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Remembering Tom Petty with an unreleased interview on gear, recording, his legacy

“I go by what feels right, and what sounds right.”

Tom Petty is sitting across from me in his Malibu home, signature shades on, fully bearded, with his lower, Southern-tinged vocal register in full effect. As is his wont, Petty is quite entrenched into telling it like it is — something he never shied away from during his long and storied career.

“I hate wasting time.”

Thomas Earl Petty, the Heartbreaker-in-chief, passed away at age 66 on October 2, following a massive coronary incident in his Malibu home. As my DT colleague Ryan Waniata eloquently put it in his remembrance, Petty was without question a truly seminal figure in the rock era. I’d even venture to say Petty was the transitional glue linking the sonic sensibilities of the more freewheeling ’60s with the singer/songwriter/bandleader movement of the ’70s, the one catch being he was able to sustain a level of creativity and popularity until his literal last breath.

“Always of the mindset of learning to fly, that one. Rest in peace, Sweet Tom.”

I had the honor to speak with and hang with Tom quite a few times over the past decade, perhaps none of them as enlightening as that above-noted day in Malibu back on April 1, 2010. No fooling — that day also happened to be the 36th anniversary of the day Tom — and the band that would eventually become known worldwide as The Heartbreakers — set out from the friendly confines of their Gainesville, Florida homebase to drive cross-country in order to achieve fame and fortune out West.

Tom was quite relaxed, open, and even a little playful during our conversation, especially when he was extolling the virtues of what I believe to be his favorite album of his own work, 1994’s Wildflowers. Picking up the vinyl copy I had placed on the table in front of him, Tom observed, “When things would get tough during the Wildflowers sessions, I used to tell those guys, ‘Come on, dammit! Just stay another hour, and I’ll see you at the Grammys!’ I did that all the time with them. And when it actually won one, I said, ‘See? I told ya!’” (everyone who had joined us in the room had a good-natured laugh over that one)

A good bit of our lengthy conversation that day wound up going into the Audiophile transcription vaults, but I’ve since gone back in to excavate some of the meatiest topics he and I covered, now exclusively presented to the Digital Trends cognoscenti. Here, Tom and I discuss the sound he was going after in the studio, what makes for a good engineer, and what his vision of The Heartbreakers’ future was. Always of the mindset of learning to fly, that one. Rest in peace, Sweet Tom.

Digital Trends: Did you always know you were going to be a songwriter and guitar player?

Tom Petty: I think I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do, even before I was really adept at the guitar. I immediately started to write my own things with the few chords I knew because I didn’t know that many songs, and I wanted more songs to play.

I always did well in school in English without trying, but the music came from another place. It just appeared. And I’d listen to records at that point for years. I did nothing but listen to records.

When you were starting out, a “career” in rock music really wasn’t something you could have foreseen doing for your entire life.

Oh, no. I went at it thinking, “I’ve passed up the opportunity to make lots of money.” (both laugh) I’m going to go into this and hope I can support myself, but it’s probably not going to be as lucrative as the kids who go to college and get degrees.”

But I didn’t have a choice. It was all that interested me, so there was no choice. I’d probably have gotten sick if I didn’t do it.

Tom Petty - Learning To Fly

At the time, I resisted learning too much of the proper way of doing things musically. I know a lot just from experience, but I think if I had three musicians who knew too much, it would inhibit them from playing from their hearts. They’re hearing things in the notes, but I just don’t do that. I go by what feels right, and what sounds right. I’ve learned enough that I can communicate with musicians, but I never really thought of myself as a music scholar. I know what I like, and I wanted to learn how to get it.

Did you have a sense early on about what you wanted to have come across on tape, once you started recording in a studio?

I learned there would be no need to even turn the equipment on in the studio if you didn’t have a song. There’s no reason to power up, because whatever you do isn’t gonna work. So it’s really about songs. If we had a good song, we could make a good record, and we were home free. You never really hear a great song sound bad, you know? It’s like, if you have four guys playing a good song really well, it just won’t sound bad. (both chuckle)

And that sustains me in the studio — if we all play well and it’s honest, then it’s gonna be OK. I mean, we were never the kind of people who were “the sound of the month.” We never made any disco records. We kind of resisted any sounds that were trendy. We were just a guitar band, and we had an organ and a piano, and we’ve just stuck there, mostly.

Watching you live, there are times where it looks like you’re conducting the band. Your eyes are closed and your arms are out, like you’re harnessing what’s coming, or what’s around you. Are you conscious of doing that?

Yeah. They [i.e., The Heartbreakers] count on it. They really count on it, like an orchestra. And I look at the arrangements as sort of orchestral — what the bottom is going to do, and where the melody instruments are kinda over here. The dynamics are so important. If you don’t get quiet, you can’t get loud. (both laugh)

Do you subscribe to the idea that you can play the feel right out of a song?

Oh yeah, yeah. You can hear it go. It’s just not going to be the same. And that’s that mojo, you know? (both laugh) That’s the magic here in this moment, and it’s not going to be the same magic in a few moments.

“If you don’t have a good song and a good track, all the best mixing in the world ain’t gonna mean anything.”

When we were recording, I wasn’t worried about things being too rough, or any of the mistakes; I just wanted to get the feel on everything — and make sure the song was good. And that’s mostly what I’m after in the session. I have to convince myself that, “Right, we have a song, and this is worth finishing.”

I remember one time we had a song where, when we started to play it, it sounded exactly like The Heartbreakers, and I flagged it. And they were all relieved when I flagged it. I said, “You know what? Let’s not do this! We’ve done this kind of record already. I don’t want to do another one; let’s just let it go.” And they were all like, “Whew — we’re really glad you said that, because we didn’t want to do it either.” We were all on the same page.

The first objective is to make a really good song and record, and then come to the mix and approach it that way. You gotta make a good record in the first place. If you don’t have a good song and a good track, all the best mixing in the world ain’t gonna mean anything.

You’re a proponent of hi-res recording and listening. Any specific examples to cite as to something you’ve mixed for hi-res enjoyment?

Anytime you have a lot of guitar — a lot of high-end guitar solo especially — or cymbals, you can listen to that and hear we got a pretty good top [end] sound on it. And if you’re not careful, that stuff can really run right over you — hi-hats and cymbals. So we were fortunate in that we were able to keep a nice top on things.

I’m going to pull out an photo from circa 1978 [shot by Neil Zlozower], where we see you sitting on the floor, surrounded by what we’d now call vintage gear. Do you remember that?

(chuckles) Yeah, I do. Those speakers were JBL 4311s. That was state of the art then, man. And that’s a 2-track Technics tape recorder, And the Marantz power amp, I got that out of the office at Shelter Records. (chuckles) [Head of Shelter Records Denny] Cordell gave me that, because I didn’t have anything when I came out here. He let me take this out of the office.

Those records you see there, like the Eddie Cochran one on top — they were just there, you know? That was kind of my life at the time. I just sat in that room and played records. And talk on the phone.

Tom Petty bw crowd

This is funny — that is the first boombox, the first all-metal Sony boombox! (chuckles) I took that on the road in ’77. It was a miracle having that thing. I could record the band with it, and get these great sounds. It had a compressor in it, so you couldn’t overload the tape. It would just record the band great. I lugged that thing around for years. It was all metal, and it was kinda heavy.

We hang onto everything. And we’ve got so much of everything. I try to rationalize it too: “We might use that. Don’t get rid of it!” (chuckles)

How do you know you’re working with a good engineer?

A good engineer’s job is knowing how to be one step ahead of what’s gonna happen and keep it flowing — and to never lack or lose the groove because someone doesn’t know how to plug in, or they say, “We don’t have this … “

“If you’re having fun, stuff will happen.”

I worked with this great engineer years ago, Richard Dodd. Richard was so good at tuning the bass, because he knew we’d turn around and go, “Well, let’s use the bass,” and he’s already tuning it up. There’s a lot to that. A good producer does that. He has everybody in a good space, and get the most out of that, and not let something rain on your session so you have to try and get back where you were.

We would come in around 2 o’clock, and we were out of there by 9 or 10. We didn’t stay all night. You never get anything good, or done. At 8 or 9, we got it. That worked out perfectly. And I always think about that with the ’60s people — they made the records quick. Musicians didn’t even go into the control room in those days. The Beatles had a lot to do with changing that, though there wasn’t a lot to do in there. (both laugh)

Well, I’m interested in seeing what you and this group of Heartbreakers might be doing in 2030. Seriously.

I just hope to be here. I don’t see why we have to quit, why we can’t keep growing.

I also think the important thing is, there needs to be a reason to buy another record. If I made [1979’s] Damn the Torpedoes as every record since the ’80s, there wouldn’t be a reason. So I tried to look at it that way: “Let’s go where the wind takes us. We’re gonna be somewhere different each year, or each couple of years. We’re gonna hear things different, we’re gonna be in a different place.”

I don’t see why you have to stop. The whole idea of being an artist is to grow. You keep having something to say. And you have fun. That’s a real important ingredient. If you’re having fun, stuff will happen.

The shame about all that is entertainment has been boiled down to soundbites. But there are people who want to know more. Me, I’m working on it for a whole other crowd. (laughs) I’m doing it a whole different way. And I don’t see any reason to change that.

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