Tom Petty is sitting at the mixing board in the control room of Manhattan's Germano Studios with his wife Dana on his left. I'm sitting on his right. Pretty cool. We're listening to the 5.1 Blu-ray mix of Petty's new album Mojo - his first album with the Heartbreakers in eight years - and he's tapping his red Converse sneakers and pulling hard on his electric cigarette, while listening intently to what's blaring from Germano's top-notch system. At one point Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers' guitarist and Petty's "co-captain" in the band, rips out a truly spine-tingling fill, and Petty bounces up and down in his chair. He turns to me, looks over his dark shades and chuckles that half- menacing, half-exuberant Florida chuckle of his. He likes what he hears. "Man, that sounds fantastic," Petty says to Ryan Ulyate (Mojo co-producer, engineer and mixer of the 5.1 Blu-ray) when the playback is done. And it does. As the final notes of the album closer "Good Enough" play out and everyone claps and smiles - including Petty himself - I turn to Petty after some chit-chat and say, "You must be real proud of this one." With that trademark southern deadpan, Petty grins at me and without hesitation replies "Shit yeah!" Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' first album since 2002's The Last DJ is a corker.
While Petty makes the rounds of the 30 or so people lucky enough to be invited to the listening party, Dana Petty and I hatch a plan to try and convince this rock icon to perform the album start to finish, bookended by hits - perhaps do multiple dates in those cities, and advertise the album nights as such to anyone who might only want the best of Petty's illustrious catalogue. It's not a crazy idea. At 65 minutes, Mojo is a good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll double album that screams to be played live. In a word, it's epic. The songs are not the perfect 3-minute pop songs Petty is known for. In fact, only a few have that instantly memorable Petty trademark quality. Instead Mojo is full of long, bluesy jams, built around old-fashioned story songs, played by one of the last great bands from an almost bygone era in rock music. "Tom was listening to a lot of old blues records, and Mike [Campbell] was listening to a lot of Zeppelin," Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench tells me. It shows. In fact, the era and sound that Mojo owes the most to is late-60's London blues like the Peter Green-fronted version of Fleetwood Mac - that pre-Led Zeppelin moment in rock where American blues met tuneful British virtuoso playing. A great pedigree, and Petty and his Heartbreakers live up to their lofty aspirations.
"I didn't come in with all the riffs worked out, except for in a few places where I knew what I wanted," Petty tells me later, still bouyant from his first time hearing the 5.1 Blu-ray mix. "In most cases I just came in and strummed an acoustic and played the songs to the band. We did four sessions of about 10 days each and just developed the songs in our rehearsal space live, right there on the floor (of the studio)."
"There were only about 28 days of actual recording," co-producer Ryan Ulyate tells me. "We began last May and then did further sessions in September, November and January of this year. Tom really felt he learned something from making the Mudcrutch album (the 2008 reunion album of Petty's early-1970's band). We all did. And the Heartbreakers are so good, he wanted to capture that sound live. So that was my job - to put the band in a place that they are comfortable, and get that down."
Recorded and mixed on Pro Tools completely in the box using the Heartbreakers' live setup, Ulyate kept the monitors and band volume low and worked with the band's monitor engineer, Greg Looper, to send the signal via the same Digidesign/Avid Venue console used for live monitors and to record the band live. "It's a really good signal chain with total recall-ability. It's exactly the same setup we used to record the Gainesville show that came as a bonus DVD with the Runnin' Down a Dream documentary DVD a few years ago," Ulyate explains. "There was some bleed, but it wasn't that hard to manage, and it actually added to the sound we were trying to capture. In fact, the band doesn't actually play very loud. People would be surprised to find out how quietly Mike Campbell plays."
Ulyate close-mic'd the guitars using Shure SM57s on the guitars and a direct/mic combination on the bass, plus AKG 414 overheads and Sennheiser 421s on the drums. "Just like a live show," says Ulyate. "Then I added [Neumann] TLM 170s and some U 87s for some room sound, especially for the 5.1 mix. We have exactly the same setup at the Clubhouse as I do at my home studio where I do all the mixing, as well as at Tom's studio at his house. With Pro Tools we're able to work efficiently and effectively, and no matter where we listen it's always the same experience."
No matter how it was captured, this is also a classic Tom Petty record. So extended band workouts like the instant classics, "First Flash of Freedom," "I Should Have Known It" and "Good Enough" sit alongside beautiful and moody melodic stunners on the mellower side like "Trip to Pirate's Cove," "No Reason To Cry" and "Something Good Coming." But what first strikes you about Mojo is how great it sounds. It really seems (especially on the 5.1 Blu-ray and vinyl editions) that you're sitting in the middle of the band while it plays just for you.
"I tried really hard to capture the sound of the Clubhouse (Petty's warehouse-turned-studio in Los Angeles)," says Ulyate, having cut his teeth on Blu-ray on last year's stunning Live Anthology for the Heartbreakers. "Except for some ear candy here and there, the surround sound experience in particular is created by the band playing live and the placement of mics around the room. There were very few overdubs." Even bits of backward guitar from Campbell were played live using stomp boxes. As for being the first major artist to embrace Blu-ray, Ulyate says, "That's what's great about working with Tom. He's really game to push the technology to offer the best listening experience possible."
Ulyate used several "must have" plug-ins, including Massenburg DesignWorks EQs, UAD 1176, SoundToys (effects), Massey Tape-Head (for distortion), an Eventide Factory Flanger (from the Anthology bundle), the NuGen Stereoizer and TL Space and Altiverb reverbs. "Jeff Lynne converted me as a firm believer to the no reverb school," Ulyate continued. "But it was fun to bring some reverb back into the mix. It really depends on the project, and this project definitely called for it, so I didn't hold back. I just used what I needed."
But more than anything, throughout Mojo, the breadth of Petty's songwriting muse and the playing of the Heartbreakers are on full display. "I don't think we could have made this record 15 or even 10 years ago," Petty tells me, bluntly. "We've always been a great band, but we've really blossomed in an unexpected way, and this album really showcases that. I'm really happy with this record. I always say that, but this time there's something really special going on."
So everyone is in a great mood as the hour gets late and the evening winds down. It's been a good, old-fashioned listening party, with the artists in attendance. And you can tell they want to be here. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are proud of Mojo. They should be. -Jeff Slate