We’ve Got A File On You: Mike Campbell

Sheva Kafai

We’ve Got A File On You: Mike Campbell

Sheva Kafai

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Mike Campbell’s been all over tons of records you’ve listened to — even if you didn’t know it. And that’s partially by design: The longtime guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is, in essence, the ultimate sideman. He’s technically adept, and far beyond gifted in songwriting, but also generous to the point of total deference when it comes to adding just enough to the music he contributes to.

Over his 50-year-plus career, Campbell’s played with and co-produced artists like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, and Stevie Nicks. He’s played live with Fleetwood Mac over the last few years, he co-wrote Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” and he even played guitar on the Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache.” All of this on top of the fact that he was in Tom Petty and the fucking Heartbreakers.

Campbell’s career reads like a travelogue of the last 50 years of rock music, but you wouldn’t know from talking to him. He’s earnest to the core, even when talking about his latest endeavor the Dirty Knobs, a 15-years-in-the-making, rough-and-ready rock group that’s set to release their debut album this Friday. We talked about his extensive history making music with legends and his experiences along the way.

Mudcrutch – “Depot Street” (1975)

MIKE CAMPBELL: We were working on our record deal at Shelter Records, led by Danny Cordell, who was kind of like our guru at the time and was introducing us to reggae. Tom came up with “Depot Street,” and Danny suggested we do it with a reggae feel. It’s a charming little record. Of course, it wasn’t a huge hit, and the band just sort of dispersed. Tom and I stuck together until we were able to get the Heartbreakers together.

How did it feel to have your first serious band break up after one single?

CAMPBELL: It was a little frustrating, but we were so green. We’d just come out from Florida, and we were trying to find our way in the studio. The personalities of that band were just not gelling, aside from the fact that we weren’t that good in the studio. We were just happy to be in LA instead of Gainesville, so we plowed through it and it made us work harder.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers Performing “Anything That’s Rock And Roll” On Top Of The Pops (1977)

CAMPBELL: That was a great experience. We were so happy to be in England, because all of our favorite bands came from there. We were excited to soak up the English vibe. Top Of The Pops was the show to be on. You’d go in in the afternoon, re-record the track for them, and then you’d mime to the track that you cut that afternoon. We’d never done that before, and it was a challenge, but it came out really good. It was exciting to be in an English studio. We were all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed.

As a musician, what was the first time you were star-struck when it came to meeting a peer or idol?

CAMPBELL: We went back to England later on with Bob Dylan, and we met George Harrison and Jeff Lynne. That was a pretty big deal to me. George was so kind. We understood each other mutually, and same with Jeff. Being around those guys, for someone like me who came from across the tracks in Florida, was mind-blowing. At first you’re like, “Oh my God, you’re talking to this guy!” After a while, it’s like, “Well, he’s just another musician.” And then you let go of that hero worship and just become a human being.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes (1979)

What did the stakes feel like to you while making this album?

CAMPBELL: The previous two albums got a little bit of interest, but they didn’t set the world on fire, but I think they’re really good records. Then we hooked up with Jimmy Iovine because we wanted to get a bigger sound. By then, the Heartbreakers were bonded. We were gonna continue whether this record was a hit or not. You never know if it’s gonna be a big hit, you hope for the best. But we were a band, and we were committed to each other. We were really lucky with that record, and it took off and brought us into the mainstream.

How did you perceive your guitar playing style around this time?

CAMPBELL: I’m a product of my influences, and those are the ‘60s. All analog. I loved the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Stones — and then later on, of course, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix. It was a wonderful time for a guitar player to be learning guitar. I taught myself. But mostly the stuff I was inspired by in the beginning was guitar parts that served the song rather than showing off. Tom was bringing in these songs, so I felt my role was to do the same for his songs — to bring in guitar parts that were essential, but didn’t distract.

Your mother bought you your first guitar. Beyond that, did your mother give you support when you were starting out as a musician?

CAMPBELL: When she got me that guitar, I wanted it so bad. I kept seeing Pete Townshend trash these guitars, and I kept saying to myself, “Just send it to me if you don’t want it. Don’t waste a good instrument, I can’t afford one.” She and my dad were split up, he was in Okinawa in the Air Force, and she spent $15 to get me an acoustic Harmony guitar that was basically unplayable, but I didn’t know that. The strings were real high off the neck, and I thought that’s just the way it was, so I struggled. My fingers would bleed trying to make that thing play. One day, I went to a friend’s house who had a Gibson SG, and I picked it up and had a revelation. “Oh my God, this doesn’t have to be hard, it can be easy.” My mother encouraged me, but I pretty much learned on my own. You didn’t have to encourage me to work on playing guitar — I just wanted to. A few years later, my dad sent me an electric guitar from Okinawa, and that’s the guitar I had when I met Tom.

Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna (1981)

CAMPBELL: The Heartbreakers were in Sound City Studios working on their record, and she just showed up with her posse one day and said, “Those guys are so mean to me! Can I be in your band?” We became friends. We had this track “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” — I wrote the music, Tom wrote the words, and Jimmy Iovine had the vision that it could be a duet. She wanted to do the song, so we gave it to her, and it ended up on Bella Donna, which kickstarted her [solo] career. We don’t talk a lot, but when we do it’s really deep. I would send her extra music that I had that Tom didn’t want, and occasionally she’d be inspired to write to it.

How have you seen her grow as a songwriter and artist in the studio?

CAMPBELL: She’s a very brave and strong woman in a man’s world. I was always proud of her that she had her own ambition, and it was backed up by a real artistic voice and unique songwriting style. Her songwriting is very simple, musically, but the words are poetic and she’s got that identifiable voice that comes to her heart. She sings from deep inside herself, and people relate to that. She’s a very generous person but strong and determined not to let the man’s world push her around, and she’s established herself as a strong female artist. It’s something she should be proud of.

Co-Writing Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer” (1984)

CAMPBELL: Jimmy Iovine hooked me and Don up. I had that track with a slightly different chord structure, and Tom and Jimmy and I decided it didn’t fit into the album we were doing at the time. Jimmy gave me Don’s number and said, “He’s looking for songs for his album, call him up.” I’d never met him before, but he was really nice. I said, “What kind of song are you looking for?” He said, “I’m looking for an image-maker.” [Laughs] I went over his house and played him a cassette of the track, and he sat there stone silent and didn’t say a word. I said, “Okay, thanks,” and I left. And then he called me when I got home and said, “I just wrote the best song of my career, it’s called ‘The Boys Of Summer.’” We got in the studio and started making the record, which took a while. He’s a real perfectionist — I am too, but not to the point where he is. It was a real timely song for me because it got me out of financial trouble, and it stands the test of time.

Most musicians don’t get a chance to be part of one song that stands the test of time. You’ve been affiliated with quite a few. As a songwriter, is there something you can isolate in a song that’s timeless?

CAMPBELL: Only in retrospect. Songwriting is a very mysterious thing. It’s 10% talent, 90% confidence, and 100% luck. I never put that kind of pressure on the writing process. I just let it unfold, sit back, look at it, and say, “Maybe this is pretty good.” You never know. I’m as surprised as anybody when we’ve had a song that catches on with people. It’s a real magical gift, and I’m always surprised and feeling blessed.

You’ve mentioned Jimmy Iovine several times in this conversation so far. Tell me about the support and input he gave to the Heartbreakers.

CAMPBELL: Jimmy was a go-getter, and we’d heard some of the records he’d did, like Patti Smith’s “Because The Night.” We loved the sound he was getting, and we didn’t know how to get that sound. He was good with picking the songs and pushing our band for better performances. And when the record was done, he busted his ass. He went around and promoted it across the country to radio stations and rammed it down their throats. “You gotta hear this, it’s the best thing that ever happened!” Of course, now he owns the music business. [Laughs]

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents (1985)

This is the first time you co-produced a Heartbreakers album.

CAMPBELL: It was business as usual, really. I was always there, commenting on the production as it went along, and Tom always appreciated what I had to say. It came to a point where he said, “You should be getting co-production credits, because you’re making a lot of decisions with me.” Which was very kind of him. So I just carried on doing what I’d always done — I just got credit for it.

You ended up co-producing a lot of the Heartbreakers’ records, as well as Tom’s solo stuff as well. What skills as a producer did you pick up through all of that work?

CAMPBELL: I learned from everybody that we co-produced with — from Jimmy Iovine to Jeff Lynne, who I learned a lot from. He’s a musician, so doing what he does, I assimilated some of that when it comes to what you can do in the studio. Production is like being a director on a movie, to some extent — putting everyone in a good mood, cracking a joke at the right time, keeping your eye on the ball to make sure the track doesn’t speed up or slow down, and getting a performance out of everybody. Production carries on past the performance of the song, because I’d play on the track [afterwards]. We’d be like, “Well, what does this need?” “It needs a bass part.” And then I’d play a bass part. You learn all these tools as you’re listening, and you apply the techniques until it sounds finished.

Aretha Franklin – “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (1985)

CAMPBELL: I didn’t actually meet Aretha. Dave Stewart was producing “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” so I came down to the session and played along. I wish I would’ve been able to meet her because she’s one of my heroes.

As far as the collaborations you’ve done with all of these artists, how often have you actually been in the studio?

CAMPBELL: It’s probably 75% in the studio with them, 25% I’m going in and playing on a track. I prefer being there when the artist is there so you can get immediate feedback on what they want. Nowadays, there’s a lot of mailing back and forth because of the pandemic. But the further back you go, I was in the studio with the artists more.

Anything you’ve been contributing to recently?

CAMPBELL: This band called Starcrawler. I don’t like many new bands, but they’re really good. I put guitar on one of their tracks, I enjoyed that quite a bit.

Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque (1985)

CAMPBELL: Bob’s a heavy presence. I love him. He’s maybe the best, all things considered. The king. I think most other people would say the same thing. He was very intimidating, but also very friendly. He told me once that he couldn’t relate to people except for musicians, because there was an empathy there — and he and I had that. We understood each other musically. He always treated me great. He was a joy to work with. He knew what he wanted, and we just supported him.

You’ve worked on a few of Bob’s albums, including two in the ‘80s. Not everyone likes his ‘80s period, although that also seems like it’s changing. What was your perception of the music he was making around that time?

CAMPBELL: Bob is a chameleon. He started out as a folkie, and then he wanted to be a rock’n’roller, and he just kept changing even as he was still Bob Dylan. I didn’t analyze the type of music we were making — I just liked the songs, and I tried to help the songs the best I could. He said to me once, “We don’t need to write any more songs. There’s thousands of songs in the world — we can just play those.” And I said, “Well, that may be true, but people would like to hear what you have to see if you have some new songs you want to write.” He’s funny that way — an enigmatic genius, really. I don’t know how to describe it, but he’s a very magical person. He pulls magic out of the air. His voice has changed over the years, but he’s rolled with it and he’s making it work for him.

Are there any modern artists that you feel about the same way you do about him?

CAMPBELL: Maybe Tom. But there’s only one Bob Dylan. He’s untouchable. He’s original, and deep. I like the fact that, in his recent records, he’s drawing from the past — the blues, the ‘40s. That almost makes him more modern, in a way. [Laughs]

I’ll tell you a little story about Bob Dylan, as long as we’re talking. The first session I did with him, I came in as a session guitarist. He says, “You did ‘The Boys Of Summer,’ right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Was that a drum machine?” I say, “Yeah.” He said, “Can you bring that down to the session?” I bring it down the next day and set up the beat for the song he wanted to do. The band went along and played with it while Bob was leading the song, and he went off like it wasn’t there. By the end, somehow we magically ended up back on beat with it. So later, we were listening back, and — God bless Bob, the genius he is — he says, “That’s not right.” I say, “Yeah, I know, we have to play along with the drum machine.” He says, “It won’t follow me?” I said, “No, that’s not how it works.” He says, “Well then what good is it?” And he was right! That’s Bob Dylan in a nutshell.

Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl (1989)

You were a co-producer on this album, along with Jeff Lynne.

CAMPBELL: He’s Roy Orbison! He has a voice from heaven. What a sweet guy. He was a hard worker. All he had to do was open up his voice and everything sounded good. I was able to help Roy realize the sounds he wanted because of what I’d learned from Jeff. He was a wonder to work with. Really funny guy.

You had a lot of really positive experiences working with people, it sounds like. Any negative experiences?

CAMPBELL: No, I never had anything like that. Most everyone I met that I looked up to never let me down. They ended up being genuine people. I hadn’t met any assholes — but if I had, I wouldn’t tell you. [Laughs]

Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (1994)

Since the recent reissue, this album’s received a new round of critical hosannas.

CAMPBELL: I actually don’t see it as head and shoulders above the other albums we made, but making it was fun. We’d made a couple of records with Jeff Lynne, and for the next record we wanted to go more towards playing live again, which Jeff does not do per se. So we got Rick Rubin and he was our co-producer who helped us get a live sound. The band was taking a hiatus, so Tom was free to write in any style he wanted to without worrying about whether the band would fit on it. He’d bring in three or four songs, and then he’d take a month off until he had more songs, which is how we always worked — except the difference was that it wasn’t a Heartbreakers album. Ringo Starr came in on a few things, Carl Wilson sang on one song. We were showing Rick some things we’d learned along the way too. It was a really creative time.

Guesting On The Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache” (1996)

CAMPBELL: We toured a lot with Bob, and we always saw Jakob, this little kid, standing on the side of the stage watching us. So I was really happy when I heard he was making his own records, and I heard he was working with T. Bone Burnett. They sent the tapes to my house, I didn’t actually play with them. I put some guitars on it and sent it back to them. It came out really good. When the Heartbreakers were playing the Fillmore, we got Jakob to open, and he came up to me after soundcheck and said, “Thank you for giving me a career.” [Laughs] That was really sweet of him.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Soundtrack For She’s The One (1996)

CAMPBELL: Tom hooked up with Ed Burns, who wanted one song, and Tom said, “Why don’t we just do the soundtrack?” Tom was itching to do something like that. We used a handful of tracks that were left over from Wildflowers and he wrote some new ones. It went by really fast. There are some good songs on there.

Was there a noticeable difference between working on Tom’s solo stuff and working on Heartbreakers records?

CAMPBELL: Not a whole lot. My role was the same — to help make this record great, whatever I could do. I was always the voice of rhyme and, hopefully, reason.

Warren Zevon’s Final Album, The Wind (2003)

CAMPBELL: I don’t remember much about working on this album. I remember taking a 12-string guitar in on one song. But I do remember that Warren was really nice. He’s one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. But my mind’s a little fuzzy about what I played, exactly.

What made Warren who he was as a songwriter and person?

CAMPBELL: I sensed a vulnerability in his character. I think that people related to the fact that there was some pain he was expressing through his songs, as well as humor — I mean, “Werewolves Of London” was a riot. It was that combination that made him special.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ Hypnotic Eye (2014)

CAMPBELL: The last two Heartbreakers records — Mojo and Hypnotic Eye — were a lot of fun, because we recorded them in our clubhouse. We wanted to get the tracks live as much as possible without a lot of overdubs. I’d gotten this ‘59 Les Paul guitar that had a certain sound that Tom wanted to build the songs around — it gives the songs a bluesier, thicker tone. We were leaning more on our Southern blues roots than we’d done in the past.

Tell me about when you found out that Tom had passed.

CAMPBELL: It was horrible. I was sleeping, and my wife picked up the phone at three or four in the morning and said, “We have to go to the hospital right away.” I said, “What?” She said, “Tom’s not doing well, and it might be really serious.” Which was a shock. So we got dressed and hung out at the hospital and said goodbye to him. We were still in shock, because it was totally unexpected and horribly sad.

What do you remember about your last time playing live with him?

CAMPBELL: Tom had some issues with his hip on the last tour, and he was in a little bit of pain now and then. But he loved it. I’d look at his face on that tour, and he was just so full of joy — like, “I don’t want to be any other place than right here.” Which was so inspiring to see. I knew he was struggling a bit, but I didn’t know how serious it was. I don’t think it was that serious, necessarily, because he would’ve just stayed home. But I know he had to take painkillers after the tour — he was dealing with some pain. During the tour, though, he was happy as could be. You can see it in the pictures. He loved to play live, and he loved the audiences. He had a blast.

Guesting On Chris Stapleton’s “Arkansas” (2020)

CAMPBELL: I met Chris at Wrigley Field when he was opening for the Heartbreakers. He’s a big fan of our records, and he came over and said hi. He wanted to write songs together, which I don’t normally do — I usually write on my own. But I liked him, so I thought I’d give it a shot. He came out to LA for three days and we wrote songs. One of them is on my record, a couple of them are on his. I played some guitar on one of his songs from a distance, because at that point we couldn’t travel. I like Chris a lot. He’s a great singer.

The Dirty Knobs – “Fuck That Guy” (2020)

CAMPBELL: “Fuck That Guy” was a line that Chris Stapleton came up with when we were writing. He was like, “I have this title, but I don’t know what to do with it,” and I said, “Let me see what I can do.” I threw some words together, and the next day my band was in the studio, so we played it once or twice and that was it. I didn’t think much about it, it was just some comic relief. But Chris said, “I think people will like this, because everyone says that some time in their life about somebody.” I found that to be true. [Laughs] A lot of people relate to the song.

My manager hooked me up with Danny Trejo’s son, who’s a videographer, and we were talking about, “Who is the guy you’d say ‘Fuck that guy’ to?” I didn’t want it to be political. But the most evil person in the world right now is the coronavirus, so let’s make that the guy! He took that idea and ran with it, and it’s funny as shit. My favorite part of the video is when he steals the little girl’s bicycle and gets away with it, and she gives him the finger. [Laughs]

I started playing with these guys 15 years ago in between Heartbreakers tours. We’d just go in the studio and play a little bit. We started going to clubs to try out the material and just have fun, and as time went on we became a great little band. We became empathetic to each other. I thought, “Someday, when the Heartbreakers take a hiatus, this is what I’ll do.” Of course, things didn’t work out the way I thought they would, but I thought this was the time to focus on the Dirty Knobs.

We made the record before all hell broke loose, and we’ve been sitting on it for a year. We can’t tour, so we decided to put it out anyway. When things open up, we’ll go out and play the album live. I love the record. It’s a different band than the Heartbreakers, but we make a great sound together. It’s my songs, so I get to sing them, and it sounds amazing. I’m really proud of it, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.

Wreckless Abandon is out 11/20 via BMG. Pre-order it here.

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