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Mike Campbell Q&A: On the Dirty Knobs’ ‘Wreckless Abandon,’ Songwriting and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Legacy
For decades, Mike Campbell dutifully served as Tom Petty’s right hand man in the Heartbreakers, laying down scorching licks and co-writing some of the band’s most popular songs, namely “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” “You Got Lucky,” among countless others.
Less concerned with showing off his virtuoso skills, Campbell crucially plays for the songs, creating memorable licks, powerful riffs and solos that enhance and elevate the material. Given his flights of fanciful six-string magic it’s no wonder that Mike Campbell is championed as one of classic rock greats, balancing a bruising bluesy sound that draws comparisons to Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck with the creamy melodic inventiveness of George Harrison and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn in their prime.
Since Petty’s tragic passing in October of 2017, Campbell has kept busy touring the globe with Fleetwood Mac, replacing Lindsey Buckingham. Away from the Heartbreakers, Campbell has enjoyed major success as a songwriter, penning the music for two classic Don Henley hits, “Boys Of Summer” and “Heart Of The Matter.” And while free from his commitments with The Heartbreakers, for the past few years, Mike’s flexed his wares fronting his band The Dirty Knobs and playing occasional local club shows.
Now that the Heartbreakers are history, Campbell and the Dirty Knobs have regrouped — and this week, the band’s debut full-length album, Wreckless Abandon, is out after a few schedule delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Enjoy an interview with Mike Campbell below.
(Note: Catch the Dirty Knobs’ live stream gig from the Troubadour on Friday, Nov. 20!)
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Rock Cellar: Mike, what’s the most Gainesville thing about you?
Mike Campbell: (laughs) That’s a question I haven’t heard before. Jeez, most Gainesville thing about me. Great question … Let me think for a second. Well, I went to Gainesville to go to college. I guess what I picked up and what I nurtured in Gainesville was a sense of freedom of what I wanted to do and I carried that with me.
Rock Cellar: The Dirty Knobs were an entity while you were in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. When did you first connect with the musicians in the Dirty Knobs and how did that project come about?
Mike Campbell: Well, I met the guys as it turns out quite a while ago, about 15 years ago. It was a very organic situation, I met the guitar player, Jason Sinay, at a session I was doing and we hit it off immediately. And then I had a bunch of songs through the years with the Heartbreakers — I wrote a lot of songs all the time. I’d always give them to Tom and I if I was lucky when I’d get together with Tom he’d write to one of them.
But I had a lot of stuff left over, so it was piling up for me and I wanted to record it just to see what it sounded like. Jason came over one day and a roadie suggested a drummer, Matt Laug, and he suggested a bass player that he’d worked with named Lance Morrison. So they all came over and we started recording in the studio and we had so much fun doing it that we decided to go play some bars and try the songs out live.
And so I would do that every chance I got because it was so much fun between Heartbreakers tours. There would be a year or two sometimes between Heartbreakers tours. We just started recording and playing for fun and I guess a couple of years into it I realized that it was a really good band and thought at some point I’d like to put the music out for everybody to hear it. But I never felt comfortable doing it while the Heartbreakers were still active, because that was my main thing. And out of respect for Tom I wouldn’t want to be putting my energy somewhere else when he needed me. And in the back of my mind I always figured that well, someday the Heartbreakers will take a long hiatus or will wind down and then I’ll focus solely on The Dirty Knobs and as things have worked out, that’s where I’m at now and we’re ready to go.
Rock Cellar: Listening to “Wreckless Abandon,” the first single from the album, that song erupts out of the speakers. Was that song one you had written for the Heartbreakers and presented to Tom?
Mike Campbell: That was a newer song actually, I’m trying to remember to see if I even wrote that back then. I don’t think I had that song in a form to show it to Tom yet. But it is a newer song and I love it. It probably has strains of The Heartbreakers in it because of the Rickenbacker 12-string and the type of chords I was using. But that’s the way I play. Anything I do has a tendency to have some Heartbreakers strains in it because that’s basically who I am. But that song has its own identity, I think.
Rock Cellar: That song carries a distinct flavor of power pop, bringing to mind the songs found on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers second album, You’re Gonna Get It!
Mike Campbell: Well, thank you. I do miss Tom tremendously every day. One of the saddest things about losing my friend is to not be able to write these songs with him. It would have been great to give him the music and see what he came up with. But unfortunately, I’m left on my own now.
Rock Cellar: For decades you were Tom Petty’s right hand man, his prized collaborator and band mate. But now you’re the leader of the band with the Dirty Knobs. What did you learn from working with Tom both as a front man and band leader that you apply to The Dirty Knobs?
Mike Campbell: That’s a really good question. I learned so much from Tom. I mean, for nearly 50 years I was his co-captain, standing next to him and watching him lead the band. I learned quite a bit from him just watching him in operation. He was a great band leader. He knew how to corral everybody into a focused vision, whether it was recording or live and I’m sure I picked up some things from him along the way by osmosis. But also going out all of these years and fronting my own band in little clubs and stuff I got pretty comfortable with leading the band. I feel really at peace with it now.
Rock Cellar: It’s a very unique and combustible chemistry you have with Jason Sinay. What makes it work so well?
Mike Campbell: That’s cool. That’s intuitive of you. With Tom, he was an incredible rhythm guitar player, like John Lennon. Great rhythm, great feel but he didn’t really play lead guitar very much although I tried to get him to play here and there. Jason is also a great rhythm player and he’s quite a good soloist. It was fun to have another guitarist who I could match wits with with the solos and be able to push each other. So in that sense he’s different from Tom in that he can really step up and play some amazing solos, but he is also really intuitive with fitting in with me playing rhythm and supporting the song. Hopefully if it seems just right it sounds like one guitar, you know. One big guitar. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: Is there a defining song on the album that is emblematic of the overall sound of The Dirty Knobs?
Mike Campbell: Yeah, that would probably be “Wreckless Abandon” because it has all of the elements of the band to my ears. It’s got the chiming guitars, it’s got harmony. It’s got an attitude and an exuberance about it and with this track, I had the song written. I showed it to them and I didn’t really tell them what to play. The bass for instance on “Wreckless Abandon” is so frickin’ good. The guy is just dancin’ all over the place and he did that all on his own. He brought that to the table.
If you have to pigeonhole the Dirty Knobs it’s mostly like a blues-based rock and roll band like The Yardbirds or something. That’s typically the vibe that we get. “Wreckless Abandon” has a little more harmonic structure than some of the other songs on the album. But I think it captures the best of everybody in the band.
Rock Cellar: You reached heights of success, you’re a member of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. How do you define success with The Dirty Knobs?
Mike Campbell: That’s very easy. We have a lot of fun, music is supposed to be fun. The Dirty Knobs for all of those years that we played together, we didn’t have a commercial interest. It’s all about the pure love of playing together and the exuberance of the music. And I think that’s gonna serve us well going forward.
Rock Cellar: “Lockdown” might be my favorite song of yours of recent note, what’s the back story behind it?
Mike Campbell: OK, well, I was working in my studio by myself, and this was back in March or whatever, and I was just having fun with the music and just wrote a little ditty together about the lockdown. I showed it to my wife and she said, “That’s too good. You should really do something with that and we can use that on social media to raise a little money for what was originally a charity.”
And I think I think it still is. So it was really an afterthought. I finished the track and she filmed it for me, you know, the home movie stuff and we got it mixed properly and put it out. And then six months went by and I thought maybe a lot of people didn’t get to hear that song. I like the song a lot, too. It probably would have been on the record if you would have had it at that time, but I figured it might be good to try and put it out there again and updated a little bit. You know, a lot happened in six months. So that was the idea behind it. And then we got the idea to do a little video with it and there you go.
Rock Cellar: During lockdown, you’ve treated your fan base performing a song, whether it’s a Heartbreakers song or a Dirty Knobs tune or one of your favorite songs from your youth. What has been occupying your time?
Mike Campbell: Well, it’s still music. You know, we are in lockdown and I don’t leave the house very often, but we do the Instagram thing. It’s just a little way to keep the people that like me interested until the Dirty Knobs record comes out and I just kind of doing it on the Fleetwood Mac tour and kept it going because it’s a lot of fun. It gives me something to do every other day and it’s a way to connect with the fans.
My life is pretty much the same as it always is when I’m off the road except I don’t leave the house. I have a studio at home. So I write and record a lot and then the rest of the time I hang out with the family and watch a little bit of politics. I try not to watch too much but I’m just getting through like everybody else.
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Rock Cellar: Looking back at your career, you pulled off the near impossible by making it in the music business and having a career that’s lasted decades. Was there a pivotal moment where you took the right road, which set your career into overdrive?
Mike Campbell: Yes. Well, there have been several revelation moments, you know, epiphanies, as you call it. But I guess the main one with the Heartbreakers and Tom was when we came out to L.A., we were in a band called Mudcrutch and we weren’t really getting it together in the studio. We were learning and people were falling away. And then Tom at one point had an option to just be a solo artist and he was going to keep me on as a partner.
But then we just decided and we met the guys in the band at a session. They were all from Florida and we really wanted to be in a band so we made a decision, let’s not make a solo record. Let’s just have a band like we always dreamed to have and that was kind of a pivotal point. Once we had the Heartbreakers kind of locked in as a unit, we just followed that dream.
Rock Cellar: As a guitar player, I love your playing. Every note counts and you play for the song and sometimes it’s the notes that you leave out as well that are really important. Where did that thinking come from? You pull it off so well where, you often show great restraint with your playing and you leave a lot of open spaces and then obviously there’s times where you really fly too.
Mike Campbell: Well, part of that is being in a good band where you can leave spaces and know that the other interesting things will happen. And to your point, I like Jimi Hendrix a lot as far as guitar players, you know, quote unquote, “showing off” or going off and playing a lot of notes. But a lot of the guitar players just want to play fast and they want to play scales and I’ve never been interested in that.
You know, I’m really old but when I grew up my influences were really good. I had Elvis. I had the Beatles. I had all those great English groups and I loved all those guitar players in those bands and what I learned from that is the guitar is there to support to the song, not just show off throughout the song or anywhere in the song. Take the guitar parts from, say, George Harrison or Keith Richards or even Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, The Kinks. All these great records had guitar parts that were short and within that within the lyric, they didn’t get in the way.
If there was a fill you needed here and there, you tried to make it tasteful but never distract from the story. And that’s just the kind of music I like. So when I would write with Tom or we would record, I would use those instincts with the songs that we had. Like I want to be inside the song and contribute and maybe make it better without distracting from it, you know? And so that’s why I don’t use a lot of notes. But I think if you’re if you’re clever, you don’t really need a lot of notes to get across.
Rock Cellar: Is it true that the first song you ever wrote that you were proud of was “Rockin Around with You”? It’s got such a great groove.
Mike Campbell: Well, thank you. Well, I had been dabbling in writing, but we were working on the first record and I had a little cassette player and I wasn’t think of anything per se (imitates riff). I was just playing that on the guitar and kind of strung in a couple of extra chords that we didn’t need, but Tom liked the riff and we needed a fast song so he kind of simplified what I had and kept the riff and a few of the chord changes and he wrote the words to it. And I was thrilled, it’s like, Wow, from my little germ of an idea comes back this great song. I could do this forever. (laughs)
It’s a song we actually opened with on The Heartbreakers’ last tour with Tom.
Rock Cellar: And that was the beginning of such a great partnership. Many artists blessed with a lot of hits bemoan the fact that some deep cuts that are equally as good as the hits kind of fall away. Given that, tell me the inspiration behind a song from the Hard Promises record, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.”
Mike Campbell: I think our catalog is pretty rich with deep tracks that are just as good as the hits. That song I’m really, really proud of. I did write the music and Tom wrote the words over it and that melody. And if I remember correctly, I had a four-track at the time and I had borrowed a Wurlitzer piano and I really loved the Beach Boys. I love Brian Wilson and I was just trying to play some Brian Wilson chords.
There’s a there’s a Beach Boys song called “Caroline No” that starts with a percussion sound, which I think is like an empty water bottle or something. I used to make tape loops, if there was a piece of a rhythm or drum or whatever I would take it and make a physical drum loop out of it. And I think I took that and looped it so I would have something to keep time with as I wrote these chords along with it, so it’s got that same rhythmic space as “Caroline No” but of course with my own chords. And then Tom came up with those wonderful lyrics and that was the germ of the song, a little piano and a Beach Boys inspired chord sequence.
Rock Cellar: And doesn’t your current band mate in Fleetwood Mac sing on that?
Mike Campbell: Yes. Stevie Nicks came in and sang so beautifully and her singers that she brings with her; they did a great background part in the middle, which was wonderful. I was just amazed that this little demo turned into such a nice record.
Rock Cellar: There’s another deep track that I wanted to touch upon which showcases the magic of your lead playing, playing just the right notes and leaving in space and that’s the song “You’re Gonna Get It!.” What do you recall about that one?
Mike Campbell: Well, I love that song a lot. It’s got a very sarcastic lyric, which Tom was really good at. You know, you bring up a good point about space and the guitar parts. There wasn’t much need for a lot of guitar at the beginning of the song. But if you do leave a lot of space ’til the end, when the guitar lead does come in, it makes a huge impact because you haven’t heard a guitar yet.
So that’s a good trick to know, to save the good stuff for the end so it really pops.
Rock Cellar: All artists have weird and strange concert bills they can recount. As for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, it’s got to be your first opening slot for a big band in a large arena and that was KISS.
Mike Campbell: It was kind of wild because they were playing stadiums at the time and we were just getting started. We were in Florida rehearsing to play some bar gigs and we got the call that we could drive up to South Carolina or someplace to open for KISS. So we drove up in our van and we played and we met them backstage. It was kind of awe-inspiring for a bunch of poor Florida boys to see these guys pull up in their limo. And they all had the black capes on when they walked in like superheroes and they were all nice to us. So and we went out and played and of course, the crowd was there to see KISS, but they treated us well. And it was nice to be behind the scenes on that show.
Rock Cellar: With the recent release of the Wildflowers & All The Rest deluxe edition, you had such an integral part playing on the record, but in terms of helping to oversee this expansive multi-disc collection too. What have been the most rewarding discoveries for you of things that you hadn’t heard for a long time or perhaps never had heard on this collection?
Mike Campbell: Wow, there was a lot and it was quite a process, first of all, sitting and hearing Tom while he was gone and hearing these tracks; some of them I didn’t remember until maybe halfway through the song and then it would come back to me. But there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s just really good. There’s a lot of disc of Tom’s home demos, which is how he worked on the songs before he showed them to us and he rarely made demos.
Usually he’d just come in and play the band the song on the guitar, but he had a handful of demos that we discovered that were done on an ADAT machine and I think that there’s a real intimacy there where you can hear the songwriting process of Tom in the very early stages. But, you know, it was hard. It was nice to hear all that stuff and relive it, but it was also emotionally kind of sad to know that he wasn’t with us anymore.
Rock Cellar: Of course … Is it still hard for you to hear the music you did with Tom and The Heartbreakers now, or is there more joy for you to hear it?
Mike Campbell: Well, both, but mostly joy. I mean, I listen to our channel on Sirius Radio when I drive around. That’s normally when I go to that station and I’m always pleased and proud to hear how good the songs hold up. I can’t put on a record and listen to it just yet. I’m still grieving, but when I hear the song now and then, in different places, it’s usually a positive experience. But there’s always it’s a bittersweet moment.
Rock Cellar: Tom loved Wildflowers and would cite it as his favorite. But when speaking about it, he expressed being fearful of it because its legacy and power and how everything came together so seamlessly, loomed large in a sense to live up to it.
Mike Campbell: Yeah, I can totally understand that because songwriting especially is such a mysterious thing. You know, it comes from the ether and appears in front of you. And sometimes you’re a little in awe of that energy like, wow, where did that come from? You know, how do I keep it coming? I don’t want to spoil it, I don’t want to lose it. And I don’t know where it comes from. But you just go with the flow. You know, all writers go through that.
And I know that Tom has said what you said. He felt really close to those songs. Personally, I have a feeling about all the albums. You know, they all have their own devotion to me. I love Wildflowers and I’m proud of it but to my own particular taste, it doesn’t stand head and shoulders above the rest of our catalog. Although for some people, they really connect with that record and that’s to Tom’s credit; he could write songs that really move people.
Rock Cellar: How about for you, what’s the Heartbreakers album that really ticks all the boxes for you?
Mike Campbell: Well, that’s a hard choice. There’s so many. But, you know, interestingly enough, I get a real kick out of listening to the first album because when I hear it, I can hear the formation and I know where our heads were at and it was all ahead of us. We hadn’t done it yet.
Yeah, but looking back, I can see that that spark was finding a life that was going to carry on and do all these great things. I hear that in the songs and the playing and the sound and the atmosphere. I still like that first album quite a bit but I like all of them. But there’s something about that first one that always makes me feel special.
May 6, 2021