Mike Campbell Finds His Voice on New Dirty Knobs LP: Interview

Mike Campbell has been making records since the ’70s, most famously as a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 

“I’m grateful that I was part of that whole experience,” Campbell recently told UCR, speaking to his Heartbreaker days. It’s been a full decade since the band released their last album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, and six and a half years since Petty’s passing, which effectively ended the Heartbreakers. 

Campbell describes himself as “still grieving,” but tries not to spend too much time dwelling. “If I think about it too hard, I’ll just get sad,” he says. In the past four years, he’s kept himself busy with new work, recording and performing with his band the Dirty Knobs. As Campbell sees it, their third album, Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits (out June 14 via BMG), marks “huge growth” for him both lyrically and vocally. After years of operating as Petty’s right-hand man and usually taking the backseat when it came to singing — Campbell sang lead on exactly one Heartbreakers song, “I Don’t Wanna Fight” from 1999’s Echo — it’s taken three albums worth of work to reach a place where he feels self-assured of his ability to front a band. “A lot of it is confidence,” he says.

UCR caught up with Campbell and talked about Vagabonds, Virgins & Misfits, including its various guest stars. 

This is your third album with the Dirty Knobs, but obviously you’ve been in this business a long time. How would you say your approach to songwriting has changed from your early days to this new album?
Well, my approach to songwriting is the same as it’s ever been. Except when I was partnered with Tom, I mostly just did music. I would make music tracks and give them to him and if he liked it, he would write the words. Now that he’s gone, I have my own band, I’m exploring the lyrics and the characters, as well as the music. So that’s a new frontier, but I’m really taking to it and I’m just trying to get good at it, you know? I see a huge growth in three albums. This new album, I think, has some really good lyrics, and the band, as always. And just, you know, the music is just — it’s always there. I write all the time, you know, and that hasn’t waned at all.

I would like to mention though, just to carry on what you said before about the female’s perspective. (This writer spoke with Campbell previously about another upcoming album, Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty.) One thing on this album that I love, which was an afterthought, was Lucinda Williams’ addition of her words in the song “Hell or High Water.” [I] cut it as a Dirty Knobs song, and then listening back, it occurred to me and George Drakoulias, the producer: Wouldn’t it be great if this female character in the song actually came in and sang on the song? When I thought of Lucinda, I thought, God, if she would do it, that would be perfect. And she came through with flying colors, she put so much heart and soul into that verse. So there’s an example [of a] song from a woman’s perspective adding much more depth to the song.

Totally. It would have been an entirely different track without that. It’s great that you have these contacts at your disposal that you can call up.
The guests on the record were not me going out and cherry-picking people. They’re just people who seemed to show up. Like Graham Nash, who did an incredible job. He was doing an interview with me and I got up the courage to ask him if he would maybe sing on one song (“Dare to Dream”), which he did. Chris Stapleton I think was in town that weekend getting a Grammy or something and he came by the house. Here, would you sing on this song? And [Benmont Tench came over] and put piano on it, you know. So the guests were kind of afterthoughts, but in each case, they made the song way better.

Listen to Graham Nash Guest on Mike Campbell and the Dirty Knobs’ ‘Dare to Dream’

Did Graham record his parts remotely or did he also come by your studio? I know he lives in New York and you’re in L.A.
No, I had already cut the song. It was finished. And I did the interview with him, and you know, I’m a huge Hollies fan, the ’60s, all those bands. So just being able to have a conversation with him was wonderful. And I was really kind of sheepish like, I didn’t think he would say yes. … I said “Would you be interested maybe in trying to sing on something?” And he goes, “Sure, I’ll make your song better.” [Laughs] So I had the track. He went back to New York. I sent him the track, as a lot of people do now, he did his vocals and mailed it back to me and I lost my mind. It was so good.

There were several tracks on this album that when I heard them, I thought “Wow, Mike’s voice sounds great.” You’ve really grown into your role as lead singer, from the first Dirty Knobs album (2020’s Wreckless Abandon) to this one. How do you feel about your singing now?
Wow, can I send you some flowers? [Laughs] I thank you for saying that. I’m getting used to it, you know? And I have a little Florida slang that comes through now and then. But I don’t sound like Tom. When I first started singing…I actually did sound a lot like him because we talk a lot the same and stuff. But I think I’ve worked hard to kind of filter that out through the three albums, and there will always be little bit of that Southern thing in there. I think I found a voice that I’m comfortable with. I’m not a Roy Orbison, [but] I have the personality of certain characters that I put across. And a lot of it is confidence, Allison. If you get confident and work on the voice a little bit and believe that you pulled it off, you know, that’s a lot of the game right there. So my confidence has grown as I keep working on it. But thank you for that compliment, that was wonderful.

And that goes for live shows, too. I would imagine that you also feel some confidence when you’re up in front of a crowd that’s encouraging you.
Oh, yeah. You know, it’s interesting, because I play with the Dirty Knobs, it’s our songs, it’s our trip, but I’m still a member of this legacy. And I sometimes will do a few Heartbreakers songs just out of respect for Tom because the crowd likes them and I like singing some of them. But the crowd, yeah. When they’re there for you and supporting you…I get the sense that a lot of the people in the audience that know me and my years are pulling for me. … I’m trying to find my own way and they’re supporting me and they’re helping me get there.

Speaking of singing, your wife, Marcie, sings some backing vocals on the song “Hands Are Tied.” Is that the first time she’s done that on one of your albums?
That’s a funny story. Because, you know, she usually sings around the house. She’s not a singer per se, but all through my life — you know, I’ll be doing a demo and I’ll say “Why don’t you come in and put a little part on this?” “No, no, no, I don’t sing.” On this album…she goes, “You know what? I think I’d like to sing on this one.” And I said “Really?” I was in shock. I said “Okay, well, we got this song. All you got to do is go ahhhhh.” [Laughs] And her sound and her feel on it really helped the song a lot.

You have a note in your credits thanking Stevie Nicks for the “cool dulcimer.” And you’re actually holding the instrument on the cover of the album. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I hope she sees the cover, ’cause I think she will appreciate it. There’s a story with that. When I was doing the Mac project we were at rehearsal one day, and Mick Fleetwood came in with one of those customized dulcimers, just beautiful. And I was talking to him about it and saying “Oh, this is really a nice instrument.” I guess she overheard the conversation and a week later, I walk in and she says “Here, this is for you.” She went and bought one just like it for me. I was blown away. In fact, I even wrote the song — “Innocent Man” was written on that dulcimer, on the album. But the funny thing is, I took it home and played it — it’s in my studio — and then a couple of weeks later, she came up, she said, “You probably never even play it, do you?” [Laughs] I said “I play it all the time!” You know, that’s so Stevie. So I hope that she sees the cover and knows that I covered it and used it.

You’ve had a number of full circle moments, so to speak, in the last few years. I’m thinking of your time touring with Fleetwood Mac and reconnecting with Stevie Nicks, or playing with Bob Dylan at Farm Aid last year. You also shot the “Dare to Dream” music video with the Dirty Knobs at the Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was where the Heartbreakers signed their very first record deal. Is there anything else along those lines you’d like to do? Anything you want to revisit?
Well, I enjoyed the Tulsa thing quite a bit. That was not my idea, but the idea came up [from] management. And I thought it was very touching to go back where Tom and I had passed through on the way to get a record deal and to revisit that energy and those ghosts in the studio there. I enjoyed that a lot. But to be honest with you, I’d rather like, think forward and not think backward because sometimes nostalgia can be sad, you know? I’m real proud of that video, though. But I think I want to move forward and think forward.

READ MORE: All 47 Tom Petty Videos Ranked Worst to Best

Speaking of blasts from the past: The Wallflowers are going to be playing a show in L.A. later this year and the plan is for them to perform the entirety of their album Bringing Down the Horse, which you played on, and also the entirety of the Heartbreakers’ Long After Dark. What do you think about that?
You know, it’s wonderful that people are pulling out this music and revisiting it, you know, and I love Dylan — Jakob Dylan. I played on their first single, “Sixth Avenue [Heartache],” which was really fun and I’ve always been proud of his career. And I think he’s taken on a lot to do all those songs in one set, but more power to him. I’m sure he’ll do a great job.

Listen to Mike Campbell on the Wallflowers’ ‘6th Avenue Heartache’

What are you most looking forward to about touring with this new Knobs music?
I’m thrilled beyond to go out on the road with my band and play the new album. I’m real proud of it and the songs sound great in rehearsal. And the show will be a lot of the new album, and I’ll be throwing in a couple of surprise Heartbreaker songs that I think people will like here and there.

Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers: Where Are They Now?

The surviving members continue to forge new paths. 

Gallery Credit: Allison Rapp

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