“We played the opening show in Oklahoma City, and it was really cool,” founding Heartbreaker Benmont Tench tells me via phone from Dallas, Texas. “I was super nervous, because I felt less prepared than usual. I like feeling unprepared, except when I can’t remember things like, “Oh yeah, the keyboard for ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ is behind me, and I’m facing the wrong way during that section of the song! But besides that, I thought it was a really good gig!”
Long-regarded as one of the high priests of rock and roll keyboards, Benmont Tench has made a habit out of saying things his way, both in front of and away from his instruments. Since he burst onto the scene some four decades ago with a near symphonic sonic sensibility, the Los Angeles-based sideman (and occasional bandleader) has been in high demand for both live and session work. Chances are, if a recent rock record has a searing Hammond solo or a near-perfect piano part, it belongs to Benmont Tench.
The morning after he played the first gig on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 40th Anniversary Tour, Tench made time to talk to me about his latest romp with the band.
I read a recent interview with your bandmate Mike Campbell where he said he thought the band was sounding better than it had in a long time.
Yeah, I think there’s something different. I think we sound more soulful, which makes me super happy. There’s a kind of soulfulness going on that I haven’t heard in the band for a really long time, and I don’t know what to pin it on. But I think it’s gotten deeper, and I’m happy. Because when you keep going this long, you want things to get deeper.
Is it also a reflection of the fact that as you get older, you hopefully begin to appreciate things more?
Well, that’s true. But to me, really great music has an undercurrent of humor or sorrow. And those are both feeling pretty big in the band right now. There’s no cause for sorrow in the band, but that’s just the human condition. So I’m having a ball out there, but I hear this thing – this depth and soulfulness. And that’s really what I look for in music. So when it comes forth spontaneously from the band - especially after all of this time and in songs where I wouldn’t expect it, I’m really appreciative of that.
What kind of preparation did you and the band do for the tour? Was there a working set list that you guys started to flesh-out?
Well, what the Hell’s a working set list anyway? [He laughs]. We’ve got one now, but usually we just get together and play through a bunch of songs at the Clubhouse, the Los Angeles warehouse where we have all of our gear. We always rehearse there, and we recorded the last few Mudcrutch and Heartbreakers albums there. For this tour, we set-up there for five days and just kind of jammed. But when we get together, we don’t play our stuff. We play Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters.
You never play your own songs?
Hell, no. I mean, they’re great songs. We get together before we tour and play them. And Tom [Petty]’s such a good songwriter – he and Mike [Campbell]. But what happens is, we start to edge into stuff that we don’t play a bunch. We don’t go, “Let’s play ‘Refugee,’” until the night before we leave. Honest to God.
But before you leave for the tour, you run through everything?
We don’t necessarily do a whole ‘run through.’ [He laughs]. And that’s one thing that I really love. We’re in good enough shape – everyone in the band plays all the time. The Heartbreakers haven’t done anything for a while since the Hypnotic Eye tour, but we did get together to play for the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year Award. Mike, Tom and I did the Mudcrutch record, and Ron [Blair]’s always playing. So it isn’t like we’ve been sitting around doing nothing! I play all the time with Sara and Sean Watkins, and I’ve also been doing some really fun sessions.
What gear are you using on the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary Tour?
I’m using my Hammond C3 organ that I’ve had forever, with a Wurly on top. Also, my Steinway B grand piano that I picked-out for the tour. The people at Steinway set a bunch of them up and I was like, “Wow. This one’s terrific!” They were great, and it’s the best one I’ve had in a while for touring. I have a Nord Stage EX on top of the Steinway, and I also have a Vox Continental with a Yamaha DX7 on top. I use the DX7 only for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” because I don’t like DX7’s at all. But that’s what makes that sound!
So you’re still using your original DX7 from the time that song came out in 1985?
It’s the only one I’ve ever had! But there’s a spare one somewhere. Before they were ever available in America, Don Henley got me one when they were only available in Japan because he loved it. And I had fun with some of the sounds in it for a while, but they got old fast. They didn’t wear well to me, and the fact that they DX7 doesn’t have an ADSR and you can’t just reach over and turn a knob and say, “Ok, I need to change the filter on this,” or, “I need less attack,” is insane to me. It actually makes me furious. If we didn’t play “Don’t Come Around Here No More” ever again, which wouldn’t make me happy, I would have a party and get an axe, and I’d make a big bonfire, and I would destroy that damn thing. I hate the DX7.
The Nord has been really effective and good, but for the purposes of playing with The Heartbreakers, I’m thinking of getting my Oberheim OB-Xa’s from storage and going back to them. There’s just something about analog that’s special. Also, on the last couple of tours, I used the digital Mellotron, but I couldn’t get it to sound right. I realized the deal is that if you take a mono sound out of it, you can turn the tone down. But if you’re taking it out direct and you want two different stereo signals, it bypasses the tone and it sounds too harsh. So what I’ve done is I’ve gone back to the old, lower quality Mellotron and Chamberlain samples that I used on the Echo tour. They come from the David Kean library, and they’re playing through an [Akai] S-series sampler, triggered off of the DX7. These are the samples I used back on the Johnny Cash records and other things with Rick Rubin, if I wasn’t able to get the Chamberlin into my car! And they sound infinitely better to me.
What kind of Leslie are you using with your Hammond C3 organ these days?
[Famed keyboard restoration expert] Bill Beer modified my Leslie and my Hammond, close to 40 years ago. It was magic stuff. But when he passed away, he took all of his secrets with him. The Leslie deteriorated, and the Hammond changed. My friend Ken Rich – who’s a brilliant keyboard tech wizard, restored the Hammond his way, but he still kept a lot of what I liked about what Bill had done. He also worked on the Leslie, but it never quite got back to where it needed to be. It was a Solid State model, so I switched to a tube version. And it was great – I used it for the last 15 years or so. But every time I heard “Refugee” or “The Waiting” on the radio, I heard how the Leslie and the guitars co-existed with each other. It’s like the Hammond was loud, but it didn’t take any room away from the guitars. So I went back to Ken, and now I have that Hammond and Leslie combo from Damn the Torpedoes. It’s the closest it’s been since then. The way it rings with the guitars is a real joy.
You’re known to have a real penchant for effects pedals. Don’t you have an effects loop on your Hammond?
Yeah. Bill Beer put that in. I didn’t know there was an effects loop in it. I thought there was a “direct out,” and then I thought that there was a “line in” in case I wanted to run the keyboard that was sitting on top of the Hammond into the Leslie as well. After I had it for about 10 or 12 years, I did a session with The Cult. Someone said, “This Leslie sounds so clean, can you distort it?” And I said, "I don’t think so." And they looked at my Hammond and said, “Oh, you’ve got an effects loop. Let’s get a fuzz pedal!” I was like, “What?” And I was off to the races. I started out with a little Turbo Fuzz, that I also used on a song on the album All Shook Down by The Replacements. Over the years, I’ve tried other things as well. I have a couple of pedals by Line 6, and Ryan Adams, God bless him, gave me a couple of Electro-Harmonix pedals like the Memory Man and the Electric Mistress flange pedal. I also have a tremolo pedal and a turbo boost as well. These are all for the Hammond, and I also use the spring reverb that’s built into it as well. Ever since I got this organ back around 1977, I’ve used this reverb. It gentles it up. Nobody can do what [Band keyboardist] Garth Hudson does. However, there are settings on that Lowrey organ he plays where the attack is a little softer. And that changes the effect of how you play. So I find that using things like the Electro-Harmonix pedals allows me to soften the attack. It’s fun. I even have a Line 6 modulation pedal on the DX7 to give it a little bit of chorus. That makes it tolerable. I also sometimes run my Vox Continental through a Leslie simulator.
Your use of pedals seems to be yet another example of your philosophy on playing organ – the idea that it’s a dynamic instrument and you have to work it, changing drawbars and chorus settings to bring out different parts of a song.
Well, it’s one way to approach the instrument. That’s one reason that I don’t play synthesizers well. On a synthesizer, you tend to have “that patch.” Some people are really good at that – finding a sound on the Hammond and playing it all through a song. It’s just a different approach. In the early 1980’s, I played on Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love album, and he had a Vox Continental. I had never played a Continental in a band – I had only played Farfisas. After doing that record, I went-out and got one, and I used it sporadically in The Heartbreakers. Tom wanted Farfisa when we did the first Mudcrutch album. On the second album, I broke-out the Continental, as well as on Hypnotic Eye with The Heartbreakers. I’ve really gotten into it. You can’t really move the drawbars much during the song on it, because they click between settings. It’s not as smooth as on the Hammond.
If I recall correctly, you also played the Vox Continental with Ryan Adams.
Yeah. On his album Ryan Adams, whichhas no Hammond on it. On that one, it’s either Vox Continental through a Leslie, or a tiny little Casio keyboard through Electro-Harmonix pedals through a Leslie.
On this tour celebrating 40 years of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, are there any songs that are particularly fun for you to play?
Tom will usually say, “I don’t know if this one works, or if that one works,” and usually what we ditch end up being my favorites. But on our first show in Oklahoma City, we opened with "Rockin' Around (With You),” which was the first song on the first record. I played an ARP String Ensemble on the record, and in Oklahoma City, I got the best ARP sound I could out of the Nord. And it was so much fun.
Do you still have as much fun playing the organ solo on “Refugee” as your fans have listening to it?
You know, I was thinking the other night when I played it on the first gig, that it sounded more like “Refugee” than it had in 15 years. It made me so happy. I’m so loud on this tour! [He laughs]. Finally, I’m as loud as Campbell. I thought, “The Hell with it. I’ll get as loud as the guitars. I’ll just turn up like I’m playing through a Marshall stack!