Unbridled from duties as string-slinger extraordinaire for the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac, the wild gator partakes of rock’s rowdier joys with his own band the Dirty Knobs.
Though he is one of the planet’s humblest guitar heroes, Mike Campbell is fearless about walking in the shoes of legends. Playing alongside Bob Dylan, he punctuated the poetry of folk rock’s greatest scribe—dishing his take on Mike Bloomfield and Robbie Robertson’s bee-sting leads. As a member of Fleetwood Mac he stood in for Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham. And on many nights with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers he would take George Harrison’s yearning slide solo from the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care.”
But over the course of a career spanning nearly 50 years, Campbell steadily made the case for his own status as legend—not just as a trusty, tasteful sideman supreme to superstars, but as co-writer of rock ’n’ pop masterpieces. “Refugee,” “The Boys of Summer,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “You Got Lucky”: Each features Campbell’s name as co-author—and guitar hooks of such startling grace and elemental potency that they burrow in the memory like the afterimage of a perfect sunset.
More than a decade ago, Campbell took the helm of his own band, the Dirty Knobs—an irreverent, spontaneous unit that veered from originals to a grab bag of ’60s and ’70s deep-cut covers and curiosities. But with the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac taking the lion’s share of Campbell’s time, there was rarely time to accomplish much other than the occasional run of California club dates.
At last though, the Dirty Knobs have an LP to call their own. With producer George Drakoulias (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Black Crowes, Primal Scream) offering sonic and song-curation counsel, Wreckless Abandon was whittled down from a backlog of eclectic originals to a slab of boisterous, rockin’ economy that reflects the rowdiest and most irreverent side of the band. But as casual conversation, or a tour of his must-see Instagram feed reveals, Campbell is a wellspring of creativity, gentlemanly warmth, and musical knowledge, with a deep reverence for the magic of music creation and the many masters that came before him.
I saw four of the Heartbreakers’ San Francisco Fillmore shows in 1997. They were so loose and free. And when I first saw the Dirty Knobs about 10 years ago, the eclectic, irreverent mood was very reminiscent of that Fillmore experience. There were touches of Revolver-era Beatles, some surf stuff. Did that Fillmore run inspire your approach with the Knobs, or was it just an itch to play outside the formality of the bigger Heartbreakers shows?
Well, I’m honored that you heard the energy of those Fillmore shows in the Dirty Knobs, because that was one of the absolute highlights of my life. I loved the Heartbreakers. So I never put a record out or pursued the Dirty Knobs as long as the Heartbreakers were together. But now that those windows are open, it’s what I want to do. The other thing is that the Heartbreakers were required to play a lot of familiar songs every night. We couldn’t change up the set list too much. The Fillmore wasn’t like that, we could do whatever we wanted. And with the Dirty Knobs I can do whatever I want, too. I can go into a Beatles song we’ve never rehearsed before in the middle of a show. There’s a freedom and spontaneity I really enjoy.
When I’ve seen the Dirty Knobs, the song selection was pretty eclectic. But this record has a very strong Southern-rock and Texas-boogie thread. What drove the band or your songwriting in that specific direction this time around?
Well, we never wanted to be any certain type of band. And back in Florida when the Heartbreakers started out, we didn’t want to be part of the Southern-boogie thing. We were way more into the Yardbirds and Beatles and Kinks than the Allman Brothers, so we always resisted that connection, even though we grew up in the same area. I’ve never really chased that type of thing—it’s never really been part of my soul. With the Dirty Knobs we record all kinds of songs. But when we were putting the record together I was having a hard time because there was so much different material. So George Drakoulias came in and honed it down to songs in sorta one groove. And as it turns out, there’s a bit of boogie and Southern rock in there. It was not a conscious effort, but there is a lot of that element in there alongside the British stuff.
Wreckless Abandon was recorded in Michael Campbell’s home studio and produced by George Drakoulias. The band cut the tracks live, all in the same room.
I heard a touch of Sir Douglas Quintet in “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” That Vox organ has a way of tilting a song in a specific direction really fast doesn’t it?
I love the Sir Douglas Quintet! And you know we actually got (Sir Douglas Quintet organist) Augie Meyers to play that part.
I had no idea!
That’s keen of you to pick up. I love Sir Douglas and I love Augie, so we had the track and one day I just said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get Augie to play on this?” And George said, “Let me call him up.”
Your voice even sounds a bit like Doug Sahm on that one.
[Laughs.] It was certainly influenced by him. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek song.
“I Still Love You” tends toward a darker, more melancholy, melodic structure. There’s a touch of minor-key Zep heaviness to it. But you’ve written and co-written some fantastic melancholy-to-somber stuff. Things like “A Woman In Love,” “You Got Lucky,” and “Boys of Summer” all have very melancholy underpinnings. Are those moods harder to explore when you inhabit that character as a frontman? A melancholy song can be quite a weight to bear as a songwriter and lyricist.
Songwriting is a very mysterious process. And the minor-key, melancholy thing for me comes from listening to a lot of blues, or songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The minor-key stuff touches a really mournful, deep, bluesy part of your soul, and sometimes I naturally gravitate toward that. Other days I’ll want to do something that’s really up. But it’s not a conscious effort—it’s really about what gift of inspiration you’re given that day. Sometimes working in a minor key can feel really serious—like okay, we’re really getting down to the shit here. But even in classical music—most of my favorite pieces are in minor keys. It’s interesting.
Do you have a songwriting ritual you adhere to?
Well, that’s all I’m doing right now. I do have a ritual, but I still really don’t understand how it all happens sometimes. It’s so mysterious and beautiful when something comes to you out of thin air. And you definitely can’t force it. I have a studio at home and typically the dogs wake me up at 6 in the morning, I’ll have some coffee, hang out with my wife, and when things settle down, I head over to the studio. A lot of times though, I’ll just listen to music—often to stuff I grew up with—and that will inspire me. I’ll hear a chord or rhythm, try to figure out what it is, and that gives me a departure point. Lately, I write a lot in the mornings because I don’t want to be a total hermit.
Michael Campbell has a legendary guitar collection, and he keeps it interesting onstage. Here he’s playing a late-’60s Dan Armstrong lucite model. Photo by Lindsey Best
Do you need specific headspace? Or do you just typically react to the emotions and events of a given day?
I just try to be open, because it’s like switches going on and off in your head—you’re sitting there noodling on the guitar and stuff just starts channeling through you. It’s the strangest feeling—without being too heavy, it’s a little like being close to God or something. “Here’s a gift for you son! What can you do with it?” Then it turns off and it’s gone ’til the next time [laughs]. But I’ve never been able to just sit down and write a song on demand—they can happen when I’m driving or watching a movie—just out of the air at the most random times.
What songs that you’ve have written really gave you the feeling that you’d struck gold or really hit something special? Where you really knew you were on a roll?
In the moment, I always think that the song I’m working on is the greatest thing in the world. Then I’ll look at it later and realize it’s not so great. But I had the benefit of having an amazing songwriting partner [Tom Petty]. When I worked with him, I focused on the music and he took care of the lyrics. But I could visualize where he would sing from knowing him so well. It was always a thrill. I might give him a CD with 10 musical ideas on there and he might pick two, or none, or one. But when he would come back and say “I’ve got something that goes with that song” and all of the sudden it was “Refugee” or “A Woman In Love” or “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”—my mind would be just blown thinking, “My God, how lucky am I?”—having my little idea become a classic song.
It seemed like you used to pull Tom in a certain songwriting direction at times.
Yeah, I don’t like to pat myself on the back. But yeah, I guess if he hadn’t heard the music, then that song wouldn’t exist. That’s just the way a songwriting partnership goes.