Mike Campbell Leads The Dirty Knobs into External Combustion

Even after more than fifty years in the music business, where he’s attained legendary status thanks to his work with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell hasn’t become jaded about releasing new work into the world—as he’ll do on March 4 when his band, Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs, put out their second album, External Combustion. “We’re excited as hell! I love the record and can’t wait to get it out there,” Campbell tells American Songwriter, calling from his L.A. home.

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External Combustion follows up the band’s debut, Wreckless Abandon, which came out in 2020—but The Dirty Knobs go back much further than that: Campbell estimates he formed this group about 20 years ago as a side project he could do between Heartbreakers tours, “so we know each other really well, and there’s an organic chemistry there that’s very comfortable for me,” he says. The lineup consists of Campbell, guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison, and drummer Matt Laug. For External Combustion, they also brought in notable guest musicians: Margo Price, Ian Hunter, and Campbell’s former Heartbreakers bandmate, keyboardist Benmont Tench. 

With the end of the Heartbreakers after Tom Petty’s passing in 2017, Campbell realized that he still wanted to remain a member of a group, so he decided to make The Dirty Knobs a main focus. “My mindset is to be part of the band—I never wanted to be a solo artist,” he says. “I just feel comfortable with a gang around me. That’s the way I grew up, and that’s what I like to do now. It’s the most fun when you have your friends with you, and you can make music together.”

This joyful energy comes across in External Combustion’s eleven songs—and even in the album title itself, which Campbell says is “a phrase that just came to me. I thought, ‘internal combustion,’ and then I thought, ‘No, it’s more like an external combustion type of band.’” 

On this record, Campbell says, “about half of the songs are new songs. I went back through my whole analog tape vault and found a few songs from maybe even twenty years ago that I’d forgotten about that were pretty good, so I included them on the album. I’ve found pieces and sketches that I’d forgotten about completely: ‘Wow, that almost got away; I’ve got to finish that one.’”

While he’s happy to resurrect older material, Campbell says he never has any problem writing new songs, either. “There are so many things to be inspired by,” he says. “Most of my inspiration came from the ‘60s when I was learning guitar. There were so many great bands and guitarists back then. Those are the sources I’ve drawn from.” He’s still motivated by those artists to this day: “I go back and listen to old music that inspires me —an old Stones album, or The Beatles or Beach Boys, and I’ll hear something in there: ‘That’s a chord I don’t ever use. I’ll learn it and then I’ll try to work from that.’” 

As for his actual songwriting methods, Campbell says, “My routine is not on the clock, but I have settled into a thing where I tend to be writing more in the morning. I wake up, have some coffee, then spend about an hour or so working on whatever idea comes to me. But then throughout the day, I could be watching TV or playing with the dogs or driving the car, and something might pop into my head. I just try to grab the ideas when they come.” He says he finds it useful to record snippets of songs into his phone. “In the old days, you’d have to pull the car over and write it down. But now with my phone, I can just hit a button and start spouting out my ideas and listen to it when I get home.”

Even though Campbell co-wrote many hits with Tom Petty—including songs that have become classics (such as “You Got Lucky,” “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” among many others), he admits that he still can’t offer any surefire songwriting advice. “We were fortunate enough, Tom and I and the Heartbreakers, to have quite a few songs that connected with people,” he says. “but it’s a very mysterious thing. It’s like I almost hate to talk about it because it’s like magic—I don’t want to jinx it!”

Still, he’s willing to offer some insight into how to improve the odds of creating something that has the potential to connect strongly with listeners. “Originally, you write for yourself. You try to impress yourself and please yourself. You get a feeling like, ‘There’s something about this that’s really catchy or special.’ It’s inspired. It surprises you, really. You might be writing something and then a few of the pieces come together and you go, ‘Wow, that’s much better than I was hoping for.’

“I love songwriting, and I can talk about it all day long—it’s fascinating,” Campbell continues. “It’s almost like when you’re trying to write a song, you’ve got this blank canvas in front of you and you’re waiting for something to come through—and then it’s like somebody turns on a light switch and you see it, ‘Oh, there it is,’ and you just write down what you see. That’s kind of how my process is. I start with nothing and hope for the light to get turned on.”

Campbell remembers the moment he realized he wanted to become a musician when he was a fifteen-year-old growing up in Florida: “Like a lot of kids my age, I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show, and I watched The Beatles on there. They were playing guitars, and they seemed to have everything together, writing their own songs and playing their own music. That’s when I got the idea, ‘I’d like to have a guitar. I’d like to be like that.’”

Following that dream proved difficult, though. “I couldn’t afford a guitar because we weren’t that well off,” Campbell says. His mother bought him a $15 pawn shop guitar that he says was “unplayable.” He chuckles at the suggestion that this might’ve been a blessing in disguise because it forced him to become a more inventive player right from the start. “It could be, except I didn’t like the bleeding fingers very much. Then I went over to a friend’s house one day and he had a Gibson and I picked that up and went, ‘Oh my God, this is so easy.’ Then a little light went on: ‘I’ve got to get a nicer guitar.’ It took a while. My first Stratocaster I got was [because] a friend loaned me the money, $200 at the time. Those guitars are worth fifty grand now.”

Even then, though, “I didn’t sit down one day [and say], ‘Okay, I’m going to be a professional musician and try to make a living.’ It just sort of happened over time,” Campbell says. “I taught myself the guitar, I met some friends, we started a band, we played some really crappy bars and had fun. Once we got a demo and got a little interest from the record companies, then it became more of a profession. Until then, it was just like flying by the seat of our pants.”

Campbell was initially in the band Mudcrutch with Tom Petty and Benmont Tench. They became popular in their native Florida, but stardom eluded them, and they broke up after releasing only one album. In 1976, after relocating to L.A., they formed the band Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who went on to become inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. “I’m kind of astonished it worked out for me the way it did. I think I was very lucky, in a lot of ways—but I worked really hard, too,” Campbell says.

As he looks back on his career, Campbell gives Tom Petty a lot of credit for helping him learn how to become a successful songwriter. “The first song that I wrote with Tom [Petty] was called “Rockin’ Around (With You)” —it was on our first record [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1976],” Campbell says. “Before that, I just had sketches. I don’t think I had any finished songs. Tom was real good at finishing things and putting words to the music, so he helped me quite a bit.”

Campbell also credits Petty with teaching him how to be a good bandleader. “I was used to supporting his lead, or his direction, and I learned a lot about how to do that,” he says. “Then I got my own band, and I just applied those skills to them. I found out I actually really enjoy it, being in front of the band and leading the guys.”

Now firmly in the frontman role, Campbell will bring The Dirty Knobs on tour to support External Combustion. He tells fans that “They can expect to hear songs from both [Dirty Knobs] albums, and a few surprises. Maybe a couple of Heartbreakers songs here and there. We just want to get out and have fun and take people’s minds off things for a little while.”

As he contemplates his career—both with The Dirty Knobs and the Heartbreakers—Campbell seems content. “You can tell the people that are in it for the money, and I’m not,” he says. “Fortunately, I have made enough money to live comfortably. I don’t need to go out and tour. I don’t need to make records anymore. But I really love doing it and I want to get better. That’s what keeps me going. You want to keep having fun, too. It’s just so much fun to play in a band. There’s nothing like it. It’s the best job in the world. I would be playing music even if I wasn’t successful at it, just because that’s how much I love it.”

See upcoming Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs Concerts HERE.

Photo by Chris Phelps / Sacks & Co

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