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Chemistry only deepens for Tom Petty and longtime collaborators the Heartbreakers

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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' new album is their first to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

MARY ELLEN MATTHEWS PHOTO Enlarge Image

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' new album is their first to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

Nearly 40 years in, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are reaching new milestones.

The band's new record, Hypnotic Eye, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 upon its release last month -- the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record to do so.

"It feels great," founding keyboardist Benmont Tench says over the phone from San Francisco. "It's a silly thing on one level, but it's great. After all this time and all these records, it's gratifying."

The band -- which also includes founding guitarist Mike Campbell, Ron Blair (bass), Scott Thurston (guitar/harmonica/synth) and Steve Ferrone (drums) -- is touring in support of the new record, stopping in at the MTS Centre on Aug. 21. Tench says the shows have been a lot of fun and the new material has been going over great -- no surprise, considering that Hypnotic Eye is a tight, bright, rock 'n' roll record that sounds like it was made by a group of friends.

"There's a lot of very guitar-driven stuff, so the spirit of it is infectious. I love rock 'n' roll. It was a fun record to make. And it's always fun to get your hands and mind around a song by a really great songwriter."

Tench has been engineering classic rock hits with Petty since 1976. He says the process is quite collaborative; Petty brings in a song and the band will "fall in and start playing and see what comes with it." The Heartbreakers always have one main goal: do the song justice.

So, does Tench ever feel pressure to deliver? "I don't think it's pressure -- and reverence is too strong a word. It's respect. You want to serve the song. You want to be inside the song. You want to disappear so that there's nothing between the listener and the song."

Many critics have heralded Hypnotic Eye as a return to form, recalling the vibe and spirit of 1976's self-titled album and 1978's You're Gonna Get It!

"I appreciate and understand why people think it's a return, but we'd never say, 'Let's go back and do something that sounds like something we've done before,'" Tench says. "I think Tom just wanted to make a rock 'n' roll record. The last record (2010's Mojo) was a bit more bluesy. This record is maybe a little more aggressive. It sounds like us right now to me."

Indeed, the record sounds like the Heartbreakers "four decades and a million shows later, deepening their attack with sturdy reliability," to quote Rolling Stone. Hypnotic Eye is built with craftsmanlike precision, but it's not mechanical. The chemistry between these players is palpable.

"We had that chemistry pretty early on, which is why we're still together," Tench says. "We've always played off each other well, but it gets deeper over the years. That's what makes bands that last."

Few acts have had the staying power of the Heartbreakers. It's one thing to keep going -- it's another thing entirely to stay relevant. That the band has been able to do both isn't lost on Tench.

"I'm really grateful. I'm grateful people care about what we do. I think we're a damn good rock band and I think we have a damn good rock 'n' roll show. But it can be mind-blowing to come out to an audience that's so happy to see you. Boy, it's quite a feeling. It's quite a feeling."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2014 C7

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