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Tom Petty

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Tom Petty on Dirty Impound

Photo: Sam Jones

Enduring quality in one’s work is the mark of a true artist. Many folks can cough up one brilliant tune but few can knock out good, sturdy music for 30+ years. Tom Petty hasn’t made a bad record. Fans and critics can quibble about the merits of various eras since Petty & The Heartbreakers’ eponymous 1976 debut, but there’s gold to be found on every release in their catalog. Petty has struck a particularly rich vein on Mojo (released June 15), a set that finds the band recording live-in-the-studio and leaning hard into their finest overall set since the underrated Songs and Music From She’s The One (1996). The whole thing ripples with muscle and grinning intent, with the guitars way out front and the band swinging gracefully while Petty lobs out killer couplets like, “Love it is hard like an overdue train/ We felt so much more than our hearts could explain.” Mojo stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Heartbreakers’ best, a mature sibling to Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises.

While we had a lengthier discussion of the new album elsewhere, a few things about the heart of great rock ‘n’ roll emerged in our conversation that spoke directly to the core principles behind Dirty Impound.

Dirty Impound: You seem to have a good connection with touchstones. There’s a line that goes back from your band directly to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and other ground-zero rock artists.

Tom Petty: That’s the stuff I’ve really listened to a lot in my life. When I was very young, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and this may sound weird but I became infatuated with rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the records I collected or were laid on me were 50s rock. Chuck Berry just blew my mind. Bo Diddley just freaked me out, just those sounds and those rhythms and his voice is so beautiful the way he sings over the top. I did really learn all that stuff, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. Even when Mudcrutch first started we were playing a lot of that stuff, and no one was really doing that.

By the end of the sixties they had a group called Sha Na Na that came out and did this 50s revival thing, and I was really offended by it. I thought they were making a joke of it. So, we really got into that music and I think it served us well in the long run. But it wasn’t something I was trying to do; it’s just something that happened. You’re not usually 12 and know all of Elvis’ catalog. It just was weird (laughs).

There’s something just right about that music. It just endures. The reason we still listen to it now is it’s fundamentally right on some level.

Tom Petty: Great songs endure. That’s all there is to it. Any music you want to think about, even jazz, the songs that endure are the really good songs. That’s what I’ve struggled to do, to different degrees of success. I always think we’ve got to make a song float with just one instrument and one voice. If it’ll do that then it’s worth going after. But if it won’t, we’re probably going to just bang our heads against the wall and we’ll have a chrome turd when it’s done. You’ve got to have a song. So you’ve got to do that work, and a lot of people don’t want to do that work. It’s hard work. It’s kind of a hard, lonely job sometimes, but I’m having fun doing it.

When I wrote this Mojo record, I just took a few months and spent most everyday by myself trying to write songs. I have this little CD recorder, and when I came up with something I liked I’d play it into the recorder. At the end of the week I’d play them all back and decide which ones worked and start to finish them up. So, when I came in, I probably had 7 or 8 songs the first sessions we did. We’d work for a week or two until we ran of songs, then we’d take a break until we had some more and come back.

You’re absolutely right about good songs being the core of it. There are plenty of technically brilliant musicians who can’t compose worth a lick, and it greatly impacts on the overall quality and depth of their music. The stuff you’ll really remember is usually a song that reflects that hard work and careful crafting. As a writer myself, I understand how loneliness is a factor but its in those solitary spaces that one unearths the real meat of things.

Yeah, it’s really important to do that work. I’ve seen a lot of people that’ll have a big hit record and they go on the road and they’re having so much fun that they want to make another record so they can go back on the road. But the truth is you’ve got to do that work or it’s just going to be an empty exercise.

One thought on “OMG Interview: Tom Petty

  1. Thanks for this, Dennis. Good insights. I am love, love loving the new record, for just the reason you state. There’s a depth to it. The album as a whole I think of as understated — nothing particular JUMPS at me the first few listens through — but the songs and the instrumentation stand out. I’m jealous you got to hang with the man.

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