Before easing into a conversation about his new album with the Heartbreakers, “Hypnotic Eye,” the longtime Malibu beach-dweller Tom Petty has a score to settle. It’s in response to an old Times survey of Los Angeles’ most enduring rock bands.
Specifically: He and the Heartbreakers shouldn’t have been disqualified because of his north Florida roots.
“We’re an L.A. band,” says Petty with a good-natured but emphatic tone, puffing on a vapor pen while lounging in his home studio. The Heartbreakers were birthed in this city, he adds.
“We’re certainly as L.A. as the Springfield were, or the Byrds,” he says, then geekily lists Buffalo Springfield players and their hometowns before focusing on the Doors. His voice rises: “Jim Morrison was from Florida!” Petty’s beard is hermit scraggly, as if he’s been cooking his meals beneath the trees out back. He’s wearing bluejeans and a black western shirt over a tee.
The slight bugged him for years, says the singer, songwriter and guitarist, 63, mostly because of the ribbing he got from his accomplished peers. “I got the finger shaken at me by so many people. ‘Hey, you’re not an L.A. band!’”
Add in that Petty and the Heartbreakers have never recorded outside of Southern California — early years at Shelter in East Hollywood and Sound City in Van Nuys — and his frequent lyrical nods to his home. “Free Fallin’,” his solo ode to cruising the San Fernando Valley, cemented his residency years ago, as did the Roger McGuinn-suggestive Rickenbacker strum of “The Waiting” before that.
Editors, a retraction may be in order.
Let the record show that Petty and his Heartbreakers, upon the July 29 release of their 13th studio album and after thousands of concerts (with more coming at the Honda Center and Forum in October), three solo records, hundreds of hours in area studios and countless nights in the PCH breeze, should be deemed an L.A. band — backdated to the mid-1970s.
It doesn’t hurt that his Malibu compound, one of a pair in the area, looks every bit the property of a successful entertainer. Expansively spread behind two levels of security, his beachfront property features a shiny Tesla sedan in the garage and a team of landscapers working the foliage.
“Hypnotic Eye,” only the second Heartbreakers album in 12 years, closes the argument. Opening with a basic statement of purpose — “I’m gonna make my way through this world some day/ I don’t care what nobody say” — Petty and band roll through a collection whose emotions range from profound love to bitter cynicism. Petty tackles optimism on “American Dream Plan B” and recalls midnight interludes on the lovely midtempo love song “Red River.”
The tangled guitar line that opens “Power Drunk,” courtesy of Mike Campbell, mixes with keyboard player Benmont Tench’s organ chords on a song about the intoxicating allure of power. Closer “Shadow People” is a lovely meditation on isolation and communion. “Fault Lines” is the best Petty song in years.
Time and timelessness
It doesn’t get any easier to make them. Petty says that as the years have passed it’s gotten tougher for him and Campbell to pen a passable composition. “The two of us together turns into a recipe for procrastination,” admits Petty. The pause is in part because of the pressure of his catalog as well as to the aging process itself, which he says makes it harder to focus.
For generations, Petty and band have been the no-nonsense voice of a brand of rock that cut through pretense, haircuts and studio trickery to craft songs that resonated without being dumb, cloying, gratuitous or commercially designed trend hoppers.
His classics since his rise in the mid-1970s have transcended subgenre, part of a philosophy that avoided scenes and synthesizers. The Heartbreakers first broke in England, where they found kindred spirits in bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but were outsiders by design. They were more interested in the sound coming from Los Angeles in the mid-1960s than the punk tropes of a decade later.
“I didn’t want to put on the outfit. I really felt an allegiance to their trip, and I loved the spirit of it,” he says, “but our identity was too well formed to go that way. I remember one of them saying, ‘You guys need to cut your hair.’ And I was like, ‘Mm, no.’ Then I would be joining a club. I just want to be our own thing.”
Boogie rock, disco, metal, synth-pop, grunge, rap rock, indie rock, blog rock and dance rock have come and gone, but the Heartbreakers endure through a focus nearly identical in 2014 as in their first Los Angeles gigs. As they’ve remained true, though, the band has ceded its role at the center of the rock conversation. Petty’s a reclusive guy by nature, part of his allure. (The only mention of straying from Malibu comes when he speaks of visiting one of his two adult daughters in New York.)
But then I’m a bit biased when it comes to Petty’s work. My first tortured teen love was soundtracked by “Hard Promises.” Homesick on vacation in northern Michigan one summer and missing my girlfriend, “The Waiting” really was the hardest part. Later that year his and Campbell’s song “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” hit a little too close to home, considering said girl was hooking up with a good friend.
Years later during my wedding, Petty’s “Wildflowers” scored my wife Jenny’s first dance with her father, a song that now makes me misty-eyed. I know every inflection of “Here Comes My Girl,” the way he draws out the word “eyes” before wondering how this love could feel so good, so right. As “Full Moon Fever” was going platinum, I was absorbing every nuance throughout 40-hour workweeks while shilling it in suburban Missouri as a retail record clerk. We couldn’t keep the cassette in stock. ($5.32 cost, $8.99 list.)
That body of work weighs on Petty. “After you’ve written 300, 400 [songs], you’ve got to really concentrate so you can get something that feels fresh and is worth the money to someone who has a whole bunch of Tom Petty records. ‘Why would I buy another one?’ Well, because it’s worth it, you know?”
Adds guitarist Mike Campbell later: “The bar is high.”
Faults but never default
Less bluesy by design than 2010’s “Mojo,” his most recent Heartbreakers record, the 11 new songs on “Hypnotic Eye” draw on riff-heavy rock, gentle swagger, coolly recollected moments, blues (always blues), much masterful guitar work from founding Heartbreakers Campbell and Tench’s typically light and efficient touch on piano and keyboards.
“I wanted it to be a pretty rock ‘n’ roll album from top to bottom,” says Petty. They started work on it three years ago between tours and were inspired anew, he says, by young rock bands and “the wild abandon of the sounds and energy. I wanted to do some of that — but in the way that we would do it.” Cue “Faultlines,” a riveting, surprising song about the fractures and tectonic shifts that occur within ourselves and our lives. A work that couldn’t have been penned anywhere but Southern California or by anyone but Petty and Campbell, it confirms not only the group’s stature but its continued inventiveness.
“I love that song,” Petty says, his eyes shining as he talks about the spark that generated the lyrical theme. “It’s so strange how that stuff works, how it pops in your head.”
He was looking to accompany a unique rhythm track that Campbell had been riffing on. The lyric came just before a night out with his wife, Dana York, to see the Rascals (“Good Lovin’,” “Groovin’”). “I wasn’t going to miss that,” he says, revealing a fandom that he harnesses in service of his radio show on SiriusXM, called “Buried Treasures.” Just before departing for the gig, he noticed a map of the area’s fault lines that York had left on the computer screen. A light bulb lit. “Just for a second I looked at it and went, ‘Fault lines — I’ve got a few of those.’” After he chuckled to himself, he started writing.
He polished the lyric off the next day and called Campbell and soon birthed a resonant new Heartbreakers jam. “See those fault lines/ Laid out like land mines/ It’s hard to relax,” sings Petty, his voice filled with that familiar drawl. “A promise broken/ The ground breaks open/ It falls through the cracks.” As Campbell pours out a distorted and urgent guitar line and bassist Ron Blair guides the rhythm, the singer moves into his chorus: “I’ve got a few of my own,” he confesses. “I’ve got a few of my own fault lines/ Running under my life.”
As is usual, Petty’s responsible for the lyrics and many of the songs, with Campbell pitching musical ideas that Petty calls a prime ingredient of any true Heartbreakers record. Once they worked out “Faultlines,” Petty says, “We called the boys and went to the Club House [the Heartbreakers’ rehearsal space in the Valley], and we cut the track.” He pauses. “That was kind of our M.O. for the record.”
“The conversation would go like this,” says Campbell. “Tom would call up and say, ‘I’ve got a couple of songs. Let’s get the band together and see how they sound.’ There was no sit-down.”
“When we started the record, it was more in the vein of ‘Mojo,’” says Tench, adding that they recorded about 30 songs during the process, so he didn’t know what shape “Eye” would take until he heard the finished product. “I noticed near the end of it that the songs were becoming more concise.” Tench’s work on Mellotron and piano fill in key moments with his restrained countermelodies.
Petty agrees that he had to check his blues reflex midway through the process. He’d been listening to a lot of old blues music, and in the early sessions they cut four tracks that reflected it. “I listened to them and I thought, ‘You know, we’re going to end up going down the same road if we get hung in this. We should play some rock ‘n’ roll.’ I don’t like to make the same record twice.”
In fact, Petty and the band can’t afford to repeat themselves. He will release “Hypnotic Eye” into an impatient market forever searching for new sounds and fresh buzz, where the notion of a new Heartbreakers album, while exciting to his fan base, will become part of a saturated musical-industrial complex that cycles through new records, mixes, streams and viral videos daily.
Petty is well aware of the shrunken market for rock but tries not to think about it. “A lot of people will find it,” he says calmly, toking on his vapor pen while a group of young musicians starts loading in gear for a session. “They may not pay for it, but they’ll find it. I just have a feeling that the quality stuff somehow stays around and reaches people.” He says that when he was just starting in the business, Elliot Roberts, best known these days as Neil Young’s manager, gave him key advice.
Recalls Petty, “He told me, ‘Listen, every record you make is not necessarily going to sell more than the record you just made. It’s not necessarily going to be better than the record you just made. But the secret to a long career is to always make quality music. Some will hit really big, but at worst, it’s not going to go down too low, because you will develop a trust in your audience. They’ll trust that it’s worth checking out what you do.’”