Remembering Tom Petty with an Inside Look at the ‘An American Treasure’ Box Set with Producer/Engineer Ryan Ulyate

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

(Tom Petty photo courtesy Steve Ziegelmeyer)

“Tom had really high standards, and that was really in my mind,” Mike Campbell says with a chuckle when I ask him about compiling the new Tom Petty career-spanning box set An American Treasure, without his former band mate there to offer a thumbs up or down. “But these were tracks that just didn’t fit, for one reason or another. They were orphans. Tom was always very clear about what he wanted and didn’t want, but it’s not like there was anything wrong with them. So now they’ve found a home.”

That home is a sprawling, 63-song set of songs that tracks Tom Petty’s impeccable career from his earliest days with Mudcrutch, right up to his last album with the Heartbreakers, the chart-topping Hypnotic Eye from 2014. An American Treasure is an emotional ride, and will remind casual fans just how underrated Tom Petty was and diehard fans how much they lost when Petty died, exactly one year ago today.

“It was hard, and we didn’t always agree — the team, I mean — but the end result is really special, and it’s something we’re all very proud of, and it’s something I think Tom would have really liked,” Campbell says.

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That team — Campbell and fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Tom Petty’s daughter, filmmaker Adria Petty, his widow, Dana, and his go-to engineer and co-producer for the past decade, Ryan Ulyate — spent long hours during the first half of 2018, digging into Tom Petty’s vast archive of unreleased studio and live material. Their mission, they decided, was to try to paint a fuller picture of Petty, of a restless artist who was always pushing himself and his band to try new and different creative paths, and who was one of the truly great songwriters of the rock and roll era.

Rock Cellar sat down with Ulyate, who took us through the genesis and evolution of An American Treasure and talked about some of his favorite tracks in the process.

Rock Cellar: How did the idea for An American Treasure come about?

Ryan Ulyate: Obviously, when Tom died so unexpectedly, everyone was just in shock. So I got word around the end of January that Adria and Dana wanted to put together some kind of a tribute; that they wanted to put together a box set. They brought in Larry Jenkins, who’s worked with Bob Dylan on his box sets. And Larry was just so great and instrumental in kind of shepherding this process along.

So really shortly thereafter, it was a matter of, ‘OK, we want to do a tribute,’ you know? They had their favorite songs, and they wanted to show Tom in a different light. Obviously, we knew people would be very interested in the unreleased stuff. And, since I’d been pretty much looking into the database and diving into the tape library for the last ten years, at least, really starting with the Live Anthology, I had a pretty good sense of what was there. Because every time I would go in there to pull some tapes for whatever project we were working on, I’d try and fill in the data a little bit more. So we had a sense of what was there, and we started just going in there and pulling stuff out.

But, of course, even when we thought we knew what was in there, you know, you don’t really know until you play the tape back what it really is. So there was quite a bit of going in there and discovering stuff and seeing what we had. And then it was just a process of putting a playlist together, and of getting the consensus of all the parties: Mike and Benmont, and myself, and Dana and Adria, were pretty much the parties that we had to get consensus with. And we settled on something that was chronological, or more or less chronological, which made sense, as well as something that would tell people a story about Tom, one that was a little more personal. We wanted to show him as a songwriter, with kind of a humanistic perspective. I like to say it’s an artisanal collection.

Rock Cellar: You make it sound simple, and I’m sure it was a difficult process, but it’s a real testament to your work together that it’s not just a hits collection, but comes at Tom’s story from a new and different angle.

Ryan Ulyate: Well, we also really wanted to make sure it would have some deep tracks in it, for sure. We wanted to make sure that we had things that people hadn’t heard before. So we looked for songs that the fans had never heard before, or a different version of a song that they’d heard before, or even, in some cases, just a different mix of an existing master that would shed new light on an old song they already loved.

Rock Cellar: What’s most exciting is that it shows Tom and the band in really amazing creative form. There’s stuff from the early days, which you’ve mixed and left the endings on, in those new mixes. They’re new mixes, so they’ve got a real punch to them, but they also go on a bit longer than the originals, so they rock out for a bit, and I think it will be exciting for fans to hear how locked in, especially Ben and Mike are, in those really cool little moments. Talk a little bit about how you hit on that particular idea for presenting the songs that way.

Ryan Ulyate: Well, that was just an idea of one of the things we wanted to do, pull back the curtain a little bit. Because when they’d play those tracks out in the studio, they’d play them long enough, knowing that they were going to fade out, because they were making a record. So on some them I thought, ‘God, what happens if you don’t fade it out? What were those guys doing?’ And so that’s what we get to hear, and the odd little comments at the end of the song. You know, we thought that was really cool. Just to, like I said, pull back the curtain a little bit and show people what was really going on.

It was almost more of a documentary, in a way, than a record, if you know what I mean. Because we’re trying to show people what was really going on in the room when these guys were making those records. And we all thought that was a really cool perspective.

Rock Cellar: You’ve made a lot of records in your day, and usually the masters are the best mix you could possibly hope for, because they’re of the moment, and they serve the band in the best possible way, making even young bands sound great. So it was cool to hear that even very early in the Heartbreakers’ existence, they were a really hot rock and roll unit.

Ryan Ulyate: Oh yeah! Also, Mudcrutch too. You know, they were good from the first demo that they made at Benmont’s house. It kicked ass!

Those guys had played; they’d put in their 10,000 hours before they ever got a record deal. They knew how to be a great band and how to go on stage and make stuff happen. They could play covers of every song in the world, so they knew a lot about music, just by playing other songs. It’s like the Beatles. The Beatles wrote, but the Beatles did covers, especially when they were starting out, and that taught them how to be a better band. It’s the same thing with Mudcrutch then segueing into the Heartbreakers. These guys all had so much experience playing that by the time they actually got their first record deal they were ready. Then at some point what they needed to learn was not so much to be a kick-ass band — because they already were — they were learning how to make records, which is an art unto itself.

Rock Cellar: Were there songs you discovered — and I’m talking more studio cuts — that for one reason or another weren’t up to snuff, but that you kind of fell in love with that made it hard to let them go? Because when I talked to Mike, he said Tom’s thing was always quality control. Tom wanted the released version to be the best version, even if that was the version he was in love with at that moment, and show off not just the writing and his the singing, but the band and the performance.

Ryan Ulyate: I think there certainly were. But I think you have to look at the context in which you’re putting things out. This box set has a specific purpose. It’s an overview. It’s got perspective, and definitely more of a family-driven perspective on the guy, and his close friends, and band mates’ perspective, on this guy and his career. It’s designed to show people a certain point of view on Tom, and to shed a certain light on the guy and his career.

So if you’re a die-hard fan, and you know everything, then you’ll enjoy the ride, and you’ll find some new things. And if you don’t even know who the guy is, then you might discover him through this, too. So that was the purpose of this thing, really: it’s a tribute.

Now, having said that, there are some other songs that can come out in other forms. We’re hoping that this is successful, and that we can then go and focus on some other areas. There’s some great humorous songs that he wrote, that’ll just crack you up. Now, is it “Refugee”? No. But if people hear it in the right context, yes, they’d certainly enjoy it. So it’s just how you present it, really. It’s how these thing will live, so we have to find the right way to present them. Now, at the same time, if anything isn’t up to snuff, it’s just not going to come out, because, you know, I’ve got Tom screaming at me in my head. He’d kill me. [laughter]

I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I let something not up to his standards go out.

Rock Cellar: So with modern technology, could some of the stuff from the early days that didn’t make the cut be made releasable, if the consensus was there?

Ryan Ulyate: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, the case in point of this, or the poster child of that idea, is obviously “Surrender.” It’s a song that they kept re-cutting. But we went back and found the Heartbreakers’ version for the first album. I have told this story before, but it bears repeating, because it has a lot to do with what you’re asking right now. I was just looking at all of the stuff for this project, and I put it up, and I listened to it, and I thought, “Yeah, this sounds pretty good. How come these guys kept re-cutting this? This is a really good version right here.” But then I realized that it was a 16-track recording, and they’d put a bunch of overdubs on it, and drums had been bounced down to one track.

So they were just kind of dull, and they weren’t really moving things along. Then I found an overdub drum track that was on another track, and was really bright, because they were trying to bring the snare up, and obviously they were trying to fix the fact that the drums had become kind of dull sounding, because they got bounced down to one track. But when I put those two tracks together, the groove was terrible. It just wasn’t happening, and I could see Tom going, “Uh uh uh uh.” You know, raising his hands saying, “Stop, stop, stop! No, no, no! Done, no!” But when I got rid of that overdub track, and I went back to the original track, all of a sudden, the thing grooved, and it was great, and I thought, “This is a great song!”

Now, in that case, it took some serious Pro Tools work to resurrect that original drum track. Certainly, more technology than they had back in the day to do that. So, in a sense, it is kind of like restoration of a classic film. You know, you can take Casablanca or whatever, and you can restore it, and you can do things, and it takes it into a different perspective, which makes you feel less like you’re watching a movie, and more like you’re there. And I think that’s what the new mixes tend to bring to this project. I’m hoping it will put you in the room with them a little bit more.

Rock Cellar: So Tom’s artistic integrity always came first, of course.

Ryan Ulyate: Yeah, you got it, man. Look, my job was always to have this guy’s back, so we were not going to put out anything that was below a certain standard. That was the job. And that was who he was.

What he was in my mind is who he is, because he’s still right here, you know? So we’re going to keep the bar real, real high.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about some of the tracks. The version of “Rebels” on this set is really special.

Ryan Ulyate: Definitely. I think there were 39 versions of that song, and they were on two 24-track tapes that they had locked together. But the one thing they all had in common was that the vocal was from Tom’s demo. He’d made a demo of that song and then they tried to just build the track under it, and that’s when he kind of famously smashed his hand, you know. But we found one take that had Stan playing the drums on it, and it was a live take, so we used that as the main rhythm track, and now it just sounds like classic Heartbreakers.

It sounds like a band playing the song, as opposed to these guys making an 80s record, with a lot of drum machines and stuff. So this particular version is pieces sewn from various takes to Tom’s original vocal, and Stan, and the rhythm section. I think the guitars are from the demo, because those were also on every take. They were pretty much constant, then they at some point started overdubbing more of those guitars. And at some point some drum machines show up, and there’s some hand claps. But the track had the organ, the guitars, and the drums, and the bass, and everything was in a certain tempo. So it was the Heartbreakers, and it felt like a live track, and those tracks were all the same reel together, but the thing is, I think when you spend that much time on one song, it’s really hard to have any kind of perspective.

It also coincided with them having their own studio for the first time. So, you know, give a creative guy, a creative band like that, at that point in their career, and also at that point when there are certain social practices — oh, how should I say … [laughter] people tend to stay up all night [laughter] — you know, it can be very frustrating. But then you come back, and now we’re here looking at it in 2018, and it’s just like, “Well, God that’s really great! Let’s use that! So sometimes after a good 30 years or so, clarity presents itself.

Rock Cellar: It isn’t a secret that Wildflowers was something that he wanted to revisit, and some of those tracks are here, and on Playback, but this box made me wonder if there’s a double version of “Southern Accents,” like he talked about … 

Ryan Ulyate: Well, of course. But the way we chose to approach this, rather than doing a Wildflowers box set — which would would have its own fairly sizable audience — was to take an overview, of sorts, that would appeal to fans who may not know Wildflowers and might just know Tom and the Heartbreakers and who want to dig a little deeper into his career. They’re reflecting back on this guy who’s recently passed. We wanted to give them something to broaden that scope.

So that was the thinking, rather than giving people a moment in time, the way Dylan does with the Bootleg Series.

Rock Cellar: Well, the version of “King of the Hill” with Roger McGuinn is something. I can’t believe none of the other people who have previewed this box set have talked about it. The minute they sent me the box, that was the first thing I played. I wanted to hear what it sounded like with the Heartbreakers, in a more pure state, like “Rebels.” It’s the band with McGuinn and they just sound so great. Talk a little bit about the discovery of that track.

Ryan Ulyate: Well, we knew “King of the Hill” was an important song for Tom, because he was singing the tune, and writing the tune with his idol. So it was important, and it was important to have it on here. I think it was unanimous that it was important to have this song on the set. And so I started going back and looking through the library for “King of the Hill,” because we didn’t really know if we had it, and I hadn’t really looked for it before.

And so we found something that looked like it was the master. We pulled it and I transferred the takes and started listening to them, and it didn’t sound like Roger’s version to me. It kind of sounds like it, but it kind of doesn’t, you know. I think there might be some elements that are the same, but my guess is, and from looking at the date, it looked to me like they cut this before the version that Roger eventually released.

And I think that what it was, was that it started out with this version, and I think that they might have used some tracks from this and then Roger redid the rest. Or it might be a different version, but it’s obviously not Roger’s version, and it’s obviously a lot more of a live Heartbreakers kind of a thing. And it had that vibe, and it was just so good. And Roger sounded great and Tom sounded great. It was a real find. I don’t think anybody knew that this version existed until we pulled it out.

Rock Cellar: Wow! [laughter] You’ve mentioned the Heartbreakers as a live unit a couple of times. The Live Anthology is something I go back to on a pretty regular basis, and I have to say I dig out the surround version because I really adore it, and because it includes the extra disc, which is so great …

Ryan Ulyate: Oh, thanks! I love that extra disc! You know, a couple of Best Buy customers got it ten years ago. I just listened to it the other day and I’m really proud of it. It holds up so well. It just shows what great performers and musicians these guys are.

Rock Cellar: And that’s what I want to talk about. There are plenty of live tracks on here, and they’re interesting versions, because they’re versions that help you look at the songs from a different point of view, and look at the performances from a different point of view because they all bring something new to the songs. 

Ryan Ulyate: Yeah, there was a real strategy for how the live tracks fit into this thing; I mean it’s actually quite thought out. What we thought was interesting was to present the first live tracks, which people haven’t really heard that much of. They were recorded live in the studio for KSAN Radio at the Record Plant, and others done at KWST at Capitol Studios.  So here you’ve got this band, and they’re trying to break out, and they’re trying to get some airplay, so they do “Listen to Your Heart,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

But “Listen to Her Heart” was a new song, he says, “Here’s a new song,” because this is when they’re promoting the first album. And you hear about three people clapping. So it shows these guys really kicking ass, but the people haven’t quite caught on. But they’re great takes and it really shows how great these guys played in that moment. And then flash forward to the next time we included live tracks, and we find them there at the Forum, and it’s like they’re the Beatles.

That’s just a couple of years later, and you’ve got 20,000 people screaming their asses off. It was important, I think, to show here they are there, and they’re trying to make it happen, they’re great, and all of a sudden, there they are, they’re happening, and they’re great, still. Now they’ve turned into this thing. I mean; the Forum was a big deal. They did three nights at the Forum, which is pretty impressive. So in’77 they were doing KSAN, and three years later, they’re just on top of the world. And we picked that track, “King’s Road,” because it was a really fun live track, and it was something that wasn’t on any of the other live releases.

And Stan is doing his Keith Moon impression. The guy is on fire. I think it’s important, once again, to tip our hats to the band on that track, because it shows you what these guys could do, and how the audience was just going crazy. I love that track. And then the next time we kind of dip into the live stuff, I think, the Fillmore. And, you know, the Fillmore, once again, that’s another thing we wanted to touch on, because that was another big, important show.

The band did a residency there that was a really big deal for them. They really covered some new ground, and rediscovered themselves, because they played all these covers, so we wanted to tip our hat to that.

Rock Cellar: It’s funny, when I saw the initial track list, and noticed there were a lot of live tracks, I was more keen to hear the unheard studio tracks, but the live tracks really are amazing, and they really do exactly what you intended, which I didn’t expect. I thought, “Oh, a live version of ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ I’m going to skip that.” But I actually ended up listening to the whole set all the way through, on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, when I got it, and it was a great way to hear it, because it forced me to go along for the ride.

Ryan Ulyate: That’s a really good idea, this is your perfect transcontinental playlist. [laughter]

Rock Cellar: And, you know, it was sad and it was bittersweet obviously, but the thing that I really loved, was the stuff from the Clubhouse, from the later years, where they’re not necessarily the iconic songs that everybody loves — they’re kind of these lesser-known gems — but they’re completely different to what ended up on Highway Companion, or Mojo or Hypnotic Eye.

“You and Me” is, well, you can tell it’s the same song, it’s got a lot of the same elements, but there’s just a little bit different approach, and it makes a huge difference in how you hear the song, and how it makes you feel. I remember hearing about those records when they were being made from the guys involved, and hearing that they’d done some recording, but that they were going back, that they were going to do more, and that Tom was not only writing more, but rewriting.

So while I was listening to the later tracks, it made me think that there’s got to be a lot of versions of these songs, where the approach completely changed and where Tom had rewritten, because he was such a stickler for things being just so. Talk about choosing the alternate versions, and what the story you were trying to tell on that last disc is.

Ryan Ulyate: The perfect example of that, if you want to highlight a track, is “Sins of My Youth.” The version that’s on An American Treasure is an earlier take of that song and, like you said, it has a completely different feel. It’s got some different words, and it’s got a little pre-chorus that doesn’t exist in the final song.

We cut it and we all loved it, but at some point, getting toward the end of the album, and you start seeing what you’ve got. And this is what I’ve found with Tom, is that he’d come in with some songs and we’d start cutting songs, and he’d just be playing songs, and at some point about, after we had recorded about six or so, the album would start revealing itself to us. Because he used to tell me that he’d just come in with stuff, and what it wanted to be would just show up. So Hypnotic Eye started out one way, but it turned out completely different to where it began, I think.

There’s a track from the first session for Hypnotic Eye, “Bus to Tampa Bay,” which is a great song, and it’s another one of those where he’s kind of looking back at his life. It’s reflective. It’s kind of like “Gainesville,” which is another track that’s on this set, where it’s really Tom, it’s not a character, looking back and reflecting. So we cut some bluesy songs during that first session for Hypnotic Eye, but by the time we did the second or third session, we realized that those songs just didn’t fit in with where we were going with it. The album was revealing itself, and we realized it was a lot more social commentary, and it was a lot more edgy.

It was a lot more rock, and we all agreed that was the album we wanted to make. So therefore, a song like “Tampa Bay” was not going to fit on that. And “Sins of My Youth,” in the early versions, just felt to him a little bit like classic, mid-tempo Heartbreakers, and he wanted to do something different. So that’s where this bossa nova beat came about. It was like, “Okay, that’s good, but let’s just try something different. I want to just break out of this. I want to do something I haven’t before.” Tom was always into that. So at some point, while we were taking a break, Steve Ferrone just started playing this bossa nova beat. And I think the light bulb went off in everybody’s head at the same time. It was like, “Yeah, do that! ‘Sins of My Youth,’ bossa nova style!” On the record, in the context of Hypnotic Eye, and in the context of trying to make something tight that didn’t have too many tracks, that was a good classic 45-minute record, that version of “Sins of My Youth” fit in perfectly around the other songs.

The point is, and this gets back to why these things weren’t necessarily on an album, they just didn’t fit in with the context of those albums, so there were a lot of orphans that we can now put into a new context, and they’re all wonderful versions of those songs. And I love that, because they now fit in really well into the context of this exploration of Tom’s life and his career.

Rock Cellar: Even though all of you knew him really well — and certainly what he liked and didn’t like — but this must have been a really hard project to face.

Ryan Ulyate: Well, Tom is alive in our heads and our hearts. But thank God this project happened, because it was a big step in helping us get through the grieving. And by working with him, and through the process of listening to this music and working on it, to me, I was just back in my normal place. But I also had an appreciation of the guy that I’d just never had before because, you know, you can’t work day to day with a legend, if you have to work with a guy.

But now that he’s passed, he is that legend, and the wisdom that he had, that he brought to making music, the stuff that I absorbed, and we all absorbed, it’s just baked-in now. So it was hard, but it also felt good, and we knew he would have loved what we did.

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