Interview: Mike Campbell


Mike Campbell is the lead guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and is known for tastefully playing exactly what the songs call for – no more, no less. You’ve no doubt heard him on a number of Tom Petty songs, some of which he co-wrote including “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “You Got Lucky”, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ latest album, Hypnotic Eye, will be released in summer 2014.

On the side, Campbell is the frontman for The Dirty Knobs, which plays lots of cool cover songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, and JJ Cale, plus plenty of amusing obscurities and original songs.

This interview was done by phone on 4/9/14, and was for a preview article for the 4/18/14 concert at SOhO in Santa Barbara by The Dirty Knobs (L. Paul Mann photo).

Jeff Moehlis: We’re lucky that The Dirty Knobs play somewhat regularly in Santa Barbara. To what do we owe our good fortune?

Mike Campbell: I put The Dirty Knobs together about eight years ago. We were in the studio and we decided we wanted to go out and play, to try the songs out live. I was talking to my partner Tom about it, and he goes, “Yeah, that’s cool, but it might be cool if you stay out of the Hollywood area.” And so we were looking for places to play that were kind of under the radar, and we found SOhO. That was one of the first places we played, and we just loved it there. So we keep coming back.

JM: I saw you guys last year, and you did some covers of really well-known songs, and some covers of songs that are pretty obscure. How do you decide which songs make it into the repertoire?

MC: That comes from rehearsal. There’s a rehearsal coming up. I might start thinking about what might be fun to play. ‘Cause, you know, The Dirty Knobs is all about fun, and not having to stick to a setlist. I might hear something on the radio and go, “That’d be good to try,” and then we try it out in the rehearsal and if it sounds like fun we keep it in the set.

JM: And what about originals?

MC: It’s probably about half original and half covers. It’s a good chance for me to try out new songs. Sometimes we play songs that were just written the day before, or maybe the week before, and we just want to see how they perform in front of people. It’s a great place to woodshed the tunes.

JM: When you look up The Dirty Knobs online it’s kind of cryptic. Can you tell us who the rest of the band is?

MC: Oh yeah. It’s myself – I sing, if you want to call it that [laughs], and write some songs. The other guitar player’s a guy named Jason Sinay. He writes a little bit, he sings with me. He sings a few songs and we do harmonies together. We play guitar really well together – we have the same influences, and good chemistry. On the drums is a fellow called Matt Laug. We call him Swampfox. Everybody has a nickname in The Dirty Knobs. He’s Swampfox, Jason is Ape, because he is kind of an ape. Our bass player, Crawdaddy, his real name is Lance Morrison. He plays with Don Henley on solo tours and he’s done a lot of recording. And Matt Laug, the drummer, has played with Slash and he does a lot of sessions around town. [Campbell’s name with The Dirty Knobs is Gator.]

The four of us just ended up in the studio, and we really connected as friends and players. So we keep The Knobs as kind of an oasis from all the craziness of the music business. You know, have some fun and play in little rooms with no pressure. A lot of times that’s really where the beautiful magic music happens, in a little place when it’s spontaneous. That’s really, kind of, what we live for.

JM: Do you have any plans to record and release any material as The Dirty Knobs?

MC: Well, that’s a good question. I have no specific plans. The only agenda I have is we have done a lot of good recordings that I’m holding. At some point I may decide to share those. But the thing is, I realized pretty early on that I don’t really want to put out a Knobs recording as long as I’m in The Heartbreakers. It’s just a conflict. Because if I did put out a CD or a record, it would require a lot of promotion and getting involved, and that would take a lot of time away from my regular job. So I kind of decided a while back that I’m just going to keep working, getting a bunch of tunes, and at some point if The Heartbreakers take a break or wind down, then I can put my full energy into it.

JM: Speaking of The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers recorded a lot of music at Sound City Studios. What did you think of Dave Grohl’s movie [the documentary Sound City]? Do you think it captured the experience of working there properly?

MC: I think it did. I think he did a great job on it. I like Dave a lot. And it really, for me, it brought back a lot of memories. I had forgotten how many hours and months and years we actually spent in that room, and all the joys and hard struggle we did in that environment. And a lot of that came back to me when I was watching the movie. It was a very special room, just like he explains it, and it had a certain magic to it. I’m glad that he was able to document that.

JM: I know there’s a new Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album coming out soon. What can we look forward to on that new album?

MC: Well, I can’t tell you too much about it except that it’s basically finished. They’re mastering it. It’s an extension of the last album, called Mojo, in the sense that it’s mostly 90% live on the floor with the band all playing at once. The songwriting has taken a deeper turn. There’s some blues-based things, but there’s also some things that kind of are jangly or more familiar with what we might have done even on our first album. Some of the new stuff has that kind of energy. So it’s a combination of the Mojo kind of blues and a thread of the kind of stuff we’ve always done. Great songs. You know, Tom wrote some really great songs, and really great words. We’re real proud of it.

JM: You’re most closely associated with playing with Tom, but you’ve also played with a number of other musicians over the years. Are there any of those experiences that particularly stand out to you?

MC: Oh yeah, I’m really fortunate. I’ve had a lot of great experiences to work with people, several people that I looked up to when I was first learning the guitar. I’ve been blessed to bump into them later in life and be able to play with them, such as Johnny Cash. Playing and working in the studio with him was something that I really treasure. It was such an intimate moment and he was so kind to us, and to me in particular. He treated me like an equal, which is kind of silly. Johnny Cash is a big hero of mine, and my dad. My dad always played Johnny Cash when I was a kid, so I know those records and his songs pretty well.

Of course George Harrison, a big influence on me and turned out to be a pretty good friend.

Roy Orbison, definitely a high point. He recorded at my house, we did an album with Jeff Lynne and Tom. He was just magic. I mean that guy had a voice and a soul – that was really spiritual to work with him.

Bob Dylan, of course. If I had to pick one guy, my favorite inspiration, it would be him. We did a lot of work with him, some recording and a lot of touring back in the 90’s. Those were definitely high points of mine. I’ve had quite a few. I’m very blessed.

JM: One thing I remember from my youth was watching the Live Aid concert, which you guys played at. Any reflections on that experience?

MC: I have some great memories of that. We were on tour, and we snuck that into our schedule. It was kind of last minute. But there were a lot of great artists. I remember sitting backstage in the afternoon and looking up, and one side there’s Eric Clapton, there’s Jimmy Page, there’s Ronnie Lane, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Dylan, they were all hanging around there. And we’re kind of just sitting in the corner going, “How did we get here?” That day, they had a semi Led Zeppelin reunion, with Phil Collins on the drums, and Jimmy and Robert [Plant] did a few songs. It was really exciting. It was a pretty spiritual day.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

MC: That’s a deep question. I look at myself when I was learning. I would just say practice real hard, but also practice what you want to practice. Follow what inspires you. Don’t let anybody tell you you shouldn’t. Just learn what you want to learn. Chase after the stuff that you like. And if you can’t learn it on your own, get somebody to help you with it. My attitude toward that, like I tell my children – I have three kids – if you want to play music, do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you want to be a rock star, you want to get rich. Do it because you just love the process of creating music, because if you’re happy doing that then you’re a success already. I guess my best advice would be: if you love it, commit to it and give it everything you’ve got.

JM: With the new Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album coming out, I assume that there will be a tour. Can you reveal anything about what the future holds?

MC: We were going to go to Europe, but we were late getting the record in. We pushed that back probably until next year. So this year, it starts in August. We’re going to do the States, and a few Canadian shows. I think 30 shows spread over two months, with a break in the middle, the usual type of run that we do when we go across the States. We will be playing a lot of the new album, and a lot of the stuff that we normally do.

JM: You’re always welcome in Santa Barbara!

MC: I love that amphitheater up there. I don’t think it’s on the list this time. There’s a lot of stuff on the East Coast. I don’t know what the L.A. area shows are. I haven’t heard anything about Santa Barbara, but I do hope that we can get it in because I love that spot up there.

JM: My last question is an easy one. Where are you speaking to me from?

MC: I’m in Kauai, here with my wife. We’re coming home on the 12th, and I’m going to start rehearsing for these gigs. We just got a house here a couple of years ago, kind of the getaway place. It’s just unbelievably beautiful. I’m here just taking it easy and writing songs, and enjoying the weather.


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