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Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell puts his own signature on the Dirty Knobs

The Dirty Knobs feature Mike Campbell (second from left) of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The Dirty Knobs feature Mike Campbell (second from left) of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.Pamela Littky

Mike Campbell was supposed to be busy this year touring behind the debut album of his longtime side band the Dirty Knobs. Instead, due to COVID pandemic, the guitarist has been holed up at home, sharing short performance videos via social media, and continuing to write songs. He even wrote one called “Lockdown.”

Those scrapped 2020 dates, including a couple in March at the Brighton Music Hall, have now been rescheduled for 2021. And Campbell and the Dirty Knobs — after a couple of delays — are poised to release “Wreckless Abandon” on Friday.

Songwriting is nothing new to Campbell. As a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Campbell helped co-write many of the band’s (and Petty’s solo) biggest hits. He also co-wrote with Don Henley, including the hit single “Boys of Summer.” However, his ambition as a songwriter goes beyond trying to get a hit. He enjoys the spontaneous moments where a song leads him to unexpected places.

“Sometimes when you start writing a song, you don’t know where they’re going to lead you,” says Campbell in an interview earlier this year. “You just kind of follow the ideas that come in. It’s all kind of stream of consciousness. That’s what’s so fascinating about songwriting. It’s kind of magical.”

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It’s something that’s helped him cope with the loss of Petty, his longtime friend and collaborator who died in 2017 days after completing the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour. Campbell found it comforting and therapeutic to immerse himself in music.

“That was very helpful in helping me work through my grief and gave me something to do,” he says. “It keeps my mind on positive things.”

In 2018, Campbell joined Fleetwood Mac and toured with them for a year and a half. He also returned to the studio with the LA-based Dirty Knobs — a group he started about 15 years ago as a way to keep busy between Heartbreakers’ tours — to record their debut album.

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The band also features guitarist Jason Sinay, bassist Lance Morrison, and drummer Matt Laug. Cutting its teeth through frequent performances around California and elsewhere, the band quickly became more than just a side project.

“I never wanted to be a solo artist. I always wanted to be in a band,” says Campbell. “And we’re like a brotherhood. We’ve been doing this for all these years just for the love of playing together. And when we play gigs, people seem to like it, too.”

The album, an eclectic mix of rock, blues, and country, was recorded mostly live in the studio. The title track is indicative of the band’s mantra to let loose.

“We kind of play with reckless abandon,” says Campbell. “It’s not scripted all the time. There are places in the Knobs where we’ll just make stuff up at the end of a song. Maybe we won’t end it. Maybe we’ll go on another three minutes and see what the guitar does. You go into it with reckless abandon and hope that some kind of magic might happen. And usually it does.”

The album features guest appearances by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Stapleton, fellow Heartbreaker and keyboardist Benmont Tench, and Tex-Mex musician Augie Meyers. The Dirty Knobs will open for Stapleton on dates next summer. Campbell says Stapleton is “cut from the same cloth” musically.

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“[Chris] wanted to write songs with me. One day he goes, ‘I was thinking a good idea for a song might be the line “[expletive] that guy.” ‘ So I threw that together in like two minutes, and we recorded it. That was real spontaneous and kind of a surprise. I wasn’t expecting that to happen, but it was fun.”

As a songwriter, Campbell enjoys “playing with words” and “coming up with “lines that aren’t the obvious rhyme necessarily.” He also enjoys writing lyrics that have a tinge of hopefulness.

“I like songs that can be dark or threatening or dangerous, but it’s a better song if you can keep that and somehow stick a little bit of that things are going to be okay at the end, we’re going to work through this, and there’s a brighter light on the other side of the road.”

Likewise, Campbell has embraced the challenge of being the band’s lead singer and songwriter and finding his own voice. While he mostly deferred to Petty to handle those roles in the Heartbreakers, he eventually found himself writing more than Petty could keep up with. That abundance of songs led to him writing and singing more on his own to “see what the song might be.”

“I don’t really consider myself a singer. I guess I’m more of a stylist,” says Campbell. “But I did gain confidence over the years doing all those club dates with my band and being in front of an audience and having to engage them without playing hit songs.

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“When I very first started singing, I tended to sound a bit like my partner, because that’s all I ever heard. And so, when I did the record, one of my goals was to filter out anything that sounded too much like Tom, because that’s not what I want to do,” he says. “I think I accomplished getting my own voice and sounding like myself.”

The Dirty Knobs will perform live from The Troubadour in Los Angeles Friday at 8 p.m. A livestream will be available on-demand through Nov. 30. Donations are encouraged, but not required to National Independent Venue Association. Details here. Tickets are on sale for shows Sept. 23-24, 2021, at Brighton Music Hall at crossroadspresents.com/pages/brighton-music-hall