Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell talks new(ish) band the Dirty Knobs, possible album with Fleetwood Mac and ‘cathartic’ reunion with Benmont Tench

Mike Campbell (Photo: Sheva Kafai)
Mike Campbell (Photo: Sheva Kafai)

When former Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench got together last month for an all-star live-stream celebrating what would have been Petty’s 70th birthday, it was their first joint performance in three years. Campbell, whose debut album with his (relatively) new band the Dirty Knobs, Wreckless Abandon, is out this week and features Tench on one track, admits that the experience — which actually took place at the old Heartbreakers headquarters — was “cathartic” and “tugged on the emotions.” But the affable guitarist, speaking from his home in the San Fernando Valley, tells Yahoo Entertainment, “It wasn't hard per se, because, you know, I'm a professional. I do my job.”

Still, he adds: “I certainly felt it, because we were in the clubhouse where we all used to play as well, and I hadn't played in a while. But Ben and I are just instantly connected musically. We just play together a certain way. We always have just had an intuitive way of playing together that works. And so, that was nice to feel that again. But yeah, there were moments where it was a little tugging on the heartstrings, a little here and there. But that's what makes it real.”

Understandably, Campbell says, “After Tom died, I couldn't picture emotionally the Heartbreakers continuing.” But he stresses that he never once considered retiring from music. (“I never thought that. I'll never retire. I might as well just slit my wrists.”) And the excited public reception to the rare Campbell/Tench reunion does prompt the question: Would he and his fellow Heartbreakers ever fully reunite for other occasional musical celebrations of Petty’s life and legacy? To that, he answers, “Well, there’s a little bit of conversation here and there, but any time it comes up, it's always like, ‘I'm not ready.’ You know, I just can't. I can't emotionally handle getting all the Heartbreakers in a room without Tom there. I just don't think I can. It doesn't make any sense to me, really, even as a tribute. It's just like, he's not here. I would rather let the recordings and the live stuff we've done be a tribute to what we were. I don't know, maybe in time; I'm not completely closed-minded to it. I love the guys in the Heartbreakers, and I miss them terribly. But I think I need more time to even answer that question realistically.”

Campbell has worked on two recent Petty retrospectives, 2018’s An American Treasure boxed set and this year’s Wildflowers and All the Rest deluxe reissue, since Petty’s October 2017 death; he says the next Petty project he’d like to “dig into” is a live album from the Heartbreakers’ 20-night residency at San Francisco’s Fillmore in 1997, which featured nightly rotating setlists and surprise guests like Bo Diddley, Roger McGuinn, and John Lee Hooker. But for now, Campbell’s focus is on the Dirty Knobs, which he actually formed with guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison, and drummer Matt Laug 15 years ago, as “just friends getting together to play for fun.” Campbell eventually “started to casually think about an album,” but his commitments to the Heartbreakers and, later, Fleetwood Mac put all that on hold. “The guys are very patient, obviously,” he chuckles. Now the Knobs are making up for lost time: Campbell has in fact already penned 11 new songs for a second album that he plans to have out by May 2021.

The irony, of course, is that the Dirty Knobs started out as a live project, gigging at clubs in between Heartbreakers dates, and now that they finally have an official studio album to promote, they’re unable to tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Taking into account… my age, we don't have that much years to just give away. Unfortunately, this has happened, so we'll have to suck it up,” the 70-year-old Campbell says. “So, we lose a couple of years, probably, because of this, but things happen for a reason in terms of destiny and all of that. I could use these two years while I'm still young — or relatively young — but I'm still OK. I’ll pick it up when it's ready. I try to remain optimistic about it.”

So, Campbell has addressed the pandemic in the wryly comical Dirty Knobs music video “F*** That Guy,” in which the hated “guy” is the coronavirus itself. “We were thinking about the video, and it was like, OK, who is the ‘guy’? Who's the most evil force out there that you would say ‘f*** you’ to? And it came to me that it was COVID. So I said, ‘Let's have a guy with a COVID head,’” Campbell laughs. The fuzzy, coronavirus-headed villain in the “F*** That Guy” video is played by the drummer of rising L.A. garage-glam band Starcrawler — with whom Campbell jammed on “I Need to Know” for the Petty birthday live-stream special — and it was directed by Gilbert Trejo, the boyfriend of Starcrawler frontwoman Arrow De Wilde. “Starcrawler, actually, they're one of the only new bands that I've heard that I really of dig,” Campbell says, adding that he’d love to work with them in the future, “but I don't know why they'd want to work with me. I'm too old for them!” However, Campbell did work with Chris Stapleton (a huge fan, who participated in the Tom Petty tribute at the 2018 Grammy Awards), on both “F*** That Guy” and another Wreckless Abandon track, “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

“I never knew Chris, and I didn't even know much about his music. I met him for two seconds backstage at Wrigley Field when he was opening for the Heartbreakers,” Campbell admits. “And then years later, when things changed, he gave me a call and said he was a big fan, and would I be open to writing songs? I don't normally do that, but I figured he seemed very likable, and I love his voice. So I said, ‘Sure, let's give it a shot.’ So he came out and we spent two or three days writing songs, and it was really enjoyable. And we did become friends, because we are cut from the same cloth musically. We got along really well and I actually enjoyed the process.” (Campbell has returned the favor by appearing on Stapleton’s just-released fourth album, Starting Over.)

As for other possible future Campbell collaborations, is it possible that now that he’s a full-fledged member of Fleetwood Mac — having, along with Split Enz/Crowded House’s Neil Finn, replaced Lindsey Buckingham in 2018 — the new Mac lineup might record new music? “I would love to do an album with them. In fact, when I first got the call, I thought we were going to do a record,” says Campbell. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, they've got some tour commitments. So that's going to take a year and a half.’ And at the end of that tour, we were all pretty tired — you know, we went around the world once or twice. So, we had a meeting and everybody said, ‘Let's take a couple of years off and relax and do other things, and see how we feel in a couple of years. And if everybody is engaged, come in and we're up for it.’ We'll reconvene and see what we can do. So, it's up in the air.”

Campbell reveals that even though he had a long history with Nicks — he co-wrote her Bella Donna Petty duet and one of her biggest solo hits, “Stop Draggin' My Heart Around,” and “she always wanted to be in the Heartbreakers, but you know, there were no girls in the Heartbreakers” — it was actually Mick Fleetwood who offered him the Mac job. “It was just an opportunity that came my way. It dropped in my lap. … It was on my birthday, actually,” Campbell recalls. “I was at home and Mick called me. I'd only met him once or twice before. He said, ‘Lindsey has left the band,’ and I said, ‘Oh, that's really sad, I know how you guys must feel.’ And then he goes, ‘I'd like you to think about joining the band.’ I was kind of shocked, really, but honored. I said, ‘Give me 24 hours to think about it,’ and I thought over the pros and cons and decided it would be a good thing. But Mick said, ‘This is not an audition. … If you want the gig, I'd like to give it to you.’ And I don't know if this is true or not, but he also said, ‘This is not coming from Stevie. This is coming from me.’”

Campbell reveals that Fleetwood Mac did “throw around some names around” before settling on Finn. Campbell suggested another Stevie for the job — Steve Winwood, that is — but was shut down immediately. “They just looked at me like, “Um, what did he say?’” Campbell chuckles. “Mick said, ‘I think that'll tip the scales a little too far.’ … I think they wanted somebody that wasn't already that strong of a voice that would maybe pull away from the Fleetwood Mac legacy too much.”

Fleetwood Mac didn’t play “Stop Draggin' My Heart Around” on that 2018-2019 tour, but Nicks did insist that they include “Free Fallin’” in the set as a tribute to Petty. Campbell confesses that he resisted that idea, because he was “tired of playing it. … I said, ‘Oh no, not that song again!’” (Incidentally, Campbell, who has co-writing or co-producing credit on some of Petty’s most iconic hits, cites “All or Nothing,” from 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, as the most underrated Petty song.) “But we put together a little video, and honoring Tom was an emotional point of the night, every night. It was a nice send-off to him. Stevie was right, it really was a high point of the show — although it brought tears to my eyes, you know?”

As far as other tributes of sorts go, Campbell stresses that his work with the Dirty Knobs is “a lot different from the Heartbreakers,” but he does acknowledge that “in terms of carrying on the [Petty] legacy, I played guitar and produced and co-wrote a lot of the songs in the Heartbreakers, so some of those influences and some of that sound is going to come out.” And while he only ever sang lead on one Heartbreakers song, 1999’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight, he’s since become settled into the frontman role, and he’s looking forward to hopefully getting back out on the road with the Dirty Knobs, opening for Stapleton, in summer 2021.

“In the Heartbreakers, I just was able to stand back and play guitar and Tom did all the work! So, I have gained a new respect for Tom, realizing how much more there is to do when you're in front of a band,” says Campbell. “Singing is something that I would share with the Knobs over the years, being in front of the band and connecting with the audience. I've gotten really comfortable with that; it feels like second nature to me now. So, I'm not intimidated by it. I actually love it. It’s not a problem for me. I'm happy to be where I am.”

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