Tom Petty

“…I am in favor of going around the country in large American cars.”

March, 1983
The Long After Dark Tour

Cover of Long After Dark by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I don’t remember much about this interview other than that it was the first time I spoke to Tom Petty and I felt a bit apprehensive waiting in my little apartment in Somerville for him to call me on the phone. According to his reputation at that time, Petty was a testy character who carried a chip on his shoulder. I thought he might be grouchy and sullen — a reluctant interviewee — but he was anything but. Thoughtful, smart and funny was more like it.

It’s somewhat startling to find Petty noting — this is 30 years ago — that bands that “play guitar and write songs” are “a dying breed.” But this was the MTV-era, a time when how you looked had started to seem more important than what you sounded like. Petty, 33 at the time we spoke, had released his fifth album, “Long After Dark,” in late ‘82 and had scored a decent hit with the single “We Got Lucky” thanks in part to the video, a take-off on “Mad Max” that was in heavy rotation on MTV. Petty called me from somewhere in the Midwest midway through his Long After Dark tour (the Heartbreakers first with Howie Epstein on bass). Nick Lowe & His Noise to Go as the opening act. The tour was set to hit the recently opened Worcester Centrum on March 22 and the Providence Civic Center on March 23.

What’s a typical day on the road for you like?

I sleep most of the day. Get up around 2:30 or so. Then usually we’ll get ready, go to soundcheck, eat at the gig, do the gig, finish it. In some towns we’ll socialize for a little while. Been spending a good bit of time with Mr. Lowe. Met him in London some years ago. I’ve been doing a lot of drinking.

Why do you take so long in the studio?

God, I don’t know. This question is asked so often. We ask ourselves that. I think the thing that took so long with (“Long After Dark”) was that I’d written so many songs — and kept on writing them until the last stages of the album when the record company was literally at the door demanding that they have it for Christmas. Then I decided what was going to go on the album. But there were a good 19 songs, so what’d’ya do with 19 songs? You don’t know what to do. So I tried to finish them all up like a fool. And it was taking me forever. Finally we just took 10 and put them out.

Do you have ambitions to go beyond playing classic rock?

I do lately. I never did before. I really want to push the boundaries of what we do. Because we can do so much more than what we’re doing. I do try to get the occasional oddball thing on the album. I mean “Wasted Life” is pretty far out…for us. But I would like for the next album to try some radically different things.

Any idea what?

No (laughs). I don’t think we have to be afraid of doing anything. And we’re not really. Our audience might be. I like so many kinds of music that I’m really sure we’ll try to explore a little bit. I listen to all kinds of things. A lot of old music. George Jones gets me. I think he’s the greatest singer there is. I like country music. Not a whole lot of jazz, but I can dig the Count Basie sorta thing. And the old Dylan, the acoustic stuff, I dig a lot.

Neil Young outraged a lot of people with “Trans.” What did you think of it?

[Young’s album “Trans” was released Dec. 29, 1982 and at the time was the subject of much discussion and derision, which I suppose is why I brought it up with Petty. Emulating Kraftwerk and Devo with synthesizers and vocorder vocals, Young puzzled fans and critics while angering his record company — so much so that he after another commercial dud, the rockabilly collection “Everybody’s Rockin’,” Geffen Records sued Young, accusing him of giving the label music that was uncharacteristic and deliberately non-commercial. Or as writer Don McLeese put it at the time, “Neil Young is the only artist in the history of modern recording to be sued for refusing to be himself.” Young countersued, claiming his contract with Geffen gave him artistic freedom. A settlement was reached, Geffen apologized, and Young made two more albums for the label.]

I thought [“Trans’] was fabulous. I think it’s one of the best records he’s ever done. I really enjoy hearing people so pissed off. I thought it was wonderful. You’ve really touched a nerve there because I play that album every day. I think it’s great for someone to be around for so long and keep you thinking. Because it’s all there on that album. There’re really songs there. A lot of people into this techno-pop, the songs aren’t good, but they get a great rhythm or stuff.

Would you ever try techno yourself?

Y’know, I’ve been doing that stuff at home for a couple of years. In my little studio at home I’m always doing drum machine and synthesizer things. It wouldn’t be unnatural to do that, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression I’m jumping on a bandwagon.

If you did you’d upset all the people who admire you for upholding the tradition of honest rock.

I think it’s very nice that they think that. It’s probably true. It’s not that we’re painfully aware of that we talk about it. We’re a Southern band really. We grew up in the South and got all those influences, y’know? There’s just all that music there. And I think just by default it’s just sort of a dying breed of band that plays guitars and writes songs. There aren’t many good American rock bands anymore. So I think when people hear our music and enjoy it they get the impression we’re carrying on a tradition. If we are, fine. Because I am in favor of going around the country in large American cars. I’m in favor of that because I’m afraid it will disappear entirely. So I’m very pleased they think that, not that we’re trying to incorporate it into our image consciously.

When the band started to get national attention, you were put in the new wave category. Did that seem right to you?

We’re one of the few that lived through that (laughs). Me and Nick (Lowe) were talking about that. They called both of us new wave, but I think we just lived through it. There is no new wave. We’re survivors of new wave or something.

Is there a message in your music?

There’s not one. I just write about whatever’s around me. But there isn’t one great message that we have. We’re not serious people to tell you the truth [laughs]. I think if you take it too seriously, if you’re constantly preaching about life, it gets a little boring. The great thing about rock music to me is that it allows you to use soul, country, a little jazz, avant garde. You can do whatever you want. I dig that.

Ever wonder what you’d be doing if you hadn’t become a musician?

Oh god, I hate to think. I’d probably be working in plant and ground. That’s what I used to do [in Petty’s hometown, Gainesville, at the University of Florida, where he was a maintenance worker, not a student]. I don’t know. I got fired from every job I ever had….every straight job [laughs].

Any interests besides music. Like a hobby?

I don’t build planes or anything. I’m not doing this to work my way up to the movies. I want to be a musician. Some days that’s hard. Hopefully that’ll work out. I just feel like I’m in a good band. I’m in a really good band. My energy goes into keeping that thing together. And working. I’m fascinated with the idea of the same people staying together. Those are the bands that really fascinate me, how the personalities create a sound. It’s taken us years to create a sound that’s really us. Now I really want to do something with it. Mike [Campbell] and Benmont [Tench], I’ve been playing with them for, oh god, Mike since ’71, Benmont before that. Stan [Lynch] and I played on the same circuit of clubs. But we put this band together in Los Angeles. People are always asking, ‘How are things in Gainesville?,’ but I haven’t lived in Gainesville for nine years. So I don’t know what to tell ‘em. But we’re all from there. We’re a Southern band that moved to California.

You’ve been compared to the Rolling Stones and Springsteen. Does that bug you?

No, no, I’d be very flattered to sound like the Rolling Stones. I don’t think we sound even vaguely like Bruce Springsteen. He has saxophones, doesn’t he? And that real macho voice. I don’t think we sound like that at all. That one’s always fascinated me. I’ve never really heard a Bruce Springsteen record. I know Bruce and I admire what he does, but I never really heard a whole album of his. When I hear his records, it’s always bells and saxophones. We’re more a guitar group.