Behind the Curtain: On Tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

“We’ve gotta thank our audience,” Tom Petty told the crowd in Boise, Idaho on August 5, 2014. “We’ve had quite a long career as far as rock’n’roll bands go. Throughout that long career, and many records, we’ve never been able to get past number two on the charts. So I want to thank you because Hypnotic Eye is now our first #1!”

As remarkable as it may seem, in a career that has soundtracked the lives of seemingly half the planet, with albums like Damn The TorpedoesHard PromisesFull Moon Fever and Wildflowers, not to mention his membership in the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty had never hit the top of the album charts before his latest album did the trick in August.

“Tom’s in a really good place, he likes having a hit record,” Petty’s lead guitarist and “co-captain”, as Petty calls Mike Campbell, confirmed the legendary rocker’s pleasure at achieving his first chart topper. “He’s in a really good mood! That’s a joke, but it’s true.”

“He was almost giddy,” Robert Scovill, Petty’s front of house chief for nearly 20 years told me over dinner backstage at Madison Square Garden a few weeks later. “It’s hard to believe he’d never had a #1, and he was clearly really excited about it. It was great for everyone, but it was especially nice to see Tom so happy.”

Many first generation fans will share the joy of the Heartbreakers’ achievement. For those of us who have had first-hand dealings with the band, no matter how small, the phrase “it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys” leaps to mind.

My first brush with Petty was in 1991, at his concert in Mansfield, Massachusetts. I’d somehow purloined a photo pass and easily wandered around backstage before the show, while the Georgia Satellites rocked the house. I talked to the late Howie Epstein, then the Heartbreakers’ bassist, and saw Petty from a distance. Already a legend and a Wilbury, he looked every bit the rock star he was while at the same time completely approachable. A student of the Joe Strummer aesthetic, I was suitably impressed.

But really, I first met Tom Petty almost 5 years ago, at a New York City listening party for his Mojo album. The party was at Germano Studios, then a pretty new space opened by Troy Germano, whose dad had owned and operated New York’s legendary Hit Factory.

There weren’t many people there – maybe 20 settled into the live room of the main studio – but I had been invited by Petty’s co-producer Ryan Ulyate and ran into some friends early in the evening who knew Petty and various Heartbreakers well, so I spent the cocktail hour chatting in the control room. Everyone was in a great mood and excited to hear Ulyate’s surround mix of Mojo.

It turned out that I shared some mutual friends with Benmont Tench, so we hit it off right away. We talked about the sad state of the music business and our shared love for Bob Dylan minutia, as well as some of the great new records of the moment.

“Tom was listening to a lot of old blues records and Mike (Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ guitarist) was listening to a lot of Zeppelin,” Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench said the inspiration behind the Mojo sessions.

Scott Thurston was also warm and great to talk to. I had recently worked with Steve McKay of the Stooges, whom Thurston had a long history with, and we traded war stories and laughed loads until the time for the first playback was drawing near.

Mojo sounded great, especially in surround on Germano’s top-shelf system. The mood loosened considerably at that point, as the first batch of guests filed out and a few new ones took their places. I started to say my goodbyes to all the Heartbreakers as well as Petty’s manager, Tony DiMiriades, and the folks from his Los Angeles office, but no one would hear of it.

I grabbed some more snacks and continued chatting away with everyone.

Suddenly, Petty and his wife, Dana, were standing just behind me. Petty looked to be in great shape. He was sporting a beard and dark shades, his white shirt covered by a brown vest and black suit jacket. He wore a necklace of beads over another with a small silver cross, and had red Converse sneakers on.

He looked exactly as you would image him to and, best of all, was warm and friendly and seemed genuinely excited to be there and hear Ulyate’s surround work.

“I haven’t heard it in surround yet,” he said. To me, I think, and that was enough.

As Ulyate prepared the playback everyone settled in to chairs in both the live room and control room. I was invited to find a chair in the control room but the only seat was in the front row, next to Petty. I hesitated, but bassist Ron Blair smiled and nodded toward the chair. I’m not sure if no one wanted to sit next to “the boss”, if the Petty camp were testing my mettle or if the quasi invitation was sincere, but I plunked myself down to Petty, who swiveled around and nodded to me.

Ulyate hit play and Jefferson Jericho Blues blared out of the speakers. We were off.

At one point Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ guitarist and Petty’s “co-captain” in the band, ripped out a truly spine-tingling fill, and Petty bounced up and down in his chair. He turned to me, looked over his dark shades and chuckled that half- menacing, half-exuberant Florida chuckle of his. He liked what he heard. “Man, that sounds fantastic,” Petty said, turning to Ulyate. It did.

For the next hour I tried to play it cool. Petty made it easy. The album sounded great and occasionally he would hear something he liked and would turn to me to comment or just chuckle in his inimitable laconic LA-via-Florida way.

When the album was finished we had a brief exchange and Petty disappeared. But his wife, Dana, approached me, genuinely curious about what I thought.

“I think it’ll sound great live,” I told her. “I think you could play it beginning to end, maybe with some hits at the top and bottom of the show. Or you could do multiple nights in big cities, with one for fans of the hits and one where Mojo would be featured.”

We talked for a while about this and soon Petty had returned. Slipping an arm around him, his wife said, “Jeff has a great idea.”

As I listened to her repeat my idea all I could wonder was, “Is this seriously happening?”

We broke up after a bit, but not much later I found myself alone with Petty in the corridor just outside the control room. He was incredibly open and engaging, and we talked about Bob Dylan and George Harrison. His love and respect for both men was evident. But when I asked about his other Traveling Wilbury bandmate Roy Orbison, he lit up.

“Roy was just the sweetest guy, and he had the most amazing laugh,” he said, perking up at the memory of the late, great singer. “He had the most amazing voice, even if he was just working something out, it was always just… there.”

As for the album?

“I didn’t come in with all the riffs worked out, except for in a few places where I knew what I wanted,” Petty recalled, still clearly bouyant from his first time hearing the 5.1 Blu-ray mix. “In most cases I just came in and strummed an acoustic and played the songs to the band. We did four sessions of about 10 days each and just developed the songs in our rehearsal space live, right there on the floor (of the studio).

“I don’t think we could have made this record 15 or even 10 years ago,” Petty said, in his typically blunt manner.  “We’ve always been a great band, but we’ve really blossomed in an unexpected way and this album really showcases that.  I’m really happy with this record.  I always say that, but this time there’s something really special going on.”

Soon, the evening starts to wind down. A group, with Petty and his fellow Heartbreakers in tow, are headed to dinner. I’m invited, but it’s time to head home. Better not to overstay my welcome, I figure.

Not long after that, Petty and Co. hit the road. When the tour hits New York I’m invited to Madison Square Garden to spend the day and see the soundcheck by front of house god Robert Scovill. He meets me at the Employee entrance and hands me an All Access pass. “Now, this is living,” I think.

But I arrive to an empty Garden.

“I hit on this idea – quite a while ago, now – where I use the recording of the previous night to soundcheck the room,” Scovill tells me, as Refugee blares in the cavernous room.

That night, standing with Scovill and Petty’s manager Tony DiMitriades at the mixing board, the sound is pinpoint precise from the very first note. And the band, who were spared sitting around backstage at the Garden for the bulk of the day, seems as fresh as ever.


Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

“The first time I saw Tom’s show with Scovill mixing was it was like the sun coming over the mountain,” fellow Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne tells me of Scovill. “Holy shit! It really elevated my look at life. He knows that I think that. He’s the greatest.”

Crisp yet powerful, in one of the most notoriously terrible sounding, if legendary, rooms in world, the Heartbreakers (and Scovill) have turned in a great – and great sounding – show.

Afterwards, everyone is in great spirits. At a small meet and greet backstage, drummer Steve Ferrone and Late Show with David Letterman bassist Will Lee animatedly trade session stories and the rest of the band move from group to group of well-wishers, saying thank you and catching up with old friends.

I keep in contact with my new friends, as they work on what will become Petty’s latest, Hypnotic Eye, hearing stories about its gestation that only make me more excited to hear the final product. Ulyate seems to be constantly at work on either the new album or one archival project or another, and Scovill traverses the US as an ambassador for Avid.

Tench, meanwhile, plans a solo album. (Editor’s note: It’s out, and it’s great.)

With all this activity Petty could be forgiven for taking some time off. But in the spring of 2013 the band plays residencies at the tiny Fonda Theater in its adoptive hometown of Los Angeles, and at New York City’s Beacon Theater, as well as the huge Bonnaroo festival.

I catch up with everyone at the Beacon, spending the day catching up and watching the well-oiled machine that is Petty’s crew seamlessly raise the night’s show from scratch. After grabbing a few guitar picks and watching an excellent deep-cut show from Petty and the Heartbreakers, I say my goodbyes.

During the winter I hear rumblings that there will be a new album soon, and that it’s a back-to-basics rocker that plays to Petty’s strengths. “It’s rockin’,” reads one text I get.

benmont tench you should be so lucky artIn the meantime, Benmont Tench makes an excellent solo album, You Should Be So Lucky.

“It’s the sound of great musicians — who also happen to be friends — who know how to listen to each other, making a record the old-fashioned way,” Tench tells me proudly when we catch up when he visits New York.

“We only had eleven days to make the album, but we turned that into an asset,” Tench recalled. “Limitations like that either make you or break you, but I loved turning it into a sort of call to arms for everyone involved. It’s such an amazing group of people involved, and everybody really rose to the occasion.”

As for that new album, by the spring of 2014 I know that the rumors are true. From my first listen it’s obvious that the writing on Hypnotic Eye is, typically, strong. But Petty’s voice sounds great – young – and the band sounds engergized, too. It’s definitely one I want to see live, and I don’t have to wait long.

“I agree,” Mike Campbell tells me, when I catch up with him and tell him how I especially enjoyed the urgency of Hypnotic Eye. “I thought especially that the singing sounded really young-ish. I told Tom that and he was really happy about it. We always draw, this album included, from our experiences and inspirations. We still draw from those same places, people who inspired us when we were young. You also draw from what you’ve already done, and you try not to repeat yourself.”

“As you go along, that gets to be a bit of a good problem to have. We just draw from what we’ve picked up along the way. So there was no specific discussion when we came to make Hypnotic Eye that we’re going to draw from a specific part of the well. Each song just came in from wherever it came. If it fits into a certain bag or feel, I think generally that’s an accident! I get the feeling that you mostly just take whatever the gift has given you that day. You don’t say, ‘Oh, this is the wrong well, so I’m not going to take it!’ You take what you’re given, and hope it’s from a good place.”

The album tops the charts during the first week of August, just a week after its release and as the tour gets underway, and by the beginning of September the show rolls into New York City. As has become a routine that I could have only dreamed up, I clear my day and make my to Madison Square Garden just after lunchtime.

While I get to see a mini-concert by legend and opening act Steve Winwood – “we don’t even belong on the same stage as him, he’s so damn good,” Tench jokes with me later – Scovill again teases everyone in the building with a recorded soundcheck.

“There’s that death hang,” Benmont Tench tells me during dinner backstage before the show, where we celebrate his birthday with at least two cakes, one Hypnotic Eye-themed. “In the old days we’d have to show up around 2 in the afternoon, play for a little bit, and then just sit around until showtime. That kills you, there’s no two ways about it. Once Bob hit on the recorded soundcheck, and freed up our day until basically showtime, it made everything so much easier. There’s no doubt it’s extended the life of the band as far as I’m concerned.”

When I catch up with Tench just after the tour wraps up, he confirms the importance of the approach.

“I don’t know if it would kill us, but it would surely kill the vibe,” he reflects. “It might not kill the individuals but it would surely kill the band.”

“The sound check thing is interesting,” Campbell agrees. “In the past, the sound check was part of the day. It could be tiring, because first of all, you’re tuning things to an empty room, and everything will change when it’s full of people. You go in the afternoon, so you have to hang at the venue an extra four hours. There’s a lot more waiting around as opposed to resting in your room. I used to love the sound checks because even if Tom wasn’t there, we’d just jam and play and have a ball.”

© Andy Tennille, 2014

© Andy Tennille, 2014

“So I miss that, but it got to the point where the technology is so good that he didn’t really need us there. We use that time to rest, trust Scovill to get the sound together, and we can walk in fresh and be on top of our game. In fact, it got to the point where he even prefers that we aren’t there for the sound check, because we end up noodling which just makes his job harder.”

“Sound checks are not always fun! A lot of times, it’s just troubleshooting. Okay, something’s fucked up. Everybody sit down for ten minutes while I work on the snare. Or the guitar’s broken. Things are feeding back and squealing. It can put you in a bad mood when it’s not going well. So we don’t need to go through that whole process anymore. Having said that, if we had a new guy come in other than Scovill, we’d need to do a sound check again, because we couldn’t trust him to make it sound the same way as it did. But it does drain you. It’s very simple. When you’re on tour, nothing matters except those two hours of the show.”

“For the musicians, our challenge is to rest. Mentally and physically, to rest so that when you step on stage, you’re at your peak energy level. If you’ve been there all afternoon sound checking and hanging around, it might cut you down 10% of your vibe. When you’re in your twenties, you can go four days without sleeping. But at our age, being rested so that you’re at your full potential at show time, that’s the game. Tom basically put it into perspective when we stopped doing sound checks. He said, ‘Sound check? I only do one show a day!’”

Tench and Campell, and Petty too, are right. I stand again at the front of house board that night and watch one of the best Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shows I’ve ever seen. They open with the Byrds classic So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star and play one hit after another, while mixing in some cool deep cuts like Two Gunslingers – “it’s always been one of my favorites,” Petty says – and a stripped down, powerful Rebels.

“We take it very seriously,” Campbell tells me when we catch up about a week after the tour ends. “We love what we do, and we feel a responsibility and desire to be our best. Whenever you’re in front of an audience, you don’t want to sell them short.”

“You want to give them everything you’ve got. We’ve always been that way. We’re not ancient yet, but we’re older than we were when we first started out.”

“Our touring is easier now. For us, this is a normal length tour, but for a normal band it might be a short one. We’ve always tried to keep it down to two or three months of the year, because otherwise for us, it tends to get rough on the psyche. You prepare your mind… It’s a major mind-fuck going from being at home in the studio and comfortable surroundings to be flying a lot, in front of different people, a different city every day. You do have to make a kind of mental adjustment. Where at night I might normally go to bed after watching a movie with my wife and my dog, now I’m on tour every night and I’ve got 20,000 people screaming at me! It’s a bit of an adjustment to your schedule, but it’s great. Physically we’ve all got to the point where we love doing this, and we want to do it as long as we can. We watch what we can, exercise when we can, try to keep our bodies in shape. I do a little extra work on my legs so that I don’t go out with rubber legs. You do a little physical and mental preparation, and then you just hold on for dear life.”

As for the highlights of the tour, both Tench and Campbell hardly hesitate when I ask.

“Hands down, Red Rocks, Colorado,” Tench tells me. “There’s something about the way that it’s built that puts the audience really intimately with you. And the venue sounds great. It’s not a small venue. It seats several thousand people. But it feels more like a small gig. It was bitter cold all three nights we played and the second night, there was driving wind and driving rain. There’s a roof over the stage, but when the wind hits, it doesn’t matter. Tom was in the rain at points as much as the audience. The audience was sitting there in the rain for the whole show. Because it was three nights, we played a few things. The band played stuff that we don’t play often.”

“There was a real present sense of life which makes to my mind, and to my taste, a better musical experience. Since we were changing up more at Red Rocks, we were all there in the same musical place. I’m not saying anything against shows like Philly or the Garden. It doesn’t ever come up, like, ‘Try your hardest tonight.’ We’re up there playing music every night to the very best of our ability. Every night is all-out. I loved the first show in San Diego. I thought Vancouver was sweet. Chicago was stellar. It was a really great tour. I hope that we come off that there’s a great musical dynamic between us. We’ve been doing this a long time, so if we can’t do that anymore, we should really just be doing something else. But Red Rocks stands out.”

“The whole tour was a joy, really,” Campbell confirms. “No drama. Everybody was happy. The Garden is always a big deal. The only place I feel pressure when we tour is maybe the Garden, LA, Chicago, and we played Fenway Park, so there was pressure to be at your best that night. But the Garden has always been one of my favorite places. It’s got so much history.”

© Andy Tennille, 2014

© Andy Tennille, 2014

“I’m always proud to play there. I felt the band did really well that night, and I was very proud of everybody. It’s a great guitar sound there, and it’s got so many beautiful ghosts in that room. I think we played good that night, so I was really happy with that. Seattle was good, too. But the big moment we were all looking forward to was Fenway Park. We’d never played there. That was epic. It was just so big and spiritual. There was a lot of good energy that evening. We had a really good night. For me, personally, I had a really special night in Red Rocks, the last night there. That is a big thrill for me. And then LA, we had two nights here at the Forum, which we used to play in the ’80s. We hadn’t played there because we’ve been doing the Hollywood Bowl and other places. But they reopened the Forum and remodeled a bit. There were a lot of out-of-body moments for me playing the Forum.”

“We threw Don’t Do Me Like That in one of those nights. We hadn’t rehearsed it, but the first time we played that song there back in the 80s it was a hit on the radio. So here we are now, flash forward however many years, and I’m standing there playing Don’t Do Me Like That at the Forum. My feet came off the ground, like, ‘Am I back in the ’80s? Am I still doing this?’ That was definitely a high point.”

The show is more than two hours, but it’s over in a flash.

“The truth is that that we have a harmonious group and that is not easy to maintain,” Campbell tells me as we wrap up our post-tour chat. “Look around you at all those bands that broke up while we’ve been around, or all those bands that are still together but just hate each other. That’s not us. We actually still like each other. And when we play together it’s still like the first time in the garage. We still have that awe kind of feeling about what we do. And there’s another thing. For whatever reason we’ve been so blessed to keep the nucleus of the band together so long, at this point that becomes a real treasure.”

“We’ve got this band and kept it together, and we’re still really good. To give it up now would really be giving away something precious is the way we look at it. We’ve got it and we want to honor it and get as much of it out it as we can. It’s rare to be together this long. I don’t know how we had a hit record this year. Maybe we were just lucky. But it was a big record for us as far as records go these days. I’ll say this about Tom, we’ve been through a lot of stuff, like all bands go through. At this point in his life, he’s in a really secure place with songwriting and himself. He’s mellowed out a bit.”

“In a way, he’s gotten more humble and open, and less protective about sharing his process with people. He seems like he’s in a really good place in his life, and that carries over to everything, the tour included. And the tour was huge. We all had a great time. The fans’ faces out there every night were just so full of joy and hope. It was like church, and we’re the preachers and they come to hear the sermon, and hopefully they walk away with hope and happiness. What more could a guy want for his job really? I think we’re getting kind of protective about this thing that we’ve created that’s so vital. We want to hold on to it and protect it.”

I’m told there’s an expanded version of Petty’s 1994 classic Wildflowers on the way. By all accounts it’s fantastic. I can’t wait, but more than anything I look forward to catching up with my friends again, to hear some more great music.

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