Tom Petty: “I knew right away what my calling was, there was no question about it”

The Heartbreaker invites Uncut to his Malibu estate

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Outside the studio’s lounge, the sun breaks through the haze typical of Malibu in the early summer, adding a little extra colour to the well-manicured lawn beyond. Petty slides open the door to toss his cold coffee onto the stones and returns to the sofa to continue with the conversation. For all the rancour he expresses in Hypnotic Eye, it hasn’t seemed to impact the prevailing air of contentment among the Heartbreakers. Made to mark the band’s 30th anniversary celebrations in 2006, Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour Runnin’ Down A Dream film recounted the group’s sometimes stormy history in exhaustive detail. But any signs of internal strife – like the strains when Petty stepped out of the fold to make Full Moon Fever with Jeff Lynne – seem deep in the past at this point.

“It’s pretty much a love fest,” explains Petty. “It’s almost embarrassing how well we’re getting along – let’s just say it’s the complete opposite to what we were in our twenties! Everyone really appreciates this thing right now. We’re lucky boys to be alive after what we’ve been through and to be able to do our thing on the level we want to do it. And I never dreamed we’d be doing it this late in our lives. We’re all very grateful for that.”

Mike Campbell believes it’s only natural for the bandmates to have developed separate lives over the decades even as they’ve maintained the essential bonds. “Months will go by and I may not speak to Tom much,” admits the guitarist. “And then we’ll get on the phone and talk for two hours – we have that kind of relationship. We don’t socialise that much – we don’t go out to basketball games or movies or dinner too often. But you gotta give it a break every now and again. Bands are very delicate. If you love each other and you love what you do together, you have to protect it and give it space.”


“Blood” is how Tench describes the bonds within the band. Even so, he was still moved by the support he received from his bandmates when he performed a Los Angeles club gig in support of his debut album, You Should Be So Lucky. Says Petty, “I went down to see the show and I felt so proud. He was really good and he had a great little band and the audience just went mad for him. You’d have thought he had done this his whole life the way he was so comfortable onstage and being up front. I was shouting at the top of my lungs for him.”

Tench admits it was intimidating to have the Heartbreakers in the house. “It’s like having a party with your pals and your older brothers all show up,” he jokes. “It’s like, ‘I better be sure I’m on the money tonight!’”

Petty was amused to be on the other side of a familiar situation when the Heartbreakers were asked to leave Tench’s dressing room so he could get ready for the show. The band reconvenes for their North American tour in August and Petty hopes they’ll play with the same spontaneity they brought to the dates in New York and LA last year. “There weren’t really arrangements for a lot of those older songs,” he laughs. “I knew I was starting in the key of C on my guitar and that was it. We didn’t know who was taking a solo or when or how we’d end this motherfucker but that put us on our toes I kinda left there every night feeling, ‘Wow, we really played some music tonight.’ The band’s at a point where we like to be as loose and improvisational as we can. That keeps us interested.”

That the Heartbreakers still exude so much vitality is all the more remarkable given the potential burdens of their history. “You carry around a lot with you,” Petty admits. At this point, their sets could consist of nothing but much-cherished hits, a prospect that doesn’t sit well with Petty. “I ain’t dead yet,” he cracks. “I’m still doing new music and I insist on playing it. Haven’t had a lot of resistance to that.”

Yet whether it’s going through old tapes to pick the performances on 2009’s Live Anthology, delivering a dose of cosmic country-rock with the reconstituted Mudcrutch (which Petty plans to reconvene this year) or preparing a new edition of Wildflowers, Petty’s tended to his legacy with the same care he devotes to his new music. Whatever he carries, he seems to carry it lightly. Here in the studio, that past is on the walls. The space peers may devote to platinum records is taken by more personal totems, like a photo of the host with hero Carl Perkins and the Dylan painting. “I do marvel at him,” says Petty of his friend and former Traveling Wilburys bandmate. “Bob’s so much better than all of us.”

Further along the wall is a shot that Jim Marshall took of George Harrison backstage at Dodger Stadium in 1966. It’s hard not to be struck by the fact that Harrison was all of 23 when the picture was taken. Petty and his friends were nearly as young when the band’s rise began. Drawing on an American Spirit cigarette at the tail end of our talk, Petty is moved to reminisce. “We were kids,” he says. “It was a great way to grow up. If I look back on it all like it’s a film, the part I remember the fondest was before Damn The Torpedoes. The ’70s was really great because we were getting to that point where we had an audience but things weren’t out of control. We had steady work and we had a loving audience and we felt so inspired – that was the greatest to me. Not that the rest wasn’t fun but that was especially so. We didn’t have 20 bucks between us but we somehow made enough to live and keep travelling and keep working.”


Petty leans forward to tap the ash into an oversised wooden ashtray on the table. “That was one advantage I had over a lot of my friends – by the time I was 15, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. A lot of them didn’t well into their twenties. But I knew right away what my calling was, there was no question about it. I had no choice – I was fortunate in that way.”

The June 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Summer Of Love, talking to the musicians, promoters and scenesters on both sides of the Atlantic who were there. Plus, we count down the 50 essential songs from the Summer Of Love, from The Seeds to The Smoke, and including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Elsewhere in the issue, we remember Chuck Berry, go on the road with Bob Dylan and there are interview Fleet Foxes, Fairport Convention, Fred Wesley, Jane Birkin and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ co-conspirators Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise. Our free CD has been exclusively compiled for us by Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and includes cuts from Todd Rundgren, Neu!, Van Dyke Parks, The Shaggs, Arthur Russell and Cate Le Bon. Plus there’s Feist, Paul Weller, Perfume Genius, Ray Davies, Joan Shelley, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Johnny Cash, Alice Coltrane, John Martyn and more in our exhaustive reviews section


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