Mike Campbell Reflects: With the Heartbreakers on the Sidelines and a New Band in the Offing, Tom Petty’s Perennial Co-Conspirator Looks Forward to the Future

It’s 1976 and Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ron Blair, Stan Lynch, and Benmont Tench are making their official live debut as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at a little club in West Palm Beach Florida after having morphed from their original incarnation as Mudcrutch and striking out from their hometown of Gainesville Florida. Their eponymous debut album is still fresh off the presses and if it wasn’t for the peanut shells littering the floorboards of this otherwise nondescript venue, there would be nothing particularly notable about these environs on an otherwise typical Saturday night. Indeed, it seems the crowd is largely oblivious to the fact that this concert marks an auspicious occasion.

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The band finishes its set, one that mainly consisted of songs drawn from that first album, and as they walk into the makeshift dressing room, which is basically the club’s kitchen, they but glimpse an ominous omen scrawled on the side of the refrigerator. “Heartbreakers suck!” It says, a seemingly random and decidedly unworthy pronouncement considering the excellent performance witnessed only moments before.

Fast forward to the present. “I’m glad you reminded me of that,” Mike Campbell tells his interviewer, who happened to witness that encounter, with a sarcastic sneer. “But look where we are. I wonder where they are.”

Indeed, well over 40 years later, Mike Campbell can claim a remarkably successful career, both as an indelible member of the Heartbreakers, a highly prolific songwriter and a guitarist who’s played on countless sessions with notables who have enlisted his services over these many years.  Sadly, Tom Petty, the man who helped jumpstart his path towards superstardom, is now gone, having passed away just over three years ago, leaving his band orphaned while also giving Campbell an incentive to start anew. Campbell now finds himself at the helm of a new group, The Dirty Knobs, a band he formed a decade ago and performed with in-between Heartbreaker tours. Their debut album, tellingly titled Wreckless Abandon, marks their official bow, a belated introduction considering that they already have some history together. 

“I decided that I didn’t want to do it while I was in the Heartbreakers,” Campbell responds when asked what took them so long to release their first recordings. “It seemed like a conflict of interest, and out of respect for my songwriting partner, Tom, I didn’t think that helped the situation as long as we were working, for me to be out and doing other things. So I kind of thought in the back of my mind that if the Heartbreakers retired or decided to do other things, I’d do my band full-time. Unfortunately, things worked out a little differently.”

It’s something of a unique situation that Campbell now finds himself in, going from chief guitar foil to the man who’s standing squarely in the spotlight.

“To be honest, it feels very comfortable and it feels good,” he says when asked about making that transition. “I eased into this with my own band. We’ve played clubs and stuff, and of course we would have to play non-hits, songs people had not heard before, and that was a challenge to try to win the room over. I kinda learned to do that, so right now, at this point, I kind of feel very comfortable and competent in the position of leading the band. It’s mostly my songs, a great group of guys with no ego problems, and they follow me in any direction I go. I always wanted to be in a band. I never wanted to be a solo guy.”

Of course, being who he is and having such an illustrious history behind him, it’s only natural that those admirers who find him in this new situation may have expectations of their own. He is, after all, anything but an unknown entity, given that his role in the Heartbreaker etched an indelible impression over the course of nearly 45 years.

“I’m about to handle it,” he chuckles, referencing the imminent release of The Dirty Knobs’ album. “I’m ready for that. Some people may hear strains of the Heartbreakers that they like. I have a little bit of a twang in my voice that’s similar to Tom’s, although I’m not mimicking Tom. We grew up in the same place, so the same accent comes through, allowing for that similarity. Some people may like that, some people may not. I think it really comes down to the songs and the musicianship. I always try to do the best I can in the moment, whether it’s a new Heartbreakers record or this record. The truth is, every time we [the Heartbreakers] did a record, it would be compared to ‘Refugee’ or ‘Here Comes My Girl.’ That’s always there. You’re compared to your earlier work. It kind of comes with the turf, but I don’t worry about it. I’m proud of the earlier work, but I’m hoping that maybe some people like some of these songs better than some of those songs. Maybe some people will hate the whole thing. But the little bit of reaction I’ve gotten so far has been very positive.”

In truth, that ought to come as little surprise. As its title implies, Wreckless Abandon boasts a sound that recalls the unhinged and insurgent sounds of the ‘60s — that of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds in particular — especially given its frayed edges and an unfiltered mix of music and mayhem. Campbell denies that it was a deliberate attempt to emulate anyone in particular, but he does admit that the sound is an innate part of his musical makeup.

“It just is what it is,” he insists. “That’s what I grew up on, and those are the instincts I have. I was inspired by all those groups. The ‘60s was such a great time — all those great bands, great songs, great guitar players all down the line. I don’t know if I deliberately go to that, but I naturally go to that. That’s what I deal out, and that’s what I emulate.”

At any rate, the songs seem tailor-made for live performance, and where it’s often a challenge to capture live energy in a studio setting, here the process seems reversed.

There’s a couple of reasons for that, Campbell maintains. “Half of these songs I’ve played in front of an audience before and I’ve woodshedded them over the years. And the rest of the songs we created in the moment. There was a conscious effort not to have overdubs and not to have any over- glossed production. We wanted the sound of a band playing live in the studio, so it’s two guitars, bass and drums. Almost 95 percent of these songs were recorded live. We got our sound, we learned the songs and we played them once or twice. Some of the vocals and harmonies we did overdub, and some of the guitar parts, but mostly those guitar bits and those guitar solos were all done live as the band is playing. So for that reason, that sound will be easy to recreate, because that’s the sound we make.”

As Campbell explains, it’s a technique he’s nurtured over the years and become very well adept at perfecting. 

“I’ve been around a long time, and the Heartbreakers made a lot of records,” he reflects. “I learned lessons over the years about how to record and capture that live feeling. Early on, it sometimes would be a struggle. It would sound sterile in the studio and the sounds in the headphones didn’t sound like they did in the speakers when you played it back, and so it was hard get that kinetic energy. So I kind of learned how to do that over the hundred years I’ve been playing (laughs). I learned that the hard way, and so I now know how to do it. We can isolate the sounds the way we need to and we’re not going to depend on fixing stuff unless we absolutely have to. We’re going to try to get a performance where everybody’s in the moment. I like making records that way. I like the other way too, however; the Jeff Lynne approach is really wonderful. But with this band, The Dirty Knobs, I wanted to make it sound like it would on a really good night in a club with 200 people, which is what we’re used to. So we used my home studio, which is really high tech, and we got the sounds up and didn’t really mess around with it that much. We really didn’t do that many takes, because we already knew what we were doing and it went pretty fast.”

What resulted was an abundance of songs that far exceeded the number needed to fill a single LP. “We had a lot,” Campbell allows. “George Drakoulias, our producer, was very helpful because we just kept recording. We had quite a few leftover things that were really, really good, but George helped me whittle it down to a set that works really well. We’re going to try to have a second album out by May, but probably half of it is already down. We were having so much fun that we finally had to stop and say, ‘We gotta organize this shit.’ George has a talent that some producers don’t have, and that is to put everybody at ease. But he’s also very astute, so he’ll notice when something is wrong, and he’ll point it out and help us and encourage us. He’ll play the cheerleader sometimes, but sometimes, it’s just a matter of sitting back and saying nothing and allowing the band to be who they are. He was really good at that.”

Campbell claims he met fellow Dirty Knobs guitarist Jason Sinay at a session. “We talked a bit and found we liked playing together and then started recording a bit in my studio,” he remembers. “I wanted a rhythm section, so I brought Steve Ferrone and Ron Blair from the Heartbreakers in. It started out with those four people, but after awhile I got a little more serious about it and figured I was using half the Heartbreakers in this band and that’s not really what I wanted to do. I didn’t think that would make Tom feel very comfortable either, so we decided to get a different rhythm section. Actually, my roadie suggested a drummer (Matt Laug) that he had met at a session and he suggested a bass player (Lance Morrison). So they came over and we just hit it off.”

Nevertheless, that begs the question: Is there any chance the Heartbreakers might choose to reconvene in the future?

“I get that question a lot,” Campbell replies. “I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and the answer is ‘maybe.’ The reason is, I’m still grieving, and I can’t imagine being in the room with all the Heartbreakers there and trying to make music without Tom’s spirit there. I’m not quite ready for that emotionally yet, but I’m open-minded that with the time to heal, there may be some point that comes up in the not-too-distant future where we’d be comfortable reconvening and doing something together. I played with [Heartbreakers keyboardist] Benmont [Tench] the other day for Tom’s birthday on a little instagram thing. It’s the first time we had played together in three years, kind of around the campfire, and we filmed it. It felt really good to play with my brother again. The Heartbreakers were a great band and this band is really great too. It’s my band, and my songs, and in the Heartbreakers, I helped write a lot of the songs, but it was Tom’s band. He was the leader and he was the singer and my role was different. But I loved that role and I loved that band, and both bands have the same intuition, because we’ve played together a lot and we know instinctively the language we share with each other. If I’m playing with the Dirty Knobs, if I want to go in a different direction, they’ll follow me on a dime, and they’ll be right there with me. The Heartbreakers had that too. We could follow Tom and extend it a bit if we wanted too. Plus the Heartbreakers were just a great pop band. We could recreate those songs live and make them sound just like the record. So I have nothing but love and respect for those guys. We just need to grieve a little bit.”

Campbell said that if they did reconnect, it would likely be for some sort of charity event or as tribute to their late leader. “I don’t know what that would look like yet, but to carry on as the Heartbreakers, when it used to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, I don’t see that,” he says.

Nevertheless, given the number of stellar musicians he’s worked with over the years — a list that includes Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, and the like — one might imagine that a superstar ensemble could have been considered at one time.

“I do have a lot of friends and heroes I’ve worked with, but it never really occurred to me to put a supergroup together,” he muses. “I did love working with all those people in different ways, but to put a supergroup together with all of them, I don’t know what that would be.”

Nevertheless, Campbell does note that he, along with Crowded House’s Neil Finn, did join Fleetwood Mac, filling in for Lindsey Buckingham following the latter’s forced departure. “We did a year and a half on the road and it was wonderful, but right when the tour ended, the world blew up,” he recalls. “We had a meeting at the end of the tour, before the pandemic and we decided to take a few years off. Stevie wanted to do some projects that she’s had in the back of her mind, and Christine and different people just wanted to take a break and do something else. So it was left where we could all just recharge our batteries and do whatever we wanted to do, and if at some point in the future we want to do it — and if gigs come up — then we’ll reconvene.  I’m still a member until further notice. (laughs) I mean, that’s where it was left. If I get the phone call — and I’m not holding my breath for it — I’d love to work with them again. It was very profitable and very enjoyable, and I had a wonderful time. So I would assume that if they want to play some gigs, Neil and I are in there, but if they go in a different direction, that’s cool too. They might want to get Lindsey back, although I don’t think so. They may not ever want to play again. I don’t know. We’re all kind of getting up there and there’s a limited number of years left that we can really be good, so we’ll see how that plays out.”

Campbell admits that the Fleetwood Mac gig did require a different mindset. After all, he not only had to acquaint himself with he band’s catalog, but he also found himself on an extended tour for the first time outside the Heartbreakers, which naturally put him outside his own comfort zone. 

“I’m used to playing in my band and playing my songs, and in this band I had a different challenge, to help them recreate their songs that I didn’t play on,” he reflects. “So I had to apply myself to that challenge, and it was a little hard at times. But I took it on as a challenge and I think I did a good job in the end, to get the bits we needed for the songs in certain little places and to bring my own thing into it. I love those records and I love Lindsey Buckingham’s playing, and I did my best to fill his sound the best I could.”

With the pandemic putting a halt to live touring, Campbell says he’s spent much of his time writing new songs. “Oh yeah, I’m up to my neck in songs,” he laughs. “I just write. That’s what I do and have always done. So in some way, this is like being on break. I’m writing songs and being at home, hanging with my family, and I’m enjoying that. If I get inspired, I go in my studio and I write and record a song. The only problem is that this has gone on way too long. But I have a lot of songs and I’m looking forward to a second Dirty Knobs album and for this first one to come out. Unfortunately, there can’t be a tour, so I have realistic expectations of what it can accomplish with what the industry is now. But hopefully it can establish who we are, what we sound like, and maybe we’ll start to build a bit of a base there. Maybe by the second record we’ll be able to tour and things will just pick up.”

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