When it comes to superstar rock bands, most music lovers can name the lead guitarist: the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, the Who’s Pete Townshend, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, Journey’s Neal Schon and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, to cite a few.
Then why is it that Mike Campbell, guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, seems more anonymous than all these other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers?
“I’m happy being a member of the band. I get plenty of recognition. I’m not in this for the recognition,” said the underrated Campbell. “I get a chance to play great songs that I care about. We come from very meager beginnings and we’re very grateful to be here, as corny as it sounds.”
Campbell was ranked No. 79 on Rolling Stone’s list of rock’s 100 greatest guitarists. Petty told the magazine: “Michael is not one to show off. What he says is essential.”
The Heartbreakers are returning to St. Paul on Saturday on their 40th anniversary tour.
“I thought 30 was a big number. I thought 20 was a big number,” said Campbell, who is 67. “At this point the number doesn’t matter. The music is all that matters. It’s uncharted territory how far rock ’n’ roll bands can go. We’ll go as long as there’s juice and inspiration there. There’s no other part of life that gets you that kind of a buzz.”
Campbell isn’t one for big pronouncements. He leaves the wit to Petty, whom he met in their native Florida in 1970 when Petty came to audition a drummer living at Campbell’s house.
Ask Campbell how he accounts for the Heartbreakers’ longevity and he turns to Petty.
“As Tom says: ‘Women find us irresistible.’ I’m going to stick with that one. We love each other and we enjoy playing together. We realize together we’re better than we are individually.”
The repertoire for the 40th anniversary tour features songs people want to hear including “Free Fallin’” and “Breakdown” and a few deep album tracks, Campbell pointed out.
Is he sick of playing any of those overly familiar songs?
“I can honestly say no,” he said Tuesday from his Denver hotel. “I get this mind-set like this is the first time I’ve ever heard this song. I find things I can add to it. I know it sounds weird but ‘American Girl,’ the hair still stands up on my neck when we start that song. Good songs do that for you.”
One new wrinkle for this tour is backup singers — the Webb Sisters from England. They’re probably best known for backing Leonard Cohen on tour in his final years.
“It’ll be something you haven’t seen before with us. I like that,” Campbell said. “They came in so prepared. They knew the songs better than we did at rehearsal.”
Since the group is called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, one assumes that Petty is the boss.
“It’s a benign democracy. Tom is the leader of the band. He will have the last say. Fortunately, most of the time he’s right,” Campbell opined. “If he does something we don’t think is cool, he listens to us. By the time we’ve hashed the decision out, it’s pretty universal.”
Campbell has played with another bandleader who runs things differently: Bob Dylan, whom the Heartbreakers backed on a 1986 tour.
“It was kind of like anarchy in a sense, good anarchy. His approach to things was so different. With our band, we have a showbiz ethic: You try to give the people what they want, you try to get them to cheer, you try to win the game. Bob is like ‘I’ll do what I want and they’ll come to me. I don’t need to entertain them.’ ”
Petty is almost as quiet and reclusive as Dylan is offstage. What’s the head Heartbreaker really like?
“He’s my best friend,” said Campbell. “He’s an amazing artist. He’s a good guy. He’s a hard worker. He’s got a great work ethic. He’s determined. He has a healthy ambition to be the best.”
However, Petty had his dark period when he started using heroin in the late 1990s. This story was revealed in the 2015 book, “Petty: The Biography,” an unauthorized project by Warren Zanes for which Petty cooperated.
“I haven’t read the book. I’ve heard about it,” said Campbell. “Maybe it was cathartic for him [to talk about].
“Anytime a friend is struggling with their health, it’s hard. We lost our bass player [Howie Epstein] to heroin. It was years of agony trying to help our friend not fade away. Fortunately, Tom didn’t take that route. I wasn’t hands-on with his demons at the time. Sometimes at work he’d be a little unclear; other times he’d be great.
“I was just a good friend and supported him and he came back around. He was going through a divorce. If he needed someone to talk to, I was there. But I didn’t micromanage his life.”
Guitar in every room
Like Petty, Campbell is a music geek. He plays guitar constantly, he says. He has a studio in his Los Angeles home and at least one guitar in every room, by every chair.
“If I sit down, there’s a guitar there. I just love to play. I have this deep connection with the instrument.”
Some of the songs he writes end up with the Heartbreakers, some with his side project, the Dirty Knobs, and some could end up on a never-planned-but-possible solo album.
No new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album is in the works. Their last one was 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye.”
The band may do a tour to celebrate 1994’s “Wildflowers,” possibly with guest singers in theaters in a small number of cities. “Make it a special event,” Campbell said.
Don’t expect Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to show up at one of these big-buck festivals like last year’s Desert Trip or this year’s Classic East and West along with acts beloved by baby boomers. The Heartbreakers get invited but usually decline.
“We don’t like festival gigs as opposed to arena gigs,” said Campbell, adding that the band is playing a handful of outdoor shows on its 40th anniversary tour. “Truthfully, we prefer being inside four walls — it sounds better, it’s a more intimate affair.”
But aren’t the multimillion-dollar offers hard to turn down?
“We’re not doing it for the money. We already got money. When we didn’t have money, we didn’t do it for the money. We’re in it for the right reasons.”
Don’t panic because Petty recently told Rolling Stone that this may be the band’s last major tour.
“I’ve been hearing that for the last 10 years. It’s possible. I think we can go as long as we want to go, as long as our health holds up,” Campbell predicted. “If we do cut back on the major tours, we do have other things we can do like play choice cities here and there. I don’t think it’s the end of live shows. I don’t think that’s what Tom meant.”