Mike Campbell: “Unfortunately I was in a band with one of the greatest writers ever!”

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Mike Campbell: “Unfortunately I was in a band with one of the greatest writers ever!”

mike campbell and the dirty knobs
(Image: Chris Phelps)
Words by Peter Hodgson

Tom Petty's right-hand man discusses songwriting, his guitarsenal, and inspiration on his latest album with The Dirty Knobs out today

“By the way, it’s not what you think,” says bona fide rock legend Mike Campbell as he packs a pipe and takes a slow draw at the start of our Zoom call. “It’s just tobacco.”

Well that’s no fun. The guitar voice of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, co-writer of ‘The Boys Of Summer’ with Don Henley, collaborator with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Joe Cocker, Matthew Sweet, Susanna Hoffs, Mary J. Blige, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon… hell, the guy even took on the massive job of playing guitar in Fleetwood Mac after Lindsey Buckingham left the group. So if anyone has earned the right to do rockstar stuff like have a little choof on a Zoom interview, it’s Mike Campbell.

Read up on all the latest interviews, features and columns here.

We’re taking a little break here at Mixdown and so should you. We’re reposting some old favourites of yours and ours!

The new Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs album, External Combustion, is exactly the kind of world-class slab of blues-influenced roots-rock you’d expect from a man of Campbell’s talent and reputation, but that doesn’t mean it’s a predictable record. After opening with a few fun foot-stompers, Campbell gets more lyrically introspective, and the arrangements seem to broaden. It’s a proper album, y’know? A fully realised statement from beginning to end, with the kind of push-pull tension and release you can only get from musicians playing together in a room.

“Well, there’s lots of ways to make records,” Campbell says. “You can make records by cookie cutter, putting ’em together on the click, which is fine for certain songs, but I prefer to have more fun with it. There’s more fun when there’s people in the room. You don’t end up all hitting on the downbeat at exactly the same time, but you’re getting a groove going, and that’s what The Dirty Knobs are all about.”

External Combustion was tracked at Campbell’s state-of-the-art home studio. “I’ve been recording at home for a long time,” he says. “Heartbreakers here and there too. Basically it’s a drum setup, some amps and side rooms, and all the sounds are already up so we can just walk in and start recording.”

If you follow Campbell on social media you’ve no doubt seen this space and his collection of beautiful and weird guitars lining the hall. While it’s always handy to have such a diverse guitarsenal within reach, the majority of External Combustion was recorded with Campbell’s prized 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard.

“I only use it at home and it’s very versatile,” he says. “I can get all kinds of different tones out of it, so I tried to work just from that one guitar, mostly. There are some songs where I played an acoustic and there’s one where I played a Telecaster but the rest of it all was Les Paul. It’s a wonderful guitar. I used it on two Heartbreakers records quite a bit, starting with the Mojo record (2010) which is when I got it. And it’s just like… it’s like butter, you know? It plays like butter. It’s so smooth. There’s lots of different tones and it’s definitely ballsy when you want it to be, like with a four-piece band and just two guitars. I need a guitar that fills out the tones without a keyboard, and this Les Paul does that really well.”

One guitar you won’t hear on the record is the bizarre slightly steampunk Strat-style instrument that Campbell brought with him to Australia in 2019 for the Fleetwood Mac tour.

“Ah, the Medusa,” he laughs. “I went into a little music store in Santa Monica one day to buy a blackface Fender Deluxe, and that thing was sitting in the corner. I just couldn’t tell what the hell it was. It looks like they took acid and just started gluing pieces on it. It has an antenna, and a little phone keypad on it. I think it started out as some kind of Fender, but completely morphed into a piece of weirdness. And I said ‘what is that?!?’ And he said here, you can just take it, just get it outta here. So I took it and it turned out pretty good, you know? So I used it on a song with Fleetwood Mac. I got a kick out that cause I figured guitar players would look at it and see me putting the antenna up and wonder what was going on.” (Campbell is a keen guitar-shop hound. Last time he was in Melbourne he stopped into Music Swop Shop in Carlton where he spied a vintage Gretsch White Falcon with a metal snake in place of the tremolo arm; he was unsuccessful in trying to persuade Neil Finn to buy it).

External Combustion bares the unmistakable sound of small amps turned up loud. “That’s exactly what it is,” Campbell says. “I have a Duesenberg amp that they gave me which is kind of patterned after a Fender Princeton, and that was just set up in a room with a close mic and then a room mic on it, and the other guitar player had a little Princeton set up in the bathroom in there. So yeah, little amps and using the room as part of the sound.”

“There’s all types of songs,” Campbell concludes. “The party songs and boogie songs are great, but sometimes it’s more interesting to try to say something a little deeper, you know? And unfortunately I was in a band with one of the greatest writers ever! So I learned quite a bit from Tom watching him work. I’m inspired by that a lot, you know? I’m still inspired by that.”

Keep up with Mike Campbell here.