A single electric guitar made all the difference in the world for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on their new album, “Mojo.”
The instrument in question is a vintage 1959 Gibson Les Paul, long cherished and finally purchased a couple years ago by founding Heartbreaker and “Mojo” co-producer Mike Campbell. The band, he says, had already decided to make “a record that was ... just the band playing, live on the floor.” But the guitar spun the project in an entirely different direction.
“I was playing it and falling in love with it,” Campbell, 60, recalls, “so Tom said, ‘Why don’t we do a record around the sound of that guitar and put the guitar up-front more than we’ve done in the past and see what happens. It was a short conversation, like ‘Let’s make this record. Let’s use that guitar and let the band play live,’ and that was kind of our blueprint.
“It was something different from what we’ve done before, but it allowed us to explore some different points of inspiration that we grew up on.”
“Mojo,” Petty’s first album with the Heartbreakers since 2002, is indeed a departure from the group’s previous ventures, which were distinguished by tight songwriting and what Campbell describes as “jingly-jangly ... type of songs.” The new album — which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart when it was released in mid-June — lets the throttle out in a manner that’s closer to the group’s highly regarded live performances than ever before, incorporating blues and psychedelic rock influences and loose, jammy arrangements filled with extended guitar solos.
The sonic touchstones are obvious — Jeff Beck, the Yardbirds, early Rolling Stones, the Animals and others. But Campbell says the sources run even deeper, and older, than that.
“It’s a lot more like the music that Tom and I and some of the other guys listen to when we’re on break,” explains Campbell, who’s been playing with Petty since the two, along with keyboardist Benmont Tench, formed a band called Mudcrutch in their native Gainesville, Fla. “We discovered a lot of the old blues stuff through the Stones and British groups that brought our attention to these artists that were in America, such as Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s what we listened to a lot, and when we’re warming up or rehearsing, a lot of times we’ll play that stuff, ’cause we really like it.
“And we’ve never really explored that much in our recording. There’s flavors of it here and there, but on this record we figured, ‘Let’s just go for it. Let’s tap that and see what we can find.’”
Recording “Mojo” in Los Angeles was as loose as some of the song arrangements, according to Campbell — who co-wrote three of the 16 tracks, including the trippy, seven-minute epic “First Flash of Freedom.” It was done without instrumental overdubs, and the sextet would often leave one session not necessarily sure what it would be working on the next time they convened.
“Tom would bring in a song, and usually on the first or second take we’d have what we wanted,” Campbell recalls. “And he would go home and say, ‘I’ll come up with something for tomorrow,’ and he might come in with one or two more things and we’d cut those the next day.
“It was inspiring, and each day was exciting. You’d bring in the energy from the session and take it home and come up with an idea for the next day.”
And, Campbell adds, there was only the slightest concern that the creative path the Heartbreakers were taking might not yield another “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” or some other radio-friendly material.
“I think it’s maybe fearless on some levels to put out a record that doesn’t have an obvious ‘pop hit’ or anything like that on it,” he acknowledges. “It’s a record that’s maybe a little different from what people might expect from us. We’re just kind of doing what we feel like doing and what feels right, and we hope people will go along for the ride with us.”
But Campbell — who’s keeping that valuable Les Paul guitar locked away at home while playing a replica Gibson built for him on the road — won’t hazard a guess as to whether it’s the kind of ride the Heartbreakers will continue on their next album, whenever that’s made.
“It’s what we’re doing right now, and that’s all we really think about,” he says. “What’s interesting about where the band is at with this music is that in a maturity way, we are now good enough to do this type of music. It’s a very delicate music, rhythmically, and I think 10 years ago we maybe didn’t have the understanding or the swing or the groove to really get inside this type of music. But we found it at this point, now, and we’re really comfortable with it.
“And we love our old songs, too, so who knows. The next record might be polkas, I don’t know. Right now we’re just really enjoying this.”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Drive-By Truckers perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 22, at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $52.50-$128. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
Send your thoughts and comments to