Q&A With Tom Petty
Billboard caught up with Tom Petty in late February as he cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway to the recording studio to talk about his storied career.Last October during his Century Award interview, Tom Petty told Billboard that he could not believe the band was staring down its 30th year. "I specifically remember thinking if we get five years out of this, it would be really successful," he recalled. "I never thought we'd do it this long."
And yet, here comes the 30th birthday and Petty feels nothing but gratitude that he and his band mates are still at it with a fan base that is just as fervent as always.
Billboard caught up again with Petty in late February as he cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway to the recording studio to put the finishing touches on "Highway Companion," his forthcoming solo album, produced by Jeff Lynne. The new album is expected to arrive in June. Petty, offstage at the Billboard Music Awards in December, said the album will be released on Rick Rubin's American Recordings, which is distributed by Warner Bros. However, at press time, confirmation of the deal was still pending. Although the solo album beckoned, he genially discussed 30 years worth of Heartbreakers' music and what is still to come.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album. What do you remember about being in the studio with producer Denny Cordell and your boys?
We were really excited in those days. We worked on it on and off for six or seven months. We weren't afraid to try anything, I'll say that. We were all open to trying anything and I hear those records now and I can't hardly believe that we did them, but we somehow did.
I just remember that studio was really brown. We called it the Brown Room. It was the Shelter Studio in Hollywood. We'd just pull in every day and the songs came really effortlessly. The tracks were all played live. It was a joy, really. We were really proud of it when we got it done.
It sounds like you weren't afraid to try anything. That's a spirit you never lost even as success came and you had a lot to lose by taking risks.
Well, we kind of go where the wind blows us, you know [laughs]. We've never really played it safe or tried to make the same record again, it's a lot more fun that way. The idea was to take the same people and keep them together no matter what and see what we could produce and, so far, it's still holding our interest.
There was this incredibly appealing rawness to the first album.
It's raw, it's definitely raw. We didn't want to over-produce it. We didn't really know a lot about production. For one thing, there was a sort of bloated corporate rock at the time and people were putting out six-or seven-minute songs that just went on and on and I wanted to keep the songs nice short and concise, so you'll notice the songs aren't very long and that worked. We just wanted to get the best out of each song. But you never really know what you're doing on your first album, you know [laughs]. I don't think anyway. But when we got something we were proud of, we stuck with it.
We're going to flash forward 30 years. You're going out on your 30th anniversary tour this summer. How's it going to be different?
I'm talking off the top of my head now because I haven't gotten that far with it. I think the idea will be to play all the hits and cover all the different eras, try to hit something from every record -- I think there's been some talk about going deeper into the albums on this tour and you can always find things that you haven't done.
You're playing Bonnaroo this summer; you don't normally play festivals.
I've got nothing against playing them, there just aren't that many. We were going to do Bonnaroo last year or the year before and it got cancelled. I look forward to doing it this year. I like playing that sort of thing. I think also, with that kind of audience, we can stretch out and jam a bit and have a good time.
Director Peter Bogdonavich is trailing you and the band for a film that will come out later this year. You're a very private person. What made you decide to let someone document your life?
I think it's a worthwhile project, you know, and I think it's good that he's going to finally tell this story completely. He's put a lot of effort into it so far. Sometimes, giving up your privacy is a little like going to the dentist and we have let him have access that no one's ever had. So far, it's looking good. We're all pretty excited about it. I think he's going to make a good movie.
Were there other music movies or documentaries that you saw that made you think, "why not?"
I liked the Bob Dylan that I saw. The one we're doing isn't a concert film, per se, it has a lot of music in it, obviously. And God, they've been months just archiving old film so far, but I think they're going to find a lot of film that's never been seen that's going to be good. We are going to shoot a new concert to deal with this project, but I don't think the whole concert will be in the movie, just bits of it.
You're headed to the studio to wrap up "Highway Companion." When we talked in October, you said the album is about the passage of time. What else can you say about it?
I'm reaching there to try and find a theme. It's just really a nice collection of songs. I think it does have an underlying theme of time and what it does to you.
What does it do to you?
It makes you old, if you're lucky [laughs].
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