Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs
It’s a classic rock & roll story: the chance encounter that becomes collaboration, then a band; the gathering of players and like-minded spirits that tightens and grows in songwriting, rehearsals and club dates; a debut album that finally arrives after all of the labor and waiting; the follow-up that beats a new set of odds and jumps ahead in vision and drive, proving the first record was no one-shot deal.
For Mike Campbell, External Combustion – the second album by his first band as a leader, the Dirty Knobs – is proof that lightning can strike twice. Campbell experienced all of the above and more with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – riding shotgun with his friend and captain as lead guitarist, co-producer and, at times, co-writer – when he met guitarist Jason Sinay at a session in Los Angeles in 2000. “I didn’t like him at first because he had a green guitar and a mohawk,” Campbell recalls with a laugh. “But when we started playing together, I realized he had good rhythm, good sound. And he worked really well with me.”
It wasn’t quite a mohawk, Sinay claims. “But I had done this thing with my hair, and I think it freaked Mike out.” Sinay had his own case of nerves. “Mike liked how I played, but he is one of my heroes. I couldn’t even breathe.” Even so, “a couple of days later, my phone rang. It was Mike asking me to come to his house and work on music with him.”
That call turned into the Dirty Knobs, named after a faulty amp dial (with bonus double entendre) and originally including bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone of the Heartbreakers. “We would go into the studio for fun and occasionally get a bar gig to try the songs out for people,” Campbell explains. “Then I thought, for my own identity, I should have a different rhythm section. And I lucked out” – in 2004 – “when these two guys walked in who were amazing.” Recommended by Sinay and Campbell’s longtime guitar tech Steve “Chinner” Winstead, drummer Matt Laug and bassist Lance Morrison were friends who often worked together on tours and sessions. “With Jason,” Campbell says, “that became the band.”
Campbell claims he was never offered a solo deal in his four decades with Petty and the Heartbreakers, although he wrote and produced for other artists such as Roy Orbison and Don Henley. “I wouldn’t have known what to do with it,” he adds quickly. “I was Tom’s partner. Lyrics and singing – he could always do it much better. But I was writing and recording more music than Tom could deal with. That’s when I got the Dirty Knobs, which gave me a chance to try singing. So I started woodshedding. And then when my life changed” – with Petty’s death in October, 2017 – “it was, ‘Time to do this now.'”
The Dirty Knobs’ debut album was ready to go in the spring of 2020 along with their first-ever tour. The pandemic blew out the latter. But Wreckless Abandon – released that November and co-produced by Campbell with George Drakoulias – delivered the good times in every other way: the psychedelic spell of the title track; the late-Sixties British-blues fire in “Sugar” and “Loaded Gun”; the brawling country rock of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” with guest Chris Stapleton. Wreckless Abandon was Campbell’s first album as the featured writer and singer. But, he says, “I wanted it to sound like four guys having fun.”
“The first album was about the boogie,” affirms Drakoulias. But External Combustion – which he also co-produced with Campbell – “threw the net wider.” Country firebird Margo Price sings backing vocals in “Cheap Talk,” a bluesy march in smokey orchestration, and duets with Campbell in the country-soul ballad “State of Mind,” decked out with strings and brass in the frontier-symphony image of the Band. That’s the distinctive glam-Dylan bite of Mott The Hoople singer Ian Hunter in the second verse of “Dirty Job,” while Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench brings the Jerry Lee Lewis in “Lightning Boogie.”
And in “It Is Written,” Campbell conjures ghostly wisps of Bob Dylan-like harmonica in a topical urgency that turns into a reflection “about the devotion to one person,” Campbell says – his wife Marcie. “It’s a true story about coming out to California, her taking me in.” But that’s not a harmonica – it’s a piano riff run backwards.
The Dirty Knobs made External Combustion in three weeks over the summer of 2021, “a few days at a time,” Drakoulias says. “Everything was coming off the floor – whatever they were playing, whatever felt good.” That speed and raw commitment comes right out of the starting gate in the garage-rock torpedo “Wicked Mind”; jumps to a Howlin’ Wolf-style shuffle in “Brigitte Bardot”; and is there at the finish in “Electric Gypsy,” a blaze of guitars in waltz time that Campbell began writing in the morning and showed to the band in the afternoon. The Knobs cut the song – named after one of Campbell’s guitars, a gorgeous instrument with a mosaic finish in mother-of-pearl and abalone – the same day in one pass.
“Mike doesn’t like to do a lot of takes,” Morrison observes. There were times on External Combustion “where Mike was showing us the song as we were recording,” Laug says. “That became the take.” Sinay contends that Campbell “loves it when the band doesn’t totally know the songs. Wide-eyed, freaking out, ears open – that’s the magic.”
“The band became this spontaneous type of combustion – to borrow a word,” Campbell says. “The longer we played, the more intuitive it got. If I say, ‘What about this song?,’ maybe they’ve heard it, maybe they haven’t. They just follow me, and they’re tight. I’m lucky to have them.”
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When Drakoulias first met Campbell during the recording of Petty’s 1994 solo album, Wildflowers, “My first impression was awe,” he says. The second was “How am I going to get this guy to talk to me? He was so quiet, not a typical lead-guitar guy.” At the time, Drakoulias was a staff producer at Rick Rubin’s American Recordings; Rubin was co-producing Wildflowers with Petty and Campbell. Drakoulias later worked with Petty and the Heartbreakers on the 1995 box set, Playback, and co-produced the 2002 album, The Last DJ.
“There was so much there,” he says of Campbell. “People didn’t give him the props for the writing in some of those songs. And he’s such a tasteful player. It’s not just ‘Turn me up,’ although he’s perfectly capable of blasting away. It’s more like ‘Let me get inside the song.’ He wants to play off the lyric, the way it’s sung.”
That was always Campbell’s way as lead guitarist and counsel for Petty in the Heartbreakers and, before that, in their first band together, Mudcrutch. “There’s never been a time,” Petty said of Campbell in one of our interviews, “when he wasn’t giving back to me more than I was asking him to give . . . That’s the mark of a really great musician.”
Sinay points out that two tracks on Mojo, the 2010 album by Petty and the Heartbreakers – the Southern-rock juggernaut “First Flash of Freedom” and the grinding closer “Good Enough” – began as Campbell tunes played with the Dirty Knobs. “I always wrote with the hope that Tom would hear something he liked,” Campbell acknowledges. “But I was gonna write what I feel in the moment with no preconceptions.”
External Combustion, in turn, has “a couple of cool songs I completely forgot about,” Campbell says, going as far back as the 1980s. “Cheap Talk” and “State of Mind” both “popped up” on tapes from his vault. For the latter, Campbell not only kept the original backing track but his vocal as well “because it sounded right. It had the honesty of the guy.” “Rat City” is another vintage item “left on a tape somewhere,” Campbell says. Laug remembers it from “way before” Wreckless Abandon “when we were doing fun gigs between Heartbreakers tours.” The drummer laughs. “It’s too many songs to keep up. It’s amazing how many songs Mike writes and forgets.”
“The thing about Mike,” Sinay says, “is that he keeps writing. Sometimes I fall in love with something, and he’s moved on from it. But he’s the one who has to sing it, to sell the song. We’re there to make sure he gets what he’s after.”
Born in Los Angeles, Sinay caught an early break as a guitarist, working for an uncle who was, he says, “one of the top jingle guys” in L.A. studios. By 2000, Sinay was a regular on recording dates for Don Smith, an engineer and producer who worked with Petty and the Rolling Stones. “He invited me to a session one day – and there was Mike Campbell.” Sinay remembers “playing Dylan covers and some Grateful Dead” on his first visit to Campbell’s home studio. “And there were songs Mike was working on that he wanted to hear fleshed out with a band. It wasn’t a solo session, more like a workshop.”
Laug was born in Florida, growing up in Jacksonville – Campbell’s hometown – and South Carolina before moving to L.A. where he got into session work and met Morrison, a Texas native who landed in L.A. after finishing college in Virginia. “We played really well together,” Laug says. “From that, we became best friends,” recommending each other for jobs. They were the rhythm section on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 blockbuster, Jagged Little Pill (an album that, coincidentally, has Benmont Tench on organ). And when Chinner called Laug, asking if he’d like to audition for Campbell, the drummer replied with a question of his own: “Does he need a bass player? I’ve got one.”
“I felt like I was back in high school with my buddies,” Morrison says. “We were in Mike’s pool house, jamming and learning songs. He kept pulling these songs out. I’d think it was some Neil Young thing I hadn’t heard. But it was always an original song he’d written, and they just kept coming.” At the sessions for Wreckless Abandon, “there would be a list of songs we were thinking of cutting. But Mike would come in with two or three ideas he’d written that night, and we’d warm up with those.”
The Dirty Knobs have now been a band for nearly two decades – and played about 20 gigs, by Laug’s count, mostly “in the cracks between Heartbreakers tours.” But Drakoulias says it was at the early club shows that Campbell became “a real bandleader with the patter, telling stories, communicating. That motivated him to work on the singing – to dig down, take it seriously.
“Both he and Tom – being in a band was what they really loved,” the producer adds. Campbell now has “guys he loves playing with. He’s trying to find his own world, one that feels like him. And he’s achieving that.”
“We’ve all been tripping on it, haven’t we?” Campbell says of the last two years. “But I had my home studio, everybody was comfortable and the sounds were ready to go.” External Combustion “was just a matter of ‘One, two, three, four – here’s how it goes. Okay, next song.’
“I never gave up,” he insists. “The band’s too good – I want people to hear it. And now we have two albums to promote” when the Dirty Knobs finally open their first tour in March, 2022.
“Mike told me the other day: ‘No matter what happens, we’re going’ – that’s what I wanted to hear,” Sinay says. “It’s definitely Mike’s turn to go out and do it.”