Heart to heart with a ‘Breaker: Benmont Tench shares his love for the music
By Marty Hughley
The Oregonian — Friday, August 27, 1999
America is dazzled by rock stars, but the real magic comes from rock bands.
Sure, there’s a lot of crossover between the two camps — many rock stars are members of bands or leaders of them, and most of the rest hire bands for tours and sessions. But the folks who get on the magazine covers, take the podium at the MTV Awards and show up in the gossip columns almost always are the singers. As bassist Bill Wyman once put it, the United States was the only place in the world where his band routinely was billed as “Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.”
Tom Petty is a rock star. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a rock band. And a great deal of the particular magic that will materialize in the Rose Garden arena Wednesday night comes from a special balance between star and band.
The Heartbreakers have had a long time together to establish themselves as one of the best rock outfits in the world. Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench have worked together since their early ’70s Florida bar band Mudcrutch. Bassist Howie Epstein joined in 1982. Steve Ferrone replaced Stan Lynch in the drum chair five years ago. In combination, these talents create a rarely matched blend of melodic craft, emotional nuance, feel-good groove and pure party-starting spirit.
Campbell gets deserved credit as Petty’s onstage foil, frequent co-writer and a master of the catchy, perfectly shaped and textured guitar hook. But a less recognized key to the Heartbreaker chemistry is Tench, whose playing provides the subtle color and cohesion that elevates Petty’s music above the mass of rock ‘n’ roll product. He’s also a fine writer himself, having penned such gorgeously mournful tunes as “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone” for Roseanne Cash and “Unbreakable Heart” for Carlene Carter.
We spoke recently with Tench by phone about life and work as a Heartbreaker. Some excerpts:
Q. After all these years working on the arena circuit, has it changed much from the early days when it was five guys against the world?
A. Not much. It’s still fun. I don’t know about five guys against the world. It’s more like five guys against these three chords, and we’re gonna wrestle ’em down no matter what it takes. And we’re all friends. When we get on the bus to tour, we’re totally happy to spend a lot of time together.
Q. Over the past decade, some albums have been credited to Tom Petty, some to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, even though band members are on all of them. What’s the difference?
A. I’m not really sure why “Wildflowers” was called a solo record, except that Stanley was still in the band and we had made a record without him, therefore it wasn’t a Heartbreakers record. To my recollection, when that was started it was not going to be the band. It was going to be Tom and Mike, and maybe me for some of it. They were trying out different rhythm sections. Eventually I noticed that I was there every day, Mike was there every day, as I expected, and pretty soon Howie was there, too.
“Full Moon Fever” Stanley isn’t on at all. Most of “Great Wide Open” is Tom, Mike and Stan, with Jeff (Lynne) playing a lot of stuff, and me and Howie popping up on occasion. Jeff Lynne is an arranger, and I think it’s probably much easier for him to go ahead and play a part himself than to try to show somebody else what he wants. But it’s hard for me to say; I barely know Jeff. The way he works, I pop in and he says ‘Can you play here, and here.’ Then ‘Great. We’ll call you in a day or two.’
Q. Of all the well-known producers the band has worked with, whose approach have you found most helpful?
A. We’ve been really lucky. We’ve had producers who’ve all shared at least one thing. They’ve all recognized that Tom and Mike write great songs and that’s what it’s about. We started with Denny Cordell, and he was a great record producer. He knew exactly how to take a band that knew absolutely nothing, and guide you without trying to tell you what to do. He didn’t take away your personality, or say ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ He’d just put on a record in the background while you were at a party at his house. He’d put on something like “Bring It to Jerome” by Bo Diddley. And you’d ask “Why does that do that?” And he’d say, “Well, it’s the drums and the maracas.” He’d guide you toward listening to the groove, so you’d record the song, and realize all the other complicated stuff is in the way. That was really instructive.
With Jimmy Iovine, again it was down to simplicity. That’s what all the really good producers understand. Dave Stewart came in on “Southern Accents,” and he was great. Although he co-wrote a few songs and played some instruments, he didn’t take anything away from the band. Jeff took it away from the band, but you have to remember that Jeff started with Tom on what was going to be a genuine solo record, so he wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with the band. And from listening to what he did on those records and from my limited experience working with him on them, there was a lot to learn about simplicity, chord structure, chord voicing and, once again, that it’s the song that counts.I’m not talking about all that stuff that’s on top, like background vocals and all. But if you listen to the way he’s built the rhythm, it’s very simple and it gets to the heart of the matter.
Q. Is it true that recording the new album, “Echo,” was a long process?
A. It was a long process in terms of calendar time, but not in actual studio time. We’d go over to the studio at Mike’s house to play, whether Tom was there or not. Tom would bring in songs, Mike would engineer, and we recorded about 30 songs. But we’d work for three or four days at a time, then Tom would go write more songs. It was like “These are great. You got any more?” It was a good record to make.
Q. Out of the band’s long list of tunes, what are some of your favorites?
A. From the new record, the song “Echo” I like about as much as anything we’ve ever done and anything he’s ever written. And I also love “About to Give Out” and “Lonesome Sundown.” Over the years, I like the oddball songs * “Trailer,” which was left off “Southern Accents” but showed up on the box set, “Shadow of a Doubt.”
Q. Both Tom and Mike have credited a long engagement at the Filmore in San Francisco a couple of years ago with rejuvenating the band, even saying it made the band decide to stay together. Did you feel that way, too?
A. It was great. We got to do 20 nights. We’d play two or three hours a night, and play whatever we wanted: a J.J. Cale song, an old Jimmy Reed song, a Stanley Brothers song. The set list wasn’t structured, it didn’t flow right; it didn’t matter. It was wonderful. We did it again this year, for a week. On one level the band has wondered if it’s going to go forward since day one. And on the other level, what the hell else are we gonna do? I flat out love it. I’m playing 10 feet from Mike Campbell every night. I look across the stage, there’s Howie. Tom’s in the middle and we’re playing all this stuff I love. It’s great.