Tom Petty on the 'Good Thing About Getting Old': 'You Know What's Worth Spending Time on and What's Not'

Joe Pugliese
Tom Petty photographed by Joe Pugliese in his Malibu studio on June 26, 2014.

At home in Malibu with Tom Petty, as the eternal SoCal rocker, now on his 13th album with the Heartbreakers, sounds off on the one percent, the Catholic church and the corruption of power.

The seaside community of Malibu is a retreat for wealthy hedonists for good reason — there’s rolling surf and almost inevitable blue sky and golden hills and world-class sushi. The cost of paradise, beyond the mortgage payments, lies in hazards like traffic gridlock, rock slides, mudslides — and worst of all, wildfires. The rampaging flames can destroy a home, or a neighborhood, or even a life.

Tom Petty knows this danger more keenly than most locals, because he has suffered through it — twice. In 1987, when he lived over the hill in Encino, his home burnt to cinders in an arson that may have had homicidal intent. Trapped in the house after hustling his family out a side door to the pool, he crawled through smoke to save himself.

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Two decades later, after he had relocated to Malibu, Petty woke one night to the odor of smoke. After rousing his wife, Dana York, and a friend in a nearby building, he had time to grab only one item as they fled the so-called Canyon Fire. “It was a Hohner bass that I’ve used on every record, and you can’t find another one,” says Petty. “I grabbed that and I went, ‘Hell, is this going to happen to me twice in my life where everything I own is just wiped out?’ And then I thought, ‘Well, I’m OK with that.’ Because things come back, but people don’t.”

Though the house was spared, the emotions of that night seared a memory that comes to life in a track on his vibrant new album, "Hypnotic Eye." It’s a hard-rocking pack of 11 songs laced with feisty social critiques, but it also has intensely personal moments like “All You Can Carry,” which recollects the fear and the lessons of that traumatic night with baleful guitars and Petty’s impassioned vocals.

We’re at his Malibu studio today. Wearing denim from head to toe, Petty, 63, emerges from one of the tree-shaded walkways that crisscross the sprawling but unpretentious compound. We head inside, where his aging and hefty Lab, Ryder, wanders in, mounts the couch and issues a dreamer’s grumbles from a slightly immodest pose as Petty details the two-year making-of saga for the album. 

In short: It’s been a journey. A stanza on "Hypnotic Eye"'s “Fault Lines” illuminates the long path that Petty’s muse has taken him down.

“On the high wire, above the wildfire/ 

An old acrobat/ 

On faulty cable, still he’s able/

Not to fall flat”

The autobiographical underpinnings are clear. Part of the acrobatics involve flipping from the dulcet Dylan-esque poesy of “Red River” to the easeful bossa nova “Sins of My Youth” to the pissed-off skepticism of “Burnt Out Town.” Maybe the high wire stretches between creative innovation and commercial success in the fickle world of alternative rock. If so, one thing is certain: Petty has never fallen flat.

The comfortable anteroom where Petty sits leads to a full-scale studio (the Shoreline Recorders facility of the album credits), a space that has hosted countless late-night creative conclaves and is guarded by a scrawled sheet of paper warning, “Beware Cranky Hippie.”

He slides a door shut with a wry smile at all the chaos being transacted just a few feet away — photo and video setups, work in the studio, people peering through the glass that encloses this space — but Petty’s attention is fully engaged. “We’re professionals, right?”

Petty and his bandmates have honed a work ethic that has yielded 13 band albums, three (more or less) solo ones and a few offshoot projects, and the phrase guarding the door hints at how the benevolent Petty dictatorship works. The songwriter churns up sketches for songs and brings them to the band in the studio, where they communally worry them into working arrangements, often in a day. Then they cut the tracks, a process that the leader’s perfectionism can elongate, at the studio. The method aspires to keep the music as “live” as possible. Petty admits that his style of creating isn’t common these days. “But,” he adds, “neither is oil painting.”

Benmont Tench, who began his musical odyssey with Petty when both were teens in Gainesville, Fla., finds it miraculous that he, Petty and Mike Campbell have survived (bassist Ron Blair returned after Howie Epstein overdosed on heroin in 2003) and thrived as a fully functioning unit for 40-odd years. “Tom’s been a vehicle for the whole group of people who like the same type of music to chime into.”

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Almost all Heartbreakers albums have been a true group effort, but it was more challenging with "Hypnotic Eye," says Petty, because the album took so long to come together. “I think there were three tours at least while we were making this record.”

As he anticipates rehearsals for a tour that will feature some new songs, Petty says: “I’ve worked hard to make an album where every song is the quality of the one in front of it, and there’s a beginning, middle and an end — and it’s a complete experience if you choose to have it.”

From the first crunching bars of opening cut “American Dream Plan B,” it’s clear "Hypnotic Eye" is an album devoted to making some aggressive — if tightly focused — noise, and leaving the tender ballads for another day. From the earliest session, Heartbreaker lead guitarist and "Hypnotic Eye" co-producer Campbell told the band leader that he was singing much like the lad who busted into pop music’s consciousness with “American Girl” in 1976. “That was my first comment,” recalls Campbell, “how really urgent and committed he sounds on a song like ‘Fault Lines’ — he sounds like he did on the first and second albums.”

“It’s probably the material,” says Petty. “It was just my way of getting that character over, to bring whatever character it is to life.” Indeed, Petty’s vocal delivery is especially powerful on cuts like “American Dream Plan B” and “Forgotten Man,” where he inhabits a persona he has sketched with his trademark elegantly simple writing.

The album’s recurring Everyman is an ordinary guy in the grip of an acquisitive and manipulative culture. Many tracks convey Petty’s perception of surliness in the national ethos. “It’s a political album that’s not on either side,” he says, quoting the lyrics of “Shadow People.”

“Well I ain’t on the left/

And I ain’t on the right/ 

I ain’t even sure/ 

I got a dog in this fight”

Petty says the subtext is “really more about morality than politics. It’s about what’s missing — why is the ‘human’ missing from humanity? I think the level of caring about other people is disappearing.”

“Pin on a badge on a man and a man begins to change,” sings Petty in “Power Drunk,” with a voice that is somewhere between a coo and a snarl. “Starts believing that there’s nothing out of his range . . . You and I are left in the wind/In the wake of a rich man’s sin . . .”

Petty won’t take the bait when two neocons are mentioned, but adds that he’s not just talking about Washington politicians sending boys to war. “You can put whoever you want in there. There’s so many to choose from. I was happy when I got that line, because it’s very true . . . from concert security all the way up to the most powerful people in the world. It just changes them, the minute the badge goes on.”

As someone who has given the government a fair amount of money himself, Petty has begun to despair of the One Percent’s motives. “That’s a huge problem in the world right now — you can see these wealthy people who have made so much money that making more will not change an hour of their lives or their children’s — yet they’re consumed with the idea of making more. Once they do that long enough, that doesn’t turn them on anymore. They want power, and a great deal of money buys power. Very few people know how to handle power and once they just become completely immoral, they’re dangerous people. This attitude is what, to me, wipes out the middle class.”

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Petty hunches forward with his right hand tapping the table almost inaudibly: “I’m old enough to remember an America where if you were willing to be a fairly hard worker, you could support your family. You could even maybe own a home. Everybody was happy — not this, ‘Well, I’m not succeeding if I don’t have what these phony people, these soulless shells on TV, are wearing or doing.’ People have been conditioned to think that they should be wealthy.”

Petty hopes that "Hypnotic Eye"’s mesmerizing cover graphic reinforces the title. “It’s just a little bit of a play on words for me,” he says. “I feel like the culture in America is a bit hypnotized by various eyes that they keep staring into. The album is really about what the eyes are feeding them and how they are reacting to it.”

He gives in to a laugh: “I mean, it’s pretty abstract.”

Petty seems content with his personal life now and many of his newer songs reflect this, but he has experienced famously fertile periods of misery. His classic 1994 solo album, "Wildflowers," seemed to anticipate his 1996 divorce from his first wife, Jane Benyo. And two years later he released the brilliant, scorched-earth divorce apologia "Echo." Making "Echo," he recalls, “was a tough time, and only just recently on this last stand did we play anything from that album.”

He’s happy to be comfortably stable (“Romantically, anyway!” he exclaims) as a continent-crossing tour looms, and has no urge for creative misery to visit. “I’ve had enough of that. I don’t write as many love songs as I used to. I’m not in any love crisis at the moment.”

Petty is content as a family man. He married his current wife, Dana York, in 2001, a decade after they met at a show in Texas — she travels with the band and helps manage Petty’s schedule. He has two daughters: Adria, 39, a video director, and AnnaKim, 31, an artist. He also has a 21-year-old stepson, Dylan, from York’s earlier marriage.

Perhaps late fall’s release of a passel of songs from the highly productive "Wildflowers" sessions will reflect the past difficulties, as the selection scoops into his favorite recording stretch. Working with Ryan Ulyate, co-producer of "Hypnotic Eye" and a key creative partner over the past several years, Petty unearthed half-forgotten tracks. (In that vein, Petty spends much of his free time working on his popular SiriusXM radio show that is fittingly called "Buried Treasures.") “There are some beautiful songs,” he says, “I think people who liked "Wildflowers" will certainly feel like they got part two of that record.”

Petty knows he’s not a young man — he turns 64 in October — but he likes to think that he has picked up some wisdom along the way. “The only good thing about getting older is you get smart enough to avoid unnecessary problems. You know what’s worth spending time on and what’s not. If I had known that at 20, life would have been so much easier, but you have to experience all these things so you figure out how to find your way through the woods.”

He draws meditatively on a blue-glowing electronic cigarette. “Some people don’t ever quite figure that out. Some people figure it out quicker. When you’re young, you’ve got that party period you’ve got to get through. If you’re a rock’n’roller, that might last till you’re 58 — cause there’s nobody encouraging you to grow up or anything. 

“You want to get through the party period, and live, and wise up, without anything tragic happening to you, but people are people. I’m still fascinated [that] they’re just all in some sort of situation that they’re trying to figure out, trying to constantly put out fires in their lives. That’s like ‘Fault Lines’ — I have a few of those running under my life that could erupt at any time. We all do.”