Before easing into a conversation about his new album with the Heartbreakers, “Hypnotic Eye,” the longtime Malibu beach-dweller Tom Petty has a score to settle. It’s in response to an old Times survey of Los Angeles’ most enduring rock bands.
Specifically: He and the Heartbreakers shouldn’t have been disqualified because of his north Florida roots.
“We’re an L.A. band,” says Petty with a good-natured but emphatic tone, puffing on a vapor pen while lounging in his home studio. The Heartbreakers were birthed in this city, he adds.
The slight bugged him for years, says the singer, songwriter and guitarist, 63, mostly because of the ribbing he got from his peers. “I got the finger shaken at me by so many people. ‘Hey, you’re not an L.A. band!’”
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“Free Fallin’,” his solo ode to cruising the San Fernando Valley, cemented his residency years ago, as did the Roger McGuinn-suggestive Rickenbacker strum of “The Waiting” before that.
Let the record show that Petty and his Heartbreakers, upon the July 29 release of their 13th studio album and after thousands of concerts, three solo records and hundreds of hours in area studios, should be deemed an L.A. band – backdated to the 1970s.
“Hypnotic Eye,” only the second Heartbreakers album in 12 years, closes the argument. Opening with a basic statement of purpose – “I’m gonna make my way through this world some day / I don’t care what nobody say” – Petty and band roll through a collection whose emotions range from profound love to bitter cynicism. Petty tackles optimism on “American Dream Plan B” and recalls midnight interludes on the lovely midtempo love song “Red River.”
The tangled guitar line that opens “Power Drunk,” courtesy of Mike Campbell, mixes with keyboard player Benmont Tench’s organ chords on a song about the intoxicating allure of power. Closer “Shadow People” is a lovely meditation on isolation and communion. “Fault Lines” is the best Petty song in years.
It doesn’t get any easier to make them. Petty says that as the years have passed it’s gotten tougher for him and Campbell to pen a passable composition.
For generations, Petty and band have been the no-nonsense voice of a brand of rock that cut through pretense, haircuts and studio trickery to craft songs that resonated without being dumb, cloying, gratuitous or commercially designed trend-hoppers.
His classics since his rise in the mid-1970s have transcended subgenre, part of a philosophy that avoided scenes and synthesizers. The Heartbreakers first broke in England, where they found kindred spirits in bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols, but were outsiders by design. They were more interested in the sound coming from Los Angeles in the mid-1960s than the punk tropes of a decade later.
Boogie rock, disco, metal, synth-pop, grunge, rap rock, indie rock, blog rock and dance rock have come and gone, but the Heartbreakers endure through a focus nearly identical in 2014 as in their first Los Angeles gigs.
Less bluesy by design than 2010’s “Mojo,” his most recent Heartbreakers record, the 11 new songs on “Hypnotic Eye” draw on riff-heavy rock, gentle swagger, coolly recollected moments, blues (always blues), much masterful guitar work from founding Heartbreakers Campbell and Tench’s typically light and efficient touch on piano and keyboards.
“I wanted it to be a pretty rock ‘n’ roll album from top to bottom,” says Petty. They started work on it three years ago between tours and were inspired anew, he says, by young rock bands and “the wild abandon of the sounds and energy. I wanted to do some of that – but in the way that we would do it.” Cue “Faultlines,” a riveting, surprising song about the fractures and tectonic shifts that occur within ourselves and our lives. A work that couldn’t have been penned anywhere but Southern California or by anyone but Petty and Campbell, it confirms not only the group’s stature but its continued inventiveness.
“I love that song,” Petty says, his eyes shining as he talks about the spark that generated the lyrical theme. “It’s so strange how that stuff works, how it pops in your head.”