Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

File: Q&A with Mike Campbell

| April 1, 2020

Discovering your own particular avenue of expression is not always easy for a young artist. Take the late Tom Petty, for example, who started out sounding a lot like his vocal idols, Bob Dylan and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. He just couldn’t help it — that was his creative jumping-off point, which quickly developed into his signature nasal-drawled sneer, notes guitarist Mike Campbell, the Floridian’s right-hand man in his backing band The Heartbreakers. Campbell recalls their mid-‘70s eponymous debut with producer Denny Cordell when Petty was decidedly nervous about being a little too evocative. “Tom had picked up a lot of nuance from Bob, and at one point, he told Denny, ‘I really don’t want to sound like Bob Dylan — I’m really worried about that,’” he says. Campbell has been fronting his own Faces-trashy side project, The Dirty Knobs, for a dozen years and only now is releasing its first album, Wreckless Abandon (sic). “But Denny replied, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do, and you will eventually find your voice.’ Which he did.”

After harmonizing alongside his friend for over four decades, Campbell, 70, recently realized that he now eerily echoed his style. Again, he couldn’t help it. As he tracked scrappy new originals like the title track “Wreckless Abandon,” “Aw Honey,” “Southern Boy,” and the “Here Comes My Girl”-ish “Fuck That Guy” (co-written with Chris Stapleton, who also cameos on the stomping roadhouse rocker “Pistol Packin’ Mama”).  “I knew that there are certain inflections that I have in common with Tom, and when I started singing by myself in the studio, I thought, ‘Well, this just sounds a lot like Tom — I’ve got to filter that out somehow try to find my own voice,’” says the musician, who just for fun teamed with guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison, and drummer Matt Lang during Heartbreakers downtime. “And that’s what I did. I can’t get rid of ALL of it. But I got rid of enough of it that I can be myself.”

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: You’ve worked with some amazing vocalists over the years, like Del Shannon, who was originally going to be in The Traveling Wilburys.

MIKE CAMPBELL: Yeah. And Del was amazing. He had that, that VOICE, you know? And he was one of those guys who was so full of energy; he could hardly stand still.

IE: And Roy Orbison. Another stunning stylist. What do you learn from somebody like that?

MC: I hope I learned something, just being around him. He was such a professional. And one thing I found interesting about Roy in the studio was, he’d be on the mic, but his lips would barely move. It was all coming from inside. And Tom and I would look at each other and go, ‘“Is he actually singing? We hear the sound, but his lips aren’t moving!”And that voice? I think he was just born with it. Speaking of The Wilburys, we were in the studio, and Tom and George and Jeff were in the other room. And Roy said, “I’m a real singer. And it’s not ego — I just know that I was born with this voice. But those guys in there? They’re real stylists!” He looked up to them, and called them ‘stylists’ as opposed to ‘singers.’

IE: Even more amazing — you cut two albums with Bob Dylan and toured behind him in Australia.

MC: How blessed am I? I can tell you a story about Dylan. And it’s kind of funny, but it shows you what a pure genius he is. We were in the studio, recording the song “Emotionally Yours” for his 1985 album Empire Burlesque, and he said, “You wrote and recorded “The Boys of Summer” with Don Henley,” right? Did you use a drum machine on that?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Bring the drum machine tomorrow! I want to do that, too!” So I brought the drum machine down the next day, and we set it up and were playing along with it. But during the take, Bob goes completely off the drum machine, just in his own way, and at the end of the take, he kind of ended back on the drum machine again. And he turned to me and said, “What’s wrong? That sounded horrible!” And I told him, “Well, we have to play ALONG with the drum machine.” And he said, “You mean it won’t follow ME?” And I said no, but he never missed a beat, and snapped, “Well, what good is it then?”

IE: One question that has to be asked, though: Did you come up with that memorably guitar lead on Petty’s “The Waiting”?

MC: Yeah. And it’s funny — I just heard that on the radio the other day, and what it was, was that when we cut the track, I played the bass. And near the end on the bass, I go ‘Doo-doo-doo-doo-dee-DOO-doo,’ just off the top of my head. And when we listened back to it, I thought, “Well, that could be a good guitar lick.” So I went and learned it on the guitar, and that became the hook. It’s funny how things happen.

IE: And you just toured with Fleetwood Mac, replacing the departing Lindsey Buckingham. But he has a completely different style than you do, more classic fingerpicking. How difficult was that?

MC: It wasn’t difficult, per se, but it was a challenge. And you’re right — he tends to play with his fingers more than I do. But on his solos, there are some similarities to how we approach them. So when I did Fleetwood Mac, my challenge was to honor those songs and those parts, because really essential for the songs. And I wasn’t used to doing that. I was used to playing only things that I came up with mostly, so I had to dig in and really work hard to learn those parts, and I really had to focus on it. I took it on a challenge, and I think I got pretty close to it.

IE: And simultaneously, you get Neil Finn thrown in as a new bandmate bonus. The guy who wrote, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

MC:  We met at the rehearsals, and we immediately were like brothers. We had the same likes and the same affinity toward things. We really hit it off. We liked the same kind of music, and we instantly seemed to fit together, and we could play together without getting in each other’s way. It just seemed to work, right off the bat. And if you think about, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are the longest lasting rhythm section that’s still together, and I loved playing with them every night. It was a joy.

IE: I interviewed Petty for his Wildflowers album, and I noted at the time that he would quietly appear every few years with a new record, tour, then disappear again, never staggering drunk on any red carpets in between. You seem to have the same stoic work ethic.

MC: Well, we were in it for the music. Even in the early days, the jet-set party crowd, the rock and roll lifestyle thing, we all were naughties here and there, but basically, we wouldn’t let anything get in front of the music. And my writing hasn’t changed that much, except that I’m writing lyrics now and singing them myself, as opposed to just writing music and giving it top Tom, which is what I used to do. And I think that one of the things that I miss most is being able to do that — have a piece of music I think is good and give it to him. Without any vocals or suggestion and just let him do what he would do over it. And I’m going to miss that a lot because he was really great at making my music sound good. But he’s not here, you know? And I’m still grieving. We all are. We all love him and really miss him. And I’m really proud of my legacy. We made a lot of great records, and I wrote a lot of songs with him. I was looking at the catalog the other day, and I’m really proud of all that. But you know, I’ve got to move on and keep creating new music. That’s what keeps me alive.

IE: How is it to play small clubs again, but this time with the spotlight beaming directly down on you?

MC: I love it. And it’s good that I had all those formative years with The Dirty Knobs between Heartbreakers tours to go out and play clubs, because I got used to fronting the band, and I’m really comfortable with that now. I think I learned a lot, and I got a lot of confidence from all that woodshedding. And I’ve got this great band, and they follow me, and there are no egos in the band, so I can’t wait to play the small places. I started out playing the small venues, and in some ways, I prefer that to the big arenas, because you’re all in the same room, you all hear the same thing, and you’re up close, and you’re really sharing the experience together in a very intimate way. I really love playing that way.

IE: And you’re having a hoot on this debut, too. As on the half-spoken-word “Fuck That Guy,” probably the first time that sentiment is in a song title.

MC: Well, that’s an interesting story. Chris Stapleton, who I had only met briefly once when we played Wrigley [Field], and he opened for us. And he called me up — and I don’t normally do this, because it’s outside my comfort zone — but he said, “Do you want to get together and try to write some songs?” And I said, “Okay.” So he came out, and we spent about three days together, and we wrote several songs. And one day he goes, “I had this idea that might make an interesting song someday — “Fuck That Guy.”’  And I immediately related to that — we’ve all had that moment at least once a day, where somebody deserves to be told, “Hey — fuck that guy!” So I said, “Can I mess around with that?” And I literally spent five minutes on it, as a joke, really, and the band played it once, and that’s what you hear on the record. And it’s funny that people have noticed that song a lot, I guess because they relate to the idea. But it was done really quick, with a sense of humor, and it’s really fun to play live. People really get into it.

IE: What’s your take on mortality now?

MC: Well, we only get so much time. So, my take on it is to treasure every moment, and not worry about when it’s your time to leave. It’ll happen when it happens. But in the meantime, just try to spread as much goodness as you can, and enjoy the love you have around you. And don’t take it for granted.


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