“I did go through a lot of my life with a short fuse, where I could erupt into a serious rage…” At home on his Malibu estate, TOM PETTY is reflecting on his temper, his tempestuous career with the Heartbreakers, and his urgent and essential new album, Hypnotic Eye. Petty might be calmer these days, but there are clearly still battles to be fought. “I can’t save the world,” he says, “I can only bitch about it!” Words: Jason Anderson. Originally published in Uncut’s September 2014 issue (Take 208).
The troubles of the world seem a long way away from the home studio at Tom Petty’s Malibu estate. The singer’s favourite spot on the property, it lies at the furthest end of his spread, which consists of a long, connected set of red-roofed ranch houses. Modest by the neighbourhood’s standards, the most eye-catching features near the main house are a small fountain and an oval-shaped pool that’s hardly what you’d call Olympic-size.
As for the studio itself, this was a garage when Petty bought the place in 1998. Now the space is rather cosier, with its sliding doors, warm terracotta colours, dark patterned rugs and natural-wood details, which fit with the mix of Spanish and American Southwest styles in the rest of the estate. There are still plenty of indications that this is a musician’s idea of a man-cave, such as the enviable array of guitars on stands that line the walls of the recording space, the deep-cushioned grey sectional sofa and vintage red Coca-Cola machine in the lounge. Personal mementoes – like a painting whose thick brushstrokes mark it as the handiwork of Petty’s friend Bob Dylan – decorate the walls.
Surveying his domain in his not-so-lordly outfit of classic Levi’s denim jacket and faded blue jeans, Petty shows off the “world’s only indoor/outdoor control room”, so named for the patio that lies a few feet from the mixing board. He shrugs off the threat of noise complaints when the door’s open and the speakers are loud: “I don’t have any neighbours, so I don’t worry about that.”
It all feels like a safe haven for a self-described homebody, as well as a just reward for career sales of over 80 million and a body of work as treasured as anything else in the history of American rock. That’s why it’s jarring to hear Petty talk of how it nearly went up in smoke.
“That’s how close the fires came,” Petty says as he points to a ridge just beyond the red patio stones and a thicket of trees. This was in 2007, when wildfires devastated much of the area. “The smoke was so thick, if you went outside you couldn’t breathe.” He recalls grabbing what he could after being ordered to leave in a hurry, only to realise upon driving away that “there isn’t really any possession that means shit.”
It wouldn’t have been the first time Petty learned that lesson. One morning in 1987, his house in Encino was set on fire by an arsonist – the singer and his family barely escaped before the place and almost all of its contents were reduced to ashes. As he says, “This would’ve been the second time where everything I owned was gone. And it never really made a difference as long as everyone was OK.”
The Malibu fire was weighing on Petty’s mind when he wrote “All You Can Carry”. Like many of the songs on Hypnotic Eye – Petty’s 13th studio album with the Heartbreakers – it bridles with a stridency and ferocity that were once hallmarks of Petty’s music but have been rather lacking over the last two decades. Indeed, it’s the anger you can hear in Petty’s earliest, surliest songs, be it Mudcrutch’s original version of “Don’t Do Me Like That” or the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown”. And while it might’ve seemed like a part of his past, right now it feels very much in the present. Petty may be plenty amiable as he plays host in his studio’s lounge but, as he admits, “I’m not Mr Laidback.”