As a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell found himself co-writing some of their biggest hits, plus songs for many others like Don Henley and Stevie Nicks. He has also spent a lot of his life in the studio, producing, playing guitar, and writing extensively. With the release of Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs second LP, External Combustion, I got a chance to call him early one morning and discuss studio life, musical inspirations, and how to stay focused.
Your new album, External Combustion, is pretty fun.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
You have your home studio, Hocus Pocus Recorders. How did that come around?
Over the years I would pick up gear and microphones. I started out small and kept collecting. I think eventually, sometime in the late ‘70s or late ‘80s, I saved up to get a Neve. I built a little annex on the end of my house and connected it to the garage. It became a great-sounding room. I work in here all the time. I can write and record instantly. I don’t have to set gear up.
I interviewed Ryan Ulyate [Tape Op #144] and he talked about how you guys had converted the Heartbreakers’ rehearsal space and warehouse into a studio for doing the first Mudcrutch album [Mudcrutch] in 2007. Was this a similar idea?
I actually had a studio long before the Heartbreakers’ Clubhouse. I’ve kind of done it my whole life. I started out with a little TEAC 4-track in the living room. I already had a state-of-the-art studio, and we were rehearsing at The Clubhouse with the Heartbreakers. It sounded so good in there. We had an extra office room, so we brought some gear in and we made several records in there. I like working from home. It’s convenient. The commute is easy.
You’ve got enough room to do drums and everything?
Yeah, I’ve got a drum booth. I have several rooms to isolate the amps. It’s just big enough for four guys to have a good time.
Who was your engineer for this?
Martin Pradler did all the hard technical stuff. Then George Drakoulias was the co-producer. He directed everything. It’s a great team. I trust them completely.
Yeah. You’d worked with George before with the Heartbreakers.
Yeah, that’s right. I think it was The Last DJ album when we met. He’s real smart, and he puts everybody in a good mood. He was very helpful with helping me to pick the songs; which ones to take off and which ones to leave on. It’s a good team. I can’t see working with anybody else.
Besides helping to sort out the songs, what did George bring to it?
George brought fun, first of all. He brought a good overview, like I said, of picking the songs. He’s great when we’re tracking, because he can help us decide when we’re done; to stop playing the song, because we’ve already got it. It’s usually the second or third take. He brought mostly a positive energy. He put everybody at ease. He’s really funny. If you start to think he’s a clown, you’ll miss the fact that he’s really sharp. Nothing gets past George!
You’ve got a long history of doing a lot of production and co-production yourself. As a player, is it nice to let someone help take the reins off of you?
Oh, absolutely; yeah. I don’t want to disappear into my own ego. It’s great to have someone as a sounding board to keep me on track.
Patrick Warren arranged the strings on your new album. Where’d he come from?
George knew him. I had met him a long time ago, but I didn’t remember him that well. He did a great job. It was kind of a stretch for The Dirty Knobs to have some strings and horns on a couple of songs, but he was great. He came in, we showed him what we wanted to do, he came back with the charts, we brought the players in here, set them up in the drum booth, and they got right on it. They did it really fast.
It’s an awesome arrangement.
Thank you very much. That was Patrick.
It seems so much of your production stems from you as a songwriter.
Yeah. It does tie together a lot. I write a lot, and I record a lot. I’m not technically good in the studio. I can’t tell you what frequency “that” is, but I use my ears. I got it set up so it’s easy for me to operate. I always had that in my home. I kind of backed into being a producer....