Everybody is a star: In Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, each band member gets a chance to shine
By Chris Macias
The Sacramento Bee - August 29, 1999
Tom Petty is a rock star, his nasal voice synonymous with hit records and memorable music videos. But Petty didn't make it into the limelight alone. The Heartbreakers, which features guitarist Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench on a variety of keyboards, and bassist Howie Epstein, is at the core of Petty's Americana-rock sound.
The group, which is rounded out on tour by longtime associates Scott Thurston on guitar and drummer Steve Ferrone (the replacement for original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch), is having a whirlwind year. The band is touring for the first time in four years, with a show that comes to Arco Arena Monday night, and receiving heapings of accolades for its latest album, "Echo."
The band's signature songs ("American Girl," "Free Falling") harken to the sounds of 1960s rock groups such as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, and could fill an afternoon play list on a classic-rock radio station. Tunes from the group's latest album, such as the up-tempo "Free Girl Now" and the melancholy rocker "Swingin'," may become a new set of staples.
"The band played a huge role in the record," Petty said about "Echo" earlier this year. "I think it's the first one in a long time when we had all the Heartbreakers there every day, right through the mixing. We had a marvelous time making it.Right now, I'd say that we're closer than we've been in a long, long while. We're very united in what we're doing and real happy to have the band going. We just feel lucky and appreciate that it's still so much fun to play."
"I think we're playing better than we've ever played," Tench said in a phone call following a sound check in Phoenix. "I think we've always been better live. That's why I like "Wildflowers' and "Damn the Torpedoes' and this record ("Echo') so much -- because they feel live.
"I'm very happy with this record, even if it's not a very happy-sounding record," he said. ""Echo' is probably my favorite song on the new record, but I really love "Lonesome Sundown.' I like the mood, the pace and the lyrics on that song. The new songs seem to do really well when we play them live."
Still, the role of playing sideman to a rock star can be a balancing act, with backing musicians needing a keen sense of complementing the music without overshadowing the star. "It's harder to do than you'd think," Tench said about being a sideman. "You're up there and you want to do something, but you've just got to wait and breathe and listen.
"I try to find little things that you can do to move the song along and things that serve the song," he added. "If you call attention to yourself at the expense of the song, that's the cardinal sin. You can go crazy and play solos in the right place, and that's great because it can intensify and bring an emotional lift. But the thing is you don't want to get in the way of the song."
The Heartbreakers are free to come up with their own parts when recording songs, Tench said, though Petty decides which songs the band will perform live. "I'll make suggestions on the set list, but Tom's gonna decide what we're going to play," Tench said. "But on records I just start playing. That's pretty much the way we always do it."
Before he became a Heartbreaker, Tench was a typical piano student, eschewing the etudes and exercises required for his lessons in favor of pop music. "I'd hear the Beatles on the radio and start playing that by ear and neglect lessons, to the immense frustrations of my teacher," Tench said. Tench joined local rock bands as a teenager and settled into Mudcrutch, a Gainesville, Fla., band from the early 1970s that featured Petty and future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.
"We were pretty popular at the time, though we seemed to go down in popularity after I joined," Tench said with a chuckle. "The guy who started my first band was a roadie for them (Mudcrutch). He called me and said, 'You've got to see this band.' He was right."
Tench said that Mudcrutch's material is not unlike what Petty and the Heartbreakers play now. Tench pointed out that "Hometown Blues," from the group's self-titled debut album, and the Petty hit "Don't Do Me Like That" were written originally by Mudcrutch. He also hears echoes of Mudcrutch on the band's latest album.
" 'Lonesome Sundown' sounds like Mudcrutch on a slow song," Tench said. "And 'About To Give Out' sounds like Mudcrutch on a fast song. This is all a natural progression from that band, I think." Diversions from the group's guitar-driven sound have been few, though the band has taken a few musical twists, most notably when working with ELO founder Jeff Lynne, who co-produced "Into the Great Wide Open." "I think we've generally been pretty straight-ahead all along except when we had Jeff Lynne," Tench said. "When you get the British guys around you -- Dave Stewart (former Eurythmics member who co-produced Petty's "Southern Accents"), Jeff Lynne -- you'll have fun. They take you to a different corner, but I don't think we wander too far from being straight-ahead."
However, the road to rock stardom has been paved with a few speed bumps. Petty filed for bankruptcy in 1979 after haggling with MCA, his former record label, over his recording contract, and challenged the record company again in 1981 to lower the price of his album "Hard Promises." Earlier this year, Petty ruffled Warner Bros., his current label, by posting the single "Free Girl Now" in MP3 format on the Internet for free.
Tench has felt equally passionate about these battles and has supported Petty all along. "My take is that he's absolutely right," Tench said. "And I think he's been really right all down the line. I'm really happy to just be there while it's going on."
Still, the Heartbreakers hardly stand idle when not working with Petty. John Prine's album "The Missing Years," produced by Epstein, won a Grammy in 1991 for best contemporary folk recording. The Heartbreakers' bassist also shared his talents on songs with Roy Orbison, Stevie Nicks and John Hiatt. Campbell, along with co-writing songs and supplying the Heartbreakers with lead guitar, co-wrote the Don Henley staples "The Boys of Summer" and "Heart of the Matter."
Tench's own side projects include sessions with U2 and Elvis Costello, and backing Bob Dylan. "I loved working with Bob Dylan," he said. "He was just as good as he's supposed to be. It's wonderful -- you get to play all of those great songs.
"I got to play on a couple of records with the Rolling Stones, and that was really special to me," he added. "That band really champions to just play in the song and the groove. At the same time, you go see them live and they're exciting as hell."
Tench believes that playing with other musicians helps refine his ear when coming back to perform with Petty. "Working with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson takes you up another level," Tench said. "The songwriting is so good, the feeling is so deep; you have to start listening a whole other way. I can hear the spaces in the music differently (when working with Petty). I'll think, 'Oh, well, this texture worked really well and this one didn't work well against the guitar, so maybe I should stay out of the way with Campbell.' "
"I've been really lucky," he said. "Sometimes you work with somebody you've never heard of because you just feel like working. But I think I learn from all of these people. With U2, I got to see how another band worked, and you get to try to listen like they listen because you want to fit into their songs. It's not a matter of camouflaging yourself or not expressing yourself, it's a matter of listening and fitting into their trip."