Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (Interview)

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This past weekend, Benmont Tench, organ/piano/keyboard player for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, was venturing out on his own to play some shows at one of his favorite haunts, Largo, in Los Angeles. Since his debut solo album was unleashed to the public on February 18, Tench wanted to stretch out the songs’ sea legs and see how they would do in front of an audience with some of the musicians from the album playing alongside of him. When I mentioned that I hoped someone would film and post it for everyone to see, he replied with a laugh, “I hope they do but I hope they only put it on the page if it’s any good.”

You Should Be So Lucky finally pushes Tench to the forefront of a musical project after years of hanging out behind his keys. As a founding member of the Heartbreakers, after playing with Petty and guitar player Mike Campbell in the Gainesville, Florida-based band Mudcrutch, he has chrysalised himself into one of the most sought-after ivory-ticklers in music today. Playing on records with Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt and many, many others, Tench is now the main man, with friends such as Petty, Ringo Starr, Don Was and Ethan Johns playing sidemen to him. And it was a very unusual place to be, as Tench told me in our interview.

With a batch of good, strong songs and limited time in the studio, Tench took up a long-standing offer from legendary producer Glyn Johns to help him put everything together into an official album. And what came out is not exactly what you would think coming from a background of southern boogie blues with Petty and the driving sounds Johns has whipped up in classic recordings by Eric Clapton, the Faces, The Who, The Stones and Humble Pie. Instead, the Tulane educated Tench takes us on a walk through his Jazzy cross of Elvis Costello meets Lou Reed with a pinch of Ramones sass every now and then. The title track is a pissy little number written in a burst of can’t sleep frustration, “Blonde Girl, Blue Dress” is as cool as a breaking dawn, “Ecor Rouge” is a silky piano piece with subtle overtones of noir, “Dogwood” conjures up a tropic Havana while “Wobbles” honors the Allen Toussaint spirit of New Orleans.

“So far it seems to be getting quite good word of mouth,” Tench says humbly in his soft-spoken articulation. “I’m very pleased.”

Do you think you’ve surprised everybody with your selection of songs?

I appear to have. You know, the Heartbreakers never do the songs that I write because they aren’t really up the Heartbreakers’ street. And Tom’s got the songwriting covered (laughs). I’ve had a few people sing my songs – Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter and a few others – so I’m not surprised people don’t know that I write. I’ve always written cause I enjoy it.

So how does it feel to have the album out?

It feels great, because it was so much fun to make and the making of it was the point. We didn’t have a plan on how to release it when we made it. We just thought that the songs should be recorded and we all had eleven days that we were free and we could get a studio. So we just took the eleven days and some recording tape, threw all the computer recording gear out of the place, and went in and had some fun. So having it released is the icing on the cake.

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You brought in Glyn Johns to produce it and he’s known for big sounds. Why did you pick him?

Well, he picked me. We’ve been friends for a very long time and every now and then he would say, “Let’s do a record together sometime.” And for the longest time, I thought he was just talking. But when I came to realize that I really did want a record of these songs, some permanent medium where these songs could be and people would be able to hear them, where I could let them have life in the world, I called him up and said, “Were you serious?” And he said, “Absolutely, I was serious.”  And he being such an exceptional record producer and recording engineer and being my friend and having the same sensibility I have, preferring to work on tape, it all synched up. So we gathered a group of my friends together and went in and had fun. We just basically went in and had a hell of a good time.

And that’s the way you always want it to be

That is the way I always want it to be. No matter what the method you use of recording a song, you always want to have fun. But for me, the most fun is to gather a group of people in the room and count four and all play the song at once. I had everybody together, recording like records used to be made and this was the way that I prefer. It becomes a conversation between the musicians and the song. You’re hearing each other react to each other and then you react to that again. And it’s something you can’t really get when you build a song piece by piece. There are different virtues to building a song piece by piece.

Were the songs predominately completed beforehand or did you come in with bits and pieces and finished them together in the studio?

As we only had a limited period of time, about a week and a half start to finish, including mixing the record, I had to have the songs together. So a few months before we made the record, I started sending little tapes and little song memos of the songs to Glyn for his feedback. And for the ones we got a strong response, we focused on. I also kept writing songs. The most recent song on the record was probably written three or four weeks before the record was recorded.

Which song was that?

There were two: “You Should Be So Lucky,” the title track, was very fresh; and the song “Hannah,” had an entirely different mood and a very different intent and harmonic structure to it and it changed a couple of weeks before we recorded it. It’s interesting, the music didn’t suit the lyric and I loved the lyric. Just two or three weeks before we made the record, I woke from a sound sleep with the music and I’m very pleased with that one in particular.

Your song “Wobbles” has a strong New Orleans influence. What impressed you so much about this city that you wrote this song?

I went to school at Tulane for two years and New Orleans, if you’re there for two days, it’ll get into you. But if you’re there for a couple of years, it REALLY gets into you. And I was exposed to that lovely New Orleans feel and rhythm and sensibility. And I fell hard for it. I don’t kid myself that I can really play it with the depth and beauty. That takes somebody like Allen Toussaint. It takes a New Orleanian to really play that with that depth. But I always loved it so much. I wrote the piece partly as an exercise to something that would be fun to play, that felt like New Orleans, and I could try to learn to play that feel. I love that city so much.

Last time I saw Allen play was in New York at Lincoln Center, outdoors, solo piano and talking and it was just wonderful, just him by himself. So marvelous. He’s remarkable, a national treasure, and he is so gifted as a performer, not just as a pianist, but as a singer and a writer, and the way he accompanies himself when he sings, is just a wonder and an inspiration. One thing is if you see him play and pay attention to what he is doing, then you’ll keep learning. I’m a slow learner and I’m trying to find new ways to play and not copy the notes that he plays but there’s a feeling that he puts in the music and there’s a touch that he has on the piano that is really worth trying to grasp a little bit of a hold on that I’m trying to get in my playing in general.

You’re a wonderful player. Don’t sell yourself short.

Thank you. I’m not selling myself short, I’m just selling myself realistically (laughs)

Tell us about the title track. It’s really sassy.

It’s very sassy. It’s actually kind of evil, cause if you look at it in a certain way, it’s flat-out one of those guys from one of those songs like “44 Blues” or “Down By The River” or “Banks Of The Ohio.” He does not have good intent but it showed up one night. I had been in a bad mood that day and a dear friend of mine said, “You should channel that into a song,” and I didn’t think any more of it. But about two in the morning, the lyrics just showed up like crazy and I covered pages with lyrics. Then the music just went, well, how about you do it this way; but it was not as driving. It was the same music but it was much more menacing. But I wanted to do it driving. I thought it would suit it. Sometimes when I play it live, I play it in a menacing fashion, just a little solo electric guitar, and it reflects an entirely different understanding of the lyric.

The other thing I like about that song is after I finished it and after we’d recorded it, it struck me that if a woman sang it, it would mean something different. If a man sings it, he is the stalker. If a woman sings it, she’s turning the tables on a stalker. And I’m going to do it this weekend at Largo and one of the nights I think that the harmony part, which is almost throughout the song, and on the record is Ryan Adams, I think I’m going to have my friend Z Berg sing harmony and it will be interesting to hear her sing those words. She’s really gifted.

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You’ve been with the Heartbreakers for so long and you’ve worked with so many other people on their records. How did it feel to put all the focus on yourself?

At first it was a little bit, it was just odd. It was very odd and it was like, am I really going to do this? But since Glyn is such an old friend of mine and I had him in my corner, I had thorough confidence that it would be worth doing, that it would work at least on his end. And he made me very comfortable so I could relax. And the players on the record are all friends of mine. So it was really hanging out with a bunch of friends and playing songs, which we do all the time. We hang out and play each other old songs that are from the twenties, or we’ll show each other new songs that we just wrote; and hang out and play. So it was just an extension of that. It was quite comfortable and really fun.

Why did you pick the two Dylan songs instead of putting two more of your originals on?

Glyn suggested that I write a couple of instrumentals and he suggested that we do a couple of covers, maybe for variety, I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to pick Dylan songs. I love Bob Dylan. He’s incredibly special. We’re incredibly blessed to live in a world that has Bob Dylan living and breathing in it, and writing new material, new songs. But I knew that we needed something fast and I loved “Duquesne Whistle” from the second I heard it. And “Corrina, Corrina” was simply, I love his arrangement. It’s a great song, it’s been done a million ways, but I thought, “Corrina, Corrina” I’ve played in my living room with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch before, just sitting around, having a laugh. And I thought that it was really beautiful so I asked Dave and Gillian if they’d come down and record it with me. Just for the joy of playing the song with them. I think that’s probably why I picked it; the joy of playing with David and Gillian.

One thing, in my opinion, that makes this album sound so wonderful is that it just makes you feel good when you listen to it. It has that essence to it.

Then the good feeling that we had making it is coming through. Part of it is the medium. I think that it’s a very human record. You can edit and punch in with tape. We didn’t have time to really punch in. There are two lead vocals that are overdubbed on the record and the entire rest is live lead vocals. And almost all of the playing is live at once with a couple of overdubs. So you’re actually having a more human experience. Of course it’s recorded onto tape so it goes through electronics and there are machines involved and you’re listening to it on a CD. In April, we’ll have the vinyl. But still, it’s a document of a human experience where a bunch of people are enjoying each other’s company. So if it’s an enjoyable record, that’s got to be a large part of it. And Glyn does a terrific job capturing what all the players did and enhancing it just by his guidance and his presence and his ability as a recording engineer, let alone as a producer.

benmont tench pub pic 2014Are you going to get to play these songs live?

You know, until this, I never did a gig of my own in my life. I’ve played a couple of songs now and then at Largo and I’ve played a couple of songs I’ve written with Mudcrutch, the other band we have outside the Heartbreakers. But last week I played seven songs at the Grammy Museum solo on piano and guitar. And Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with basically the core band of the record, I’m going to play three shows at Largo. I’m very happy and very excited about it, and very curious cause I’ve never fronted a band before. Even though I won’t be standing out front with a vocal mic, I’ll be standing at a piano, or sitting at a piano. It’s a different thing. My main concern is to communicate the songs, of course. I want the songs to come across. And the players are marvelous.

Who did you have playing on the album with you?

Well, the record is Blake Mills, Ethan Johns, Jeremy Stacy and Don Was for the main band; with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on a few songs playing guitar and singing harmony, and Joel Jerome, who is a wonderful local talent, singing harmony; and Ryan Adams playing acoustic on one song and doing a wonderful harmony vocal; we’ve got Tom and we’ve got Ringo [on “Blonde Girl, Blue Dress”] because I thought it was a good song for them and I thought they’d enjoy it, and they did seem to enjoy it. So it was just a bunch of my favorite folks and I had an excuse to say, “Let’s hang out.”

You play a number of other instruments besides piano. What instrument challenged you the most to learn?

It’s all a challenge to learn. I tried to learn drums when I was a teenager and I could keep a backbeat sort of, but I couldn’t get around it. And I played guitar, and I played guitar a little bit on the record on a couple of tracks, but I’m clumsy at it. And just because I wondered how it worked, because since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by banjos, since I was ten or eleven and sitting on the floor at parties watching people play them. I had a friend of mine, Willie Watson, try to teach me clawhammer last year and that was the most backwards thing in the world. And it was wonderful and he was teaching me and another friend of mine at the same time, and she got it down in a second. It’s not going to happen for me (laughs). But it was really fun. Piano is difficult enough. I think I need to stick to the piano (laughs).

Being in a band and also being a sideman for other musicians, why didn’t you ever choose doing one over the other?

Here’s the thing about that. It’s been a misunderstanding. I did choose, I chose the band. But I love to play music and didn’t do a lot of sessions the first three or four years of the band, if any; partly because we thought we sound like us and nobody else needs to sound like us, so let’s keep it to ourselves. But also, we didn’t really have time. Then starting around 1980, there was more time and I would have time on my hands and I liked to play. By great fortune, Jimmy Iovine had produced a couple of records of ours and he was going into the studio to record one song with Bob Dylan and asked me to come. I met some of the other players and they passed my name around. And he also asked me to work with Stevie Nicks and I met a whole other crew of players and producers. And they started suggesting me. So since I had time and I knew I can learn by doing this and bring it back to the Heartbreakers, whatever I’ve learned, I started playing more sessions. So I never chose sessions over the band. I always chose the band. I’ve always turned down everything for the band. The band comes first. But if I have time on my hands and some friends are making a record or somebody I admire is making a record and they would like me to play, and I have the time, then why not. Plus, it’s a great deal of fun.

You need other people and have different experiences. It can be scary and intimidating. The first time I played with Bob, it was definitely scary and intimidating cause I didn’t know anybody at the Dylan recording session. Never met a single one of the players, never met Bob, and Jimmy came along to record it and for some reason he left in the middle of the session. And I’m all by myself with a bunch of people I don’t know. But it worked out. And you got to do scary things. Another reason to make this record. You got to do something scary every few years at least.

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You said this took a very short time to do this record. What was it like the first time you ever went into a studio to record an album?

It was crushing, because you heard yourself back the way that you played. In a really good recording studio, you heard yourself really, really clearly. Now, we’d gotten a record deal off a demo we recorded live in my parents’ living room. No overdubs, just two-track tape. And that sounded great. We knew we could play but we found a level of self-consciousness when we hit the studio at first with Mudcrutch. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I did hit a level of self-consciousness. We had to learn to meld the two mindsets. To relax and focus the attitude of playing just around the house or a gig into a studio when they pressed record. And when that red record light came on it’s intimidating.

So you have to ignore it

Yeah, you have to ignore it. You have to ignore it or treat it like another person in the room that is just listening to the song. Play for it but not be afraid of it’s judgement, cause it will judge you. The tape will judge you and the ProTools will judge you.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

I’m trying to think who I really met that was a rock star early on. Stevie Nicks was a rock star. Bob Dylan was a rock star. But I certainly didn’t look at them like that. I looked at them as just great artists. I don’t care about the star thing. I care about what intimidates me is the quality and the personality. That’s what takes me and overwhelms me and draws me to people. I mean, the first rock star I met was Tom Petty cause he had that vibe when he was fifteen or seventeen or nineteen. He did. He had that vibe, totally had the vibe. And it wasn’t some pose and it wasn’t some way that he dressed. He was just a guy that it didn’t matter what he did. He might have been somebody who sold insurance or somebody that owned a chain of restaurants. He was a guy that when he walked in a room, people would just turn and notice him. Positively or negatively, they would notice that guy. So that’s the first rock star I met when I was a kid.

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What was it like growing up in Gainesville?

It’s a marvelous town. It was truly marvelous when we were growing up cause now the heart of the town is lovely and unchanged. And there’s a ring of suburban malls and chain stores and everything but they’re basically outside the center of town, spreading out in a circle. And even among those neighborhoods, there is just beauty. If you like that flat Florida, tall thin Pine thing, Gainesville is marvelous. And the feeling there and the artistic community to this day, I haven’t been for maybe two years, you walk down the street in Gainesville at midnight and you will just pass club after club after room after record store that is open late, all with people playing in them all different kinds of music: R&B, funk, rock & roll, folk, country. There is music going on in Gainesville, Florida. And there was when I was a kid. It always felt like To Kill A Mockingbird to me but it’s not. It’s just a southern town. There is Spanish moss and live oaks but there’s also those tall thin pines. It was kind of a wonderful time. It was the space age, it was the fifties and early sixties when I was growing up. It was modern (laughs). They were sending people into space all the time and it was a brand new thing.

Did you ever run into Don Felder?

I didn’t run into Felder back then cause he was older than I was. He’s a little older than Tom and Tom’s three years older than I am, and when you’re a kid, like when you’re twelve or thirteen, that’s a big age gap. But I knew who he was. Don Felder and Bernie Leaden were very well-known and well-respected around town. I was born in 1953 and by the time my serious interest in popular music, apart from Rodgers and Hammerstein and some early Elvis stuff, you know, when I hit ten then The Beatles hit and by that time, those guys were probably in their late teens.

You brought up The Beatles, and since February is a big Beatles anniversary month, as a musician stepping out in front for the first time, what Beatles song do you think was their most raw and vulnerable moment, in your opinion?

It’s really hard to say with such a broad catalog. There’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and there’s “For No One” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Off the top of my head, those three are pretty raw and pretty vulnerable. But The Beatles are unique and you can learn chord progressions from them, you can learn tones and harmonics. But you can’t do what they did. That’s four very, very unique people coming together. And without those people, you just can’t do that. What they did cannot be done. You can learn the parts but you can’t play it that way. It’s a really wild thing. You can learn the parts and you can play it well and it will be a thrill but you’re never going to have the tone and the touch that George Harrison had, the rhythm that John Lennon had, McCartney’s everything and Ringo’s just astonishing feel. You’re never going to find that except in those four humans. And the joy they expressed; the energy and joy they had was really something.

How about with your songwriting? Have you gone to a place that was very vulnerable and raw for you?

I suppose. I know there’s stuff like that. That was one of the things making this record. There’s three or four songs left off of it cause I had more than enough slow, sad songs (laughs). It’s easier to write a slow, sad song than to write a fast, happy song. It’s very difficult to do for me. Fast songs period, much less songs that aren’t sad or bitter or whatever because, you know, if you’re happy, you’re going to write a song and then you’re going to go do something. If you’re sad, you’re going to sit around and mope around and go for a long walk and ruminate over stuff and here comes a song.

When did you write your first song with lyrics?

I don’t remember writing the lyrics for it but I know I wrote a song when I was in First grade for some little girl named Kim. I don’t remember how it goes but I remember I wrote it. By the time I was a teenager, I was starting to write lyrics as well and it took me a while to get to where the lyrics showed up. And then they did show up. There’s an early, early Mudcrutch recording of a song called “On The Street” that is an early song of mine that I wrote when I was probably eighteen. I’d written songs before that but that one seemed to be a complete thought and a complete song.

What song on the new album are you looking forward to playing live that you haven’t played for an audience yet?

You know, I haven’t played “Wobbles” yet in front of an audience and that will be fun to play. Especially now cause there are lyrics for it so I’ll just take a pulse from the audience as to whether they want it with the words or want it without. But “Wobbles” should be fun to play. “Hannah” should be really fun cause we have the string section to play it tomorrow night.

Who is your go-to musician when you need a boost of inspiration?

If I need some inspiration, I listen to Louis Armstrong. Sometimes I listen to some early Beatles recordings, from their first three or four albums. Or Bob Dylan, always Bob Dylan.

What still excites you about playing music?

What excites me about playing music? It’s simple, it feeds my soul.

It’s as simple as that

It’s as simple as that

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