the first album, the song Breakdown. It was a Fender Broadcaster and a little Tweed Fender amp but I just found the tone on that guitar and that amp and I really liked that. That’s worth it, it helps the song. From then on I would just search for tones for each song, whatever key it was in. You know, this should be a Rickenbacker, that should be a Gibson or a Fender. Or I don’t know what this should be, let me try one of these and see which one rings best. I am always looking for the right tone that harmonises with whatever Tom is playing.
You mentioned the song Breakdown and I believe that started out as a slide riff?
The story is, Tom wrote this song, it was our first album. We cut the track to about six minutes long and he said could you put some guitar on it? A lot of times I don’t know what I am going to play. I said just run the track and I will listen and make stuff up. I started playing along with it and nothing was really very good. At the end I guess I got bored and I grabbed a slide because I am running out of ideas. (Hums the Breakdown riff to me). So I put that down, went home and went to bed. Then the phone rang about an hour later. Tom was still at the studio with our friend Dwight Twilley. He said we are listening to this track and there’s a lick you played at the end that we have to play at the beginning of the song because it is really good. I didn’t even remember it. So I got out of bed, went back down to the studio at like three in the morning. We went to the top of the song, I said I think this will be better without the slide but I will play the same lines. I just slide with my finger, probably emulating what the slide was doing but trying to make it a little bluesier and that’s the story.
Duesenberg created a signature guitar for you to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Heartbreakers and then they did a 40th anniversary edition. What were the elements that they had to get right for you to be happy to put your name on it?
Well, like you said you have to have an emotional connection to it. It has to be engineered well. It has to tune good and have good sound. It has to look cool. If it’s got those elements then you are probably going to win me over
Tell me about the Mick Fleetwood phone call that started this new journey with Fleetwood Mac.
It was about four months after Tom had passed away and I have my own band (The Dirty Knobs) and I have a record coming out and I was planning on just addressing that, doing that full time. I didn’t really have any other plans. I was sitting in my backyard and my phone rang and I had met Mick once or twice at sessions or whatever but we weren’t like friends or anything. He said hi, how you doing, Lindsey has left the band … it’s what he told me, I didn’t know that he was asked to leave … so he says would you be interested in joining Fleetwood Mac? He said this is not coming from Stevie, it’s coming from me and I have been listening to your catalogue and this is not an audition, if you want it, we would love to have you. I said give me a day to think about it. I thought over the whole Lindsey aspect of it and thought, this is a good thing. So I called back and said yeah and it has been a wonderful experience. It’s the best rhythm section, longest lasting rhythm section of all time. No one else has lasted that long in rock ’n’ roll and they are beautiful. It’s a magical feel that they have and I get to play with them every night. What a joy for a guitar player! The songs are great and Stevie and I have a great history together. We’ve written songs, we get along. Of course we then bring Neil Finn in to help with the vocals and he’s just a charming dude, we get along great. Christine, John, they are just wonderful people and we have a blast every night. I know it is hard for them losing a member, I have lost a member. It’s sad but you have to carry on and I think we are doing a good job.
What was the inspiration behind forming your other band The Dirty Knobs initially?
The Dirty Knobs is just some friends that we were messing around with in the studio between Heartbreakers tours. We have been doing this for 12-15 years now. We started having so much fun, playing little clubs around LA and it turned into a great little band. I have had it in the back of my mind, if The Heartbreakers ever take a break or whatever, I am going to do this. I really want to do it and I believe in it. Now things have worked out the way they have, it is the time to do it. We did a record. We did it really fast, it’s mostly live with a lot of guitar. I love the songs, I love the playing. It’s a little edgier than The Heartbreakers, kind of Yardbirds, Kinks, sort of blues but rock ’n’ roll and a little humour. I just love playing with those guys, so when this tour ends I’m going to do that. We’ve got a record deal ready to go with BMG, which came to me, I didn’t even look for it. They came to me in Boston and asked if I wanted to do anything and I said I’ve got a record, so they are behind us. I gotta do The Knobs, that’s been my mission for a long time and this is the time to do it, while I still can. We’re going to go out and play next year. We have William Morris (agency) who are going to help us put a tour together. I want to start out small and do a few festivals. My goal is to build up to theatres. If we can get to filling out theatres, then we’re happy, we can pay our bills and have fun.
I’ve heard four songs and they sound very punchy … I know it wasn’t final mix …
Those are close to what it’s going to be like. We’re not going to polish it up much. It’s mostly live, solos and whatever… ninety five percent, it’s just on the floor.
How many songs do you have to play with?
We’ve got too many. We’re trying to narrow it down to 11 or 12. We cut over 20 songs. They are all really good it is just trying to get a package that says what we are. We have Klaus Voormann, who is going to help us with a cover and I’m just really excited to do it. It will be like starting over for me, Start at the bottom and work up again. I’m down for that.
How fussy are you with your guitar takes? Do you agonise over them or like to get them early and fresh?
I like to do it quick, I’ve always been that way. I don’t like to dick around. The Dirty Knobs stuff that you’ve heard, if you listen to it, the guitar parts … we learn the song … here’s how it goes … there’s a bridge, ok I get to the guitar solo, make something up. Three takes, ok I like take number two … NEXT! Once you get a basic sound and sounds aren’t that hard to get if you have good equipment … good guitar, amp, good mic, you get a good sound. It’s all how you play it. I don’t get into gadgets or nit-pick little bits, never have.
What are you most proud of in your music career Mike?
The songs that I wrote with Tom. I really like them, you know. I was going through them the other day and we wrote a lot of songs. I’d forgotten how many but that’s my greatest pride … and the band of course, the records of course. We made some great records. The Heartbreakers was 50 years of my life, it’s my dream that came true … that’s the whole thing for me.
Is there any future in The Heartbreakers doing something one day?
Good question. As you can see emotionally I’m not ready but I am open to it down the line. If I do anything with The Heartbreakers, the first thing and maybe only thing I would do … was to do what Tom wanted to do, which was to do a tour around the Wildflowers album and have different artists come in and sing the songs. He was going to be part of that. He said, we’ll have Jeff Lynne, you know whoever, Regina Spektor, Emmy Lou Harris … we’ll have different singers come in, they’ll come out and do the songs and we’ll back them up. We had been making rough plans to do that with him, so I know that is something that he would want. Whatever I do with the Heartbreakers, it’s got to maintain the integrity that we worked to build with him. I won’t do anything … I mean I am not going to bring in another singer to be Tom, ‘aint gonna happen. I could sing the songs but I ain’t going to do that, you know I am not him. I got to respect his memory. Also I just need more time to process what I am going through but that’s the way it would look, that would be the first project. Anything is open in the future but right now the idea of having them all in a room and going 1,2, 3, 4 and looking around … I can’t deal with even thinking about that right now, I’m just not ready.