Five questions with Mike Campbell, guitarist for the Heartbreakers
By Martin Bandyke
Detroit Free Press — July 22, 2010
“A delicate beast.” That’s how Mike Campbell describes being in a rock band. “The slightest thing can derail you,” says the guitarist for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. “Ego, a woman or money can trip you up, but with us, it’s the love of the music that is bigger than all of us.” A founding member of the Heartbreakers, Campbell can shred paint with his instrument when he needs to, but he always serves a song’s needs first. His tasteful and economical playing has led to recording gigs with the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon and Roy Orbison.
Talking to the Free Press by phone from his home in Woodland Hills, Calif., Campbell spoke about the mojo that went into “Mojo,” the powerful new album from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Still going strong after forming in the mid-’70s, the group performs tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
QUESTION: Why was this year the right time for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to record “Mojo,” your first studio effort in almost eight years?
ANSWER: That’s a good question. We didn’t realize that it had been so long. It kind of grew out of doing this (documentary) film “Runnin’ Down a Dream” with director Peter Bogdanovich, which took up time. Then we did a little Mudcrutch album with our original (pre-Heartbreakers) band, then our (four-CD) “Live Anthology,” and that took us quite a bit of time to go through the tapes. Tom and I came to a new appreciation about how good this band is and wanted to record an album featuring the band without all the production bells and whistles. We’re so excited about how it came out.
Q: What did you do to make this album sound as great as it does?
A: We didn’t want to go into a studio; we wanted to do it informally. The setup was the same as what we did for the Mudcrutch album. We have a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley and used the same process on both albums. We set up on the floor with no headphones and all in the same room. It didn’t take long to make. We started out with Tom coming in with (the songs) “First Flash of Freedom” and “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” and those ended up great. So he kept coming in with another one, then another one.
We typically recorded the songs in one or two takes and then moved on; there was little fussing about with it. The vocals were done for the most part live with the band. Sometimes Tom would come up with a better lyric and would drop (overdub) those in, and when I hit the odd clam (bad note) on the guitar, I’d come in and fix it. But there was very little fixing needed because the band is so good. Basically, there are 2% drop-ins here and there; the other 98% is us playing live.
We didn’t want to do it the Pro Tools, cut-and-paste, Auto-Tuning way; we got rid of all that. What a concept! The band is really, really tight right now, and it’s the best we’ve ever sounded.
Q: You had a hand in cowriting some of the strongest material on “Mojo,” including that soulful track “First Flash of Freedom.” How did that one come together?
A: It’s a rhythm we haven’t used before, a 6/8 shuffle, sort of a jazzy-bluesy kind of swing thing. That came out of a piece of music I had for quite a while. I did a demo of it for Tom. He put a chorus bit in the middle and turned it into a pretty good song. That song, and really the whole album, gets its sound from this guitar I bought — a ’59 Les Paul. I’ve always wanted one, but it’s taken me so long because only 600 were originally made — and around 100 of those have been destroyed or lost. There’s something magical about that sound; it’s what Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Green used in the early days. A friend of mine who sells vintage guitars called me and told me he wanted to buy a house and was willing to part with his Les Paul. I paid half now and will pay the rest after the tour. It’s a really beautiful instrument I fell in love with. The guitar’s tones lead you into that style and really inspired the album.
Q: The album’s first single, “I Should Have Known It,” has a very cool, Led Zeppelin-ish swagger to it. What’s the story behind that one?
A: We had already done most of the album and it sounded really good. But Tom wanted one more song — something epic, with a good guitar riff up front. I worked this one up with that in mind. Tom loved it, and it made the album at the last second.
Q: You worked with Bob Dylan on his latest album of new songs, “Together Through Life,” and were also in the studio with Johnny Cash on his amazing, late-career albums. What was it like working with them?
A: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers toured with Bob back in the ’90s, and it was so much fun to record with him. I got the call to come in and play on the album, and the sessions were very spontaneous. A lot was done live with few mics on the band. He’s just brilliant; he starts with a rough idea, then we all start playing and mold it into a song.
I first met Johnny Cash while the Heartbreakers were in Copenhagen on tour in Europe. He was touring with the Highwaymen (which included Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson). I went up to meet him and said hi and told him my dad played his records. It created a little bit of a friendship, and eventually he asked if I would come down to work with him. It was a chance of a lifetime to be around that man. He was an inspiring artist, kind and generous, and I’m appreciative of our time together.