Remembering Tom Petty: Mudcrutch’s Second Encore
Today would have been Tom Petty’s 67th birthday. In honor of the legendary singer-songwriter, who passed away early this month, we’re looking back to our summer 2016 feature on Petty and his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch, who reunited in recent years and released their second studio album, 2, last year. This piece was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Relix.
It’s a soggy Southern California afternoon, and the members of Mudcrutch are enjoying a well-deserved break during a long press day at Warner Bros. Records. Mike Campbell counters the gloom outside with a bright, five-note melody on a nearby piano. The two Toms—Leadon and Petty—inspect a multicolored spread of sliced and chunked fresh fruit. Randall Marsh thumbs through a cardboard box of vinyl LPs. With the feigned tone of an interrogator, Benmont Tench questions Leadon’s fruit choice. “Where did you get that?” he asks. “Is that a Nashville banana?”
These are little diversions before the five musicians gather themselves, sitting comfortably on three couches for one last group interview. In a few weeks, Mudcrutch will release 2, the follow-up to the belated eponymous debut they issued in 2008—33 years after their original label let them go and they quickly disbanded. Despite releasing a live EP shortly after Mudcrutch, another eight years have already passed since the group’s improbable 21st-century reunion.
“We didn’t get dropped,” Petty, who handles bass duties and lead vocals in Mudcrutch, says of the lag time between albums, to laughs around the room. “It’s amazing.”
The notion that a group containing Petty, Campbell and Tench—three-fifths of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers —could actually be in jeopardy of losing its record deal accounts for considerable irony. But this is, after all, 2016. The music industry business model is in a perpetual state of flux and there are few, if any, guarantees.
Mudcrutch were Petty’s band before the band. They coalesced around Gainesville, Fla., in 1970, had some success playing bluesy country-rock on the local Southern rock circuit, relocated to Los Angeles in 1974, released an ill-fated single on Shelter Records and parted ways before Petty’s 26th birthday. Though Petty included a Mudcrutch track on a 1995 box set, the first time many of the most hardcore Heartbreakers fanatics heard about the quintet was when they regrouped in 2007 and released the well-received full-length debut that proved they were still capable of making great music. So, what’s an eight-year hiatus when the first one lasted over three decades?
“I was a little nervous about it because I liked the first one so much,” admits Petty. “Because we made [the debut] so off-the-cuff, in like 10 days, I didn’t think that was going to happen again.”
“I knew we would sound good,” says Marsh. “We play together; we sound good.”
Tench was equally unconcerned. “It feels like a flow to me, with a damn long gap. It didn’t feel forced or unnatural.”
Instead of performance apprehensions, it was the writing and recording process that went under a microscope this time around. “I wanted to make more of a proper record,” says Petty. “Rather than a Polaroid, I wanted a nice painting.”
But, before anything could happen again for Mudcrutch, there had to be available time. “We’ve all got big lives and families, so scheduling is the hardest part of it,” Petty admits. “We always talked about it like we were going to do it next week—first chance we get.” The biggest of those big lives belongs to Petty himself. While he never refers to The Heartbreakers as “his band,” Petty is unquestionably their leader and eager to respond to any question, albeit in a voice that’s languid and gentle, like honey and lemon tea. He is also deeply self-aware and inspired by the venerated talent surrounding him. While conceiving 2, Petty charged his bandmates with bringing their own material to the session, and encouraged everyone to take turns singing at the mic.
The results are more varied than Mudcrutch and appeal to the group’s egalitarian approach. There is Marsh’s “Beautiful World,” with a stripped-back beat and call-and-response bridge, and the sock-hop swing of Tench’s “Welcome to Hell.” Campbell contributes his jackrabbit, jukebox rock on “Victim of Circumstance.” From Leadon, the band got the rollicking “The Other Side of the Mountain,” after Petty requested that the guitarist turn back to his bluegrass roots.
“It has a lot of variety to it, which I like,” says Leadon. “It sounds like our band, but different aspects.”
Petty says he was particularly hung up on the record’s slant. “I wanted it to be a guitar-based album, but I wanted the sounds to drastically change from track to track.” In fact, the group tasked him with making such tough choices that he still has nine finished cuts in the vault. He points out that those tracks were left on the cutting room floor for sequencing reasons, not because of quality. “I still try to make records that you can still listen to all the way through,” he says. “It’s got to have a roll to it; a beginning, middle and end.”
2 certainly rolls—and rocks— along, feeling overall like a travelogue of American music, all with what Petty calls “a Mudcrutch tip.” One of the more jarring entries is “Hope,” a garage-rock stomper wrapped around a fuzzed-out guitar and pulsing organ. “It’s what Tom and I sounded like in ‘66,” says Petty.
At the tender age of 14, Tom Petty attended a show by the Daytona, Fla.-based rock band The Escorts—his first concert—at the American Legion Hall in Gainesville. Four years later, that band’s teenage stars, Duane and Gregg Allman, formed the Allman Brothers. “That’s the first band you ever saw?” Marsh asks, turning to his bandmate. “Holy shit.” Unbeknownst to him at the time, Petty witnessed the nascent work of two siblings who would revolutionize improvisational rock, before The Escorts were relegated to the status of a fond footnote. Certainly Petty’s own colossal success with The Heartbreakers had the capability to rejuvenate Mudcrutch.
“I was completely surprised that we did it at all,” says Leadon of the reunion. “How many superstar, Hall of Fame guys at that level are going to go back to the band they had before they ever made it?”
“The Heartbreakers had done everything there was to do. Twice. I love that band, and I’ll always be in it,” explains Petty. “I just wanted to see Mudcrutch get its shot.”
Mike Campbell sits on the same couch as Petty. He’s been relatively silent, deferring respectfully to his bandmates. When questions of comparisons to The Heartbreakers come up, he vigorously jumps into the conversation.
“We’re not thinking, ‘I hope this is as good as The Heartbreakers .’ We’re just trying to be as great as we can be in that moment,” he says. “You’re going for greatness. You’re going for magic.”
The others are quick to agree and, for the first and only time during the afternoon’s discussion, they begin to talk over each other. Petty says that Mudcrutch allows him to get away from expectations. Tench points out that The Heartbreakers have never been that calculating. Leadon compliments them all as great musicians.
“We get to play with our old friends and explore where that leads us,” says Campbell. “It’s no deeper than that.”
Still, there is the undeniable fact that Petty’s voice is among the most distinctive in all of popular music. Campbell’s guitar and Tench’s keyboards have helped cultivate The Heartbreakers’ sound, a staple of American rock radio for the past 40 years with tens of millions of albums sold. Even without making a conscious effort to do so, their trademark, collective style is bound to surface.
Tench counters that argument, pointing out the unique swing of the Mudcrutch rhythm section. By virtue of Marsh’s drumming and Petty’s bass style, the “air in this band,” as he refers to it, is inherently different. Campbell mentions his formative years as a teen strumming acoustics with Leadon for hours on end, as the two guitarists developed their own distinguished styles.
“In the moment, we’re not worried about any parameters. Ben goes for the organ thing he normally may go for in The Heartbreakers, and I might go with the tonality that goes with that,” Campbell concedes. “Listening back, we say: ‘That’s great, but it sounds a little too much like The Heartbreakers. Let’s rethink that.’”
Tench may refer to himself as Mudcrutch’s crank, but the band members unanimously agree that Ryan Ulyate was is an integral arbiter during their recording sessions. The longtime engineer and producer worked on the first album and has collaborated with The Heartbreakers, most recently on 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. “He’s like a sixth Beatle,” says Marsh.
Often, a look on Ulyate’s face as he emerged from the control booth was enough of an indicator that something wasn’t clicking. “We’ve learned to trust him,” says Campbell.
“He doesn’t let us float,” says Petty. “Neither do I. I set the bar pretty high because I knew they could do it.”
Campbell, who usually serves as a co-producer on Heartbreakers records, focused on a cooperative, unified mission to achieve the best possible outcome, while having fun doing it. “We had a mindset that we could fix it, get it right— and we did,” he says. “Nobody got their nose broken.”
“I was really proud that we all hung together,” says Leadon. “Everyone was patient. We worked through the rough spots and got to the good stuff.”
Mudcrutch only supported their first record with a handful of California shows. This time, the quintet will hit the road in earnest, undertaking a full-scale, coast-to-coast tour. Petty says the band captured first takes in the studio when they could, making this batch of material particularly suited for the live setting. “A show will have its own life,” he says. “There’s room to move.”
“You can’t just noodle,” cautions Campbell. “You’ve got to be thinking. You’ve got to compose the arc. And be brave.”
One thing is for certain, though. Those hoping to hear The Heartbreakers should leave that wish at home.
“We’re not going to throw in ‘Refugee’ to save the festival,” says Campbell.
In 2008, Mudcrutch had rehearsed a contingency plan in preparation for their reunion shows, in the event of an overwhelming demand from an audience for a Heartbreakers classic. “But, there was never a hint of that,” Marsh says.
“It’s nice—instead of saying, ‘You should’ve seen the band we had back in Florida’—to say, ‘Come see the band we had back in Florida,’” says Tench.
For Petty, this current reunion comes after two records and subsequent tours with The Heartbreakers. He says that wherever he went, more often than not, people asked about when Mudcrutch was coming back. And as for whether or not this fits into his present artistic period?
“Absolutely. That’s where I’m at right now,” says Petty. “I think it’s of a piece with Hypnotic Eye. It’s a natural place to go from there. It’s just so lucky to get a song. Fortunately, they found a life with this band.”
Leadon divulges that there were some personal health issues stunting an earlier reunion. Petty dismisses the topic, saying that if they start discussing the ailments of men in their mid-60s, then they’ll never stop. It does offer a moment of perspective.
“It makes me value being able to do this even more,” says Leadon. “To treasure it while we do it.”
The reunion isn’t exclusive to the studio and stage, Leadon explains. He and Marsh lived with Petty while the band made the record. “It’s part of the experience, and it’s just a blast, hanging out.”
After they wrap up their interviews, the members of Mudcrutch file out one after another into the hallway. A Warner Bros. rep has given each member a copy of the new 7” single pressed especially for Record Store Day. On the cover is a tow ball and hitch, a metaphor for the A-side, “Trailer,” that also opens the album. The B-side is Marsh’s “Beautiful World.” Petty and Marsh stop for a moment and slide the spotless, glossy black 45 out of its sleeve. Marsh notes the thickness of the sleeve paper, remembering, in contrast, how thin it was when he was a kid. For a second, it’s easy to forget that these old friends from Gainesville holding a teenage dream in their hands are rock stars.
“When you go that long— Tom and I from our teens—you really value those long friendships we’ve had. So many of us just aren’t here anymore,” Petty says. “They’re all incredibly good musicians, and we can play together and be fulfilled by that. That’s a nice thing.”