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Mudcrutch’s Second Encore

by Larson Sutton on May 27, 2016
At the tender age of 14, Tom Petty attended a show by the Daytona, Fla.-based rock band The Escorts—his first concert—at the American Legion Hall in Gainesville. Four years later, that band’s teenage stars, Duane and Gregg Allman, formed the Allman Brothers. “That’s the first band you ever saw?” Marsh asks, turning to his bandmate. “Holy shit.” Unbeknownst to him at the time, Petty witnessed the nascent work of two siblings who would revolutionize improvisational rock, before The Escorts were relegated to the status of a fond footnote. Certainly Petty’s own colossal success with The Heartbreakers had the capability to rejuvenate Mudcrutch.

“I was completely surprised that we did it at all,” says Leadon of the reunion. “How many superstar, Hall of Fame guys at that level are going to go back to the band they had before they ever made it?”

“The Heartbreakers had done everything there was to do. Twice. I love that band, and I’ll always be in it,” explains Petty. “I just wanted to see Mudcrutch get its shot.”

Mike Campbell sits on the same couch as Petty. He’s been relatively silent, deferring respectfully to his bandmates. When questions of comparisons to The Heartbreakers come up, he vigorously jumps into the conversation.

“We’re not thinking, ‘I hope this is as good as The Heartbreakers .’ We’re just trying to be as great as we can be in that moment,” he says. “You’re going for greatness. You’re going for magic.”

The others are quick to agree and, for the first and only time during the afternoon’s discussion, they begin to talk over each other. Petty says that Mudcrutch allows him to get away from expectations. Tench points out that The Heartbreakers have never been that calculating. Leadon compliments them all as great musicians.

“We get to play with our old friends and explore where that leads us,” says Campbell. “It’s no deeper than that.”

Still, there is the undeniable fact that Petty’s voice is among the most distinctive in all of popular music. Campbell’s guitar and Tench’s keyboards have helped cultivate The Heartbreakers’ sound, a staple of American rock radio for the past 40 years with tens of millions of albums sold. Even without making a conscious effort to do so, their trademark, collective style is bound to surface.

Tench counters that argument, pointing out the unique swing of the Mudcrutch rhythm section. By virtue of Marsh’s drumming and Petty’s bass style, the “air in this band,” as he refers to it, is inherently different. Campbell mentions his formative years as a teen strumming acoustics with Leadon for hours on end, as the two guitarists developed their own distinguished styles.

“In the moment, we’re not worried about any parameters. Ben goes for the organ thing he normally may go for in The Heartbreakers, and I might go with the tonality that goes with that,” Campbell concedes. “Listening back, we say: ‘That’s great, but it sounds a little too much like The Heartbreakers. Let’s rethink that.’”

Tench may refer to himself as Mudcrutch’s crank, but the band members unanimously agree that Ryan Ulyate was is an integral arbiter during their recording sessions. The longtime engineer and producer worked on the first album and has collaborated with The Heartbreakers, most recently on 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. “He’s like a sixth Beatle,” says Marsh.

Often, a look on Ulyate’s face as he emerged from the control booth was enough of an indicator that something wasn’t clicking. “We’ve learned to trust him,” says Campbell.

“He doesn’t let us float,” says Petty. “Neither do I. I set the bar pretty high because I knew they could do it.”

Campbell, who usually serves as a co-producer on Heartbreakers records, focused on a cooperative, unified mission to achieve the best possible outcome, while having fun doing it. “We had a mindset that we could fix it, get it right— and we did,” he says. “Nobody got their nose broken.”

“I was really proud that we all hung together,” says Leadon. “Everyone was patient. We worked through the rough spots and got to the good stuff.”

Mudcrutch only supported their first record with a handful of California shows. This time, the quintet will hit the road in earnest, undertaking a full-scale, coast-to-coast tour. Petty says the band captured first takes in the studio when they could, making this batch of material particularly suited for the live setting. “A show will have its own life,” he says. “There’s room to move.”

“You can’t just noodle,” cautions Campbell. “You’ve got to be thinking. You’ve got to compose the arc. And be brave.”

One thing is for certain, though. Those hoping to hear The Heartbreakers should leave that wish at home.

“We’re not going to throw in ‘Refugee’ to save the festival,” says Campbell.

In 2008, Mudcrutch had rehearsed a contingency plan in preparation for their reunion shows, in the event of an overwhelming demand from an audience for a Heartbreakers classic. “But, there was never a hint of that,” Marsh says.

“It’s nice—instead of saying, ‘You should’ve seen the band we had back in Florida’—to say, ‘Come see the band we had back in Florida,’” says Tench.

For Petty, this current reunion comes after two records and subsequent tours with The Heartbreakers. He says that wherever he went, more often than not, people asked about when Mudcrutch was coming back. And as for whether or not this fits into his present artistic period?

“Absolutely. That’s where I’m at right now,” says Petty. “I think it’s of a piece with Hypnotic Eye. It’s a natural place to go from there. It’s just so lucky to get a song. Fortunately, they found a life with this band.”

Leadon divulges that there were some personal health issues stunting an earlier reunion. Petty dismisses the topic, saying that if they start discussing the ailments of men in their mid-60s, then they’ll never stop. It does offer a moment of perspective.

“It makes me value being able to do this even more,” says Leadon. “To treasure it while we do it.” 

The reunion isn’t exclusive to the studio and stage, Leadon explains. He and Marsh lived with Petty while the band made the record. “It’s part of the experience, and it’s just a blast, hanging out.”

After they wrap up their interviews, the members of Mudcrutch file out one after another into the hallway. A Warner Bros. rep has given each member a copy of the new 7” single pressed especially for Record Store Day. On the cover is a tow ball and hitch, a metaphor for the A-side, “Trailer,” that also opens the album. The B-side is Marsh’s “Beautiful World.” Petty and Marsh stop for a moment and slide the spotless, glossy black 45 out of its sleeve. Marsh notes the thickness of the sleeve paper, remembering, in contrast, how thin it was when he was a kid. For a second, it’s easy to forget that these old friends from Gainesville holding a teenage dream in their hands are rock stars.

“When you go that long— Tom and I from our teens—you really value those long friendships we’ve had. So many of us just aren’t here anymore,” Petty says. “They’re all incredibly good musicians, and we can play together and be fulfilled by that. That’s a nice thing.”
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