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Songs for Freedom Fighters? Tom Petty

Jul 25, 2014

USA Today

'Hypnotic Eye' sees Tom Petty rocking and railing

Tom Petty talks to USA TODAY about the creative process of recording his new album 'Hypnotic Eye.'

Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY 5:20 p.m. EDT July 24, 2014

MALIBU, Calif. — Four years after the bluesy Mojo, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are roaring back with swagger and spleen on 13th studio album Hypnotic Eye, pugnacious rock 'n' roll that recalls their '70s vigor while carving a fresh groove.

"I wanted to go somewhere I haven't been," says Petty, 63. "We used a lot of distortion and lots of old amplifiers and guitars and keyboards to find the right sonic textures. I didn't want a lo-fi record, which is too easy for us. I wanted to make a hi-fi record that had an edge and excitement to it. You're not sure what you're hearing but it's different. I had to wash the palette clean and mix up new paints."

The result, out Tuesday, isn't a self-portrait but a "very observational record," he says. Titled after hypnotic eyes (TVs, computers, phones) that monopolize 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."

Nearly 40 years after his first recording, Petty still packs a punch, says Joe Levy, Billboard's editor at large.

"It's a more raw-sounding record than he's ever made," Levy says. Unlike his concisely crafted, radio-friendly early discs, "this is loud and fierce, the way he and The Heartbreakers sound live."

"The questions he's wrestling with aren't about personal betrayal," he adds. "They're about social betrayal, not specific politics but the American ideals of equality and cooperation, the idea that America is a place where people take care of each other and opportunity is not restricted by the wealth and power of a few."

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 jewelry 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.

"You can boil all the world's problems down to one word: greed," Petty says. "It's not greed on the part of poor people. It's these very wealthy people who make a lot of money and then live only to make more. The money starts to make them miserable because they're worried about somebody getting it. Then the money's not enough and they seek power. Very few people on this globe know how to responsibly handle power. It's gone into the hands of really shaky people who don't care who they hurt in their quest to have more money than they'll ever need."

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."

He's also hopeful hypnotic eyes will help promote Hypnotic Eye.

"It's a different world," he says. "I'm struggling like everyone else just to let people know I have a record out. Huge artists put out records and I don't hear about it until months later. That weirds me out."


Tom Petty: 'My boy band was The Beatles'

Tom Petty talks to USA TODAY about the creative process of recording his new album 'Hypnotic Eye.'

Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY 7:11 a.m. EDT July 25, 2014

MALIBU, Calif. — Tune into Tom Petty's Buried Treasure show on Sirius XM and you might hear Kings of Leon or Jack White crop up alongside such old-school rock, country and blues favorites as The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, Del Shannon, Cream, Al Green and Bob Dylan.

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, sipping coffee and taking draws on an electronic cigarette in a room adjoining his home studio, cluttered with vintage gear. "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 Hypnotic Eye, out Tuesday, the band that sidestepped disco, glam metal, grunge, hip-hop and EDM 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 guitarist and founding Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, who-co-produced Eye with Petty and Ryan Ulyate. "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. It's in the air. It's kinetic. And you can harness magic if you're lucky. It's harder because you have to get the whole group to peak and feel the spirit at the same time. We've learned not to play songs to death. Our first instincts are the most inspired."

In some of his most elegant and pointed lyrics to date, Petty sounds off on hot topics. "The mayor is cooking the books" in Burnt Out Town. A badge corrupts in Power Drunk. A young man defiantly clings to hope in American Dream Plan B, though "he realizes he's not going to get the shot his parents got, which is usually considered your American right by birth," Petty says.

Bonus track Playing Dumb blasts the Catholic church's sex abuse history and "every man of God that lives with hidden devils." Red River also questions blind faith through a woman who's "got a rosary and a rabbit's foot … still it don't do the trick."

Petty knows religion "is a touchy subject. People get scared and take politics into their churches and actually think God wants them to go to war. It's a crazy time. I do find it strange that some things aren't called out. Religions caused most every war that's gone down. Child abuse is covered up again and again. If I were in that club, I'd quit.

"I'm a big fan of the things Jesus had to say. I'm not religious at all and I never heard him say I had to be. But I do hear him saying God is within you. (Red River) is not quite that deep. I was having fun with the idea of this girl trying to find whatever it is she's looking for, and she's not sure what that is."

Shadow People touches on the fear and hate that trigger gun violence but avoids a political stance: "Well, I ain't on the left and I ain't on the right/ I ain't even sure I got a dog in this fight."

Petty explains, "I'm not extremely political. I just look at what makes sense to me. I would think we'd be in the streets demanding that our children be safe in schools. I see friendships end over politics. I've never seen such anger. That's not how it's supposed to work. In a two-party system, ideas are argued and you compromise. You're not supposed to stop the process."

Petty plans to work several Eye tunes into the set list for the band's tour, launching Aug. 3 in San Diego. With CD and digital sales in decline and radio no longer a reliable platform for older acts, the album could get a pivotal boost from the stage.

"The Heartbreakers are one of the greatest live bands working right now," says Joe Levy, Billboard's editor at large. "Because Petty's known for his radio hits, I'm not sure everyone understands how dedicated he is to the live performance. At a time when no one can really be judged by their record sales, except for a handful of artists, touring is increasingly the metric a performer's vitality can be measured by."

The new songs sound great live, Petty promises. He's less enthusiastic about their sonic virtues through earbuds.

"I hate MP3s," he says. "You hear exactly 5% of the record I made. And I don't think most people know the difference. They're being shortchanged. The CD is not as good as it can be, but it's 100 times better than an MP3. The good thing is vinyl is coming back."

He's also keen on Neil Young's proposed hi-res download service, Pono.

"Neil took me for a ride in his car and played it for me," Petty says. "It's stunning. It's up to the quality of what we hear in the studio. Once that's available, the battle's over. It's like 240 times the resolution."

Though 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 EDM 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."

He denounces last month's Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, attended by 300,000. Two attendees died from drug-related causes.

"You take that many kids to Vegas in the summer, what could go wrong?" Petty says. "I knew it as soon as I saw the ad. I went, 'Ooh, dead people.' Do you need the money so bad that you'll put some kid's life at risk?"

After 45 years in music, Petty remains devoted and driven to a career that leaves little time for outside interests. He follows the NBA (he became a Lakers fan in the late '90s) 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 (1979)," Petty says. "We had three, four songs on the radio, a cult following and were playing in small theaters 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."