Tom Petty taking it all in stride ahead of 'Hypnotic Eye' release

Tom Petty (DEREK RUTTAN/QMI AGENCY)

Tom Petty (DEREK RUTTAN/QMI AGENCY)

Jane Stevenson, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:49 PM ET

Turns out Tom Petty was right: The Waiting REALLY is the hardest part.

"I'm trying to be patient," says Petty in a Canadian newspaper exclusive with QMI Agency on fans finally getting to hear his latest Heartbreakers album, Hypnotic Eye, on Tuesday -- their first since 2010's Mojo.

"It's nervous making."

Hard to believe a guy who has sold more than 60 million albums over the last 38 years, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and played with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in the late '80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, would still feel that way after all this time.

For me, the nervous-making is sitting by the phone waiting for the elusive 63-year-old Petty to call in our first-ever chat.

Finally, the phone rings after what seems like an eternity -- but in reality is only a few minutes late after the scheduled time -- and a familiar-sounding drawl says: "Jane Stevenson? This is Tom Petty."

"You sound so relaxed," I say.

"I have my moments," he responds drily.

And so it goes for the next half-hour as the funny and laid-back singer-songwriter-guitar slinger holds forth from his longtime home base of Malibu, Calif.

"I've never tweeted and I don't own a cellphone," says Petty, who admits he does own a computer in the age of social media. "My wife has a cellphone. I like the thought of being able to escape. People say, 'I e-mailed you and you didn't e-mail me back.' And I say, 'Well I haven't looked at it in a week.' I like to TALK to people."

No kidding.

It feels like I'm talking to an old friend whose songs I've been listening to since the mid-'70s, beginning with his 1976 debut album Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which first made waves in England before his North American breakthrough.

The beginning is especially significant now given the rock-oriented Hypnotic Eye is regarded as a return to the sound of the band's first two albums, including 1978's You're Gonna Get It!

Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and Ryan Ulyate co-produced Hypnotic Eye.

New tunes range from the political (American Dream Plan B, Power Drunk and Burnt Out Town) to the personal (Fault Lines, Forgotten Man, Full Grown Boy, U Get Me High, Sins of My Youth) to the observational (Shadow People).

"I am excited about it," says Petty who worked on Hypnotic Eye for three years at his home studio in Malibu, and at the Hearbreakers' L.A. rehearsal space, the Clubhouse.

"It took me a long time to make; and the band sounds great."

He's even talking about making another Mudcrutch -- the pre-Heartbreakers band featuring Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench -- album following their 2008 self-titled debut.

"I think that last record we did was great."

Yes, Petty is the Heartbreakers' undisputed frontman and main songwriter (only one Hypnotic Eye song, Fault Lines, was co-written with Campbell) but he likens his role more to that of a gangleader.

"It is like being in a gang," he says. "They've known me from before when I was just Tommy. Not Tom Petty. I NEVER wanted to be up front. I liked being in the background. I had to learn it."

Still, it seems preordained Petty would become a music star given the Gainesville, Fla.-born musician met Elvis Presley when he was just 10 years old.

The year was 1961 and Petty's uncle was working on the set of Presley's 1962 film Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala and invited the young boy down.

"This was WAY before the Vegas years," says Petty. "He made a major impression."

Out when the Wham-O slingshot traded for a collection of Elvis 45s, which he still treasures to this day as host of the popular SiriusXM satellite radio program Tom Petty's Buried Treasure (now in its eighth season).

"I just got all the Elvis 45s," he says proudly. "It took me a long time."

In fact, he has a massive vinyl collection, still loves holding record covers in his hands and looking at them while listening to what he still considers the superior sound in terms of format.

"I'm a collector," says Petty. But says there's "only a couple hundred," vinyl records he really cherishes.

Not surprisingly, it was the Beatles' TV appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago that sealed the music deal for him when he was a kid.

"It was like a bolt of lightning coming out of the sky. I mean, what else can you say?" says Petty. "You won't meet one musician my age who wasn't influenced (by them)."

And while he says it's harder for rock 'n' roll to find a place to be heard in 2014, he's encouraged by new rock acts like Jack White and The Black Keys.

"I recently got to spend time with Jack and he's a bright young man," says Petty. "I like the Black Keys, too. I'm glad they've discovered the blues because, really, it's the foundation."

Not so encouraging is the advent of shows such as American Idol.

"If someone won a game show to become a pop star in my day, we would have laughed," says Petty, who also bemoans the "dumbing down" of culture via reality TV shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

"I live in Malibu so I'm far away from it, but you can't escape it," he says.

He recognizes that everyone's filming everyone now -- thus partly inspiring the new album title Hypnotic Eye -- including the audiences who film him at his concerts, but he's still not thrilled about it.

"If you're filming it, you're not really there," sums up Petty. "I mean, why bother? It's going to be on YouTube anyway."

Petty and the Heartbreakers will be heading out on the road for a two-month North American tour in support of Hypnotic Eye that brings them to arenas in six Canadian cities in mid-to-late August with Steve Winwood opening.

Every ticket purchased will include a copy of Hypnotic Eye.

"We're coming!" he says excitedly of crossing the border. "Canadians are great music fans. We always enjoy coming there."

But the major difference he notices between Canadians and Americans might surprise you.

"Canadians are less fat," says Petty bluntly. "Americans are becoming side-show fat. Maybe Canadians have better information. Maybe your government is better. Maybe there isn't as much fast food greed in Canada. That word, 'greed,' sums up all that is wrong with America."

On American Dream Plan B, Petty sings of the shrinking middle class: "Well my mama's so sad, daddy's just mad, 'Cause I ain't gonna have the chance he had."

"Plan A isn't working," says Petty of writing the song. "I don't mean to sound intellectual about it. I'm not an intellectual. I count on my friends to be smart."

Hitting the road after 2013 theatre residencies in L.A. and New York City means eating right and training a bit like an athlete, says Petty. "Well, I'm 63 now. I could complain about it, but in truth once I'm doing it, it feels like home. I've been doing it so long. The two hours on stage are great, it's the other 22 hours that can be problematic."

In his downtime, he says he often visits record stores on the road.

So to answer the musical question recently put forth by Petty-obsessed Toronto singer-songwriter Emma-Lee in her 2014 ode to him, What Would Tom Petty Do?, he jokes: "I often wonder that myself."

"Someone showed (the video) to me on a cellphone. I thought it was very sweet."

At this point, over a half-hour has passed and I tell Petty I was only given 30 minutes so I had better let him go.

"I guess," he responds slowly and almost reluctantly.

"I've got some low dusting to do," he jokes, before adding: "I'm kidding."

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FIVE ESSENTIAL TOM PETTY SONGS

One of my favourite Tom Petty songs is Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, a duet with Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks, the first single from her 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna.

It was written by Petty and Mike Campbell as a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, but producer Jimmy Iovine, who was also working for Stevie Nicks at the time, arranged for her to sing on it. (The original version without Nicks appears on the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1995 box set Playback.)

Petty says it was hard to sum up their friendship.

"Have you got a couple of hours? She's a good friend. I've know her since 1978 and she's insisted on being in my life (laughs). Some of my best musical memories of her are sitting on the couch and just playing the guitar while she sings."

Sadly, there's no new Nicks duets on Petty and the Heartbreakers new album, Hypnotic Eye: "There are no girls in the Heartbeakers," he says.

Here are four more Petty greats:

Breakdown

The first single from Petty and the Heartbreakers' first album in 1976 was a moody, sexy song with a killer guitar intro that they liked in England, but didn't catch on initially on this side of the pond until it was re-released in 1978.

Don't Do Me Like That

1979's Damn The Torpedoes' first single was actually written in the early '70s in the pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch. Petty almost gave it to the J. Geils Band, but was dissuaded by Iovine not to do it.

I Won't Back Down

A defiant song, released as the first single from Petty's first solo album, 1989's Full Moon Fever, it was made in the middle of his Traveling Wilburys phase with a video that featured two Beatles -- George Harrison on guitar and Ringo Starr on drums. (Phil Jones handles the drumming on the actual recording.)

Free Fallin' -- Petty's longest charting single (also from Full Moon Fever) is about leaving a childhood sweetheart in Florida in search of stardom in California. You can hear the pain in his voice on the chorus.

American Girl

The second single from Petty and the Heartbreakers' debut album has a slow-building intro, twin jangly guitars -- a homage to the Byrds' Roger McGuinn's 12-string -- and urgency that makes it a live favourite.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 2014 Canadian dates:

AUG 14 Vancouver, Pepsi Live At Rogers Centre

AUG 17 Edmonton, Rexall Place

AUG 19 Calgary, Scotiabank Saddledome

AUG 21 Winnipeg, MTS Centre

AUG 26 Toronto, Air Canada Centre

AUG 28 Montreal, Bell Centre

 


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