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. It wasn’t a goal of mine. But about the third album or so, Tom [Petty] would always turn to me, and he realized, “Well, Mike is really more involved. He’s co-producing this with us.” He decided to put my name on, so I became a “producer.” But [being] a producer is like a director on a film: The job is to make sure things get done right and that everybody has a good time.
In the studio, I’ve always noticed the economy of your guitar playing. From an early age, you understood not to overplay and to treat the studio as a place where you build something different, as opposed to playing live.
Yeah. That’s what I grew up on. That comes from my influences and inspirations when I was a kid in the ‘60s. Until Jimi Hendrix came along, in most of those bands the guitar parts fit the song; they didn’t get in the way, and they supported the vocal. That’s what I learned on, for how I liked songs to sound. “The guitar should play here and not there.” Hopefully I picked up some good lessons from all those records I grew up on. That’s the way it comes out and the way that I approach a song.
When you’re producing, have you found yourself trying to help others reduce the amount of notes, or to create more concise parts?
Yeah, I do that with Jason [Sinay, guitars] and The Dirty Knobs occasionally. I’ll say, “Why don’t you play bottle [slide]?”, or, “Play an open tuning.” I’ll give him a challenge where he can’t go crazy and force him to play less notes. He loves it. I mean, there’s a place for stretching out. So many guitar players now, that’s all they do. It’s not very satisfying to hear that anymore. If I want to hear that, I’ll go listen to Hendrix, [Eric] Clapton, or Jimmy Page. I don’t need to hear a fourth generation noodler! I listen to old records. I like George Harrison, Keith Richards, The Kinks, and all those bands that I grew up on. And, of course, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Michael Bloomfield. I like that era. I guess that’s the way I’m wired.
With The Dirty Knobs, on the guitar there’s a little more stretching out than you heard in The Heartbreakers.
Well, that’s true. The Heartbreakers, there weren’t many places – like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” at the end – that were free rein to, “Just go crazy.” Most of our songs were arranged into a pop format a lot of the time. The solos were short and concise, although they were not worked out, most of them. They were not long improvisational pieces. With The Dirty Knobs, it’s just a four-piece band. We don’t have keyboards, so there’s room for the guitars to play out a little more here and there. Live, we’ll explore that a little bit. It’s very spontaneous. I like that about this band, that there’s freedom. We don’t have any hits. We’re not locked into playing it like the record. We can do whatever we want. That’s how I started out playing. It’s going back to what turned me on in the beginning; being able to play in the moment.
In the studio, people obsess over guitar tones and how to capture them in the studio. How do you work with that?
Back in the day, I used to go nuts trying to find the perfect guitar sound. Different rooms, different microphones. Ad nauseam. By the end of it, I didn’t’ even want to hear the song anymore. I learned that it’s pretty simple. Have a nice-sounding amp – I like little Fender amps that aren’t too loud, a nice instrument, and a nice-sounding room. Put a mic right up on the amp, put another mic in the room, catch a little air, play good, and I’m done! Get a sound up, get the gain where it doesn’t break up too much, but where, if I really push it, it’ll sustain. I find the sweet spot with the gain, and then I do it with my hands. I’ll hit it as hard as I need to hit it to make that clarity.
Do you use a lot of outboard gear, like pedals, when you’re in the studio, or are you pretty economical in that use?
Typically, I’m pretty economical. On the Dirty Knobs records, I wanted it to be live performances without overdubs or adding effects later. I did have a little pedalboard I would use live, so if I need delay, I’ll hit the delay; or if I need a little more gain, I’ll hit a little more gain. But it’s pretty simple. I try to shy away from them unless I really need them. With these records and this band, it was good to have that during the take rather than go, “Okay, I’ll play rhythm now and then go back and overdub the solo with a different sound.” Instead, I just say, “Well, I want to play the solo when I hit this box. I’ve got the sound now, and then I can take it off when I get back to the rhythm.” It creates a real kinetic, live interplay.
Where everybody’s playing off each other.
That’s how I approached it. There were a few pedals. One’s a [Way Huge] Camel Toe gain boost [Triple Overdrive]. It’s not a fuzz tone, but it makes it louder. I don’t think they make them anymore. I have a Line 6 [DL4] Delay for repeat, and a Line 6 chorus [MM4 pedal] that I rarely use. The wah-wah pedal might pop up now and then, but not too often. You know who makes a really good pedal now that I like? It’s a Mellotron pedal [Electro-Harmonix MEL9 Tape Replay Machine], a little white pedal. It’s got cellos in there! I can hit that, play guitar, and it plays cellos off the notes I’m playing. I use that live, and we have this lush string sound coming through my guitar amp. It’s handy to flesh out the four-piece sound every now and then. I used that a little bit on the record. That’s about as adventurous as I get. That’s a cool pedal.
Yeah, I’ve seen that one. It’s a trip.
It’s amazing that I start playing and then this orchestra starts. It tracks really well, and it’s got good cello tones. There’re other sounds in there. I don’t know how they do that, but it’s pretty amazing.
You probably remember the first guitar synths in the ‘80s.
Yeah. It was in a rackmount. It was always kind of cheesy, but they’ve got this warm and analog-sounding. I like effects now and then. Mostly I like to do it with the hand and amp, if possible.
What vocal mics do you prefer, especially for a live-ish session like this?
That’s a good question. With Tom, we would always use a really posh mic, like a Neumann U 47 tube mic. I’ve recorded with those in my studio, but because we were tracking live we can’t use a posh mic, because it picks up everything. I was using a Shure SM7, which only picks up what’s right in front of it. I had a little pop filter on that, and I could sing live without the band bleeding into it. We could get a usable vocal off of that. It doesn’t sound like the posh condenser mic, but for my voice and my type of music it sounds good for me, and I’m comfortable with it. I get sometimes intimidated with the really nice mics, like, “Oh, no. It’s going to show up too many things I don’t wanna hear.”
The vocal warts.
Exactly! That covers those over for me. I can push it hard. I can scream into it, or back off. We did the whole album with that mic, and it ended up sounding okay.
Are all the vocals live, or are there cases where you went back and re-did a vocal or punched in?
Well, we had to fix things here and there. Some of the songs I barely knew as we were recording them, so I didn’t have all the vocal parts worked out, or occasionally I’d go off-pitch. I dunno, probably there were some fixing vocals, singing it again. Like, “That’s pretty good, but I could sing it better now that I know how the song goes.” I’d go back and overdub the vocal. Maybe 60 percent was redone. I tried to keep as much of the live vocals as I could, because they always had the vibe.
It feels like a band; like playing at your favorite bar.
Well, there’s something – with Tom, too – we learned this: When we’re playing the guitar and singing, and the band’s playing, the mind is occupied with listening to them and playing and singing at the same time. I’m in a different headspace, and a little less self-conscious about just the voice. When I go into overdub my voice, I’m in there with the microphone, and it’s just me. Tom too, and me, to a large extent, we can get a little intimidated with ourselves. So that’s a real trick. The live vocal is key. Even if I don’t keep it all, or only keep some of it, at least I have a template. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. That’s who the guy is. I’m keying back to that to try to stay in the same character as that “live” guy.
It seemed like you guys were given a lot of time to work on the first Heartbreakers record [Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers] and to experiment. Was that a key way to start out the career of the band?
It was. We were very green, but we had good instincts, and we learned really fast. By the time we got to Damn the Torpedoes, with Jimmy Iovine producing… he’s a great producer. Don’t get me wrong. I love those records. But they were really hard work. We got so meticulous with every microphone. The snare top head was tuned to C-sharp; the bottom head was tuned to E-flat. The mic had to be just right. So much time and effort put into all the little details. Sometimes it was hard to just get into the playing. So, we learned that. We were in the studio and [Donald] “Duck” Dunn – the great bass player from Booker T. & the M.G.’s – was doing an overdub for us. We were getting all pissy with ourselves. “Well, it doesn’t sound right because you’re playing too slow,” or, “You’re playing too loud.” He just shook his head, looked at us, and said, “I’ve never heard five guys that play real good sound bad.” The point is, you get the best sound you can, and you have to play. If you play really good, it’s gonna sound pretty good. And if it doesn’t, you can fix it.
That’s true. Like you mentioned, on those sessions with Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus [Tape Op #31], there’s a clinical-ness to how it’s being examined, even though the songs are still amazing.
That was the era, too. It was the type of production that was going on at that time. I like both ways. I like the Jeff Lynne [#92] approach too, where you do one instrument at a time. But the most fun is getting the band to play, and, like you said, produce yourself within the take. Get all the juice, chemistry, the interplay, and good enough sounds that you can use them. That’s certainly the more fun way to make a record. As I get older, I really want to have fun. I don’t want to be in there moving mics around for hours and hours. It’s not fun anymore!
In the ‘80s, you were doing a lot of demos completely differently than Tom’s demo/writing approach. You were demoing up tracks with drum machines, like the one that led to “The Boys of Summer” and some of the Heartbreaker songs. Was that a way of helping you to write and build tracks at home?
Yeah, exactly. I was all by myself. Before Tom came along, to show how old I am, I wrote several songs, including “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Several of those songs I wrote with tape loops, which I learned in the studio. Back then, I could take an analog tape and take a measure of the drums and tape it together, then hold it up with a glass bar or whatever, take that, run it around, and record that over to a channel. Real drums that never sped up or slowed down. They had a good sound. I loved making demos that way. Sometimes they were so good that we had a hard time recreating them. Then, later on, with drum machines, it’s just quicker. It’s a curse and a blessing, those things.
When you listen back to some of that, are there sounds where you’re like, “I don’t like what I did then”?
No, I don’t have too much self-doubt about what I did. I cut myself some slack. That’s what I had to work with, and I did the best with what I had at the time. I did have some success using a drum machine. When I’m making a demo by myself, I need something to keep time. I can use a metronome, but if I’ve got a beat that sort of sounds like drums, it helps to visualize what the real drums are going to do when I make a proper record. It’s a good tool. In the ‘80s, a lot of people used the drum machine. It became the record. Rather than redoing it with a real drum, they took it into the studio, tweaked it up, and that was the record. That was that sound. I don’t love the ‘80s production when I hear it back. I like our records. But that big drum sample, that era, that’s not the kind of music I grew up on. The early Beatles, Stones, and Kinks drums sound great, but they’re organic. They’re not all tweaked up. That’s what I try to do now. I don’t ever use a drum machine, but I do have Pro Tools and the mics set up. If I want to make a demo by myself, I’ll go in and play the best I can, just to get a little piece, and then I’ll make a loop out of it. I’m back to making loops again!
In Pro Tools?
That’s my bed. Then later on I’ll have a real drummer come in and play it properly. That’s my process. Writing is mysterious, but that’s the way I’ve always done it.
Do you ever send songs around to other people to build on?
I don’t send songs. I write all the time. I have a list, and I love the process. It’s one of the greatest joys of my life, just writing and trying to pull these things out of the air. I don’t send publishing songs around. Although recently I actually have begun to do that, since I’m in a different world now with my partner gone, I am opening up to writing with a few people. Chris Stapleton came over to my house during the first album. We did some writing together. On this new record, Margo Price came by with her husband. We did a little writing. I goosed her into singing on my record a little bit.
I heard that!
Yeah, she’s great. The publishing company I’m with now is urging me to open up to the possibility of writing with people. But I don’t send tracks around. It’s too personal. If they want to come over and sit down with me, I’ll show it to them, and maybe we can work something out. I’m not going to mail it off. It’s my secret stuff.
There are a lot of different ways to approach writing. Ryan Ulyate and I talked a lot about his archival work, like Angel Dream, and sorting out tracks for release. Do you have to block out a lot of time to sit, listen, and make notes?
Well, I approach it by leaving most of that to Ryan. There’s a lot of legwork. I’m not interested in listening to 18,000 takes to pick the best one. As a rule, when he does narrow it down, I will go sit with him. He’s got a good ear, and I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s a good choice.” Or, “Maybe is there a better version of this one?” He does most of the work. The trick is to listen to the vocal and the feel. If the vocal is good, the band is usually good. If the band is great, and the vocal wasn’t good, we can’t use it. Just listen really closely. Is the singer on top of his game? Is this a take? If he’s great, we’ll make it work. Usually, Tom was pretty consistent. He was always good.
I know there was one case where there was a show where Tom was like, “That was an awful show,” but then it turned out a lot of the songs from it were fine.
Yeah. That’s the artist’s dilemma. “That sucked!” Listen back to it when you’re in a better headspace. “Oh, it wasn’t so bad.”
You get off stage and only have your own experience to recall.
True. Sometimes it depends on the elements you’re facing, the sound you’re getting, or how you’re feeling that day. I’m proud of the Heartbreakers. I think we were pretty consistent live. We never really had a bad show unless it was because of the rain or some technical PA problem. We always showed up and played pretty good.
For someone like me who grew up in the late ‘70s, you guys were one of the few next generations of rock bands. We’re listening to The Byrds or Pink Floyd, and then there comes the Heartbreakers. There weren’t that many new bands carrying on in the classic rock vein. I wanted to say how much I appreciated having some guiding lights out there then.
Well, thank you. I never thought about it that way. With my band too, The Dirty Knobs, I’m bringing my resources that I grew up on. I think that was a renaissance period. I was so lucky to learn guitar during the ‘60s. That doesn’t exist anymore. There were so many great bands and so many great songs. I instantly knew them. I’d hear them one time and know them. Nowadays it’s just homogenized. Sometimes I hear something and think, “That’s pretty good.” Then, later, I don’t even remember how it went! If I heard a Kinks song, I could go to my friend’s house and say, “Oh, there’s this great song, ‘You Really Got Me.’” It would stick in my head, whatever it might be. It was a great era. I try to carry those influences through my band. We have a little Yardbirds in us, a little Beatles, a little Stones, and a little Kinks. Those are the sources I’m pulling from. I hope to keep that alive, because I think that was the best era for rock music. We’re the old guys, carrying on the old tradition.
Thanks so much, Mike. It’s great to chat.
Yeah, it was good to talk, Larry. I appreciate it. You made me think about some things I hadn’t thought about. That’s good. Stay healthy up there.