Benmont Tench surprised many of his fans earlier this year when he recorded his first proper solo album on Blue Note Records, You Should Be So Lucky, a collection of songs that finds this bonafide session giant showing off his abilities to lead his own charge as deftly as he has supported some of the greatest names in rock from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello to Johnny Cash to The Dixie Chicks.
What’s more is that this past summer saw him returning to the keyboard stool once again with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers for the incredible Hypnotic Eye, the band’s 13th studio LP and arguably their finest work since 1999’s Echo. And that’s not to mention his loaded dance card of session work logged for 2014, appearing on Blake Mills’ solo debut Heigh Ho, Neil Diamond’s latest Melody Road, the new Jackson Browne record Standing in the Breach and that killer Ryan Adams eponymous title. Having just come off a whirlwind outdoor tour that wrapped in October, Tench took some time out to speak with Jambands.
Some of the topics of conversation might not be what you’d expect from a player of this caliber. But that is what makes this interview so unique in the gracefulness and insight by which Tench tackles such non-linear topics as the difference between Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, creating AOR in the new wave and punk rock era, sitting in with the Man in Black, the upcoming 20th anniversary of Wildflowers, Top 40 radio, hanging out with Jenny Lewis and the hidden treasures of the Heartbreakers’ back catalog. For more on his solo album, read his interview with site editor Dean Budnick which originally ran in the pages of Relix and recently posted online.
While you’ve done so much this year, it’s fun looking back seeing you play on so many different albums. All the session work you have done for Rick Rubin…
You learn a lot. You work with a good producer, you learn a lot, you know.
Do you have any fun stories about the sessions for Johnny Cash’s Unchained, where he was backed by the full lineup of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers?
I don’t know if the word is fun, but it was just staggering to be in a room with Johnny Cash, playing all those songs with them, with the Heartbreakers. It was just staggering. Every day you go into work, you go, are you kidding me? And Carl [Perkins] came down for a few days. We had Carl and June and John. It was wild. And the thing is, you always try to do the best, no matter what you’re doing. You’re playing music and you’re not trying to do your best at all times, then it shouldn’t be your chosen field. We really tried to step up for Johnny Cash, even above and beyond the usual call.
You were on most of the other Rubin-produced Cash albums, yes?
I’m on all the Johnny Cash albums Rick did, except for the purely solo one.
That first one, American Recordings, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. In fact, Wildflowers is 20 years old as of November 1. Unlike Full Moon Fever, you play a significant role on Petty’s second solo album. Was Wildflowers essentially a Heartbreakers album?
De facto it’s a Heartbreakers’ record. I suppose Tom, maybe his mindset, what he was aiming at may have made him call it a solo record, but at the end of the day we all wound up on it expect for Stan [Lynch], and instead of Stan it was [Steve] Ferrone. It doesn’t matter whether you call it a solo record or not. That’s not important.
That’s my favorite era of the Heartbreakers. Wildflowers,_ She’s the One_, Echo … I love the stuff you guys were doing during that timeframe. It was such a cool, warm sound.
Rick’s really, really good. I’m partial to various eras of Heartbreakers, partial to the first four records. And I do like the Wildflowers record quite a bit, I think it was one of the best ones that we did.
*_Southern Accents_ was a pretty significant album for you guys. That’s coming up on its 30th anniversary in 2015. Are you guys going to commemorate it?
It’d be nice…I don’t think it’s gonna happen, but it’d be nice to see it compiled with all the songs that were recorded for it. It was much more of a unified theme, but you throw Dave Stewart in and everything goes in a curious direction. Not in a bad way, just a curious direction.
The videos from those records are so cool. I was a tween watching those videos. “You Got Lucky” was probably my favorite. Where was that made?
That’s out in…what part of the desert? Out in the desert somewhere three miles outside of Los Angeles. Vasquez Rocks. There’s some famous rock formation which you’ve seen in a million westerns out there.
It’s cool how you guys gave it that Tatooine/ Road Warrior vibe. I was 11 years old in ‘84, so thick into science fiction films, so seeing a video like that, I obviously gravitated toward it.
It was fun to do at the time. I don’t know how it holds up now, but it was fun to do. You could have fun with MTV for a while there.
It seems like they are coming around again these days as well.
MTV plays tons of music now. And I think there’s a VH1 contemporary thing that plays a wide variety of music. For a while it seemed like unless you turned it on at 3 AM, you wouldn’t get very many music videos on MTV and VH1. But it seems to be different now.
I don’t think since the 1980s has Top 40 radio been so creative.
It’s seems like it’s pretty widespread. There’s hope. It’s still a lot of songs that sound very constructed to me instead of just played. But there’s definitely hope. There are a lot of people that are interesting that are around, from Broken Bells to Taylor Swift, that are good at what they do. Taylor Swift is a damn good songwriter.
I think it would be cool to see her work with Rick Rubin, honestly.
I don’t know if Rick would be right for her. She’s one of those people, I’ve got my eye out to see what she does next. I got my eye out to see what Broken Bells does next, I got my eye out to see what Lorde does next.
She’s cool. It’s cool, because she is representing New Zealand as well, a country with a rich history of great rock and pop music that goes largely unrecognized by the general public. Bands like the Verlaines and the Bats and Tall Dwarfs.
As much as I love poetry and as much as I like Television, a band called the Verlaines seems right up my street.
Were you into the punk scene back when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were coming up?
There wasn’t any scene. What we were was a rock and roll band, they came up with the term new wave after we put our first record out. Well after, like a year after. I never felt we were that because I thought there was a specific groove to new wave and it was a little bit more on top and so on. We were going for The Rolling Stones…We were very consciously trying to play back, like a southern band, like a southern soul band like The Rolling Stones. The new wave stuff like Blondie was more on the edge. I love so many bands from the east and I really dearly, dearly love The New York Dolls.
Talking about Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, I know you said there was a good story about how you wound up having the same name for your bands.
Denny Cordell, our first producer, and Tom were brainstorming one night to come up with a band name. And they came to us because we had all been trying to find a good band name and had terrible results, so they came to us and said “What about Heartbreakers?” and we all thought it was a great name. I’m sure none of us knew that Johnny Thunders had a band called the Heartbreakers, too. I’m such a stickler that if I had thought that, I would raise an objection. But there wasn’t the Internet. If I had realized that…I know that a lot of people think that we just took their name.
Well, there was the New York Heartbreakers and the LA Heartbreakers.
I think they had the name before us, but as somebody said at the time in a review, they said at the time they could count five Heartbreakers in the Midwest alone. So it’s irrelevant. Nobody confused the two of us. They knew that we were the ones from the West Coast with the blond hair and they were the ones derived from the punk scene.
Were you a fan of Johnny Thunders?
Johnny Thunders was a really talented man. And I remember staying up to watch The New York Dolls, not staying up but going after we played a gig at a club, because Lord knows I stayed up ‘til dawn. But playing a club in Tampa, Florida, and going over to somebody’s house for a party afterwards, and just didn’t care about the party because the Dolls were on Midnight Special. They were astounding, just like nothing you’d ever seen.
Did you guys do any of those shows? Midnight Special? Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert ?
Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert I never cared for. His production values didn’t seem very good and his hosting style was not to my taste. But the Midnight Special was a tightly run show with a very eclectic group of artists. As I said, you’d see the New York Dolls, you’d see Todd Rundgren and you’d see us. You’d see country singers like Crystal Gayle, you’d see Waylon Jennings.