Benmont Tench: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, sobriety and the power of music through the tales and memories of a legendary music man.
This column is sponsored by Audible.Log in with my code Coffee with Alice and get a 30-day FREE trial + a free audio book, ON ME! Click HERE and simply enjoy your book while supporting my podcast and website. http://www.audibletrial.com/CoffeeWithAlice
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon on a hot Sunday; a dim light glows in my living room. I shut the windows to isolate any possible noise. I’m having coffee with Benmont Tench, legendary keyboardist and founding member of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I am nervous despite the fact that I’ve known him for a while, and I know that he’s cool, elegant—a real gentleman. In my introduction to the Marc Maron episode I told you how every conversation with my guests feels like a first date (and I don’t usually date). I am ambiguous about this feeling, but I like the adrenaline and the infinite possibilities that always arise from my pounding heart. So I make sure everything is perfect for when he enters the room.
As we sit on the couch I notice his perfectly groomed silver beard and the gorgeous, native-style rings on his fingers; he is handsome, dressed in refined shades of dark. As you can enjoy in the podcast version of this interview—Episode 39—his voice is deep, seducing and low in tone. I try to ignore my increasing preoccupation for the technicalities of the recording process: Sitting next to me there is a legend, a musician I deeply admire, but also a man whose journey is somewhat similar to mine. I know this will be the real deal and my accent will be just fine.
Any wordy introduction would be superfluous. Benmont Tench is an icon of music history and a true worker among workers serving the songs and the music he plays—not only because of his career with The Heartbreakers—but also for the endless list of artists he has played with over the years: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Fiona Apple and many, many more.
Before hitting the ‘Record’ button Ben and I poured the coffee in our cups and talked about the darkness we had in common. We’ll get there, but my favorite approach to introduce his footprint was the solo album he released this past February – You Should Be So Lucky.
Click HERE to download the episode on iTunes – below written story.
I have this little obsession of creating images of people in my head. And, since the first time I met you I drew yours as the elegant, handsome, wise and humble man with a hat; you seem to come from another time, in a good way…
“Wow! Thank you. I like that.”
Your new album is a reflection of that portrait through music and lyrics. I loved it so much that I wondered whether you could clearly see it as a current picture of yourself.
“That work is me trying not to be fake. Some people can clearly write character songs, but there is always an aspect of them in the character they are writing about. The title song, for example, is not who I aspire to be. However, I know I must have some of that in me if I was able to write about such an angry, scary guy.”
I know that for a long time you didn’t feel confident enough to record the songs. It’s kind of reassuring—if you allow me the expression—coming from an artist like you; I feel a little bit better about myself…
“I didn’t see a reason to make a record just for the sake of making one. There was a period when you were getting signed just because you were in a famous band; you made a record and, maybe, you didn’t have anything to say. I simply didn’t know whether I had enough to share and, over the course of the years, I had enough encouragement from people who I really respected, finally deciding to do it. But I was very lucky to work with one of the best producers in the business, Glyn Johns; the right producer brings out what’s in you. That’s a great part of the deal. But the humble thing that you mentioned is totally an act.”
Really? I don’t believe you. I can see through your eyes…
“I’m kidding. It’s not an act, but we all have an ego.”
Oh yeah, mine’s a little fucker. But every time we talked, or that I heard you discussing your work—especially with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash—you always stressed how essential it was to just sit back and do your best to serve the song; that’s a considerable act of humility. Has it always been that way?
“You know, I learned to play—giving you the big example—from The Beatles. And, when you listen to them nobody is on a pedestal, showing off how fast they can play. That’s the model for me, or The Rolling Stones. They are to be listened as a team, an ensemble; they are having a conversation with each other while playing, instead of talking at each other.”
Did you like the spotlight with the solo album? Did your ego feed on it a little?
Ben smiles and he has a beautiful one. I loved his darkness, as well as the depth we reached by mid-conversation, but the humor and laughing was priceless nonetheless, after a first initial moment of shyness, mostly on my part.
“Let’s say that I was really happy when I heard some of the songs back. I made that record with a bunch of really close friends, so it didn’t feel like being in a recording session, having the pressure on; it was rather hanging out with them and sharing the music. I’m still not sure about the way I sing though; I kind of like it, but I know it’s not for everybody.”
Last week I had on the show author David Kukoff, who wrote a fantastic novel on Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s and ‘70s titled Children of The Canyon. You mentioned playing and recording with your friends and it made me think of that era, when there was a vibrating sense of artistic community. Were you able to experience the tail end of it when you moved from Florida to Los Angeles? Do you think an authentic community is still alive today?
When did you move here?
“When I moved here, in 1974, the Laurel Canyon era was rarefied. Having played with Tom Petty and Mike Campbell since I was 18—the community that I experienced came from that life. And, today is still very much alive. I have friends over every two or three weeks, on Sunday night, and it’s nothing like a celebrity jam thing; we are a bunch of people who just like to play music together. But, speaking of artistic community, I am also part the Largo family…”
I’ve never been there, but I heard great things about Largo; I actually met Jon Brion a couple of years ago. When did you start playing there?
“I started hanging out there about 18 years ago, when it was still on Fairfax. Now it’s moved to a theater with a small bar, and it revolves around a gang of creative people who are comedians, actors and musicians that for years have been somehow gravitating towards the club and its owner, Mark Flanagan. I’ve met some of my very dearest friends there, and also wonderful musicians.”
It is at Largo that Ben met Fiona Apple, Sean and Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek, Jon Brion and many other artists that he describes as generous and giving when playing music together.
“They listen, trade and encourage. That’s what you get at Largo and, to me, that’s something that the place has in common with what Laurel Canyon in the 1960s was about, from the little that I know. For me music is conversation and intimate exchange, one of the most intimate ones between human beings.”
What you describe is something that I dream of, being the collaboration and the dialogue with other artists, together with more recognition from your peers—that I am aware comes with time. So this is where you are now after 40 years of hard work; tell me about the journey.
You left Florida and moved to Los Angeles with Tom Petty. Have you ever doubted your path? Ever had a plan B?
“I never had a plan B. My parents had one for me though; I went to college and majored in Art. But I wasn’t very good nonetheless, I enjoyed it but I like the instant gratification of playing something on the piano and having the melody available to my ears. With painting you have to wait and be meticulous, and I never had the patience for it.”
Do you still paint?
“No, and it’s a blessing on the world that I don’t.”
Ben tells me that music—in some capacity—has always been what he wanted to do since he was a kid. That’s why the lack of an alternative. And, with The Beatles showing up he knew that the band lifestyle was his future. The rest is history, and when he met Tom in a record store of Gainesville, Florida, it was only a matter of time before some of the best rock in history would be created.
“The Beatles made a lot of people feel that way and I was very fortunate that it worked out for me. I have so many incredibly gifted friends who struggle in their creative life just because they didn’t walk through the right door at the right time, or didn’t meet the right person.”
Over the years you collaborated with some of the most acclaimed musicians in the world—whenever not working with the Heartbreakers. Is it challenging to write for other people?
“I don’t write for other people, if not occasionally. Playing on their records, on the other hand, is a necessity because The Heartbreakers stop periodically, when Tom and Mike write new songs (mine wouldn’t really work for the band). So there’s a lot of time when I would just be kicking around; it’s not good for me, I’ve known my whole life. I started when Jimmy Iovine worked with Bob Dylan and—being that he didn’t know any of the musicians playing on that record—called me to play the keyboards; that’s how it took off. Jimmy had produced three albums of ours, but from there I just kept meeting wonderful musicians and never stopped working.”
Since then, Ben has played with such artists as Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, Lucinda Williams, John Fogerty and The Rolling Stones, just to name a few. But don’t let these names deflect the image of him I have been creating for you so far; it is by listening to the live episode of this conversation that you’ll be able to perceive the graceful and humble tone of his voice—when talking about such a rich career.
“Playing with them was a wonderful experience. If you just sit back and fall into the songs you will experience so much that you cannot help but learn something. And, that’s what I do every time. Then I go back to my band and bring them what I’ve learned along the way. It’s just great!”
Could we possibly call your journey a joint venture between talent and cases of life? Was it always smooth?
“I know how lucky I am, I’m blown away by it every day, but nothing is smooth sailing. Before The Heartbreakers, with Mike and Tom we were Mudcrutch (silly name and yet great band). Thank God they had the vision and ambition I didn’t have at the time, and we left Gainesville; I believed in those guys. We moved to California and the record we had made didn’t come out. The band broke up and the label dropped everybody except from Tom and Mike. The band was my family. So I found myself in North Hollywood, living in a tiny apartment virtually under the freeway and completely alone. The beginning was awful. And, although a year later we decided to put the Heartbreakers together, you know that for many years I seriously struggled with alcohol and drugs: So we go back to what we talked about earlier; everybody’s life has its dark moments.”
You have been sober much longer than I have, how has your creative process evolved without drugs and alcohol? For me it’s an endless journey of discovery into what my nature truly is; I became so much more aware despite what I feared at the beginning, which is the lie we tell ourselves—losing the dark and edgy allure.
“When I first started drinking I thought that alcohol would loosen my inhibition and open the creative door. Then I believed that if I did some cocaine it might stimulate another part of the brain hence opening another gate to inspiration. However, the problem was that it ended up taking that away from me and slamming that door shut. When I stopped drinking I had not written a decent song in a long time, and I found that I was actually writing again, occasionally even better than I ever did. Today I don’t analyze my writing but simply stay in the moment. I don’t know if what I do is better, but I certainly prefer the result now, compared to what came out when I was high. My life had become miserable.”
That’s what happened to me; in the months before I hit my bottom I had a novel to finish and I wasn’t able to write a decent page. My needs were of a different nature in order to survive. And, writing wasn’t a priority anymore. Those few words I’d type were heavy, angry, fearful and overflowing self-loathing. I couldn’t even look at my face in the mirror.
In the podcast we lose the thread of the conversation for a millisecond.
“This is the effect of drugs and alcohol.” – He laughs, instantly remembering what he wanted to say. The melody of his voice is calm and almost hypnotic, my non-narcotic pleasure for the afternoon.
“Any experience that you are going to have in life is going to be a better one if you are aware. If you can handle drinking and drugs then you are not unaware like we had become. There is a great deal of joy in writing songs not on anything, just being present. You feel the pure light of inspiration, words fitting with melody.”
I know what that pure light is, and a single ray can make your creative day. That’s one of the most beautiful discoveries in creative sobriety for me, with my growing up as well.
“Everything is intertwined, growing up, getting sober and writing more. All the solutions are mixed together and, meanwhile you get to know yourself better; it’s a journey. But speaking of being present, I attribute the same value of awareness to the hardest parts of life, like break-ups, divorces, career and financial problems, everything that really hurts; you must feel that, too. In fact, you don’t have the old out anymore, because you know that it will only make you more miserable.”
We mentioned Stevie Nicks earlier, so let’s travel back and forth in time, to the Sound City years. You featured in Dave Grohl’s documentary, and I’ve only recently found out that in 1994 he played drums with The Heartbreakers.
“Dave did play with us in 1994 when we lost our original drummer and the new fellow couldn’t make one gig. We all loved Nirvana, which was no more by then and, Tom took a risk and asked Dave. To our joy he said yes and played with us on Saturday Night Live—a hell of a lot of fun and truly a special experience. He is a special guy.”
What are your memories of the legendary Sound City Studio? The documentary is terrific and as a music lover/ former singer it tasted better than caviar to my musical palate…
“If you want to hear about community, Sound City was the place, gloomy and grungy, a wonderful home to make music. The staff and the owner were real family. However, it was both community and adversity. The room and the board were truly great and the music that was made there was terrific, but the place was nonetheless a real dive. Sometimes I think that you would record great albums there because there was nothing else to do. There wasn’t a pretty lounge to hang out, for example; Sound City’s was so gloomy that you didn’t want to set foot in it.”
Which albums did you record there?
“Damn the Torpedoes, Hard Promises, The Wildflowers and the album with Johnny Cash.”
So why was Sound City the destination for so many years?
“Because it sounded great and the people who owed the place were wonderful. The documentary, however, gives the impression that the studio isn’t there anymore, while it still exists, only with a different vibe, name and a nice lounge area. I worked there and the new owner bought a vintage board that came out of a studio in Nashville, being that Dave bought the original one. But the great room is still there.”
In my interviews I never ask questions about the future, but that’s because I am a nostalgic. Are you?
“I’m not a nostalgic; I only miss the past because I regret not being present enough to experience it. I’ve been out of my head since I was a kid; I was a daydreamer, or just in a massive amount of fear and self-loathing.”
We both laugh about it now, familiar with years and years of such feelings.
It’s weird, because you always gave me the impression of being such a serene and wise man…
“I don’t know about the wise part, but I am pretty serene. I have a very bad problem with depression and anxiety, so there’s always an undercurrent of that. However, when I got sober I took onto the idea of accepting the way things are, accepting life. When I don’t and fight it my temper comes back.”
Are you an angry guy?
“I’m a guy that occasionally bursts into anger. I won’t for a very long time and then something will set me off; but anger is usually directed towards myself, or towards inanimate objects like the jar of mayonnaise that I dropped on my toe at 2 in the morning. It isn’t usually directed at other people.”
Ben also reveals his hypersensitivity by sharing how situations and politics can make him angry.
“I have to constantly remind myself that—unless you are one of the very few gifted politicians—the biggest change happens one-on-one, in everyday life. If we’d only recognize that the person next to us used to be a kid just like us, we’d get straight on the way to a better world. I try to remind myself that getting on a high horse and decide that I know better about the world, or someone else’s life is not a valuable part of my personality. I do preach sometimes, but I’m aware that it isn’t the way. It’s a tough thing to get your ego, your pride and your will out-of-the-way—to find the right action to take.”
It’s a daily struggle for me, as I quite often tend to preach and judge.
“You spend your entire life learning how to do that. I try to approach life as I do with War and Peace; being that it looks so daunting and overwhelming I decided to read it one page at a time. Sometimes I read three pages in a day, sometimes I get lost and I read twenty, or even fifty. Eventually, you find that you are hanging out with the people in War and Peace. You aren’t reading a book that you have to finish; you’re just enjoying the company of the people in the book, thus the journey. So I’m not looking at my life as I have set goals to accomplish, except to learn and become a better person, less reactive and to contribute more to the world. My theory is that—since we are here—we should enjoy life and help others enjoying theirs, while having some damn fun.”
You mentioned always being out of your mind since a very young age. What kind of kid were you? I heard a funny story of you dropping out of college and not telling your dad; was it to play with Tom Petty?
“Oh my God, I did. My sister and I went to the same college and I decided not to go back to play with Tom and Mike full-time. I was going to tell my folks, but I didn’t want to upset them. My father was furious because I had lied to him. He was going to throw me out of the house. Tom was a lifesaver because he talked my father into what the band could do, and that I could always go back to college if things didn’t work out. My father was a brilliant man, he was nobody’s fool and he trusted us. So Tom must have been very eloquent because he was afraid that—had I been thrown out of my parents’ house—I would end up crashing on his couch. And, he did not want that.
How was Florida in the mid-1960s? You know that I wasn’t born in America and I love to gather authentic testimonies…
“Florida was a mixed bag. It was great for me, but I was white. For example, being that I wore glasses since I was a kid, I remember going to the eye doctor at 7 years old and seeing the ‘whites only’ waiting room, with another one around the corner that read ‘colored only’. Or the separate water fountains, too, and the only reason why I don’t recall separate sections on the city bus is because I did not ride the bus very often. In my household there was no racism nonetheless; my family was very bright, I must say.”
What did your parents do?
“My father was a lawyer and then a judge and my mother raised me and my three sisters.”
Do you still go back there?
“I haven’t been back for a few years, but we still own the family house; my little sister lives in it. I really love Gainesville and I thought it was a wonderful place to grow up, even though we were not near the beach. Today it’s different and, having said that every political extreme makes me feel uncomfortable, Florida has gone politically too far right.”
In an old interview you talked about the power of music, and how the meaning of a song evolves with time, acquiring new layers with each new listen. I think that’s what attributes art its timeless value. Did you experience something similar with those songs—in the new album—that you wrote years ago? I think it’s always an interesting process to witness the evolution of our emotions in connection with a piece of art, whether it is music, a book or a movie…
“It is interesting, because what I’ve found happening is that even though it still holds to the same emotional truth the meaning can change. With the passing of time, a song that I though was about a specific person or situation could easily become about something or somebody else. I am re-reading Moby Dick, just to give you a literary example, and although I got a lot out of it the first time I read it ten years ago, I am noticing a deeper involvement this time. I am getting something different out of the same story. I think that the way that your mind wraps around something, together with your level of awareness, helps you bring out more, or something different every time.”
In the extended podcast version Ben and I thoroughly discussed his new album, especially the mysterious and fascinating darkness of the title song, You Should Be So Lucky, with its haunting murder ballad feel. I know that he has heard the compliment a million times, but his version of Dylan’s Corrina Corrina is absolutely sublime, and I couldn’t help but share my thoughts with him. At this point of the conversation I was so at ease that I didn’t want the afternoon to end.
Are you still playing the album live?
“I just did a show at Largo last week, but I am about to leave on the US and Canada tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.”
Do you still enjoy the stage? I hear musicians say that playing live is the modern way for them to survive, being that nobody buys records anymore…
“It is, but I still love it. What I like, especially at Largo, is playing different stuff; I hate rehearsing. Last year with The Heartbreakers we played the Beacon Theater in New York and the Fonda, here in L.A., and we performed songs that we had not played in twenty or thirty years. We changed the set list a bit every night, so we were on our toes; I love that. I’m playing at Largo in a week with the Watkins Family Hour and frequently I’ll do a song or two of mine. You should come, it’s beautiful because we don’t have time to rehearse, so we just send a tape around with the songs; the first time we play them together is during the fifteen-minute soundcheck!”
How could I miss it? I never saw you live and it sounds like a musical improv.
“It is a musical improv, and it’s the perfect way to truly be in the moment. You have to come to Largo, it’s very special!”
He tells me how some people are put off by the notion that at Largo you can’t record and take photos, or by the fact that you are asked to switch off your cellphone. We are almost at the end of an intense hour of conversation that didn’t really follow rules, or a pre-established order. I share with Ben what Rob Flynn asked his audience during his acoustic concert in San Diego in 2013, to please refrain from recording and simply enjoy the show, instead of filtering the music through the limited screen of an iPhone. Ben actually knows who Flynn and Machine Head are, and he completely agrees.
It’s almost like the digital medium has become the only form of validation for what people experience. Nevertheless, by solely relying on it we miss out on the experience in itself.
“I completely agree with you, and it makes me think of two events in my life. 25 years ago I was in Spain with a friend and we were going down some beautiful mountain, rolling hills on a bus with a bunch of people. I was absorbed into the breathtaking scenery, and she had a film camera that was jammed and wouldn’t load; she ended up missing the entire thing while so determined to get the camera to work. Or, just another example is every time I go to the Louvre and I walk past the Mona Lisa; everybody’s taking pictures in front of it. Why can’t they just experience the painting? They can buy a professional photo on their way out, and it’s going to look a lot way better than an iPhone photo, too.”
We both laugh when I tell him that there is going to be a selfie for this article and the podcast. Ben tells me he is a big fan of that, at the right time. He actually took the cover photo for this interview, in which we both smile. He loved the bright green of one of my walls.
In the extended podcast version we discussed the role that performers, writers and filmmakers must undertake to entertain the audience. Ben walks to the kitchen table and grabs his phone to read out loud a quote from Tolstoy posted that day before on brainpickings.com—a website we both love.
A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.
He repeats the quote for the podcast listeners when closing time comes.
It’s very Zen; we go back to the ego…
“We do go back to the ego, but also—in life—isn’t our job to let the separation between yourself and the day be destroyed? That’s really Zen, beautiful practice. And, Dao is actually what I love; I have a few copies of the book, I wish I had one in my car for you. Have you ever read it?”
No, I haven’t. Is it my next task?
“It’s not a task but rather a joy, a pleasure. Whatever peace I do have so much comes from just reading it.”
I usually end my interviews with a question about serenity, but we have covered that already. What do you do in your daily life to balance the darkness and the depression, therefore achieving an acceptable level of serenity?
“Serenity is hard work. It basically consists of bringing myself up short and remembering that—in the big picture—things are really okay. However, I suffer badly from depression; I just got over a very rough week when I was everything but serene, really beaten down. I have therapy, the necessary medication and, when able to even lift a phone, I call and check in with somebody. Sometimes I lose my temper over things that are real, but there are times when the feeling is imagined, so I have to ask myself whether what hurts is truly important. In the band they know me pretty well, they are used to my temper when I get on my high horse, but at least now I have tools and a higher power. I don’t call it God because I think it’s limiting and not noble, but that’s what helps me stay sober and being aware of my patterns, let go of things. I look back to the day that ended and I try to gain a new perspective with a smile.”
Letting go means—as he explained in the finale—doing our part while looking both ways when crossing a street. Then we surrender, get out of the way. I could relate to every word of his and—being that I went through quite a rough week myself—I used some of the tools he suggested and came out of it a little bit stronger. I, too, start to recognize the patterns and smile a little bit more.
Having Bennmont Tench as my guest was a sublime pleasure, a tremendous source of learning and, truly, an unexpected gift.