Date: November 15, 2003
Interviewee: Mike Campbell
Notes: From the website SongFacts.com
Mike Campbell is lead guitarist with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. He’s renowned for his skills as a guitarist, but he’s also a tremendous songwriter, composing the tracks for many of Petty’s hits and a few for Don Henley. He told us how some of these legendary songs came together.
SF: How did “Boys Of Summer” come about?
Mike: I used to have a 4 track machine in my house and I had just gotten a drum machine – when the Roger Linn drum machine first came out. I was playing around with that and came up with a rhythm. I made the demo on my little 4 track and I showed it to Tom, but at the time, the record we were working on, Southern Accents, it didn’t really sound like anything that would fit into the album. The producer we were working with at the time, Jimmy Iovine, called me up one day and said he had spoken with Don, who I’d never met, and said that he was looking for songs. He gave me his number and I called him up and played it for him and he called me the next day and said he put it on in his car and had written these words and wanted to record it. That’s kind of how it started. Basically, he wanted to recreate the demo as close as we could. We ended up changing the key for the voice. We actually cut it in one key, did the whole record with overdubs and everything, and then he decided to change the key like a half step up or something, we had to do the whole record again, but it turned out pretty good.
SF: What do you think of the Atari’s version?
Mike: I like it a lot. I was real tickled to hear that.
SF: A lot of people seem to get upset when they hear it because the song is so sacred to them.
Mike: My son’s 15, he has a punk band and he was excited about it, so it’s OK with me. I thought it took some balls to try that song, it’s not a song you expect a young band like that to do, but I kind of like their version of it.
SF: I think it’s also a tribute to the music that you wrote that they didn’t change the notes very much.
Mike: Yeah, I listened to it closely and noticed that they had done a lot of the guitar parts and they had changed a little bit but not a whole lot. I like the way the guy sang it, they changed one lyric and I thought that was cool. I heard it on the radio 3 times in one day and I got kind of excited about it.
SF: So that led you to some work with Don Henley. Can you tell us about “The Heart Of The Matter”?
Mike: That was a couple of years later, by then I had upscaled my home studio to a 24-track. I cut the track at home and played it for him. He wrote some words, I think he got some help from J.D. Souther on some of the lyrics. He changed the key to fit his voice, then we went in and basically recreated the demo. I know he was especially proud of that one. He told me that lyric was something he had been trying to write for a long time and it finally came out the way he liked it, something he really wanted to sing. A lot of people like that song. A lot of girls like it.
SF: When you’re writing songs like this, what’s your collaboration with the vocalist and the person writing the lyrics?
Mike: It depends. With Tom and Don, they have very strong lyrical personalities. My involvement on those songs generally is just the music. If they come back with something that they like and like to sing, it’s not necessarily for me to change it. They’re really good, so very rarely would I suggest a lyric to Tom, for instance. Occasionally a line here and there, but they’re such good singers and lyricists that I trust them to do what they can do best.
SF: Can you tell us about “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”?
Mike: Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around was a song that I had written the music and Tom had written the words. The Heartbreakers had recorded a version of it with Jimmy Iovine, and Jimmy being the entrepreneur that he was, he was working with Stevie, and I guess he asked Tom if she could try it, and it just developed from there.
SF: And you played on that with Stevie and Tom?
Mike: We cut the track as a Heartbreakers record and when she decided to do it we used that track and she came in and sang over it. It became a duet. It’s basically all The Heartbreakers on that record.
SF: “Refugee,” can you tell us how that came about?
Mike: That was a hard record to make. It was a 4 track that I made at my house. He wrote over the music as it was, no changes, but it took us forever to actually cut the track. We just had a hard time getting the feel right. We must have recorded that 100 times. I remember being so frustrated with it one day that – I think this is the only time I ever did this – I just left the studio and went out of town for 2 days. I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore, but then I came back and when we regrouped we were actually able to get it down on tape.
SF: When you write a song like that, do you have a sense for whether or not it’s going to be a hit?
Mike: On some level you know it’s good. You know that certain things are better than others that you’ve done and you notice that the band or the people around start responding to it more than certain songs. You can tell that maybe there’s something special about this one. Refugee, when we were at the studio mixing it, I remember this one girl who was working in reception, she came in and heard the mix and she said, “that’s a hit, that’s a hit,” and we looked at each other and said, “maybe it is.” You don’t always know. Sometimes you think certain things are sure-fire and people just don’t latch on to them and other things they do. You know when it’s good or not, but you don’t always know if it’s a hit. A hit record a lot of times is more than just the song, it’s the timing, the climate you put it out in, what people are listening to and what they’re expecting to hear and if it touches a nerve at a certain time. Sometimes that determines if it’s a big hit or not.
SF: Have there ever been songs that have surprised you either way, that became an unexpected hit or did not go over as well as you thought?
Mike: The second example, we did Full Moon Fever, I think we were on MCA at the time, we worked on that record with Jeff Lynne. We thought it was really good, we were real excited about it, we thought the songs were good and we played it for the record company and they said, “Well, we don’t hear any hits on here.” We were very despondent about the whole thing and we went back and recorded another track, a Byrds song called “Feel A Whole Lot Better,” thinking at the time that maybe they’ll like this one. In the interim, they changed A&R departments and a whole new group of people were in there. We brought the same record back like 6 months later and they loved it – they said “Oh, there’s 3 hits on here.” We were vindicated on that one. It was the same record. We played the same thing for them and they went for it. I guess it’s a situation of timing and the right people that wanted to get inspired about it work it. At the end of the line, if the songs are good and if the public connects with certain songs, that really the true test, but you’ve got to get it out there.
SF: Any stories behind “Here Comes My Girl”?
Mike: It’s very similar to “Refugee,” those 2 were written the same week. I made some demos and Tom liked those two. “Here Comes My Girl” was interesting because we had the chorus and Tom wasn’t sure how to do the verse, he kept trying to sing it different ways and he finally came across sort of half-talking it, and that’s when the song seemed to come to life.
SF: How about “You Got Lucky”?
Mike: “You Got Lucky” was written to a drum loop. I had made a drum loop in my studio and put the music together. We went into the studio and actually recreated another drum loop. The drummer would actually go out and play, then we’d cut the tape and tape the loop together. We ran it around the room over some mic stands and through the tape heads, and then printed that for 3 or 4 minutes and then recorded the song over that drum loop. The guitar solo was Tom’s idea, he suggested we do a Ennio Morricone guitar sound, kind of a vibratto arm strat kind of solo. Sort of a surf guitar with a tremolo arm, like a Clint Eastwood movie, a Good, The Bad And The Ugly kind of thing. It was Tom’s idea to put that approach on there.
SF: Can you tell us about “Jammin’ Me”?
Mike: “Jammin Me” was interesting because I wrote the track and gave it to Tom, and he held it for a while and didn’t do anything with it. Then I guess he was working with Bob (Dylan) one day, and they came up with some words – I guess they were picking words out of a newspaper or off the television, and Tom said “Oh, I’ve got this track of Mike’s” and they inserted those words over the track. I wasn’t there when Bob wrote the words to it, but I was pretty thrilled to hear that he had contributed to it. We just went in and recreated the demo to it.
SF: Has there ever been a song you’ve written and you hear the words and just go, “Oh, no”?
Mike: Not from Tom or Don. Some of the words I’ve come up with have been “Oh, no.” Tom’s pretty good, by the time he shows something to me, he’s lived with it and he’s got a pretty strong belief in what he’s doing. He’s rarely wrong on that level.
SF: One song that our readers are often asking about is “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” One story is that you made Tom play the guitar part.
Mike: That is true. That song took on a few shapes. It was written in my garage. I didn’t write it, but we were jamming in the garage and Tom was playing one of my guitars. It was called “Indiana Girl,” the first chorus was “hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.” We liked the song, Rick Rubin suggested we cut it, it had actually been around for a while, just the basic riff and that chorus. We cut the song and he was singing the chorus, and he decided he just couldn’t get behind singing about “hey, Indiana Girl,” so we went back and about a week later he came in and said “I’ve got a better idea,” so he changed the chorus to “Last dance with Mary Jane.” In the verse there is still the thing about an Indiana girl on an Indiana night, just when it gets to the chorus he had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning. My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.
SF: And the story about the guitar part?
Mike: We did all the overdubs at my house, I don’t know if I forced him or suggested, I probably suggested he play the part at the end, he doubles the lick. At the end there’s that little solo he does, I pushed him to do that. I said, ‘you go ahead and play a fuzzy sort of guitar solo,’ because we had this good sound up and he just put the rhythm down. He actually played a nice little bit at the end of that. An interesting thing about that record, we did a rough mix at my house, I guess the same day we did the last overdubs, that guitar and a few little bits. Then we did a rough mix here at my house, just did it by hand. Then we went to 3 or 4 different studios over the next couple of weeks and tried to do a proper mix, and we could never beat that rough mix, so that was the mix we put out.
It’s an interesting track, it’s very inaccurate, it’s kind of greasy and loose. That day we just gelled and every time we mixed it we could clean up the sound and make it more posh, but it just didn’t have the juice that one mix had.
SF: Maybe that’s a reason it’s so popular, you don’t have to be perfect.
Mike: Yeah, you have to have the juice, the groove.
SF: “American Girl” is the subject of a lot of rumors – especially around the University of Florida. Can you tell us about that one?
Mike: My take on it was, I know we did it on our first record and we did it on the 4th of July, we cut that track. I don’t know if that had anything to do with him writing it about an American girl. 441 is the Orange Blossom Trail, the highway that goes right through Gainsville, right through the middle of Florida. There is some Gainsville imagery in that sense. We used to have people come up to us and tell us they thought it was about suicide because of the one line about “if she had to die,” but what they didn’t get was, the whole line is “if she had to die trying.” Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it’s just a really beautiful love song. It does have some Florida imagery.
SF: What did you think of its use in The Silence Of The Lambs?
Mike: I thought it was cool. I like the movie, and it didn’t dampen my feeling for the song. I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of an optimistic, joyous song against a really dark scene.
SF: Any other songs you’ve done with Tom that have stories that would interest your fans?
Mike: I don’t know if this story is out there, but “You Wreck Me” was a track we cut, and he wrote the whole song. I remember when he called me, he said, “I’ve got some words to this song,” I said, “What do you call it,” and he said “It’s called You Rock Me.” I remember thinking, I don’t know, it sounds kind of ordinary, but we really like the track and everything. We went ahead and cut it and we lived with that for a while, but we kept saying, “You Rock Me…” Then one day he came back and goes, “I’ve got it, I’ll just change it to You Wreck Me,” and the whole thing took on a new meaning. It’s an example of one little word changing the whole thing.
SF: You’ve been a part of a whole lot of studio sessions. Are there some that stand out?
Mike: When we did that first record with Jeff Lynne, Full Moon Fever, that was an amazing time for me because it was mostly just the 3 of us, me and Tom and Jeff working at my house. Jeff Lynne is an amazing record-maker. It was so exciting for a lot of reasons. First of all, our band energy in the studio had gotten into kind of a rut, we were having some issues with our drummer and just kind of at the end of our rope in terms of inspiration – having a lot of trouble cutting tracks in the studio and getting inspired and try to make it happen. This project came along and really we were just doing it for fun at the beginning, but Jeff would come in and every day he would blow my mind. It was so exciting to have him and Tom come over and go, “OK, here’s this song,” and then Jeff would just go. I’d never seen this done before, he’d say, “OK, here’s what were going to do – put a drum machine down. Now put up a mic, were going to do some acoustic guitars. Put up another mic, were going to do a keyboard. OK, here’s an idea for the bass. Mike, let’s try some guitar on this. I’ve got an idea for a background part here…” Sure enough, within 5 or 6 hours, the record would be done, and we’d just sit back and go, “How the fuck did you do that?” We were used to being in the studio and like “OK, here’s how the song goes” and everybody would set up to play, and just laboriously run the song into the ground, and it usually got worse and worse from trying to get the groove and the spirit and trying to get a performance out of 5 guys at once. This guy walked in and he knew exactly how to put the pieces together, and he always had little tricks, like with the background vocals how he would slide them in and layer them, and little melodies here and there. Tom and I were soaking it up. Pretty amazing, a very exciting time, like going to musical college or something.
With the drums, he’d go out and we’d put the mics up on the drums, and he’d walk out and he’d take the microphone over the drum and he’d turn it away from the drum facing the corner, and he’d go “OK, record it like that.” Sure enough, 99% of the time he’d be right. We’d go, “Yes sir, Mr. Lynne.” That’s one way to make records, it’s not the only way. Now days we like the band to play all live again on most stuff, but we learned so much from him about arrangements and counter-melodies and all kinds of stuff.
SF: How did you end up playing on “Sixth Avenue Heartache”?
Mike: T-Bone Burnett called me one day and said, “I’ve got this track and can you play guitar on it?” I said, “I really don’t have time to come down to the studio,” so he said, “What if I send the tape over to your house?” So I said OK and he sent it over, and there were some open tracks on this basic rhythm track. I had a couple hours one afternoon so I got the guitar, plugged it in and came up with a few parts and doubled a couple of things, did what I thought it should sound like and just sent him the tape back, I never even met the guys. The next thing I know, he called me up and said, “yeah, it came out really good,” then it was on the radio. I really like the one guitar line in there, it was very George Harrison sounding and I was real proud of it when I got the sound in the studio, so I was glad they used it. The funny thing is later, I ran into George – he had a real whimsical, cynical kind of thing – he looked at me and goes, “You know, I heard that record on the radio – you’re doing me now?” He said it with a little chuckle.
SF: Out of the songs you’ve written, is there one that sticks out as your favorite?
Mike: That’s a tough one. I tend to lean towards the most recent one I’ve done, but Refugee always make me happy. Maybe because it was so hard to get on the tape, there was a time when I thought it would never come out, that we just can’t do it. It always sounds like it really captured a moment. If I had to pick one favorite, I’d probably pick that first.
SF: How about your favorite guitar playing?
Mike: “American Girl,” we captured a real spark on that one. “I Need To Know.” “Boys Of Summer” has some really good guitar on it. We also did a song called “Can’t Stop The Sun,” I like the guitar on that quite a bit too.