Mike Campbell On New Dirty Knobs Album ‘External Combustion’ And Return To The Road – Forbes

Mike Campbell performs on stage with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers at Summerfest. July 5, 2008 at … [+] Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, WI
At the beginning of 2020, Mike Campbell was prepping the release of the debut album from his longtime side project The Dirty Knobs, a band in which he’d moonlight between tours as guitarist for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.
Following Petty’s death in 2017 and outings as a member of Fleetwood Mac in 2018 and 2019, it was time for The Dirty Knobs to take center stage in 2020. A tour scheduled for March was to coincide with the release of Wreckless Abandon but pandemic and more put all of that on hold.
Wreckless Abandon eventually saw release in November 2020 but the tour dates kept getting pushed and are now scheduled to kick off two years later on March 9, 2022 at The Orpheum in Tampa, Florida, a run of small venues that continues into May ahead of a summer spent in stadiums as the opening act for Chris Stapleton, a tour which wraps up July 23 at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
A two year break from the road was virtually unheard of for Campbell, an artist for whom the bulk of adult life was spent on tour. But it was a break which allowed him to focus on The Dirty Knobs, churning out a batch of 11 songs which make up the group’s second album External Combustion, available for pre-order on CD or vinyl ahead of its release this Friday, March 4 via BMG.
Guests like vocalist Margo Price, Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench embellish an infectious new album called to order by the rollicking rock and roll mission statement that is “Wicked Mind.”
Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs gear up for the release of their second studio album ‘External … [+] Combustion’ via BMG on Friday, March 4, 2022
“It’s a real band, you know? It’s not just some guys I threw together. We’ve been together for nearly 20 years off and on – so we’re a proper band. We’ve got telepathy and we have a chemistry,” said Campbell of The Dirty Knobs. “I like to make records with them with the approach that there’s going to be hardly any overdubs. I want it to sound like we sound when we play. And that was the first record as well as this record. Reckless abandon – that’s kind of how we play as well. And it creates external combustion. We’re going to call our tour ‘Wreckless Combustion.’ (Laughing) The band is spontaneous and exciting. It’s not under rehearsed but it’s definitely in the moment. And I like that.”
I spoke with Mike Campbell about the evolution of The Dirty Knobs as the group moved from side project to priority, capturing spontaneity and the importance of music as connection and escape as The Dirty Knobs finally hit the road for their first headlining tour. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
When it became obvious that pandemic was going to require a much lengthier break from the road than anyone expected, how important did it become to use that time to make more new Dirty Knobs music? 
MIKE CAMPBELL: It was something to do wasn’t it? We had a tour booked – and then all of that time opened up.
Basically, when I’m home and I have time, I do the same thing anyway: I record and write. So I just kept up with that at sort of a comfortable pace. And there was no pressure – because we knew we had a year or more. Then, as the second year kicked in and we got serious about the songs – we had a group of songs we liked – we went in and did the record in about two or three weeks.
Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs gear up for the release of their second studio album ‘External … [+] Combustion’ via BMG on Friday, March 4, 2022
I read that you recorded “Electric Gypsy” in the first take. And it sounds like the whole record came together quick once you guys entered the studio. How important is it to capture that spontaneity? 
MC: That’s the kind of band it is. All of the takes are first, second or third take.
“Electric Gypsy” was really raw. I was literally sketching out the lyrics as they walked in the door. I jumped up and had a sheet of paper and I showed them the chords, which are simple. We counted it off, I got the lyrics off the sheet into the song and played a solo at the end – done! So it was basically recorded before I even knew what the hell it was. But I really like that about it. 
I was watching that video this morning. Whose signature is on the guitar that you’re playing in the video?
MC: I’ve been told it’s Johnny Winter – it’s hard to read it. But I got that guitar in a pawn shop in Philadelphia for 500 bucks. There’s a scribble on the front and there’s a scribble on the back that says “Jersey Dave” or something. But, on the front, they claim it’s Johnny Winter. And I’ve looked at other Johnny Winter signatures so I think it’s him.
I like Johnny Winter – but that’s not why I got the guitar. I just loved the way it played and sounded. 
I’ve heard that most of the songs were written in the past year except two which you found in your vault from the 90s. Which two were those? 
MC: The title track “External Combustion” was an old analog tape. My tech was going through stuff and cataloging it and he played it for me. I had completely forgotten about it. But I liked the riff so I finished it and we recorded it.
There was another song called “State Of Mind,” which was kind of an R&Bish ballad kind of thing. And it was a great demo. I even used a vocal from an old analog tape – it was probably 15 years old. We just copied it over and built up from that – because it just had a vibe about it.  
Margo Price is on “State of Mind.” That’s one of the more earnest, heart on sleeve Dirty Knobs efforts. What’s it like singing with her? 
MC: Yeah, she’s great. She’s wonderful. I fell in love with her. She’s just a great singer. And she was so easy to work with. Her and her husband Jeremy, we did a little bit of writing and became friends.
There’s another song called “Cheap Talk” – which is also an old song that I pulled out and we re-cut. And she sang some backgrounds and Aretha Franklin-type vocals on it. And she was just a joy – very generous with her art.
Mike Campbell performs on stage with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers at Summerfest. July 5, 2008 at … [+] Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, WI
One of my favorite tracks on External Combustion is “Dirty Job.” And of course Ian Hunter is on that. Is that you guys switching off on the lead vocal there, is that what I’m hearing? 
MC: I had the song already. And I sang the song. He had sent me some tapes that he wanted some guitar on. I’ve never met him. But I did that for him and mailed them back to him. And then I asked him, “Would you mind singing on a song with us?” And he was happy to sing a verse – the second verse is Ian Hunter. And some of the harmonies. He put a piano on there. 
It’s just a thrill for me. Because I’m a big Mott the Hoople fan. I just think he’s one of the best writers around. So it was just a gift really from heaven that one. 
“Wicked Mind” is such a great way to open the album. It’s almost like a rock mission statement. How important was it to kick off the album like that? 
MC: Well, we worked on the sequencing. I tried a lot of different versions of how to sequence the songs. And every time that one came on, it was just like, “Well, this has got to be the first song.” It really establishes how we sound and our energy and our attitude – it’s upbeat. And it just rocks like hell, you know? So it starts the record off in a good way. 
“Lightning Boogie” just reminds me of that Florida sound, that swampy stew, when I hear it. To me, you can just hear Florida. What’s it like teaming up with Benmont Tench on a song like that that does sort of draw on your shared history the way that it does?
MC: It’s always sweet playing with Ben. We haven’t seen each other that much lately. But I had the song all finished and we were almost ready to turn the record in. And then Ben came into town. I just thought that would be the perfect avenue for his playing. He came in and it’s one of the few overdubs that we did on the record. He overdubbed to the track, played it one or two takes and that was it. 
It was like old times playing together with him again. We make a sound together, you know? 
Mike Campbell performs live on stage with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. July 17, 2010 at United … [+] Center in Chicago, IL
Well The Dirty Knobs did an empty venue show in November 2020 at The Troubador with no audience. As best I can tell, your last live show with an actual audience was in November 2019 with Fleetwood Mac. How excited are you after all of these delays to finally launch a Dirty Knobs headlining tour
MC: Well… I’m pretty damn excited! I’ve been cooped up in a closet for two years. But I’m mostly just excited because I love this band I think these songs will go over really well live. We’re getting some good feedback from the internet about people looking forward to hearing us. And I think they’ll be surprised. It’s really tight. And we have a lot of fun. This band, The Dirty Knobs, we don’t have hits – so we just have fun! And it translates. 
So, yeah, I’m very excited – a little apprehensive because it’s been so long. But, like they say, it’s like riding a bicycle. 
This setlist that we’re doing now – now we have two records to pick from. So that fills out the set. There’s not a lot of room for covers. Because we’re featuring most of the songs from the two albums. Although, I feel an obligation and a spiritual feeling to have a couple of Heartbreakers songs in our back pocket for encores or here and there or whatever. So we’ve got about four or five of those that we know pretty well that we can put across that will probably pop up throughout the tour. 
Mike Campbell performs live on stage with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. July 17, 2010 at United … [+] Center in Chicago, IL
That idea of fun comes across on External Combustion just like it did on Wreckless Abandon. Is it as fun as it sounds? 
MC: It’s all about fun at this point in my life. It’s always been about fun, really. We’re not in this for the money at this stage. We want to enjoy ourselves and share. 
I look at it like this… I want to take this band out there to a room full of people – whether it’s 400 people or 40,000 people – and take their minds off the world for a little while. Forget all of the crap that’s going on and just come into our little world for a moment and have some bliss and have some joy and have some fun with us. And then we’ll send them back out into the cruel world. (Laughs)
But it’s almost like church – we’re going to show up and preach the gospel of rock and roll. And it’s a great place to come and get away and get in touch with what’s really important in life – which is love and music and fun, you know?
You mentioned that idea of music as escape. Over the summer and fall, I saw a lot of live music outdoors. But last week I finally stepped back into a small, indoor club for the first time in about two years. And what really struck me was that idea of the way music can act as connection. How important of a role is that especially in the live setting?
MC: You’re absolutely right. There’s nothing like a live gig. Whatever happens in the industry with streaming or this and that, they can’t take away that experience of the band in a room.
When you’re in a smaller venue, there is a real connection. You’re right in it with the crowd. You can see their eyes. They can hear the same mix you’re hearing. And everybody’s on the same ride. Things happen. Magical things happen in that setting that don’t necessarily happen in a big arena where you’re playing hits. And I love that.
That’s why I’ve always loved The Knobs – because I could go and do that on breaks from the other job and get in touch with people and really see which music connects and how to connect with the room. I think I’ve learned how to do that relatively well. Having always been a sideman, I now can get in front of the band, connect with the audience and bring them along with us. 
And there’s things that happen! Those spontaneous things in the music when the crowd is right there and you feed off each other. It is kind of like church in a way. But I think the world really needs that. 
Mike Campbell (left) performs live on stage with Tom Petty (right) at Summerfest. June 28, 2013 at … [+] Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, WI
Well, the bulk of your adult life has been one spent on the road. The album title is a reference to an engine. “Electric Gypsy” gets into that idea of travel, hitting the road. What does the road mean to you after all these years and did it take on new meaning once you were forced off of it?
MC: Well, you’re right. The road has been a large part of my life. I’ve been out playing around the world here and there with different bands, mostly The Heartbreakers. And it’s always been a part of my routine: write, record and then go out and play in front of people.
When we were hit with the pandemic break, I was kind of surprised. I miss it – but I was OK because it gave me time to write and record and kind of spend some time at home with my family, which sometimes I’ve missed out on over the years.
But, in the back of my mind, there’s always that longing – like the sailor and the sea. You want to get back out there and do what you were born to do.

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