Mike Campbell didn’t set out to make a pandemic record. But he allows that subliminally, some of the feelings of isolation might have found their way into the songs.
Yet as “Wicked Mind,” the first single demonstrates, his newest album is anything but dreary. And the former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist also still has quite a talent for spinning a good yarn, no pandemic required.
The video for “Wicked Mind” leans a bit morbid in the early moments. “They put me in a coffin, which I wasn’t too happy about,” Campbell laughs during a conversation with UCR.
But rock and roll ultimately helps the guitarist find his way out of the clutches of the female villain, who follows him all of the way to the stage. These things happen. “She is great and she’s a contortionist,” he reveals. “She can dislocate her arm from her body and twist it around.”
‘External Combustion,’ the second album from Campbell and the Dirty Knobs, his band of more than 20 years now, will similarly loosen your limbs — or at the very least, get ‘em moving. The guitarist is looking forward to finally getting a chance to showcase the music he and the group have created starting this month as they hit the road for a series of long-delayed tour dates.
The vehicles carrying Campbell and the band on the road probably won’t be exactly like the rock and roll caravan setting in “Electric Gypsy,” his newest single, but the shows promise to be a lot of fun. He says there will be a “handful of songs” from his Heartbreakers catalog as well.
Campbell spoke with UCR to share some details behind the album sessions, which were once again helmed by longtime producer and associate George Drakoulias (Tom Petty, the Black Crowes).
The Dirty Knobs have been your musical farm team of sorts for a lot of years. Having the chance to fully focus on this as your main priority, how have you seen the dynamic evolve?
Well, I love the band. We have been together quite a while. It’s not just thrown together. We know each other well. I always intended to record and make a record with them. But I was so busy with my other job that we only had a few months here and there between tours to mess around. Now my time has opened up and this is what I want to focus on. We’re basically just carrying on with what we were doing, but just do it more full time.
You were all set to tour and then the pandemic happened. How much did that contribute to or influence the direction of this new album? I know you’re always writing, no matter what the circumstances are.
You’re right, I do write a lot. In some ways, staying home and not being able to tour was kind of normal for me. Because when I’m home, I’m very active with writing and I have a studio here. That didn’t slow me down. I was regretful that we couldn’t do the tour. But I think all of those dates are still sold and ready to go now. You know, some of the songs, I’ve noticed as I look back at them, I don’t write about specific things necessarily. But as I look back at this album we just did, some of the lyrics seem to be indirectly about being isolated and trying to find a better world than you’re in. [Laughs] So it might have been subliminal.
“Wicked Mind” is great. How did that one come together?
It was an easy song to write. It’s a burst of adrenaline. I remember that it came fast. That day, I happened to be listening to a lot of Ramones. I was really intrigued with that energy and that push [of their songs]. I think that’s kind of where the vibe of the music came from. The words just fell together, you know, about this guy who’s desperate. He’s got issues, but he’s going to try to make things okay at the end. [Laughs]
Watch Mike Campbell’s ‘Wicked Mind’ Video
Your bandmates, Jason Sinay and Matt Laug, have mentioned about how you would often show the band songs as you were in the midst of recording.
That’s where the fun is. You know, with the Heartbreakers too, we rarely had a script for our songs. Tom would come in and show it to us and we’d learn it on the fly and try to record it as quickly as possible before it became stale or too thought out. I love doing it that way, especially with the Dirty Knobs. It’s a live band and we recorded both of those albums pretty much live on the floor. All of the solos are live and some of the vocals are live. We just worked out the arrangements, played it two or three times and we would move on to the next song. I like doing things fast. In fact, we did it so fast that a lot of the lyrics were being written as we were cutting the track.
When we started rehearsing, I had to go back and learn all of the words. [Laughs] I’d never really memorized them. But I like things that are kinetic. Especially with the guitar solos and stuff, I like it to be kind of off the cuff a bit. Occasionally and in the past, I’ve worked out a melody. “You Got Lucky,” that melody, I had that worked out. But most of the stuff, like “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the other songs, it was just, “Run the tape and I’m going to go for it.” I think that’s where the excitement is. And I think the listeners can feel that, that you’re not going through the motions. You know, you’re discovering it as they are.
What’s your perspective on playing live vs. being in the studio. Do you prefer one over the other?
That’s the great thing about the Dirty Knobs over the years. We’d play these relatively small places and we wouldn’t have any hits. We’d try to win them over in the moment. Here’s a song that you’ve never heard before, but hopefully we’ll do it good enough that you’ll go along with us. This band is very spontaneous. The Heartbreakers got kind of stuck with these hits and we had to play them like the records, which is a great balance too and we were really good at that.
The Knobs don’t have any hits. [Laughs] So we have to sell it on the moment. But we’re used to doing that and I like that challenge. Because we recorded in the studio, basically live, when we went to rehearse, we kind of already knew how to play the songs. But I also will take liberties with the Dirty Knobs. If I want a solo to go on longer or if I want to throw in a song that’s not in the setlist, we can do it. They’ll stay right with me.
Watch Mike Campbell and the Dirty Knobs Rehearsing for the Current Tour
How did you land on those mystic tones in the intro of “In This Lifetime?” That’s one of the highlights on this album.
Oh, thank you. It’s all harmonics. You know, I don’t know. It’s kind of Japanese. [Campbell strums out the intro on his guitar]. I found a little melody and got some chords to go with it. That’s turned out to be a really good live song as we’re rehearsing it. That’s an example of one where we set up the song and in the middle, I can kind of go off a bit and explore those chords and the harmonics and the solo can kind of go into different places each time we play it. But I like that one, because it’s got a spirituality to it. It’s kind of Oriental-sounding.
The words are a little poetic, I guess. [The song] is kind of sad and mournful, but still with some redemption at the end. I like the spirit of it. With those minor chords, it kind of reminds me a little bit of Jimi Hendrix, like “The Wind Cries Mary” or something. He would do that, with those minor chords that just have a mood.
How do you know Margo Price? It’s great that you got her on this record.
Yeah, I love her. She was so gracious. Her management contacted me and she wanted to write some songs. She came over with her husband, Jeremy, and we worked on some songs together. Since I had my record up, I asked her to sing and she was gracious enough to sing with me. She’s just a great singer and a great person. She was fun to be around.
Listen to ‘State of Mind’ With Margo Price
You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years. Do you still get a lot of calls from people like Margo who want to write? And do you still do a lot of that?
I don’t do a lot of it. But yes, I get calls occasionally. I also have Ian Hunter on the record….
I was going to ask about that!
That was not about writing. He sent me some tracks to play on and he liked it. So I said, “Man, could you sing on one of my songs?” He sent me the session and I was so tickled to get him on the record. Because I love Mott the Hoople. He’s such a cool sounding singer. Him and Margo both, they really came through for me and made those songs better.
The piano gives the song that great Mott feel. He also brings a cool Bob Dylan vibe with his vocal.
Oh yeah, well, that’s his piano! I asked him if he’d put a piano on it and he did. It has that feel to it. So the combination of his Dylan-esque approach to singing and his rhythm piano really helped the song a lot.
I love the videos you started doing on Instagram as “Bathroom Jams” during the Fleetwood Mac tour. It seems like that’s maybe where you started to embrace social media and have some fun with it.
Yeah, I started doing it on the Fleetwood Mac tour backstage, just to lighten up the energy. The girls, Sharon [Celani] and Marilyn [Martin], would come in and join me. Sometimes, Neil [Finn] would pop in. I’m not much of a social media person, but I did enjoy that. When I got off the road, my wife suggested, “You should keep doing them.” What’s been good about that is that it gives me a chance to sing a little bit and get comfortable with my voice. Also, I can go back through the catalog and pull up some of the songs from the Heartbreakers and explore them.
I maybe sing a little bit [and] explain how the guitars came together. It’s almost like a little musical lesson, but it’s really fun. It’s also made me realize how many songs we did and what a great writer Tom was and how lucky I was with the songs that I had, that he wrote to. Like, I’ll take a song like “Southern Accents.” I’ll do it on my Instagram, just with a guitar and I might do it as a waltz instead of a straight beat. I can explore the songs and kind of rediscover them. That’s been a real eye-opener for me.
Watch Mike Campbell Perform ‘Southern Accents’
What’s been the most surprising thing for you that you’ve found going back to those songs?
Well, mostly when I would go back to one of the Heartbreakers songs, which I’ve done several of them, I’d have to go back and really think about the guitar parts. You know, how they came about. Then, I would also rediscover the lyrics. Because maybe, back in the day, the lyrics might go past me and I might not tune into them that closely.
But when I’m doing them myself, I have to really dig into the lyrics. I think it’s been a realization, what a great lyricist Tom was and is. Some of those words are just so good. You know, the rhyme schemes are so clever. It’s been fun and inspiring to discover that again.
It’s great seeing you break down a song like “American Girl,” explaining the difference of what’s possible with a 12 string vs. a six string and stuff like that. It’s really interesting the way you unpack the layers of all of that stuff.
Well, thank you. I enjoy it. A lot of those records, it’s interesting, like “American Girl,” I would go back and listen, how did I do that? It’s something that I did really quick when I was really young. Now, at this age, you go back and you go, “That was pretty clever of me, really. How did I know what I was doing?” But then, I relearn it.
I think that on these Instagrams, I don’t really know, but I have a hunch that a lot of the people are guitar players. It’s fun to show them, well, this is what I did, this is where my fingers were and this is how I came up with this part. Some of the comments I’ve read are guitar players thanking me. “I always wondered how you did that! Now, I can see it! Thank you so much!” It’s cool.
Watch Mike Campbell Play ‘American Girl’
It was great to see you on the Fleetwood Mac tour. How did you and Neil Finn divide things up guitar-wise?
Neil and I hit it off right away. He’s such a sweet guy and so talented. A short answer to your question: Neil was brought in to sing those songs. My job was to recreate a lot of the guitar parts, which was a challenge for me, but I enjoyed it. But basically, he would play and sing. And then I would play the guitar parts off of the records the best that I could. That was the dynamic we had.