Tom Petty Q&A
by Larry Rodgers
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers don’t have a new album to support on their current tour, so they’ve leaned toward serving up a mix of hits and a few rarities.
There have been plenty of Petty’s trademark anthems on recent set lists, including Learning To Fly, Runnin’ Down a Dream, Refugee and American Girl. But lesser-known tracks, such as a cover of Them’s Mystic Eyes and the Traveling Wiburys’ End of the Line, have been dusted off.
Keyboardist-singer Steve Winwood, an almunus of Traffic and Blind Faith, will open when Petty, 57, plays Glendale’s Jobing.com Arena on Aug. 20.
As Petty prepared to be the star of halftime for Super Bowl XLII in Glendale in February, he gave The Arizona Republic an extensive interview covering several phases of his life and career.
Here are some excerpts, many of which did not appear in The Republic in February due to space considerations:
QUESTION: You and your band are among a handful of rock acts that have continued to create relevant, fresh material decade after decade. Is that easier said than done?
ANSWER: It’s kind of like just going where the wind takes you. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve found myself in a different frame of mind with each album, so I don’t think we’ve made the same album over and over. . . . We’re not really great at grand plans or anything. (Laughs) So we just try to do what feels right at the time.
Q: That formula has kept you in arenas, far from the casino oldies circuit.
A: We’re not the kind of people that would go on the casino circuit. We’re too judgmental of each other. I think because the music has got a somewhat timeless feel to it, (our success has continued). . . . But I think the audience still trusts us in that we’re still trying really hard on the music we’re making today. And we take it very seriously.
Q: You seem to change up your delivery of some of the hits in concert to give them new life.
A: The songs are always better after a year playing them on the road. (Laughs) They just take on their own life, they just keep evolving. I do that without thinking about it. Sometimes when I have to go back and hear the record, I’m stunned by how different it’s become on the road. That’s just a natural thing.
Q: It’s surprising that at this phase of your career your shows draw such a wide age range of fans, including lots in their teens and 20s.
A: We have a lot of young people in the audience. The audience always gives us a lot. They’re usually very excited and there’s a lot of energy out there. We really count on that in a way, because it goes two ways. It’s a two-way street – the more they give us, the more we give them.
I’m glad we’re not just playing to 50-year-old people. I love those people but it’s great to have all ages. Honestly, if our music wasn’t being handed down or being discovered by the younger people – the later records – we would have been over long ago.
Q: You’re a master of the pop hook that people can’t get out of their mind. Is it a struggle to create that stuff or does it come easily?
A: It’s all of the above. Sometimes it’s very easy and sometimes it’s a struggle and sometimes it’s downright painful. But I just do it. I think that I can’t even help doing it sometimes.
I’m going to write the songs, whether I try to or not. But usually when an album is coming up, I put a lot of time into writing . . . . But I don’t have a perfect method for writing songs; I don’t ever do it the same way that often. It’s such a supernatural thing, it’s hard to even know.
Q: What’s the key to recording a good rock and roll song?
A: The best music to me is about how it feels, much more so than the intricacies of anything else. That’s what we always look for when we’re making a record, is how does this thing feel. I’m much more interested in that than if the bass player played all the right notes.
Q: So many of your songs have become rock anthems, and they get played quite a bit year after year. Do you ever get tired of singing a tune like Free Fallin’ or American Girl?
A: No, because when I’m singing it, I’m coming from the same spot I always did. And really it’s very flattering when they become that part of the kind of fabric of things. I Won’t Back Down is one I hear in every possible situation. I see the Republicans use it, then the Democrats. I’ve seen it sung on someone’s peace show, and I’ve seen it when the ships are going off to war. They take it and use it the way they want. (Laughs)
But I’m glad when one becomes (an anthem). As a songwriter you have to thank your lucky stars if one gets that kind of attention. It’s such a payoff.
Q: Your band toured with Bob Dylan in the ’80s and backed him up during his sets. What was the main thing you learned?
A: We took a lot away from that. It made us a much better band, it helped us get over the first big hurdle we had in our life, which was, “What do we do now?” Because we’d had a good amount of success. And then when we went on the road with Bob, it sort of loosened up the way we played and it showed us that if the song has really got its nuts and bolts together, there are many ways of interpreting that song, and that the solo doesn’t always have to be the same, and that sometimes that moment won’t always work, but when that moment comes . . . it’s so real, so overwhelming that the audience feels it in a very special way.
Q: You played with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys from 1988 to 1990. What a lineup.
A: That was a really extraordinary thing. Those couple years, I think they were some of the best times of my life. It was an unusual way to work because there were so many writers. But I think that it couldn’t have been done with just any group of people. We were friends, and people often overlook that. The qualification for being in the Wilburys wasn’t to be famous, it was more about we liked to hang out, we liked each other’s company. And from there, we had a good foundation to write.
Q: Your band also backed up the late Johnny Cash on 1996’s Unchained album. No doubt, another amazing experience.
A: That was a joyous thing. For me, it was fun because most of the time I played the bass, and then when Howie (Epstein) decided to show up, he was playing the bass and I was free to do whatever I wanted. So I could play organ or mellotron or the guitar or whatever was there. . . . I wanted to please him (Cash) and wanted him to get off on what we were doing. And when he did, it was a great reward.
I still say that album, Unchained, is some of the best playing the Heartbreakers ever did. . . . We thought it was really funny when we won the country Grammy for that.