The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell on the Long-Awaited Release of His Debut Album
Dirty Knobs, the guitarist's longtime side project, has been a welcome distraction during a difficult year
For over a decade, The Dirty Knobs were strictly a side project for Mike Campbell — a way to have fun and keep the creative juices flowing when he wasn’t busy with the Heartbreakers. But in October 2017, the unthinkable happened, and everything changed.
Tom Petty, Campbell’s friend and bandmate of over 40 years, died unexpectedly of an accidental drug overdose, and suddenly his longtime side project became his primary creative outlet. To cope with the grief of losing Petty, the guitarist and songwriter knew he had to get back to making music. After so many years together, it was finally time for The Dirty Knobs to make their debut album.
“We had been together a long time in the studio and also playing bars around town, and I was just waiting for the proper time to do it,” Campbell tells InsideHook on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing it while the Heartbreakers were busy. I thought at some point they might take a break. Unfortunately, the break happened in a bad way. But there’s time now, and this is what I want to do. It’s a great band, and I’m happy to be able to put it out there.”
The result is Wreckless Abandon, 13 tracks produced by Campbell and George Drakoulias (The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks) with an infectiously loose, live feel that was a result of both the lack of pressure and expectations felt by the group — which also features guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison and drummer Matt Laug — and a conscious aesthetic choice by Campbell.
“I wanted a record that sounded like four guys playing with no overdubs or extra additions,” he explains. “And we’ve been playing together so long, it was really pretty easy. We would learn the song, and then we would just count to four and play it. And if there was a solo needed, you play it on the fly. And 95% of all the guitar parts are just live, the four of us playing together. And that’s the kind of record I wanted to make, and it came out really good.”
In addition to those four guys playing with no overdubs, Wreckless Abandon also features contributions from Campbell’s longtime Heartbreakers bandmate Benmont Tench as well as country singer Chris Stapleton, who’s featured on “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and provides background vocals on “Irish Girl.” (Campbell also co-wrote “Arkansas,” which appears on Stapleton’s latest album, Starting Over.)
“I met him for two minutes at Wrigley Field when he opened for the Heartbreakers,” Campbell says. “And then a year later or whatever, he called me up and asked if I would be interested in trying to write some songs, because he loved my band. And I don’t normally write with other people. I like to write on my own mostly, but I figured I’d give it a try. So he came out for three days, and we sat and wrote songs together, and it was really fun. He’s an amazing singer and such a personable guy, and we’re cut from the same cloth. We like the same kind of music, and we had a blast doing it. And since he was in town and my band was in the middle of recording a record, I dragged him into the studio and had him sing a verse and some harmonies on some stuff for me. And then later on, he sent me a track of one of our songs that he’d cut in Nashville for me to overdub guitar, and I did and mailed it back to him. So we’ve become really good friends.”
Stapleton is also partly responsible for “Fuck That Guy,” a funny, cathartic middle-finger to an anonymous asshole who — at least in the music video, which stars Jeff Garlin and Danny Trejo — takes the form of a coronavirus cell.
“The title was from Chris,” Campbell says. “When we were working on songs together, he said, ‘I was thinking of doing a song called “Fuck That Guy,” because everybody can relate to that. And throughout the day, there’s somebody that pisses you off, you know?’ So I said, ‘Well, have you written it?’ He said no. I said, ‘Can I have a shot at it?’ And he said, ‘Sure, go for it.’ So he had the title, and I threw the other words together. And the next day, the band played it once or twice and that was it. I wasn’t really taking it that serious. It was just trying to get a little comic relief from all the hell we’re going through. And then Danny Trejo, his son is a videographer, so he said he’d love to do a video of it. And so he said, ‘Well, who is the guy?’ And I said, ‘Well, I didn’t want to do anything political,’ but, ‘What’s the most evil thing out there right now?’ It’s the coronavirus. So we’ll make the guy the virus. We put a virus head on him, and he took that idea and ran with it.”
The coronavirus has obviously been especially cruel to the music industry this year, and The Dirty Knobs are doing what they can to help independent venues get back on their feet. This evening (Nov. 20), they’ll perform a livestream from The Troubadour in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. EST to help raise money for the National Independent Venue Association. (You can donate and tune in here.)
“This is hard on everybody, this pandemic, but I feel for all the venues like the Troubadour,” Campbell says. “There’s many across the country that are struggling because they had to close their doors, and some of them may close up for good. And I hope not, but the opportunity came to help the Troubadour through this NIVA organization and also help other venues that are like the Troubadour. The Troubadour is very special to me because I played there several times, and it’s got such a history. And I think it’s like a national treasure that should be protected. And I just hope that when all this stuff is over, which I’m praying it will be over before too long, that these venues will still be there so we can play in them, you know?”
Like all musicians, he’s itching to play live as soon as it’s safe to do so. The Dirty Knobs currently have a tour on the books for fall 2021, and while there’s no telling at this point what the state of the pandemic will be by then, Campbell’s cautiously optimistic that they won’t have to postpone.
“I think it’s going to be amazing,” he says. “I think everybody’s been waiting for so long, the bands and the venues and the audiences, and I think everybody’s going to be so happy. It’s going to be a joyous celebration when they get to come to see a band play live again. I anticipate it’s going to be very emotional and explosive, and everybody will be so happy to have it back because there’s no other place in life to get that experience. And we all miss it terribly, so I’m optimistic that it will just be like a total epiphany.”
Like most things these days, Wreckless Abandon and the tour to promote it have seen their share of delays. The first happened way back in 2018, when Campbell was called upon by Mick Fleetwood to replace Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac for their 2018-2019 tour. Then, of course, early this year, with the album already in the can, COVID-19 hit and the world turned upside down.
“The record was done, and the gigs were booked and sold out, and we were all ready to go, and then all hell broke loose,” he says. “We stepped back and rescheduled our tour three months later, and then rescheduled it again when the pandemic was still going on. And so it was very frustrating, because we were so proud of the record. We wanted to get it out there and go out and play it everywhere, you know? So we just had to hold onto that energy and hope for a change. And then it got to be the end of this year and BMG and we decided, ‘Even though we can’t tour, let’s go ahead and put it out anyway’… Basically, we don’t want to jump the gun and get out there before it’s safe for everybody. And so as hard as it is to wait and hold back, it’s got to be safe. And I don’t want to be responsible for anybody in the band or anyone in the audience getting sick.”
For now, the plan is to take advantage of the extra time by diving right back into the studio and beginning work on a follow-up to Wreckless Abandon.
“Since we can’t tour, if we can get a medical clearance here at my studio, we can start working on our second record,” Campbell says. “We have quite a few tracks leftover from the first record, and I’ve been writing a lot. So we want to have a second record done by May, which I think is easily done … I love the band, and there’s a lot of things we can do. This first album is a real example of how we sound live because it is live, and I think we can just establish this is what we sound like. But I think there’s room for growth that we can do all kinds of things moving to the future.”
Whatever the future holds, the goal for Campbell is always to use his music to lift people’s spirits — something we all could use now more than ever.
“The mission is to inspire and entertain and take people on a journey away from the world’s troubles,” he says. “But basically, the most you can do as a musician is inspire someone else on some level. So I would hope that they would hear this record and then want to see this band live and that it would maybe inspire them or give them some sort of hope or redemption. I like songs that maybe have a dark edge, but then there’s always like things are going to work out, a positive outcome to the stories. If they enjoyed it, and it made them happy for a moment, then I’ve done my job.”
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