Even after more than fifty years in the music industry, where he achieved legendary status through his work with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell hasn’t grown jaded at the thought of releasing new works around the world, as he will on March 4 when his band, Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs, release their second album, External combustion. “We’re excited as hell! I love the record and can’t wait to put it out,” Campbell told American Songwriter, calling from his home in Los Angeles.
External combustion follows the beginnings of the group, Wreckless abandonment, which came out in 2020 – but The Dirty Knobs go back much further than that: Campbell reckons he formed this band around 20 years ago as a side project he could do between Heartbreakers tours, ” so we know each other really well, and there’s an organic chemistry there that’s very comfortable for me,” he says. The lineup consists of Campbell, guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison and drummer Matt Laug. For External combustionthey also brought in notable guest musicians: Margo Price, Ian Hunter, and Campbell’s former Heartbreakers teammate, keyboardist Benmont Tench.
With the end of the Heartbreakers following the death of Tom Petty in 2017, Campbell realized he still wanted to remain part of a band, so he decided to make The Dirty Knobs his main focus. “My mindset is to be part of the band – I never wanted to be a solo artist,” he says. “I just feel comfortable with a gang around me. That’s how I grew up, and that’s what I like to do now. It’s the most fun when you have your friends with you and can make music together.
This joyful energy is found in External combustion eleven songs – and even in the title of the album itself, which Campbell says is “a phrase that just popped into my head. I thought, ‘internal combustion’, then I thought, ‘No, it’s more like a external type of band combustion.’”
On this record, says Campbell, “about half of the songs are new songs. I went through my entire vault of analog tapes and found a few songs from maybe even twenty years ago that I had forgotten about that were pretty good, so I included them on the album. I found parts and sketches that I had completely forgotten: “Wow, I almost missed that; I have to finish this one.
While he’s happy to resurrect older tracks, Campbell says he never has a problem writing new songs either. “There are so many things to draw inspiration from,” he says. “Most of my inspiration came from the 60s when I was learning guitar. There were so many great bands and guitarists back then. These are the sources from which I drew. He is still motivated by these artists to this day: “I go back and listen to old music that inspires me – an old Stones album, or the Beatles or the Beach Boys, and I hear something there -inside: “It’s a chord I don’t do. never use. I’ll learn it and then try to work from it.
Regarding his songwriting methods, Campbell says, “My routine isn’t timed, but I’ve settled into a thing where I tend to write more in the morning. I wake up, have a coffee, then spend about an hour working on the idea that comes to me. But throughout the day, I could watch TV or play with the dogs or drive the car, and something would come to mind. I just try to catch the ideas when they come. He says he finds it useful to save snippets of songs to his phone. “Before, you had to stop the car and write it down. But now, with my phone, I can just press a button and start squirting my ideas and listening to them when I get home.
Although Campbell co-wrote many hits with Tom Petty, including songs that became classics (such as “You Got Lucky”, “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” , among many others), he admits he still can’t offer infallible songwriting advice. “We were lucky, Tom and I and the Heartbreakers, to have quite a few songs that touched people,” he says. “but it is a very mysterious thing. It’s like I almost hate talking about it because it’s like magic – I don’t want to jinx him!”
Still, he’s ready to offer insight into how to improve the odds of creating something that has the potential to connect strongly with listeners. “Originally, you write for yourself. You try to impress and please yourself. You feel like there’s something about it that’s really catchy or special. It’s inspired. It really surprises you. Maybe you’re writing something, and then a few of the pieces come together and you’re like, “Wow, this is way better than I expected.
“I love writing songs and I can talk about them all day – it’s fascinating,” Campbell continues. “It’s almost like you’re trying to write a song, you have this blank canvas in front of you and you’re waiting for something to happen – and then it’s like someone flips a switch and you see it,” Oh, that’s it,” and you just write what you see. It’s kind of my process. I start with nothing and hope the light comes on.
Campbell recalls the moment he realized he wanted to be a musician as a fifteen-year-old growing up in Florida: “Like a lot of kids my age, I watched The Ed Sullivan Show, and I watched the Beatles there. They played guitar and they seemed to have it all together, writing their own songs and playing their own music. That’s when I had the idea: ‘I would like to have a guitar’. I would like to be like that.
However, following this dream proved difficult. “I couldn’t afford a guitar because we weren’t so well off,” says Campbell. His mom bought him a $15 pawnshop guitar that he says is “unplayable.” He laughs at the suggestion that it might have been a blessing in disguise, as it forced him to become a more inventive player early on. “It’s possible, except that I didn’t like bleeding fingers very much. Then I went to a friend’s house one day and he had a Gibson and I picked it up and said, “Oh my God, that’s so easy.’ Then a little light came on: “I have to buy a better guitar. It took time. My first Stratocaster that I had was [because] a friend loaned me the money, $200 at the time. These guitars are worth fifty thousand now.
Even then, however, “I never sat down [and say], ‘Okay, I’m going to be a professional musician and try to make a living.’ It kind of happened over time,” says Campbell. “I taught myself guitar, met some friends, we started a band, we played in some really shitty bars and had fun. Once we had a demo and sparked a little interest from the record companies, it became more of a profession. Until then, it was like flying by the seat of our pants.
Campbell was originally in the band Mudcrutch with Tom Petty and Benmont Tench. They became popular in their native Florida, but fame eluded them and they went their separate ways after releasing just one album. In 1976, after moving to LA, they formed the band Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, which went on to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. did. I think I was very lucky, in many ways, but I also worked really hard,” says Campbell.
Looking back on his career, Campbell gives Tom Petty a lot of credit for helping him learn how to become a successful songwriter. “The first song I wrote with Tom [Petty] was called “Rockin’ Around (With You)” – it was on our first album [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1976]”, says Campbell. “Before that, I only had sketches. I don’t think I have finished songs. Tom was really good at finishing things and putting words to music, so he helped me a lot.
Campbell also credits Petty with teaching him how to be a good conductor. “I used to support his lead or his direction, and I learned a lot about how to do that,” he says. “Then I started my own band and just applied those skills to them. I found that I really liked it, being in front of the band and leading the guys.
Now firmly in the lead role, Campbell will take The Dirty Knobs on tour in support External combustion. He tells fans that “they can expect to hear songs from both [Dirty Knobs] albums, and some surprises. Maybe a few Heartbreakers songs here and there. We just want to hang out and have fun and distract people for a little while.
As he contemplates his career – both with The Dirty Knobs and the Heartbreakers – Campbell seems content. “You can tell people who are in it for the money, and I’m not,” he says. “Fortunately, I made enough money to live comfortably. I don’t need to go out and tour. I no longer need to make records. But I really like doing it and I want to improve. This is what keeps me going. You too want to keep having fun. It is so Amusing play in a band. There is no such thing. It’s the best job in the world. I would play music even if I couldn’t, just because that’s how much I love it.
See the next concerts of Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs HERE.
Photo by Chris Phelps/Sacks & Co