How Tom Petty's closest collaborators turned sadness into joy on An American Treasure
Benmont Tench on his late friend and longtime bandmate Tom Petty: "The reward outweighed the sorrow. You have to go through your sorrow. I'm going through the sorrow for the rest of my life."
An American Treasure
Six months after Tom Petty unexpectedly died at the age of 66, members of the legendary rocker’s inner circle began compiling a new box set of unreleased, alternate-version, live, rare, and deep cuts. Now, about year on from the Florida-born, Los Angeles-based musician’s passing, An American Treasure will be released on Friday (Sept. 28).
A collaboration largely curated by longtime engineer and producer Ryan Ulyate; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers founding members Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell; Adria Petty, Tom’s older daughter; and his wife Dana Petty, the four-disc set is the result of having combed through hundreds of hours of recordings. “We really loved making music with Tom,” Tench tells EW. “And we thought the world and think the world of him as a songwriter and as a singer.”
Ahead, the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist further details the creative process behind the box sex and maintaining the legacy of Tom Petty.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This was a collaborative effort from all of Tom’s family — his relatives and his band. Give our readers an idea of what the “curation” of this set really meant on a day-to-day basis.
BENMONT TENCH: It started with us getting together and making a list of what we really love of Tom’s that we think should be spotlighted that has been released, and then what [songs] do we know of that have not been released that we should look for. Ryan went through the vaults and not only found the songs that we’ve been looking for, he found stuff we completely forgot we had recorded that had been put aside for reasons that none of us can figure out to this day.
Then we’d argue back and forth — not fight, but a “I love this!” “But I love this!” — once a week when we’d gather at Ryan’s home studio and listen to a bunch of stuff. Ryan fell into these songs. The record opens with “Surrender,” a song that we had earlier than I thought: He found the version we tried to cut for our very first records. I think we tried it and it just wasn’t good enough for us to put out. [Ulyate] realized that if you removed the overdubs and brightened up the drum kit that it all fell into place and it was actually really good.
We didn’t mess with stuff too much like that — I think there may be one or two cases where we went, “This needs guitar,” and you just add like eight bars in the middle because there was going to be a solo. But we didn’t go back and fix this and change that and massively rework stuff.
You guys have done a number of anthologies, rarities, greatest hits, and live sets, throughout the years. Can you describe what makes this set special compared to other compilations?
Tom’s passing is a major part of this. Mike said the other day: “We always look forward.” We didn’t tend to look back. We hadn’t put out a greatest hits for a while. We put out a live anthology and a lot of live recordings because we’ve always felt we were better live.
But the thing is that this is obviously to pay tribute to Tom. We know that you know this is special. But do you know how special that stuff that was on records that you may have missed? And there are different versions of songs that may be subtly different or drastically different that might make you take another look at them. And there are things that were never released.
During this process of curating it, was there a difference between how Adria, you, Mike, Ryan, and Dana wanted it to be?
The Heartbreakers were a band. Tom said we were a tough room because he brought in a song he might be proud of and if we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t be rude about it, but it would be pretty clear. We would always say, “Why don’t we try this.” And because he was in charge, he’d say, “Because I don’t want to.” [Laughs]
But we’re used to having different opinions. I think the biggest thing was simply that we didn’t want to put out a 20-disc thing. And we could have put out four discs of stuff nobody has ever heard. We could have put out four discs of alternate versions, or four discs of songs that people weren’t familiar with — like, I really love “You Could Still Change Your Mind” off of Hard Promises or “The Best of Everything.” But we chose to take it this way. You get a taste of all that.
And I really hope that in the future we can continue to release things, because we couldn’t fit it all on here. And it wouldn’t be a matter of “Oh, let’s scrape the bottom of the barrel, let’s polish something that really is not good enough.” We’re looking for songs that we think that if we played them for Tom now, he’d say, “Wait a minute, that’s really good, why didn’t we use that?”
Were there any other specific circumstances or particular songs that just shot you straight back to the ’70s?
There’s a song that didn’t come out on this set — that I hope will come out on some future set — which I was intent on finding a cassette of. I kind of turned my music cabinet and my music closet upside down, going through every cassette that I had and I found it — the song and two songs after it was “Keep a Little Soul.” But I was so focused on finding that one song that that’s the one that I paid attention to. I gave that tape to Ryan to copy and independently of that he found “Keep a Little Soul” on his own. And I just almost started crying.
When you got started on this, was there any sense on your part that you felt like this is too soon? What was the timing on all this?
I think that it started not immediately in the new year, February or March or April. I didn’t feel like it was too soon. I felt like we have to be really careful with this to do it right. If we want to honor our friend and the leader of our band, we don’t want to be rushed. When Tom passed away, I have these pictures around my house, of my parents, of Art Tatum. I saw an old picture of some sort and I thought, “I never want the picture of Tom in peoples’ minds to gather dust.”
I think a lot about how we pay tribute to icons and our heroes while they’re still alive. We had the loss of Aretha Franklin this summer, but there was some heads up she was ill. Last year when Tom died, it was just so unexpected.
We were all shocked. Shocked is not the word…shocked doesn’t even approach how we all felt. We came off the tour all very pleased with the way the band was playing.
And for me about two-thirds of the way through the tour last year, I turned a corner in the way I approached playing music with this band. I found a different way to lace around Mike Campbell to lock in with Steve Ferrone and it was really big and really thrilling. Even though we were playing mostly greatest hits, I found new and subtle differences, and I was really excited to go in the studio and try this on a recording. It might have been something nobody would have noticed except maybe me and Mike, but we were moving forward.
And then I got a phone call from Adria Petty very late one night saying, “Get to the hospital,” and my wife and I just got there in 20 minutes.
It makes…it makes no sense.
To put this box set together for me wasn’t just cathartic: It just was kind of validating. Just, like, “Yes, he was as good as I thought he was, and better. Yes, we were a really good band.” But also you hear the guy counting this song off, or going, “That was really good.” You hear all the chatter and everything and it keeps it alive in your heart. And it was a good experience for me to do this.
I imagine it takes an emotional toll as well, though, to relive these memories of your friend.
It does. It does. But for me the reward outweighed the sorrow. You have to go through your sorrow. I’m going through the sorrow for the rest of my life. Since I was 18, I’ve been able to make sounds with Tom and Mike. After a tour, I wouldn’t see him for a couple months, but then the phone call would come and be like, “Tom wants everybody to get together at the clubhouse,” our place for the last 15 years. Once we gathered at the clubhouse every day for the next week at 3 o’clock and just play for the sake of playin’. So that was going to happen, because that has always happened.
Every other summer I have spent away from home traveling around cities playing music with these guys. So for every other summer to come around for enough months to pass and the phone hasn’t rung, that means I haven’t made new music with Tom. That’s just a strange and slow process. The nickel has been dropped, believe me, but it’s…it’s…it’s a long process.
In her liner notes, Adria says that this set is “an attempt to share the person we knew well.” What do you think the side to Tom Petty was that his fans didn’t know as well?
I think that he just didn’t cut up as much, at a show. If you look at the film that is in the video that Adria put together out of clips for “Keep a Little Soul,” you see this guy that’s just all over the damn stage and spraying the audience with champagne and water and just dropping on his face and shaking the mic and jumping everywhere. As you get older, you’re not going to do that as much. But he was really funny and sharp. He was really, really bloody smart. He was all sorts of things.
To me this whole box set, it’s worth it just for “Keep a Little Soul” and a song called “Lonesome Dave” that is hysterically funny. Rocks like nobody’s business. It’s a song that’s Tom’s Chuck Berry thing. Tom must have made up half lyrics on the spot anyway. I’ve wanted that to come out for years. We cut it when we cut “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” in the last batch of sessions. I think Tom’s ability to write a song that was simple and instantly catchy made it easy to overlook what was really going on there. A lot of people understood what was really going on. Bob Dylan, one of the Beatles, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne chose to be in a band with Tom [in the Traveling Wilburys]. They wanted to be in a band with this guy. And those guys didn’t want to be in a band with anybody!
You still have that band energy about you as you talk about it, are you planning and performing together in support of this box set?
I don’t have any plans. Mike’s busy with Fleetwood Mac and I have a baby daughter and my hands are full. I’m also playing solo gigs. The Heartbreakers — I don’t know what’s going to happen with Heartbreakers because it’s not Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. You know it should have been just The Heartbreakers: What we didn’t know it time, Johnny Thunders had a band called The Heartbreakers so we had ours. But we could have been just The Heartbreakers.
Actually, whatever the name of the band that we were putting together in the studio that day we were gonna call The Drunks.
I was reading your Instagram post about that! Just talking about those formative periods seemed so happy.
I really love him. I really love the band. I miss making music with him. I miss hearing a new song. People have said to me since he passed “You guys were the soundtrack to my life” and I’m like, “We were the soundtrack to my life, I just heard the songs earlier.”
Here is the tracklist for An American Treasure box set:
1. “Surrender” Previously unreleased track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sessions—1976
2. “Listen To Her Heart” Live at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA—November 11, 1977
3. “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” Live at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA—November 11, 1977
4. “When The Time Comes” Album track from You’re Gonna Get It!—May 2, 1978
5. “You’re Gonna Get It” Alternate version featuring strings from You’re Gonna Get It! sessions—1978
6. Radio Promotion Spot 1977
7. “Rockin’ Around (With You)” Album track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers —November 9, 1976
8. “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” Alternate version from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—1976
9. “Breakdown” Live at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA—November 11, 1977
10. “The Wild One,” Forever Album track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—November 9, 1976
11. “No Second Thoughts” Album track from You’re Gonna Get It!—May 2, 1978
12. “Here Comes My Girl” Alternate version from Damn The Torpedoes sessions—1979
13. “What Are You Doing In My Life” Alternate version from Damn The Torpedoes sessions—1979
14. “Louisiana Rain” Alternate version from Damn The Torpedoes sessions—1979
15. “Lost In Your Eyes” Previously unreleased single from Mudcrutch sessions—1974
1. Keep A Little Soul Previously unreleased track from Long After Dark sessions—1982
2. Even The Losers Live at Rochester Community War Memorial, Rochester, NY—1989
3. Keeping Me Alive Previously unreleased track from Long After Dark sessions—1982
4. Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger B-side to UK single of “I Won’t Back Down”—April, 1989
5. The Apartment Song Demo recording (with Stevie Nicks)—1984
6. Concert Intro Live introduction by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Forum, Inglewood, CA—June 28, 1981
7. King’s Road Live at The Forum, Inglewood, CA—June 28, 1981
8. Clear The Aisles Live concert announcement by Tom Petty, The Forum, Inglewood, CA—June 28, 1981
9. A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me) Live at The Forum, Inglewood, CA—June 28, 1981
10. Straight Into Darkness Alternate version from The Record Plant, Hollywood, CA—May 5, 1982
11. You Can Still Change Your Mind Album track from Hard Promises—May 5, 1981
12. Rebels Alternate version from Southern Accents sessions—1985
13. Deliver Me Alternate version from Long After Dark sessions—1982
14. Alright For Now Album track from Full Moon Fever—April 24, 1989
15. The Damage You’ve Done Alternate version from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) sessions—1987
16. The Best Of Everything Alternate version from Southern Accents sessions—March 26, 1985
17. Walkin’ From The Fire Previously unreleased track from Southern Accents sessions—March 1, 1984
18. King Of The Hill Early take (with Roger McGuinn)—November 23, 1987
1. I Won’t Back Down Live at The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA—February 4, 1997
2. Gainesville Previously unreleased track from Echo sessions—February 12, 1998
3. You And I Will Meet Again Album track from Into The Great Wide Open—July 2, 1991
4. Into The Great Wide Open Live at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena—November 24, 1991
5. Two Gunslingers Live at The Beacon Theatre, New York, NY—May 25, 2013
6. Lonesome Dave Previously unreleased track from Wildflowers sessions—July 23, 1993
7. To Find A Friend Album track from Wildflowers—November 1, 1994
8. Crawling Back To You Album track from Wildflowers—November 1, 1994
9. Wake Up Time Previously unreleased track from early Wildflowers sessions—August 12, 1992
10. Grew Up Fast Album track from Songs and Music from “She’s the One”—August 6, 1996
11. I Don’t Belong Previously unreleased track from Echo sessions—December 3, 1998
12. Accused Of Love Album track from Echo—April 13, 1999
13. Lonesome Sundown Album track from Echo—April 13, 1999
14. Don’t Fade On Me Previously unreleased track from Wildflowers—sessions—April 20, 1994
1. You And Me Clubhouse version—November 9, 2007
2. Have Love Will Travel Album track from The Last DJ—October 8, 2002
3. Money Becomes King Album track from The Last DJ—October 8, 2002
4. Bus To Tampa Bay Previously unreleased track from Hypnotic Eye sessions—August 11, 2011
5. Saving Grace Live at Malibu Performing Arts Center, Malibu, CA—June 16, 2006
6. Down South Album track from Highway Companion—July 25, 2006
7. Southern Accents Live at Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, FL—September 21, 2006
8. Insider Live (with Stevie Nicks) at O’Connell Center, Gainesville, FL—September 21, 2006
9. Two Men Talking Previously unreleased track from Hypnotic Eye sessions—November 16, 2012
10. Fault Lines Album track from Hypnotic Eye—July 29, 2014
11. Sins Of My Youth Early take from Hypnotic Eye sessions—November 12, 2012
12. Good Enough Alternate version from Mojo sessions—2012
13. Something Good Coming Album track from Mojo—July 15, 2010
14. Save Your Water Album track from Mudcrutch 2—May 20, 2016
15. Like A Diamond Alternate version from The Last DJ sessions—2002
16. Hungry No More Live at House of Blues, Boston, MA—June 15, 2016
An American Treasure