Mike Campbell

New Band, New Times
Mike Campbell
Guitar photos by Evan Bright.

Being a true rock star, Mike Campbell was never a morning guy. While living his best life amidst a pandemic, though, that all went to the dogs – literally.

“I’ve got Bloodhounds that get up early and need to go out,” he said with a laugh when we caught up to chat about his latest work. “We’ve got Calhoun, Gypsy, and Jolene – she’s our puppy. So yeah, these days I am an early riser, and I kind of like it.”

The shift is far from Campbell’s biggest change; the 2017 passing of his lifelong friend and musical compatriot Tom Petty altered his life like nothing before, and he padded the blow by continuing to make music.

More than a decade ago, Campbell began to fill time between Petty sessions and tours by jamming with friends and acquaintances in a group that became known as The Dirty Knobs – among them were Heartbreakers bandmates Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, and Steve Ferrone, along with session guitarist Jason Sinay. They moved from jam rooms to playing gigs in Los Angeles, then in late 2019 recorded a group of Campbell’s songs for a debut album, Wreckless Abandon.

What’s the story behind Dirty Knobs?
I met Jason at a session with engineer Don Smith, and we liked playing together. Then, I thought it’d be nice to record, so I got Steve and Ron into my studio. That started the band. Later, though, we decided it best to not have Steve and Ron in both bands, so my roadie brought in drummer Matt Laug and Lance Morrison to play bass. That was it. There were no auditions, people just showed up at the right time.

Campbell bought this ’59 ES-335 as-is on a Heartbreakers tour stop in Washington D.C. “I wasn’t sure, but Tom talked me into getting it, and I’m glad he did. I used it on tour for ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ and ‘It’s Good To Be King.’”
This Les Paul Junior is the guitar Campbell used to record “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” It met with disaster while the Heartbreakers were backing Bob Dylan on tour in ’86. “We were playing the Forum in L.A. when the strap broke and it hit the stage with the Volume knob full up,” he said. “It scared Bob, the neck snapped off, and my heart broke. But I had it repaired and it’s good as new.”
This 660/12 was Campbell’s first Rickenbacker. “I bought it in Anaheim for $120,” he said. “Tom borrowed it when they did the photo session for the cover of Damn The Torpedoes and I’ve used it on many recordings – ‘Listen to Her Heart,’ ‘Luna,’ and ‘Here Comes My Girl.’ Folks at the Rickenbacker factory told me it was the next guitar off the assembly line after George Harrison’s famous Rick 12 string. It’s got a lot of soul and sounds amazing.” The 12-string sounds on Wreckless Abandon are this guitar.
Campbell likes the palm wah, fuzz tone, and repeater built into this ’60s Vox Mark XII. “I used it on tour a bit, especially when the Heartbreakers did the Zombies song ‘I Want You Back Again.’ It’s a beautiful instrument – semi-hollow, which makes it sound similar to a Rickenbacker.”

It’s not so bad when things fall into place that way.
No, and it’s a great group. They’re all in it for the right reasons. We’ve been playing together a long time now, so we’ve developed that empathy. Nobody’s greedy and we have a wonderful time playing together.

You’ve mentioned liking the way you and Jason worked together on guitar in the early sessions. Specifically, what was good about it?
Well, he didn’t get in the way, for one thing. He complements what I’m doing, follows me really well, and when I need him to step up and do something he always delivers something good.

Were all of the songs on Wreckless Abandon written specifically for the album, or had some been kicking around?
Half – maybe less – had been kicking around. The rest were new within a week or so before, or during the sessions.

Had you ever pitched any of them to Tom – or to other artists?
No, I rarely pitched anything except to Tom. Once or twice here and there, but I wasn’t in the habit of pitching ideas. I’d always hold them for myself or Tom. I don’t even remember if Tom heard some of these… I might have shared a couple.

I used to overwhelm Tom because I write too much, really; I always had a lot of music and he would pick out some things he liked and write lyrics to them.

Campbell bought this ’56 Tele years ago for $400, and shortly after sent it to Gene Parsons to install the string bender. “I must’ve been out of my mind to modify a ’56 Tele,” Campbell laughs. “I wouldn’t do that now, but I did end up with a great instrument. I’ve used it a lot, mostly with Mudcrutch and several Heartbreakers songs such as ‘House In The Woods.’”
Campbell has never taken his ’59 Les Paul Standard on the road, but has played it live locally. “It was the only guitar I used on the last couple of Heartbreakers records, and it’s the only guitar I always put back in the case after I play it (laughs). It’s prominent on Wreckless Abandon.”

What do you especially like about the rhythm section?
They understand the songs and they follow me. If I want to go on a tangent, they can read my mind and go right with me, which is great. If I want to get quiet or get soft or extend a section, they follow really tightly. And Steve’s great, he’s got great time. They’re just great musicians, every one of them, and we fit together naturally.

You do all the lead vocals.
I do, except Jason sings a verse in one song. And we had a guest, Chris Stapleton, do a verse on one song.

Describe your vocal style.
Well, I remember someone once asked Leo Kottke, “What does your voice sound like?” And he said, “Like goose farts on a cloudy day.” I don’t think I sound that bad (laughs). I’m not Caruso, but I think I have a personality and a character, and I’ve gotten better. I can hit the notes and pitch, and tell a story. I’m not a histrionic singer – more a stylist, I guess, a “character.” That’s the best way to describe it, I guess.

Some will hear a bit of Tom’s influence in your laid-back vocal approach.
Well, that’s the thing. When I first started singing, I naturally sounded like Tom. I talk like him a little bit, too; we grew up together. My goal in this band is to filter that out as much as possible and find my voice, but there’s always going to be a little Tom in my twang here and there. I expect people to make comparisons, and I take it as a compliment.

How does songwriting work for you?
It’s very spontaneous; I can’t write on the clock. Never have. Songwriting is so mysterious; it’s a switch that turns on and stuff comes to you, musical or lyrical. You just have to be aware to grab it. I never say, “I’m going to write from 10 to 12,” or whatever, but I will come into the studio hoping the switch will turn on. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Do you usually catch a melody first, or do you hear a lyric?
In the Heartbreakers, Tom was so good that I usually wouldn’t think in terms of melody. Occasionally, I would, but mostly I’d just think in terms of music. Now, since I’ve been fascinated with lyrics and melodies, anything can come first. I’m used to music coming first, but if a lyric comes first, it’s no problem. I’ll put music to it later. But most of the time it’s the music first.

As a lyricist, do you see the influence of certain artists in your work?
I was influenced by so many people, especially growing up in the ’60s, when there were so many great songwriters – Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones. To some extent, I probably emulate that and other stuff I was inspired by – John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf. I could never sing like that, but I’m sometimes channeling that kind of character.

Most of the songs on Wreckless have a different sound, feel, and attitude compared to Heartbreakers tunes, but there are a couple that would have fit, like “Irish Girl” and “Southern Boy.”
Yeah, I have the same feeling sometimes, I wonder what “Irish Girl” would have sounded like if Tom had done it. There were other songs we didn’t use because they fell into a Heartbreakers groove or tone; I tried to stay away from that as much as possible because I don’t want to re-hash the Heartbreakers. I’m proud of that just the way it is. But those two examples and maybe “Loaded Gun,” as well.

Mike Campbell: Pamela Littky.

In the Heartbreakers, you created licks that helped define so many songs. With Dirty Knobs, do you intentionally step in different directions with your guitar parts?
Well, because I wanted the band to play live – which we did as we were tracking – I was focusing on my rhythm parts and the vocal. When we got to one of my solos, I made up something on the spot. So, there was no thought to putting a hook at the beginning or whatever. So, it is a slightly different approach. With the Heartbreakers, I could just listen and focus on guitar parts.

And you no longer have to stick to the clean tones of a Tele.
Yeah, Dirty Knobs is a grungier band because it’s just a four-piece – we don’t have a keyboard or background singers – so some songs require a thicker guitar sound to get a foundation. Sometimes you have to turn them up a little bit (laughs).

How many amps did you take to the studio?
We each used one amp; I was playing through a Duesenberg patterned after a Princeton, which is one of my favorite Fender amps. It’s got a bit of gain boost that gets a little louder than a Princeton. In the other room, Jason had a real blackface Princeton. That was our sound, and we didn’t mess with it. We got a sound that worked, and just played.

Which guitars did you have?
Well I used the ’59 Les Paul on quite a few things. I brought my original Broadcaster. Jason, a lot of times, played a Strat. Sometimes, I’d hand them one of my guitars and say, “Here, play this.” Guitars are like paint; I used a Rick 12-string when I thought it needed that sound, but most of the record is me with a Les Paul and Jason on a Strat.

This ’68 Les Paul was Campbell’s first Gibson. “The pickup covers were gone when I got it,” he says of its very exposed P-90s. “I bought it the same day I bought my Broadcaster, from Nadine’s Music, in L.A. – $500 apiece. It’s one of my favorite guitars for leads because it plays like butter. I used it on ‘Strangers in the Night,’ ‘Fooled Again,’ ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance,’ and ‘Hungry No More,’ from Mudcrutch 2.”

Are there a few personal favorite solos?
Well, I like everything, or I wouldn’t have put it on the album. But, I really like “Don’t Knock The Boogie” because of the spontaneous guitar solo in the middle. And I like “I Still Love You,” which is a very personal song with a very emotional solo that felt like it was in the soul of the tune.

“I Still Love You” is reminiscent of the outtakes on Led Zeppelin’s Coda.
Oh, spot-on. It was very Zeppelin-inspired. Jimmy Page is one of my favorites and I was definitely channeling him, thinking, “If Led Zeppelin was playing this, how would they approach it?” The arrangement, as well. And it was one take – it has a very simple lyric and the solo is live. But it’s also something very close to me. It’s three or four years old, maybe more. At gigs, it always went down well, so I kept it in mind. I was really happy we got it on tape.

Campell uses this ’56 Gretsch 6120 in the studio when he needs a Beatles or Chet Atkins sound.
Campbell’s 1950 Broadcaster is one of rock’s most-heard instruments, studio or stage. “It plays perfect, sounds perfect, and I love the way it has aged,” Campbell said. “It’s on so many recordings – ‘Breakdown,’ ‘American Girl,’ ‘When the Time Comes,’ ‘Hurt,’ ‘I Need to Know,’ ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance,’ and on and on. Any roadie who tries to clean the fretboard will be fired (laughs). It’s truly one of a kind… I think I’ll keep it.”
This mid-’60s Fender Jaguar in Seafoam Green was a gift to Campbell from his wife. “I have six Jaguars, and this is one of the best,” he said. “I’ve used it a lot live with Dirty Knobs.”

“Don’t Wait” gets a little Allman-y…
That’s my ’59 Les Paul with the neck pickup and the Tone rolled all the way off, like Clapton’s “Woman tone” – nice and thick. I didn’t think of the Allman Brothers, but those riffs, with the dark Les Paul tone, could lend an Allmans feel. I love the Allman Brothers, and some of that has probably rubbed off. We grew up in the same area – we’re all Southern boys.

Talk about Jason’s solos.
The one I think he really shined on was “F**k That Guy,” which I wrote with Chris Stapleton. He said, “I have an idea for a song about something everybody says at least once a day.” He hadn’t written anything yet, so I asked if I could mess around with it, and I wrote the lyrics really quick, trying to be comical, and showed it to the band. Then I thought, “Let’s get a snaky J.J. Cale groove and I’ll half-talk the song on first take.” I played rhythm because I was singing, so I handed Jason the Gretsch Clipper I’d used for “I Won’t Back Down” and put a slide in his hands. He doesn’t play slide much; I told him, “Just play it really simple,” and he played beautifully. I was really proud of him.

When we recorded “Loaded Gun,” I told Jason to just go wild. That’s all him at the end.

What will you most remember about the sessions?
The whole record was so much fun, but one high point was when Chris came out to do some writing. I said, “I’ve got this song called ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama.’ Would you sing a harmony on it?” He did it, then I asked, “Hey, would you be up to singing the second verse?” And he did a great job. Then, my producer, George Drakoulias, and I decided to give it a Sir Douglas Quintet Tex-Mex organ sound. George said, “Let me call Augie Meyers.” We sent the tape to Augie and he put organ on it.

That was really exciting. And, having Benmont come in and play on “Aw Honey” was a nice a warmup. When we played it, George said, “Well, there’s your first track.” Benmont put a little piano on it – which was the high point.

“Don’t Knock The Boogie,” came from something George said one morning. I told him, “That’s a cool line,” and I added some talking over a boogie rhythm; we worked out a little arrangement with some guitar solos and made up a little story about a guy walking into a bar. It was very spontaneous, one take. Really, I enjoyed every second making the album.

You had originally planned to tour this fall, but it’s been pushed back a year.
Yeah, we were ready to go. It was little places, all sold out. We pushed it back six months, then another six months waiting for this stuff to blow over. And the record was sitting there for awhile because we didn’t want to put it out without a tour to support it. BMG, my label, has been really, really cool about everything, and they finally said, “Let’s release in November because we don’t know when the tours are going to open up again.” So, we put it out. We shot couple of videos under strict medical protocol – everybody was tested and re-tested, and the place was sterilized. It went really well.

Hopefully, I’m not deluded about this album establishing who we are. The plan is to have a second record done by May; we already have enough songs.

When do you hope to resume touring?
Right now, we have dates booked in June. Chris was kind enough to give us a month worth of opening dates at bigger places like Wrigley Field. After that, we have our own tour, and if things are not safe, we’ll push it back again. But I’m hoping for a miracle, like we all are.

This article originally appeared in VG March 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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