In early 2010, Tom Petty was feeling good about the future. In the home studio of his cliffside Malibu property, surrounded by guitars, he puffed on the first vape I’d ever seen (“The tobacco lobbies don’t want them to exist!”) as he played me all of the yet-to-be-released Mojo, his hard-hitting first album with the Heartbreakers since 2002’s downer The Last DJ.
How much of a deliberate agenda was there to create an album that was much harder-hitting and more psychedelic than anything you’d done before?
I knew that there was something in the band that hadn’t been brought out, and that no one got to hear other than me. It was more an off-hours kind of thing. So I wanted to bring that out. The records I was listening to were early Jeff Beck Group, John Mayall, Peter Green, Muddy [Waters], that kind of stuff. I wanted to make a record like that. Even a little J.J. Cale. Actually, I went and I jammed with the Allman Brothers one night. And then a few days later, I played with J.J. Cale for an hour, Mike [Campbell] and I did, at McCabe’s. And we really had a glorious time playing. I thought, this is something that would really make me happy. So I said, “Let’s just play for ourselves and do what feels right.” We set down some rules at the beginning about going for as much of the record as we could in the [live] take itself, rather than, say, cutting a rhythm track [and overdubbing later]. We tried to get a performance out of every track. And that’s the way it went, pretty much.
It’s one thing to have the band play like that. It’s another thing to write the right songs to be played that way. How did you get to that place?
I just wrote, you know. I knew I’d have to have pretty durable stuff. If I got it to sound good with just me and a guitar, right, if I could sell the song that way, then I felt really confident, usually. On the last Heartbreakers record, I’d bring in a demo, and everything was all arranged, all the parts. And they weren’t too inspired by that, because they don’t want to have to play some part that’s already written. [This time], I’d play and sing and then the band would fall in. And that’s how we would shape it. Sometimes they fall in with exactly the right thing. Sometimes it took some loose shaping. But really, the arrangements came from the Heartbreakers themselves.
So that’s how you ended up with reggae on on “Don’t Pull Me Over.”
It was really just an after-the-end-of-the-session kind of thing that I wasn’t taking too seriously. There were a few like that. And we started to have such a good time recording that we finally had to just force ourselves to pull the plug on the thing. Wow. Because it could have just gone on and on and on. And I thought, I hate to stop. But we had so much material mounting up. It was very enjoyable, just a great time. Everyone was in a good mood. I don’t think we had any fights. We’re hot right now. It’s coming easy. No struggle. If I didn’t have a tour coming up, I would probably just stay in the studio. I’m enjoying it that much.
This stuff is going to kill live.
Yeah, we were saying we need to play a lot of it, and I don’t think anyone will mind.
If you didn’t have to worry about pissing off the audience, would you be playing fewer hits onstage?
If I wasn’t worrying about that at all, I probably wouldn’t play any! But I kind of feel a little obligated that people have gone though quite a bit to get to these big gigs and they have some expectations of what they’d like to hear. I think we have a lot of other songs that we can play that will be just as satisfying. We just did some shows last weekend in a little place and most of the show, we did pretty deep album cuts. Wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes more of the rule than the exception.
Just like when when you first started the Heartbreakers, you came to this after some time with Mudcrutch. Was that kind of a reset button for you?
It certainly was. That’s a good way to put it. It was a reset. Because I got the Mudcrutch album done, and I thought, shit, this is one of my favorite records I ever made in my life. And it was made in about two weeks. I wanted to get back to just performing in the studio, so that if we went onstage, we can exactly recreate it. It’s just six guys playing, right? You couldn’t do this kind of record without a unit like that, that can really communicate with each other without talking too much. There wasn’t a lot said really, other than “Let’s put a verse here” or “Repeat that chorus” or whatever. They just kind of instinctively know where to go. And my other thought was, I really want to push Mike up to the front of the record. Because, I mean, I don’t know if there’s another guitar player any better than that. And I want him to get up front and make it a guitar record. I didn’t want any harmony singing on the record, either. There’s never a harmony.
There was a time when you wrote and recorded, I would imagine, with some consciousness of the radio and singles and that kind of thing. Has all that left your mind?
Yeah, it’s really liberating. I’m not trying to make singles or pop music. The funny thing is, is you end up with stuff that would sound great on the radio! But that isn’t a real concern of mine. That’s the other thing about the Mudcrutch thing. I came away so satisfied with it that I didn’t really care if it was a huge hit. But I wanted this one to be real good. Because, like I said, we hadn’t made a record in so many years that I really wanted it to be something that people would would kind of sit up and take notice of.
On “First Flash of Freedom,” you’re doing something very specific with your voice — it’s a different sound for you.
I thought it would be good if it sounded like we had a few different singers. I thought in that one, rather than go for a bluesy kind of trip, let’s go for something a little breathier and melodic. But, you know, over the span of an album, it’s good to change your voice from time to time.
“U.S. 41″ is a really striking song. Where did that come from?
“U.S. 41” I’d actually written about six or seven years ago. And Bugs, our faithful roadie, played it for me and said, “Look, it was a really good song in this demo session.” I think it was right after The Last DJ. So it was there in a very crude form. And it just came out so much fun.
You’ve been talking about making a heavier album for literally decades. I guess this is finally it.
Yeah, it had to all fall into place. We couldn’t have made this in the Seventies. We didn’t have those kinds of chops in the Seventies. We grew into this. At one point I think I said, “If someone made this record in ’73, it would have ruled the earth.” [Laughs.]
Obviously, there’s a recession right now and it feels like hard times, and there seems to be a note of reassurance on some of these songs. Were you thinking about the times?
It’s impossible not to notice. If you’re writing, I don’t see how that can’t come up to some degree. I did see it as a kind of a working man’s blues record. And I wrote a few love songs, which I haven’t done in years. I went away from love songs long ago, and so that was nice when they started to reappear. I’m at a real good point in my life right now. I’m really enjoying life. So maybe that has something to do with it.
What changed to put you in that place?
I don’t know. It’s just growing up [laughs]. You know, as time goes by, you seem to weed out the things that will make your life hard, you know, bit by bit. I looked up one day and just found myself in a nice situation. And I think having a year off really made a difference in my life. Because it has always been going so fast.
It does look like you’re on the path to really do the Dylan thing and just keep hitting it as the years go by.
Oh, I intend to hit it [laughs]. I’m not going anywhere. I’m gonna keep doing it. Bob is a great inspiration. That’s somebody who hasn’t let his age get in the way of his creativity at all. In some ways, I feel like maybe I’m a little better than I used to be.