Devoted and driven: After 45 years in music, Tom Petty says he's in a good place. Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images
You might hear Kings of Leon or Jack White crop up alongside such old-school rock, country and blues favourites as The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash on Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure radio show in the US. You won’t hear One Direction or 5 Seconds of Summer.
‘‘We’ve seen the end of the movie for every one of these acts,’’ says Petty. The musician is in a room adjoining his home studio in the Los Angeles suburb of Malibu. ‘‘Pop music isn’t very good, and it’s not designed for anybody over 12. My boy band was The Beatles.’’
That’s the bar Petty, 63, has set since his 1976 debut with The Heartbreakers. With his new album, Hypnotic Eye, the band that sidestepped disco, glam metal, grunge, hip-hop and electro has now spurned what Petty calls ‘‘plastic computer music’’ to make an aggressive, organic rock album.
‘‘Some people make records one piece at a time,’’ says Heartbreaker guitarist and co-producer Mike Campbell. ‘‘My favorite way is to get everyone playing at the same time. We have a chemistry and interplay and dynamic you don’t get otherwise ... We’ve learned not to play songs to death. Our first instincts are the most inspired.’’
Petty promises the new songs sound great live. He’s less enthusiastic about their sonic virtues through earphones. ‘‘I hate MP3s,’’ he says. ‘‘You hear exactly 5 per cent of the record I made. And I don’t think most people know the difference. They’re being short-changed."
Although rock has lost ground to pop and hip-hop in recent years, Petty hasn’t lost hope. ‘‘Rock is where blues and jazz are sitting,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s been elbowed to the side, but I don’t think it’s done yet. You’ll see young people give it another run for its money. I’m encountering a lot of young people who want to play instruments and play rock, and they have a vast library at their fingertips.’’
While impressed by youth’s eclecticism, he’s mystified by the electro boom and superstar DJs. ‘‘Watch people play records?’’ he says. ‘‘That’s stupid. You couldn’t pay me to go. I’m not oversimplifying it. That’s what’s going on. I don’t think it would be any fun without the drugs. It’s a drug party.’’
After 45 years in music, Petty remains devoted and driven to a career that leaves little time for outside interests. He follows American basketball and writes and records in the beachside home he shares with his wife, Dana York.
‘‘I do feel as I get older that there’s a finite amount of time left,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s made me more interested in making records. They last longer than me, and they don’t go away. I’m in a good space creatively. I am very happy at work most of the time.’’
Was there a time he was happier at work? ‘‘The most fun part was in the ’70s, before Damn the Torpedoes ,’’ Petty says. ‘‘We had three, four songs on the radio, a cult following and were playing in small theatres or big bars. We were in our 20s and having a ball. It didn’t seem like it could get any better than that. When huge success comes, things get much more serious. Suddenly you wear a lot of hats and become a grown-up.’’
Four years after their bluesy album Mojo, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are roaring back with swagger on Hypnotic Eye, their 13th studio album. Its pugnacious rock’n’roll recalls their ’70s vigour while carving a fresh groove.
‘‘I wanted to go somewhere I haven’t been,’’ says Petty. ‘‘We used a lot of distortion and lots of old amplifiers and guitars and keyboards to find the right sonic textures ... I had to wash the palette clean and mix up new paints.’’
The result isn’t a self-portrait but a ‘‘very observational record’’, he says. Titled after hypnotic eyes (TVs, computers, phones) that monopolise daily life, the 11 tracks examine avarice, materialism, religious hypocrisy and the imperiled American dream.
‘‘These were the pressing issues around me,’’ Petty says. ‘‘It’s a moral album about what’s happened to the human that’s lost his humanity.’’
In songs such as American Dream Plan B and Power Drunk, Petty expresses dismay at the erosion of longstanding values. ‘‘Through these hypnotic eyes, we’re told we’re nothing if we don’t have a mansion and dress like a movie star,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve never seen so much jewellery advertised. It’s hard on a young person to not think that’s the game. When I was growing up, people didn’t expect to get a swimming pool.
Hypnotic Eye’s jaundiced eye doesn’t preclude hope for a rosier future, says Petty.
‘‘The challenge is going to be maintaining our humanity alongside technology that is moving really fast,’’ he says. ‘‘If you let some kid invent artificial intelligence that updates itself, then you’re in trouble. You don’t want to invent a bigger brain and put it in a bear.’’