Guitar inspires Petty’s Mojo
By Darryl Sterdan
CANOE — June 6, 2010
Tom Petty got his Mojo working with Mike Campbell’s guitar.
The Heartbreakers’ new blues-based album was inspired by the sound of Campbell’s recently acquired sunburst ’59 Les Paul, says Petty’s longtime lead guitarist and musical foil.
“I got a new guitar which is actually an old guitar,” the 60-year-old picker says from his Southern California home. “It’s the classic Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Eric Clapton-era guitar. There were only 500 or 600 of them made that year. There’s just something about the harmonic overtones in it when I picked it up and plugged it in, it immediately had that classic British blues sound. It was kind of eerie.
“And Tom had been listening to a lot of blues on our break. So when he heard that guitar, he said, ‘Why don’t we build an album around that guitar?’ It kinda came from that. It was a combination of Tom wanting to explore that aspect of our influence and wanting to feature this guitar.”
And what Petty wants, Petty gets. The 15-song throwback Mojo, in stores June 15, is knee-deep in the blues, with licks and grooves reminiscent of everyone from Muddy Waters to the Allmans to Jeff Beck and with Campbell’s tasteful playing and Les Paul in every song.
Recorded live in the studio in old-school fashion, it’s the band’s first CD since 2002’s The Last DJ, and their most vibrant work in much longer.
En route to The Heartbreakers’ Canadian tour-opener June 8 in Vancouver, Campbell talked about the blues, Petty’s beard and his old-new guitar. Here are the highlights:
This album feels like a travelogue. You’ve got British blues, but also the sounds of Chicago, the Delta, Texas, Memphis. Were you trying to check all those boxes?
The influences were just instinctual. There wasn’t any conscious effort, aside from wanting to put the guitar up front and do it live. And of course, we wanted to have really good songs, not just have a bunch of jamming. Tom worked really hard to write good songs. Growing up in Florida, we listened to a lot of blues, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins. And that’s still the stuff we listen to when we’re on break. And then there’s the influence of the British stuff. So this is just a hybrid of all the things we’ve been influenced by.
Were there specific songs or artists you were trying to honour?
Not really. I know Jeff Beck’s name came up. But only in the sense of saying, ‘Let’s make it sound like a Jeff Beck record, where the guitar is really loud and the band is behind that.’ Which we’d never really done. The only other criteria we had was we didn’t want to do overdubs. So it was all live off the floor all the solos and most of the vocals. We played without headphones, except for Tom, he had a little earplug so he could hear his vocal. But we were all in the same room, and we just played together. I think that’s the beauty of the record, everyone’s in the room, everyone’s listening, there’s no polish. It was, ‘We’re going to play this top to bottom, and the solo better be good, because if I screw up we’ve gotta play the whole song again.’ And that’s really a fun way to do it; it’s like playing a gig. You count it off and you go for it. You just have to know in the back of your mind that there’s no punching in, no fixing. It steps everybody’s game up quite a bit. Everybody focuses more and listens and makes more of a performance out of it.
What’s your relationship like with Tom after all these years?
That’s interesting. We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs over the decades, but we’re really close right now. We really have a love for each other and a respect. And we still love working together. I feel like he’s my brother. We’re so close you can’t put a word on it really.
I’ve read you’ve never had much interest in making a solo album.
Well, I do. But not while I’m in this band. I was working toward it for a while, and then I thought, ‘Why do I want to compete with myself?’ The Heartbreakers is my life and I love it. I wouldn’t want to do anything to conflict with that. So my attitude is, I’m going to work with The Heartbreakers as long as we can. If that ever does dissolve, then I’ll take it seriously. And I have a little side band called The Dirty Knobs I play with locally. I can try out tunes, and some ideas eventually find their way onto a Heartbreakers record. We have a lot of fun. There’s no pressure. It keeps me out of trouble. And it’s nice to be the boss every now and then.
Is Tom a stern taskmaster?
Stern? He’s got a very powerful opinion, and he’s usually right. But he’s a great boss, a great leader, a great force. It’s like having Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in one guy. He’s stern when he needs to be, but he’s also democratic. And we’ve been together this long, so obviously it works out well.
So what do you think of his beard?
I think it looks great. Overall, he’s really healthy. He had some knee issues a couple of years ago, and he fixed that. So he’s in great shape. I think the beard makes him look really good. He’s looking the best he has in a long time. And he’s real clear, he’s focused, he’s excited to get out and play. That makes me happy.
Will you be bringing the Les Paul out on the road?
No way! I couldn’t deal with the pressure. Gibson has made me a replica that’s almost identical. It sounds 95% as good. That’s the one I’ll take on tour. It’s just too expensive to carry the real one around. I may play it locally when I can carry it with me. But I want to use it on the next record. I don’t want to damage it out on tour.