Date: January 1985
Interviewer: Steven Rosen
Interviewee: Tom Petty
Notes: Appeared on Ultimate-Guitar.com.
When: January 1985
Where: Petty’s management offices on Sunset Boulevard (Elliott Roberts Management).
What: Tom had released the Southern Accents record and was doing press. I’d been a huge Petty fan since his first album, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, came out in 1976. I’d actually met the singer/guitar player back during that time period. He’d just arrived in California from his native Florida and Shelter Records, his label, was throwing him a coming-out party. The debut record had just been released and ABC Records, the company that bought out Shelter, was introducing Tom and the ‘Breakers to the press.
I don’t even think I’d heard any of the first album before meeting him but he looked so James Dean cool, I knew he had to be the real deal. That dirty blond hair and puckered lips, the leather-fringed jacket and bandana, all came together to create an image of cowboy/pirate/misbegotten hippie. An ultra-hip persona.
Later, I heard “American Girl” and “Breakdown” and was awed by the sheer musicality of it all . Petty not only had the look, he possessed the rock. The jingle-jangle 6- and 12-string Rickenbackers and Hammond B-3 was reminiscent of the 60s American west coast music as represented by Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. Roger McGuinn was so taken by the music that he covered “American Girl ” on his 1977 solo album, Thunderbyrd. The rhythm section was R&B funky or delicate or straight-ahead rockin’. Petty’s voice fell somewhere between Bob Dylan and McGuinn – if the former had range and passion and the latter hadn’t already sung every significant melody and lyric in the first three years of his career.
So, when I was finally given the opportunity some ten years after our brief introduction to sit and talk with the man with a nasal twang, I jumped on it. In those intervening years, many a tale had been tossed around about Tom’s petty-ness, his petulance, his inability or simple reluctance to get along with others. I decided to toss caution to the wind and opened the exchange here:
Me: I’d heard that you were a really hard person to talk to.
Him: Yeah, I heard the same thing.
For a moment, I thought I’d screwed the pooch major league style. But after a brief, agonizing silence, Mr. Petty guffawed, the awkwardness was eliminated and the door opened. He was one kind of carefree, freewheeling spirit. There was none of the edginess nor any of the martinet-like qualities often used to describe him. The conversation wandered and wiggled and he never made any attempt to dodge a query nor lodge any kind of complaint about a question or inference.
TP has recorded a litany of terrific albums but Southern Accents is one of his even more rhapsodic records. This one really marked his sidestepping into new and adventurous areas. He brought in outside musicians (most notably, The Eurythmics Dave Stewart who co-produced/sang/played) and cultivated new sounds in the form of sax, trumpet, clarinet, strings, cello, and sitar.
Gainesville, Florida native Thomas Earl Petty stares through fatigue-limned eyes at the traffic inching its way along Hollywood’s famed Sunset Boulevard. Seated in the second-story offices of his management company, he gazes through the pane-glass window. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and the sun is still suspended out there, shining brightly and revealing no trace of the typical sepia-wash of Southern California smog. Tom has only recently risen and is trying to regain his senses. The previous night had been given over to tinkering in his newly built home studio, Gone Gator One, and the clock all but disappeared.
A length of dirty blond hair falls across one eye, and with his hand – the right one – he brushes it back. The left is cradled gingerly in his lap, an inch-long incision clearly visible. Petty lowers his head to examine the scar and is momentarily lost in some sort of reverie. Last October, the guitarist had taken a casual backhanded swing at a stairwell wall. After spending seven days mixing “Rebels,” a track from his new album, Southern Accents, and still coming up empty, he tried testing the plaster with his metacarpals.
“Breaking my hand was unfortunate, but I think that improved the album quite a bit. It made me really sit back and take stock of it a little bit longer. I was too deep into the album; my perspective was hurting. I had spent a year and a half on it and was trying to mix it down real quick and get it out for Christmas. I wasn’t trying to cripple myself. I just backhanded a wall, but I hit it wrong.”
At 4 a.m. in the morning, Petty was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and following sedation, x-rays and bandaging, underwent four hours of surgery. Two pins were inserted in his left hand and a cast constructed; after months of therapy and conditioning, the appendage is nearly normal. Guitar playing is still painful, but the musician’s doctors are confident in a full recovery.
All the tracks for Southern Accents, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ sixth album, have been completed save for one small rhythm overdub when the accident occurred at his cozy (read: cramped) 24-track home basement studio. Prior to the mishap, the band had spent nearly 18 months on the long-overdue follow-up to 1982’s Long After Dark. Never a prolific songwriter (six LPs in nine years), the guitarist who had once been part of a succession of bands with names like The Sundowners, Epics, and Mudcrutch, was attempting to break out of the group’s stylized hybrid of Byrds-like guitars, Hammond organ and acoustic drums. Many untried elements were introduced including sitars, strings, horns, and drum machines; outside musicians supplemented the general members-only policy; and new producers were summoned. Jimmy Iovine, the man who’d presided over every record since 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes, even had a stand-in.
“I guess all that stuff comes from madness,” suggests the musician who would be nominated 17 times for Grammies. Tom, a one-quarter Cherokee Indian, showcases this creative insanity as the Hatter of Madness in the video for ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More,’ the album’s first single. “It came from the desire to do something different. We’ve (Heartbreakers) have been together a long time now (10 years, though Petty’s association with lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench goes back even further to a Gainesville band (mentioned earlier) known as Mudcrutch, and there was a strong feeling among all of us. We butted our heads and tried to get to somewhere else, just for the fun of it. I don’t think there’s enough experimentation going on especially in the mainstream of music these days. There’s not a lot of people willing to take many risks. It wasn’t really as noble as that, to answer your question; it was really just to move on.”
Tom Petty calls the 12 months prior to beginning the album as “just wandering.” He was actively seeking out songwriting collaborators while his erstwhile Heartbreakers – Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Howie Epstein and Stan Lynch, were busy guesting on records and performing live dates for the likes of Bob Dylan, Don Henley and John Hiatt. Petty felt that American rock & roll was beset by a malaise born of conservatism and wanted to work with a new producer. Eventually he would hook up with The Eurythmics’ David A. Stewart to produce an album of sounds and textures never before heard on any of the Floridian’s albums. Stewart came to his attention through producer Jimmy Iovine, a longtime friend and creative partner. There was instant chemistry.
Stewart had already completed the backing track – complete with sitar line – for a song called “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Tom’s yearlong nomadic search for a direction had come to an end.
“He immediately picked up on it and started singing it great,” recounts Stewart. “Within ten minutes, it was finished, and we were drinking from the bottle of old whiskey and said, ‘Let’s write another one!'”
Petty picks up on this thread and talks a little bit about the vocal and band approach to the track.
“Well, the sitar song was me and Dave and Jimmy Iovine. I remember Stan heard it and really liked it. Dave had done a little cassette and had the sitar sound and kind of the groove. He showed me that and we sat down on a bench and in about an hour the song was done. I only did one take of that vocal. I’m not very good at doing them after I’ve sung them once or twice. And it’s the same way with the band, it’s either the first or second take and if it don’t happen then we have to change songs or come back another day. They’re real good players, these guys, and they start improving it immediately and I like it best, the real fire is there before they know exactly what’s coming next. Feel is really all there is to it.”
Little thought had to be paid to the follow-up song, “Make It Better (Forget About Me). This was another rhythmic kernel Stewart had popping around. Petty added the, ” I wanna make it better, baby” chorus line; they demoed it with drum machine and then brought in the Heartbreakers to finally flesh it out. Stewart played guitar and saxophonist and trumpeter Molly Duncan and Dave Plews from the Eurythmics’ live horn section were flown in from England. And everybody laid down their parts live.
“We’ve always been kind of a closed unit,” explains Tom. “We never had a lot of people playing on purpose because when we formed this group in the mid 70s, we didn’t want a band that had session players – when you hear us, you know it’s Stan playing the drums. So I stuck to that but i t grew out of everyone playing for different sessions and stuff. It was just having some more people around for more input. It was a lot of fun and you pay more attention when there’s someone around you haven’t been with every hour for a few years. It was a long project and I wouldn’t do i t again but I’m glad I did it. I had the idea for this album about the time I finished the last one (Long After Dark).”
“It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” a humorously cynical tune containing the self-deprecating line, “We got smilin’ politicians/Got songs from rich musicians/It ain’t nothin’ to me,” came to light one day in Petty’s bedroom. Again, there are horns, rousing chorus, and Stewart not only on guitar but tackling bass and vocals as well.
“These mishmashes or hybrids of influences is something I’ve always been interested in,” says Stewart, referring to the seemingly odd coupling of himself, Petty, and the exotic array of instruments on the trio of co-written tracks. “Because I think the world is like that now, all mixed up. But Tom and I found it really, really easy to write together. We didn’t even have to think about it.”
“I just usually try to write a song first, usually with an acoustic guitar or piano,” instructs Petty on his approach to songwriting. “The rule I tried to live by was I knew I was going to do a lot of playing around with the songs, and in order to do that the songs had to be very strong. They had to work whether I was playing them alone or with an orchestra and that took a little time. There were times when I went a lot further than what’s on the record.”
Petty sips from a soft drink and eyes two oversized stuffed animals sitting at the far end of the office. Momentarily transfixed, he glares hard. The look says, “I may be blond, but I ain’t dumb.” It is a tenacity mixed with passion, a temper softened by conviction – more than once Petty has had to fly the flag of personal resolve and weather major personal and professional traumas.
In 1976, the group’s debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, was released; it contained the Top 40 single, “Breakdown.” Two years later, You’re Gonna Get It established the quintet as a band to be reckoned with, as it perched on the brink of stardom. But the following year, Petty’s label Shelter Records, collapsed, and the group found itself mired in legalese of the deadliest sort – record company in-fighting. At one point in 1979, Petty was even forced to file for bankruptcy. The resultant pressures of not being able to record until legal matters were settled nearly broke up the band. In the heat of frustration, volatile drummer Stan Lynch quit at least once. When Damn the Torpedoes was released later that year, Tom and the ‘breakers were shot into fame. The LP went to #2 and sold over two million copies. Legal woes lent songs such as “Even the Losers” a certain kind of inspired poignancy.
Sample lyric: “Keep a little bit of pride/They get lucky sometimes.”
Still, stardom didn’t eliminate record company wrangling. In 1981, his new label, Backstreet/MCA, wanted to charge a list price of $9.98 for the Hard Promises LP. Petty would have no part of it and went public with his protest; the label was forced to lower the retail tag. And just before undertaking the recording of Long After Dark, the Heartbreakers endured further heartbreak when the ban suffered its first – and thus far on, personnel change, when charter bassist Ron Blair retired and was replaced by Howie Epstein.
And we now know about Petty’s broken finger during the Southern Accents sessions. Though he now makes light of it, there was a period of time where it appeared he might never play guitar again. All in all, it seems like a helluva lot to have to endure just to make some music.
“I got lucky,” cracks Petty, paraphrasing one of his own song titles while lighting a cigarette and tenderly clutching it between still-swollen fingers. “Things have happened to me, but lately life has been real rosy. I’m sure all those problems put an edge on things. But I hope I don’t have to go through a major disaster just to make an album. But it was good. It calmed me down quite a bi t; I haven’t hit a wall since.”
Still, it was fortuitous that Tom is the one who signs the paychecks, because there was not one kindly word offered. No encouragement whatsoever.
“There wasn’t a word of sympathy from one of ’em. They would say stuff like, ‘There’s a really good guitar player in Venice,’ or ‘You can still be the singer, but this means less money. You know, Brian Setzer is looking for a job!'”
Jokes notwithstanding, Petty is an underrated rhythm guitarist (no one has ever questioned his songwriting chops). It is his sure and steady hands strumming on the basic rhythms that allows lead guitarist Mike Campbell to do all his string dancing. On the new album, he used a variety of pieces.
“I used my Rickenbackers, a six- and 12-string. One is a blond, hollow body model and is about a ’66. I’ve been using this since the early days. I also used a 6/12 double-neck that is excellent for recording but it too top-heavy for live work. I tried it once but soon changed my ways. And there’s the ’63 325V John Lennon-type solid-body Rickenbacker with three pickups and a full-size neck [most of these models are Â¾ size]. I used a Fender Stratocaster and a custom-built Telecaster made by Norm of Norm’s Rare Guitars. This is a copy of a vintage Fender that was given to me during the recording of Hard Promises.”
There has always been a fair amount of acoustic textures in Petty’s music. He plays on a pair of Gibsons – a Dove that has been in his possession for 15 years, and a J-200. For Southern Accents, he also performed on a Martin D-45 fitted with a pickup for the live cuts.
Tom, though he possesses some wonderful instruments, is not overly fascinated or preoccupied with the type of guitar his fingers might be scrambling over. The approach is essentially an inactive one and the idea of modifying instruments or searching for that one perfect specimen, is a pursuit that holds little interest for him.
“I just think there are good ones and bad ones. I leave the finicky business of instrument choice to Mike Campbell . And if I get one that’s good, the last thing I want to do is have somebody go drilling on it and putting things into it. Because I’ve never seen that make it any better; it always makes it worse.”
For all of that, he has delved into the world of guitar modifications.
“I have a Fender Telecaster I call Red Dog. It has two Gibson humbucking pickups and a normal Telecaster pickup in the bridge. There is a toggle that I call the ‘destruct button.’ This overdrives any amp the guitar is plugged into. Campbell used i t on the album in addition to his old Fender Broadcaster, his favorite instrument. Mike also used a ’65 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, an Ibanez Iceman, and a red Rickenbacker 12-string (the instrument Petty is shown holding on the cover of Damn the Torpedoes).
“I may hear a certain sound and say, ‘Let’s go for this kind of sound,’ and Mike’ll come back with something wild. Mike is real good with sounds.”
Campbell, for his parts, recorded every track through an Ampeg Rocket, an ancient tube amplifier with one 12″ speaker. Petty used several boxes including his standby Vox Super Beatles and a brown Fender Deluxe. At times, he plugged into an elderly white Fender Bassman and split that into a Scholz Rockman to produce a stereo signal.
Live, both guitarists show up with 100-watt Vox heads and two Super Beatles 4×12″ cabinets. Neither player likes to rely on effects; Petty eschews them completely, while Campbell will breakdown from time to time and use an Echoplex unit, an MXR Dyna Comp and a Boss Chorus.
Running down live and studio gear choices for the rest of the band, bassist Howie Epstein opts for a basic recording setup composed of Hofner and Steinberger basses recorded straight through the console (DI). Live, he can be found shouldering either a Fender Precision or Jazz bass.
At Gone Gator One, keyboardist Benmont Tench hammers on Steinway grand and Kawai pianos; a Hammond C-3 organ with a 1,000-watt Leslie cabinet modified by Keyboard Products, and Yamaha DX-7 and Oberheim OB-Xa synths. On stage, he uses virtually the same setup (opting for the Steinway over the Kawai) and founds out the arsenal with a Wurlitzer electric piano.
Both Epstein and Tench go through racks that house a 1,000-watt JBL power amp and EQ.
Manager Elliot Roberts pokes his head inside the door and asks if anyone needs anything. “Maybe a little cash,” quips Petty, in what must be a reflex action from the dog days of the late ’70s. Financial security has hardly been a problem since the masterstroke of Damn the Torpedoes, and, in fact, Petty’s future seems pretty bright (save for another fit of pique resulting in a broken toe or some stray bolt of lightning zapping him in his basement studio).
Certainly, the construction of Tom’s home recording facility has resulted in huge dividends. Production budget monies now end up in his pocket rather than on the ledger sheets of the record company. Gone Gator One is no demo studio either; it has all the bells and whistles of commercial recording complexes.
“I have a Trident Series 80 board and it started out to be a 24-track studio and then Dave Stewart showed up and I needed a lot more tracks. We ended up synching another 24 so I had 48. It’s the whole bottom floor of my house. We cut live there, even cellos. I had a great engineer, Don Smith, who worked with me before on ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.’ He actually built the place for me and it has all the usual stuff: all the Lexicon stuff, I don’t know the numbers; I’m not very good at remembering. I have an old EMT I brought over from Germany, a tube unit. We’re real echo nuts – I had one rigged in the shower of the studio that’s never been turned on because they put a speaker in it. Capitol Records has these great live chambers in the basement of their building. I think there’s seven of them; it’s where Frank (Sinatra) made a lot of records, and so I got the phone company to rig up a line from Capitol to my house. Within a split second you can hit a drum and it will go down the phone line and the echo will come back. I mixed a lot of the album that way. We did nearly the whole album at my studio except ‘The Best Of Everything’ we did at Village Recorders. I wound up bringing in a computer mix down deal where I had another set of Neve faders that sat in front of the board. We hooked all of that to the computer for mixing because things like ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ was impossible even with five hands.”
Tom did not play it safe on Southern Accents and the gamble paid off. It was his idea to stretch the Petty territory – and he is the one who signs the paychecks – but he is still grateful that the Heartbreakers did not feel threatened by the inclusion of outside players. David A. Stewart and the Band’s Robbie Robertson, a co-producer of “The Best Of Everything,” were made welcome – to a degree.
“The band was very supportive of whatever we did,” claims Petty, draining the last of his Pepsi and making ready for the drive back to the Los Angeles suburb of Encino. We use the verb claims because there are reports that the band was not at all happy with the invasion of alien musicians. “Even though we worked with people like Robbie and David, there was always something for everyone to do. At times, though, they did look at me a little funny.”