Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell Discusses Topping The Charts And Guitar Artistry

Every major touring band will likely encounter the same ups and downs: the nights when you aren't feeling it, the shows where it all clicks into place, where the music plays itself, the fears, the exaltation and the nightly rituals of winding down after a show (usually while traveling to the next gig).

Industry vets Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers arrive at the XL Center in Hartford on Sept. 13, with Steve Winwood opening. They're touring behind "Hypnotic Eye," the band's latest album — and, surprisingly, their first chart-topper.

Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell has been with Petty from the beginning and co-wrote some of the band's biggest hits, including "Refugee," "Here Comes My Girl," "You Got Lucky" and many more. Campbell spoke to CTNow about how they've learned to minimize the unknowns, from crafting a setlist (no easy feat, when you have more than 15 albums and 50 or so radio hits to choose from) that flows, to threading in enough new material to promote the record without alienating the fans. It's a sweet science — one they've mastered, if you believe recent concert reviews.

CTNow: You're about halfway through the tour now. Any highlights for you? I know Montreal was the first time you'd been there in over 30 years.

Mike Campbell: Yeah. Actually, that was kind of a highlight. I was surprised, but last night it was an amazing crowd and a good-sounding room. So I would put that up there. Chicago was really great, Detroit was great, everything's been good. It's funny: when you tour, you start out at a certain level, and then at some point it kind of kicks in and you go to the second level. That just sort of happened about three gigs ago. It just kinda kicked into high gear.

CTNow: Would you say this is about when that happens, if you look at past tours? Or does it sometimes kick in earlier?

MC: Usually in the first five, six or seven gigs. We only tour every two years or so, and so the beginning of the tour is a little getting your gig legs kind of steady. Everything's working, but you're trying hard to remember everything. And then, all of a sudden the thing just sort of takes off and takes on its own energy, and it's almost like the band is playing itself, and then you really lift off and it's an amazing feeling.

CTNow: Mr. Petty said in a recent NPR interview that he's absolutely terrified when he's gearing up for a tour. There's a lot of pressure. Do you share that feeling?

MC: No. But then, I don't have to stand up there and sing, you know? There's a little bit of fear, but we've done it so long it kind of comes second nature. But there's a lot of change in your day-to-day energy. You're at home, where you're writing or doing normal things, and all of a sudden you've got this city around you. There's a crew, there are people, there are songs to learn, there are technical things to solve, and then there's the traveling. And it's like a traveling circus. You have to gear up for it mentally. It's a completely different lifestyle than you're used to at home. At first it's a little disarming. You'd have to speak to [Tom Petty], but he's probably just got so many things to remember, lyrics and pitch and guitar chords and all these things, and also making sure that the sound is right and all the gear is working and everybody's happy. It's a lot to take on. But when it all kicks in, it's really worth it.

CTNow: I've been following the tour and the setlists along the way, and I love that you add surprises, but there's also a core group of songs that seem to kind of fall in line at every show. With such a huge catalog of songs to choose from, what are the guiding principles for writing a setlist at this point?

MC: That's a great question. It's difficult, because we have so many songs now within the set, we'll probably only play 20. And we want to do a handful of new songs, so that means some of the well known songs won't make the list. Maybe it's hard to understand but, the way we work, a set ideally would have an arc to it: a beginning, a build, a release and then a climax. We structure the songs so that there is a nice arc to the show, so that it actually goes somewhere. Rather than putting a bunch of songs together and letting whatever happens happen, we try to make it have a design. To do that requires getting the songs that you're going to choose from into an order so that the tempos are in a certain place and maybe the keys are in a certain place, so that the arc works. Once you get that together, if you change it too much, the arc might fall apart. The dynamic of the show and the way it builds could change. That's why we have the core of the set: once it's settled down and the arc is solid, you don't want to mess with that too much, because it works. Each night, there's a group of people that haven't seen the show. We may have heard it before, but they're seeing it for the first time, and we want them to have the same experience the people in the previous city had.

So, this is a long answer, but we struggle quite a bit, and it's a good problem to have with picking the right songs for the arc. Some songs get sacrificed along the way, and there are some songs that maybe somebody wants to hear that they may not hear. It's a balancing act. But I think the set we've got now is pretty good. There's a few places in the show where we can change a song from night to night without upsetting the arc, and we're doing four new songs spread out through the show. Those are going down really well, fortunately. And then we try to dig out some deep tracks here and there, ones that maybe aren't hits but would be worthy of the show, and throw them in.

CTNow: When it's time to go back into the studio to work on a new album, such as "Hypnotic Eye," is there a sound somewhere in your mind that you want to achieve before you even start, or does that emerge with the songs?

MC: The songs dictate everything. I don't think we really write with a definite format in mind. We just take whatever gift you're given that day, whatever type of song it might be, and you go with it, and then you decide if it's good or not at the end of the day. When we get a group of four or five songs, we'll go in and record them and see how they sound, and depending on how the band interprets the songs, after a few, a sound or a form might start to take shape, and then the next songs you write might be leaning in that direction. Not always, but sometimes. Like with ["Hypnotic Eye"], we started really just to continue with what we started on the last album, and after the first batch of songs, it was taking shape. Then, the next songs came in, and they were a little different — not as stuck in that particular mold. And so, it became apparent: "Well, maybe we don't want to make a blues album. Maybe we should see what these songs are." We started leaning toward more of a rock and roll album. That's just the form the songs took.

CTNow: Is there an art to introducing a batch of songs to the rest of the group, a way of strategizing how the songs are revealed to everyone else?

MC: No, we're not that prolific. We don't have that luxury. Songs are mysterious. We don't look at it like you can go in and just bash them out, like at a job. They come when they want to come and they're a gift. As soon as we get some songs, we just go in and do them. We don't wait and try to pick this one or that one. You just bring in what you have at the moment. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, you go back and wait for another one.

CTNow: You once made the analogy of specific guitars as colors you paint with in the studio. Is it getting easier for you to pinpoint the color you want with the right guitar, or is it always a struggle?

MC: Yeah, it probably is. I mean, that part of the process has never been too much of a struggle for me. I never thought about it like that, but I guess you're right... Like, if Tom brings in a song that maybe he's written on his own, on an acoustic guitar, and he justs play it to us in a rough form, by the end of the song I already have an inspiration: "Well, that needs this type of sound. This guitar over here will be perfect for that song." That part of it seems to come relatively easy. That's the fun part. Writing is the hard part. Finding the right guitar is a luxury.

CTNow: Speaking of writing, your solos are so melodic and memorable, sometimes as memorable as the hook of the song. I can think of half a dozen lead parts that you've done that I could sing off the top of my head. Is crafting a solo like writing a song?

MC: It kind of is, because you're creating, you're pulling something out of the air. The difference, I guess, is when you're writing a song, you don't always have a source to draw from: it'll just come. When you're doing a guitar part, you're trying to complement a song. The song's already there and you're just filling in. What I try do — and this comes from the people who inspired me, like George Harrison, Keith Richards, people like [that]. I mean, I have lots of other influences, all the way up to Jimi Hendrix, who's over the top, you know. But basically, my approach is to listen really closely to the song, to the melody that the guy's singing, and if I hear a hole where there's nothing going on, where something could happen, I try to find a feel or a melody that's in the same mold as what the guy's singing. If you do it right, it'll be seamless. It won't be like, "Here's a bunch of notes." It has to be in the vein of the song. And I think the secret to that, for me, is listening really closely to the voice, and when I play, I try to think of it as another voice coming in. It should be just as valid as what the guy is singing. If you do that, you have a pretty good chance of getting the right part to fit the song. There are other songs where it's required that the [guitar player] just lets loose, goes crazy, and you can do that as well, but most of the songs we write aren't in that bag. They're more in the song/melody/short solos bag. And that's a challenge of its own, but I enjoy doing it.

CTNow: "Hypnotic Eye" is the first Heartbreakers album to top the charts. Was having a number one album — or wanting to — ever something the band discussed?

MC: You never set out to say, "Let's make a number one record." That never even occurred to us. But what does occur is: let's make the best record we've made yet, musically, not chart-wise. You never think about that stuff. We were surprised and kind of blown away that that happened this time, especially the type of music that's on the charts. Guys our age, coming out with guitars and a bass, and it's like, "Who knows why that happened?" Just lucky, I guess. But we were very tickled and happy about it. We're still happy about it. We had a number one record, even if it was for a week or two, or whatever. At least we did it. In my mind, it also kind of reconfirms that rock and roll is still there, man. It kind of fades in and out, but when it's really good, it's undeniable. It still has a place and always will.

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS perform on Saturday, Sept. 13, at the XL Center in Hartford, with special guest Steve Winwood. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $37 to $134.50. Information:

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