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Your musical relationship with Tom obviously goes way beyond the typical rhythm/lead classifications. How do you decide who is going to play what?
Typically it would go one of two ways; if it''s a song that Tom''s written on his own, he''ll bring it in, play it down and we''ll listen to it, and start to join in as we begin to understand what he''s doing. I usually come up with a complementary rhythm part to what he''s singing. When we come to a solo, we typically don''t work that out, but we like to record them as you''re discovering them - just sort of make something up. And usually the first or second idea you come up with is the best one. You listen to that and kind of edit it a bit, sticking with your first inspiration.
Another way we''ll go is if it is a song I''ve written, I''ll bring in some music and Tom might write lyrics to it, and sometimes in that music, the guitar parts have been already worked out. Then we''d cut the record and try to recreate what we liked about the demo. Most of the solos on our records are just off the cuff and sorted out from that first inspiration. For instance, on "Breakdown," we were cutting the song and it went on for about six minutes, and I was playing along, trying a couple of different things, and by the end of the six minutes, I was drifting off and hit on that melody riff, which I was playing on a slide. Everybody liked that line, so I learned it and went back and played it at the top of the song. That''s an example of something that was off the cuff that was then edited and fit in because it made sense.
You''ve co-authored some of Tom Petty''s biggest songs, as well as other hits. How do you approach your writing - do you come up with a riff first or a lyric?
Well, I''m always writing, even when I don''t have a guitar in front of me, I''m always trying to keep the antenna open to any idea that might come, at any time. It''s a mysterious thing - writing is a gift, and it''s a sort of channeling. Sometimes it''s not even coming from you, you are just sort of open and things come to you. A lot of times, it will just happen if you are in the right state of mind, the ideas just come.
Sometimes if I''m stuck, I will play a song that I like, a Beatles or Stones song, to get me in the state of mind to just open up, to have a pivotal point that I can key from. Other times, I might put on a song I''ve heard a million times and listen. Or I might hear something on the radio, and think, wow, that''s a great chord or sequence, and I''ll sit down and learn it, and as I''m learning it, I might get an idea to do something like it but different - I might play the chords backwards, or take a lick and stick it over a different chord, and that will lead me into something that''s mine, which was inspired by something that turned me on. Sometimes you''ll just hear a chord, you''ll sit down and learn it, and you think, this is a great chord, and you can just write a whole different song starting with that as your foundation. That''s the beauty of writing - you can tap the soul of the thing that inspired you and find a way to make it your own. It''s hard to talk about it because it''s very mysterious.
How do you think your playing has changed over the years?
Tom said something in the film about when he first met me and said, "He played as good then as he does now." [laughs] What''s interesting is that musicians get to a point where you get pretty good, and that''s pretty much who you are, at least in the kind of music we''re doing. You can look at Clapton, Jimmy Page or George Harrison - once they started establishing their talent, I really don''t know how much they improved. So that''s probably where I''m at, too. I play the guitar all of the time, but I''m not interested in playing faster, or more technically. I always try to work on my rhythm and my tone and my song sense - that''s just something that I focus on and always try to get better at. But am I better than I was? I don''t know. In some ways I''m the same as I always was. I think I''m more mature and may make better choices in my composition than I might have earlier.
In your 30 plus years as a Heartbreaker, you''ve had some lineup changes in your rhythm section. How does playing with Steve Ferrone compare with previous drummer Stan Lynch, who left in the nineties?
Stan and Steve are completely different. Stan always played with more of a "member of the band" mentality. He was always just part of the band and a friend from early on, and there was that kind of bond that is unique to him. He was essential to helping us find our original sound and he was part of that sound. The way he played really complemented that, and you can''t take that away from him. He''s a great background singer and he was really important on that level early on and for many years. Stan was really great live; he had energy and power and confidence, and was a cheerleader, too. He would get us up when we were down, and he was a real strong and emotional force, especially live where his energy was really powerful. We got to the point in the studio where we got really pissy with each other and it got really uncomfortable for him - it was time for him to go and do the other things that he wanted to do.
Steve Ferrone came in, and he''s never been in a band long-term until us. He''s more of a session guy, and his approach is very professional and accurate, and his time is really good. He''s great in the studio because he''s very consistent and he doesn''t get emotional or wrapped up in it. He brings sort of a "studio cat" mentality - he does his job, and you don''t have to think about whether the drums are going to speed up or slow down. He just gets his job done and you can focus on the song and not get hung up on that. He''s a sweet guy, and he brought a lot of professionalism and accuracy, and Steve is great live, too. But it''s hard to compare two different human beings; they are both great in their own way and equally talented in different ways.