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Mike Campbell on The Dirty Knobs, Fleetwood Mac, and the ghost of Tom Petty

Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs
(Image credit: Pamela Littky)

Wreckless Abandon might be the debut album from The Dirty Knobs, but the (questionably named) band, headed by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac guitarist Mike Campbell, is hardly a new concern. They’ve existed for going on 15 years now, it just took a while for the four-piece – Campbell on guitar and vocals, Jason Sinay on guitar, Lance Morrison on bass and Matt Laug on drums – to find the time to make a record. 

“The Knobs started out as a project to do between Heartbreakers tours,” Campbell explains. “I met the guys very organically, and I didn’t really intend to audition a band per se. But I had some songs and we just hit it off. I thought the music was really good and deserved to be heard. But out of respect to Tom I never felt comfortable doing it while the Heartbreakers were active. 

"I was loyal to my partner. But in the back of my mind I always thought some day, if the Heartbreakers wind down, I’ll focus on the Dirty Knobs.” 

The Heartbreakers did wind down, of course, and in an unexpected and truly tragic way, when Tom Petty passed away October 2, 2017, at the age of 66, after accidentally overdosing on the prescription drugs he was taking to treat a fractured hip, emphysema and knee problems, among other health issues. 

When I spoke to Campbell roughly a year later, he was still reeling from the loss of his longest and closest musical collaborator. But he also reported that he had reconvened with his friends in the studio, working with producer George Drakoulias. 

Soon enough, however, Campbell had to put the brakes on the Knobs once again. In early 2018, he received a call from drummer Mick Fleetwood, who asked whether he would be interested in replacing Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac. 

Campbell was, accepted the offer, and became the latest guitarist in a band that had seen many pass through, and headed out on a tour that circled the globe and lasted more than a year.

As for the Knobs? 

“God bless them – they were very patient,” Campbell says with a laugh. That patience, it appears, is now paying off. And not just for the Knobs, but also for music fans who have missed the sort of hooky, rootsy, classic-rock drenched tuneage that Campbell and the Heartbreakers cooked up with seeming ease for more than 40 years. 

That sound is displayed in its full glory, with some twists – and lots and lots of hot guitar riffs and solos – on Wreckless Abandon, their somewhat late-arrival debut album.

Indeed, Petty fans will feel right at home inside the bright, jangly melodies of the title track, the hypnotic, John Lee Hooker-style groove of Don’t Knock The Boogie and the straight-up southern rock of Sugar. There’s also Campbell’s disarmingly Petty-like vocal drawl, which doesn’t so much ape his former band leader as reflect their shared northern Florida origins. 

But there’s also plenty of uniquely Knobs-crafted sounds – the aggressive hard-rock riffing of Loaded Gun and Southern Boy; the dark, heavy blues of I Still Love You and Don’t Wait; the country-rocking Pistol Packin’ Mama; the smooth and slinky (and drolly cutting) Fuck That Guy – that demonstrate Campbell’s impressive facility as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader. 

“I’m just following the muse wherever it wants to take me,” he says, somewhat humbly. 

In the case of The Dirty Knobs, Campbell’s muse appears to be pointing him, first and foremost, toward the pursuit of having a good time. 

“That’s what the Knobs are all about,” he says. “This band has always been just for the love of playing. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, but we never had an agenda to be a commercial project until now. And that’s the beauty of it – we do it for the joy of the music.”

Alt

That “joy of the music” you talk about actually comes across on Wreckless Abandon. In addition to the album being an entertaining listen, you get the feeling these songs are really fun to play

Well, you used the key word – fun. We’re all about having fun, and the songs were written to be fun on the guitar. I mean, this is basically a guitar band. There’s a few keyboard overdubs on the record, but mostly it’s just the four of us playing live in the studio. I can’t wait to play the songs live as a set. It’s going to really be a gas. 

Obviously Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were a guitar band, too. But in the case of the Knobs, do you feel like you’re pulling from different influences, even slightly?

That’s a good question. I have a lot of inspirations, most of them from the sixties when I was growing up. It was such a great time for a guitar player to come of age, with The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, The Animals, The Kinks, The Zombies – all these great bands that had really inspiring guitar parts. Those are the things that are in me. 

Even going farther back, to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. I don’t consciously pull from them, but they tend to come out in different ways in everything I do. 

Some of these songs seem to be influenced by harder riff-rock as well. Loaded Gun, for example, or Southern Boy – there are sections in that one that remind me of AC/DC, in both the overall feel and the sound. 

That’s a great compliment. I love AC/DC, and I love Led Zeppelin and I love guitar riffs. With Loaded Gun there’s even a little bit of ‘punk exuberance’, I’d like to say, in that. So it’s not all sixties music, it’s everything I’ve soaked up in my life. As a musician, you grow up and you listen to stuff and it inspires you and it stays with you. Then when you start playing, you find those kinds of nuances coming out – whether you want them to or not.

When it comes to the solos on the record, you give yourself more space to stretch out than you usually had in Heartbreakers songs. Did you approach things any differently? 

Well the Heartbreakers had a few songs, like Running Down A Dream, where it was: “Okay, we have two minutes here at the end – do something.” The Knobs have a lot of songs like that. But I don’t approach it any differently. I tend to not work stuff out in advance. I’ll have a rough idea of how it should feel, and I think about the lyrics and what the singer is feeling, what they’re trying to say, and I try to get the guitar inside that voice. 

But when it comes to the solos, I mean, I know what key it’s in, and I kind of know how I might start, but I don’t want to plan it out, I want to see what happens in the moment. And I’ve found, for me, anyway, that’s when the most interesting stuff happens. 

I Still Love You is a great lead-guitar showcase. 

That was a very emotional lyric and very personal to me. So I didn’t think about what notes I was going to play, I just thought about a feeling I wanted to convey. And what I wanted was to convey a tortured, redemption kind of feeling: “I’ve been through hell, but it’s going to be okay.” That kind of thing. I wanted to get that out through the guitar somehow. It’s intense in that particular song, but it’s coming from a place of real feeling. 

What do the Dirty Knobs offer you that’s unique that you don’t get from the Heartbreakers or Fleetwood Mac? 

Well, a couple of things. First of all it’s my songs, so I have a spiritual investment in the music. And the Dirty Knobs have always been a band that, to borrow a phrase, plays with reckless abandon. We don’t follow a script. Whereas the Heartbreakers, the shows left very little room for improvisation. It wasn’t that type of a band. 

But with the Knobs we have the freedom where we don’t have to play to a script. We can go out and extend a solo or extend an ending or do whatever we feel like. And the guys are so good. If I decide I want to go off in a certain direction, they’ll follow me. So I get to lead the band and take it where I want it to go, as opposed to being the co-captain in the Heartbreakers, which I loved doing too but it’s a different hat.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned that one of the things that appealed to you about Fleetwood Mac was that you enjoyed playing the big venues, and you weren’t sure that would happen again after the Heartbreakers. But now you’re getting to spend some time in smaller places as well. What do you like about that set-up? 

That’s a good question. I started out in little rooms, when we started the Heartbreakers – well, it was Mudcrutch back in the day – in Florida. We played smaller places and that’s where I honed my craft. I love that intimacy. It’s a whole different thing than playing in an arena. Because the crowd is right in front of you – you can see their eyes, and everybody hears pretty much the same thing because you’re in a small, confined space and everybody’s surrounded by the same walls. 

You’re all part of the experience in a more intimate way. I feel really comfortable in that setting. The arenas are a different thing. When you play the big rooms it’s almost like the less you play the better it sounds, because there’s so much air and echo and space around the music. If you play too busy it can sometimes get lost. 

But in the small rooms you can explore the intimacy of the sound and you can play more notes because they’re not lost in the echo. You can go into different kinds of zones. So I like both ways, but I’m really looking forward to starting small again and playing, you know, four-hundred, five-hundred, thousand-seat places. I love being close to the people.

Mike Campbell with Tom Petty

Mike Campbell with Tom Petty (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

In the past when you’ve done Dirty Knobs shows you’ve played a fair number of Heartbreakers songs. Now that you have an album of original material out, will that still be the case? 

I’ve put a lot of thought into that. I mean, we are promoting a new record, so mostly I want to play these songs. But I do feel that people that come to see me are going to know who I am and what I’ve done in the past, and they’re going to probably appreciate hearing a song or two from that catalogue. And we love playing those songs, the Knobs and I. 

We’ve learned about five or six different Heartbreakers songs, and some of them are deep tracks, not just the hits. So I’m thinking in the smaller clubs I might put one song in the set from the old days, and maybe for the encore I might do a couple more, just so people can take that home with them. 

That way, not only will they see a new band and hear new songs, but they also get a little taste of where I come from, where we come from. And it honours my friend, you know? I think I owe it to him to acknowledge him every night.

Those Heartbreakers songs are a big part of your life, and they’re also part of so many people’s lives. 

Yeah. I don’t take that lightly. I feel a lot of gratitude that I was able to be a part of that. And those songs will live way beyond me. People tell me all the time how much the songs mean to them. I’m very blessed to have that. 

As far as actually performing those songs, on the Fleetwood Mac tour you were doing Free Fallin’ at every show, and you’ve talked about that being a difficult moment for you. Now that you’re further along, has that intensity of emotion softened at all? 

A little. I mean, I’m still deep in my grief, and when I do those songs I think about Tom, I feel his presence and sometimes it’s a bit emotional, but it’s also healing. It’s a way for me to work through my grief. But I think if you show a little emotion and it’s real, people understand. And they’re going through it too, you know? They’re grieving too, and it’s a way for us to maybe heal a little bit together.

Did you have a favourite Fleetwood Mac song that you performed on that tour? 

I liked all the songs. I like Lindsey Buckingham, and I respect him greatly. And it was a challenge for me, coming from a band where I’m used to playing my own stuff, to step into their band and try to honour the music the way it should be. Because it required learning certain guitar parts and expressing them in the right way. And Lindsey’s guitar parts are so iconic.

Without those parts the songs don’t sound the same. So I took it upon myself to try to really learn them – get the nuances right, get the tones right and play them the way they should be played. In a few places here and there I could put my own musicality into it, but mostly I was just trying to honour their records and help the band sound as close to those records as I could. 

Do you think that there’s a possibility that you and the rest of Fleetwood will record new music together? 

I don’t know. When I first got the call, I assumed we would do some recording, because they asked me to join the band. I thought about it for about a day. So I told Mick: “Well, it starts with the songs.” I was thinking we’d make a record, maybe, and then go out and play. But he said: “Oh no. We’ve got commitments to do this tour…” 

Which ended up being almost a year and a half [laughs]. So I don’t know what their plans are in terms of recording. But we did have a meeting at the end of the tour, and everybody agreed that they probably don’t want to do any more long tours like that. It was great fun and I’m glad I did it, but it was very tiring for all of us. 

So we decided let’s take a year off and let everybody do things that they want to do. In the not-too-distant future, if a handful of gigs come up that sound good, maybe we’ll do that. 

Well you clearly like to get out there and play

Oh, yeah. I love it. You have to keep playing, you know? That’s why I did the Knobs between Heartbreakers tours in the first place. Because I couldn’t just sit around. I need the experience of playing live. That’s part of my nature. So this is going to be very humbling, in a good way, starting in the smaller places. 

And hopefully this record will do well enough to enable us to do another one. My idea is to slowly build it up to something where we can play theatres at some point. 

It’s amazing to think that, in a career in which you’ve had so many amazing experiences, you’re still getting to have new and fresh ones more than four decades in

Well, like I said, the main thing is I want to have fun – always. I want to play music, and I figure if I’m doing that, and I’m having fun doing that, then I’m succeeding.

Wreckless Abandon is out now on BMG.