Mike Campbell: “Unfortunately, I was in a band with one of the greatest writers of all time!”
Lyrics by Peter Hodgson
Tom Petty’s right-hand man discusses songwriting, his guitar and the inspiration for his latest album with The Dirty Knobs out today
“By the way, it’s not what you think”, says true rock legend Mike Campbell as he prepares a blowjob and slowly tugs at the start of our Zoom call. “It’s just tobacco.”
Well, that’s no fun. The guitar voice of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, co-writer of ‘The Boys Of Summer’ with Bob Dylan collaborator Don Henley, Roy Orbison, Joe Cocker, Matthew Sweet, Susanna Hoffs, Mary J. Blige, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon… hell, the guy even took on the big job of playing guitar in Fleetwood Mac after Lindsey Buckingham left the band. So if anyone has earned the right to do rockstar stuff like having a bit of a choof on a Zoom interview, it’s Mike Campbell.
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The new album from Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs, External combustion, is exactly the kind of slice of world-class blues-influenced roots rock you’d expect from a man of Campbell’s talent and reputation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a predictable record. After opening with a few fun stomps, Campbell becomes more lyrically introspective and the arrangements seem to expand. It is good album, you know? A fully realized statement from start to finish, with the kind of push-pull tension and release you can only get from musicians playing together in a room.
“Well, there are a lot of ways to make records,” Campbell says. “You can make cookie-cutter records, click them together, which is good for some songs, but I’d rather have more fun with it. There’s more Amusing when there are people in the room. You don’t all end up hitting the downbeat at exactly the same time, but you do get a groove, and that’s what Dirty Knobs are.
External combustion was recorded in Campbell’s state-of-the-art home studio. “I’ve been recording at home for a long time,” he says. “Heartbreakers here and there too. Basically, it’s a drum setup, a few amps and ancillary parts, and all the sounds are already installed, so we can just go in and start recording.
If you follow Campbell on social media, you’ve no doubt seen this space and its collection of beautiful and eerie guitars lining the lobby. While it’s always handy to have such a diverse pedalboard on hand, the majority of External combustion was recorded with Campbell’s highly prized 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard.
“I only use it at home and it’s very versatile,” he says. “I can get all kinds of different tones out of it, so I tried to work from just that guitar, mostly. There are songs where I played an acoustic and there is one where I played a Telecaster but the rest was Les Paul. It’s a wonderful guitar. I’ve used it quite a bit on two Heartbreakers discs, starting with the Mojo record (2010) which is when I got it. And it’s like… it’s like butter, you know? It plays like butter. It’s so smooth. There are a lot of different tones and it’s really crazy when you want it, like with a four piece band and only two guitars. I need a guitar that fills in the sounds without a keyboard, and this Les Paul does that very well.
One guitar you won’t hear on the record is the bizarre, slightly steampunk Strat-style instrument that Campbell brought with him to Australia in 2019 for the Fleetwood Mac tour.
(Photo: Miles Winner)
“Ah, Medusa,” he laughs. “I once went to a little music store in Santa Monica to buy a Blackface Fender Deluxe, and this thing was sitting in the corner. I just couldn’t tell what it was. Looks like they have took some acid and just started sticking bits on it it has an antenna and a little phone keypad on it i think it started out as some kind of fender but turned completely into a piece of weirdness And I said ‘what the hell this?!?’ And he said here, you can just take it, just get it out of here. So I took it and it went pretty well, you know? So I used it on a track with Fleetwood Mac. I got a kick out of it because I thought guitarists would watch it and see me turn up the antenna and wonder what was going on. (Campbell is a guitar enthusiast. Last time he was in Melbourne, he stopped at the Music Swop Shop in Carlton where he spotted a vintage Gretsch White Falcon with a metal snake in place of the tremolo arm. he failed to convince Neil Finn to buy it).
External combustion lays bare the unmistakable sound of small, loud amps. “It is exactly what it is,” says Campbell. “I have a Duesenberg amp that they gave me, which is kind of modeled after a Fender Princeton, and it was just set up in a room with a close mic, then a room mic on it, and the other guitarist had a little Princeton set up in the bathroom in there. So yeah, little amps and using the room as part of the sound.
“There are all types of songs,” Campbell concludes. “Party songs and boogie songs are great, but sometimes it’s more interesting to try to say something a little deeper, you know? And sadly, I was in a band with one of the greatest writers of all time! So I learned a lot from Tom watching him work. I get a lot of inspiration from that, you know? I’m still inspired by that.
External combustion East out now.