MALIBU, Calif. - Tom Petty's plunge into the blues left him ecstatic.
"We finally made a record worthy of the band, one that makes use of the musicianship," he says. "Every rehearsal for years started with blues. It's how we sound after hours. I thought, 'we should stay where we naturally play.' I'm more excited than I've been in a long time."
'MOJO': Read the Listen Up review
Mojo, out Tuesday (June 29 on audio Blu-ray and vinyl), is Petty's first album since 2006 solo disc 'Highway Companion' and first with The Heartbreakers since 2002's 'The Last DJ.' Recorded live with minimal overdubs, the 15-track set's blend of blues and melodic rock draws inspiration from the Chess Records vault and especially seminal bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter, resulting in the sort of earthy alloy delivered by the Allman Brothers Band or early day Rolling Stones.
"It's very much us," says Petty, whose retro tastes are reflected in a vast collection of vintage guitars, a film noir library and an appetite for World War II history books. "I used to be a little insecure about whether I could sing the blues authentically. I can do my version of it, and this has our stamp on it. It would be an empty exercise if we weren't bringing something to the party."
He's spending this afternoon at his knotty-pine beach house, not far from his main Malibu home. Dolphins frolic along a kelp bed off the coast just yards from his deck. Petty takes a drag on a slim electric cigarette, the device that helped his wife, Dana, quit smoking.
"I've cut way down," he says. "You get vapor and a shot of nicotine, nothing burning."
At 59, Petty says, mortality and health are growing concerns, as is the vitality and integrity of his career. Although long devoted to the blues, he could not have recorded Mojo in his youth or with hired hands.
"We have to be the experienced band we are today to pull off playing this with any conviction," he says. "We found a comfortable identity. I don't want to be turning flips at 60. I see rock musicians who really don't understand how old they are, and it's undignified. I find those people embarrassing."
Mojo kicks and gallops, but its maturity is undeniable in the thick blues of U.S. 41, timely immigration tale Don't Pull Me Over and Jefferson Jericho Blues, based on Thomas Jefferson's dalliance with slave Sally Hemings.
'On High in the Morning', Petty's the weary voice of hard-earned wisdom: "It hurts my heart to see a young man fall."
"A lot of those great blues records are cautionary, an older man talking to a younger one," says Petty, who draws inspiration from his huge vinyl record collection, also fuel for his Sirius/XM radio show, Tom Petty's Buried Treasure.
Petty credits much of Mojo's loose, vibrant sound to a stronger collaborative effort with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone and Scott Thurston.
"In the past," he says, "I would bring them finished arrangements of everything, which they were never fond of because they felt, 'Where's my contribution?' This time I just brought a bag of songs and we guided the arrangements together. The sound was created in the room.
"We didn't worry about whether someone else would like it," says Petty, who co-produced Mojo with Campbell and Ryan Ulyate. "It was about pleasing ourselves. We couldn't wait to come back every day. Part of that is not having a stern producer there. It might have dampened things had we gotten extremely serious. It was fun. I don't think we had disagreements about anything, which is rare."
Individually and with the band, Petty has sold nearly 60 million albums since 1976, racking up such hits as Don't Do Me Like That, Refugee, Runnin' Down a Dream, I Won't Back Down, Free Fallin' and The Waiting. His sales success and steady popularity on the road and on radio don't mean he lacked fodder for the blues.
He grew up in Gainesville, Fla., with an emotionally and physically abusive father, filed for bankruptcy in 1979 after legal disputes with his label and lost his house to arson in 1987. He split in 1996 from his first wife, Jane Benyo, after 22 years of marriage and succumbed to drugs and depression.
"In my childhood, I was in such a troubled household," Petty says. "I see why I became a rock 'n' roll fanatic. Music was a safe place."
Forty years after forming Mudcrutch, the forerunner to The Heartbreakers, Petty remains fanatical about looking forward, refusing to settle for the safety of nostalgia. On his 45-date North American tour, which runs through early October, Mojo tunes make up 25% of the set list.
"We have no intention of turning into an oldies group," Petty says. "It's very lucrative, and everyone has a great time if you play hits for two hours, but I'm not done and I want people to know it."
Despite amassing three decades of hits, Petty admirably refuses to join the lucrative circuit of touring jukeboxes, says Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot.
"I wish more rockers of his generation would continue to make vibrant music," Kot says. "Neil Young is a good example of someone who puts out new music and stands behind it. As a fan, I welcome the opportunity to see my heroes evolving and playing music they're excited about, rather than pandering and playing those 10 hits again and again."
Translated to the stage, Mojo will "bloom and show the band's muscle," Kot says. "It's definitely a vehicle for the band to strut its stuff and improvise. It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen's late-career appreciation of the E Street Band. This is Petty acknowledging The Heartbreakers as a great band."
Petty's shows are never less than thrilling, says Billboard touring editor Ray Waddell, who has followed his career for 25 years.
"He instinctively knows how to put together a set list with drama, surprises, his best-loved songs and obscurities, with intelligent pacing and a ton of rock muscle," Waddell says. "This guy puts on a show that every aspiring rock artist, and plenty of experienced ones, should see and learn from."
Petty isn't sweating ticket sales; early dates sold out, and he's headed to full venues at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl. Nor is he worried much about whether fans will like Mojo.
"The challenge these days is getting people to know there is a record," he says. "We used to send a track to radio, they'd play it and alert everyone. That isn't the case now. Radio doesn't play much new rock 'n' roll."
Music's 'in their hands'
Petty is flagging fans by including an MP3 Mojo download by e-mail with every concert ticket purchased.
"It's an attempt to get the music in their hands," Petty says. "We're not giving (Mojo) away; it's built into the ticket price."
Though piracy is difficult to thwart, the solution isn't capitulating to thieves, he says. "Fans should support artists. They're not all wealthy, and they'll make better music if they have the resources. I was watching Amadeus and it struck me how musicians had royalty or aristocrats to bankroll their trip. When we started, our record company housed us, gave us a weekly salary and let us make mistakes in the studio for a year. That's over."
Annoyed that illicit file-sharing siphons profits, he's "more concerned about the devaluing of an album as a complete statement. That's all I know how to do."
He has stopped tracking the industry's shifting business models and has lower sales expectations after seeing CDs tumble the past decade. Wildflowers (1994) sold 3.1 million copies, compared with 487,000 for similarly lauded Highway Companion (2006), according to Nielsen SoundScan.
As other artists seek fresh revenue streams through commercial tie-ins, "my reaction has been to retreat," Petty says. "I don't think it's worth it to associate your song with a truck. And we don't have tour sponsors. It's tempting, because they do offer significant amounts of money, but I like the feeling that this is our band, and we own it."
Besides, he says, music isn't about money. It's an unquenchable passion. Any young wannabe weighing a decision between law school or electric guitar should head for the legal library, he says.
"If you have a choice, you won't be able to do this," he says. "It will beat you up so bad. You need that love of music in your soul or you won't survive."
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY