Good times with the blues: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers distill their essence in 'Mojo'
By Chris Richards
On the phone from his Malibu home, Tom Petty has a way of deflecting questions that's half sphinx, half stoner. Maybe he doesn't want to answer you. Maybe there are no answers, man. Inquire about his highs, his lows, his in-betweens, and Petty sounds aloof, wistful, pensive - but, like his music, remarkably consistent.
What was it like playing the Super Bowl?
"I don't know."
Who was your greatest mentor?
"I don't know."
Can you cite a high or low point in your career?
"Oh, I don't know."
But there are still plenty of things the 59-year-old does, in fact, know. He knows that he's quite pleased with "Mojo," the 12th studio album he has made with his band, the Heartbreakers. He also knows he doesn't like giving interviews about it. He knows he'd rather be watching Turner Classic Movies or walking in the soft sands of the Pacific coastline.
And he knows he's getting older. But Petty still thinks his work is approaching its truest, purest form. "I think that's my musical quest," the singer says. "To get more and more purity into the music."
With the big 6-0 a few months down the road, Petty isn't fine wine so much as American rock-and-roll distilled. Since 1976, he and his Heartbreakers have been building sturdy rock songs at the intersection of heartland pluck and California cool. Along the way, he has released two successful solo discs - and one sorta successful one. He also recorded twice with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup that included George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan.
In recent years, Petty has immersed himself in the recordings of America's great bluesmen (Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Albert King) and Britons who pantomimed them (John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Peter Green). The result? "It's really a blues-based record," the songwriter says of "Mojo."
And although rediscovering the blues might sound hackneyed on paper, it sounds pretty great in practice. The band unveiled two of the better songs from "Mojo" - "Jefferson Jericho Blues" and "I Should Have Known It" - on the season finale of "Saturday Night Live" last month. Beneath a straw-tinted coif, bushy beard and dark aviator shades, Petty mewled through the latter tune with a swagger befitting his new album's title.
Ask him whether he was nervous about his eighth appearance on the show, and you can almost hear him shrug over phone.
But ask him about the recording sessions for "Mojo," and he perks up. "We went into it very, very up and very positive," Petty says. "I really enjoyed making the record - to the point that I didn't want to stop."
"Mojo" was recorded at the band's practice space in North Hollywood. Guitarists Mike Campbell and Scott Thurston, bassist Ron Blair, keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone all gathered in a semicircle and aimed to hammer everything out live, on the spot. No one wore headphones. Very little was overdubbed. The spontaneity translates clearly.
"The music was coming easily," Petty says of the sessions. "I felt really hot - like we were really in a pocket."
Yet titling an album "Mojo" at this point in his career suggests that Petty is reclaiming something he lost over the years, right? Like many other suggestions, Petty brushes this one off - and perhaps rightfully so. The man's decades-long discography has been so reliable, he struggles to pinpoint any dramatic plunge in his songbook. "There's nothing that really makes me hang my head and cry," he says.
The Heartbreakers first formed in Gainesville, Fla., in 1976, roadhouse ready. "When we first met up, we had very similar record collections," Petty says of the troupe's initial chemistry. "Our kind of barometer of 'this is good' and 'this is bull-[expletive]' was very similar."
By 1980, the band's third album, "Damn the Torpedoes," had gone platinum, and Petty would soon adopt the dual role of rock star and fan advocate, engaging in a public spat with his label over escalating record prices. When MCA announced that the Heartbreakers' 1981 album "Hard Promises" would be sold for $9.98 - one dollar more than the once-standard LP price of $8.98 - Petty raised a stink until the label changed its mind.
"I think I did kind of single-handedly hold down record prices for a long time," he says of the victory. Nearly 30 years later, as the record industry continues its 21st-century collapse, the tale has turned into a piece of up-with-the-artist folklore.
"I didn't understand corporations back then," Petty says. "They can't make enough money. That's the problem with America, in a lot of ways. Being rich is never enough."
Petty says he can't imagine going through a similar struggle in today's marketplace. "You'll find that 10 or 12 really good songs will deal with a myriad of problems," he says. "[But] if I was starting out now, I don't know if I'd be as encouraged as I was when I did. . . . Sometimes I look at the younger bands and wonder if they're having as much fun as we did."
He also wonders whether today's bands will last as long. He certainly didn't expect to.
"I didn't really anticipate us really doing it at this time in our lives," Petty says. "[But] I still got music in my head, and I'm in this incredibly amazing rock-and-roll band. . . . If we started to suck, we would all hang it up. But I think we're a long way from that."
"Mojo" will be in stores Tuesday.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are to perform at Jiffy Lube Live on Aug. 15.
June 11, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
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