The Dirty Knobs with Mike Campbell
While 2020’s Wreckless Abandon is their first official release and occasion to tour, The Dirty Knobs first came together 15 years ago after Mike Campbell met guitarist Jason Sinay at a session and liked the way their guitars sounded together. After adding the acclaimed rhythm section of bassist Lance Morrison (Don Henley) and drummer Matt Laug (Slash, Alanis Morrisette), The Dirty Knobs became an outlet for Campbell to work on some of the other songs he was writing between Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers records and touring. They got together when schedules permitted, playing music without an agenda, expectations or deadlines, without worrying about outcome or hits, pushing boundaries of taste, imagination, and genres and creating some of the most brutally confident yet psychically dangerous rock and roll since sonic-renegade juggernauts the Yardbirds first sauntered onto a London stage and ripped into “For Your Love.” As the years went on the Knobs played out here and there, almost incognito, in little clubs in Southern California. Looking mysterious and a little troubled in their mirror shades, neck scarfs, black shirts and vests, they were propelled out of rock’s murky past, but born full-blown. In a way, they were doing their own version of the Beatles’ formative, tighten-up Hamburg years: performing oddball covers but mostly original songs about bad women, complicated relationships and messy confrontations. Finally, after all those years together, it became clear they should take what they did to the next level. Campbell’s long-time compatriot, friend and bandmate, Tom Petty, had passed away, and after the numbing grief abated some, the guitarist knew the only way to heal some of the pain was to throw himself wholeheartedly back into his music. “Losing Tom was earth-shattering for me. It was a total shock.” says Campbell. “It had felt like we would be playing together forever. For a while it was hard to imagine playing in my own band again, let alone one where I’m the frontman. Tom was always my beacon. But everything I’ve been doing since Tom passed, including this album with The Dirty Knobs, is in the spirit of honoring what we did together.” They recorded the album at Campbell’s home studio, Hocus Pocus Recorders, in just three weeks’ time, before the guitarist went out on the road in 2018 as a member of Fleetwood Mac. The Knobs tapped legendary producer George Drakoulias, who had also produced Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ 2002 LP The Last DJ, to co-produce. They also contacted the equally fabled Klaus Voormann -- Beatles intimate, former member of Manfred Mann, and the artist behind Revolver -- to design their album cover. “From the very first, the Dirty Knobs just felt right,” says Campbell. “Everything just flowed. Recording the album was just an extension of that. This is a great group, there’s a chemistry here and there’s fun. You can’t underrate the importance of fun. It’s not something you can fake, but it is something you can hear in the album.”
“I can’t help but question, the path I never chose,” sings Sammy Brue roughly 10 seconds into “Gravity,” the alternately folky and punky leadoff track on his new album, Crash Test Kid. It may sound like a moment of uncertainty from the singer, songwriter and guitarist, but really, Brue set his life’s course from an early age—heck, he’s only 18 now—and there’s never been any doubt in his mind as to where he’s headed.
“Music has just been a part of my life since I was very young—it's been like my football or my soccer,” Brue says. “I stopped going to school to do it. Because I thought, If I could put seven hours a day into music, imagine where it's going to take me…”
Imagine, indeed. Since writing his first song (a fingerpicked, autobiographical tune titled “The Woody Guthrie Song”) at the age of 11, Brue has released three homespun EPs, his New West full-length debut, I Am Nice and a 2018 EP, Down with Desperation. In the process, the Ogden, Utah native has been hailed as an “Americana prodigy” by Rolling Stone, a “wunderkind” by American Songwriter and one of the “teenagers shaping pop” by The New Yorker; performed at the Newport Folk Festival and played shows with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lukas Nelson and Hayes Carll; and toured alongside Justin Townes Earl, who has become a mentor of sorts and also put Brue, at the time just 14, on the cover of his own album, Single Mothers.
But these myriad accomplishments may have just been the setup for what is arguably his finest work to date, Crash Test Kid, which finds Brue truly coming into his own with a collection of songs that are stylistically diverse, musically dynamic and emotionally unguarded. Brue has always been an artist seemingly wise beyond his years, but on Crash Test Kid he often gets at the heart of a matter or melody with just a simple but insightful turn of phrase or cleverly-picked guitar figure. He can sing candidly about his own life, such as on the statement-of-purpose leadoff track, which hinges on the refrain, “I don’t feel gravity, no, no, no,” and just as easily lay out a heartbreaking sketch of another’s dead-end path, as on the dark-hued, Sonic Youth-influenced “Skatepark Doomsday Blues,” whose protagonist keeps “his heart where it feels safe, underneath the grip tape.”
Elsewhere, Brue spins tales of love (the buoyant pop-rocker “Pendulum Thieves”), loss (the rootsy “Die Before You Live”) and rebirth (the swelling ballad “True Believer”), with a healthy dose of youthful rowdiness (“Teenage Mayhem”) and oddball impressionism (“Fishfoot”) thrown in for good measure.
If it feels like a decisive leap forward in what has already been a quickly-moving career, Brue would have to agree. “This is an album that I could have only dreamed of when I started playing music,” he says of Crash Test Kid. “It takes my voice to crazy places, and the riffs and melodies, they’re a little more technical but in a simple way that’s also catchy and fun. You can dance to it, you can cry to it, you can go crazy to it… It feels like something so special.”
And Brue isn’t alone in that feeling. “One of the things that’s so beautiful is I’ve already been playing these songs live, and I’ll see people's faces light up during some of the songs because they feel a line so hard,” he continues. “There’s such electricity.”
He points to the rambunctious rave-up “Teenage Mayhem” as an example. “We played that at a show in Logan, Utah, and everybody was just jumping and going crazy and crowd surfing in the audience,” Brue recalls, then laughs. “And I'm like, ‘You guys don't even know this song yet, but this is amazing!’ ”
The energy and exuberance that Brue has been witnessing in his audiences is baked into the very fabric of Crash Test Kid—even if he didn’t know it at first. Brue recorded his previous full-length, I Am Nice, in Muscle Shoals with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and John Paul White of the Civil Wars producing. But he took a different approach this time, collaborating with Irish singer-songwriter Iain Archer, who has worked with the likes of Jake Bugg and Snow Patrol. “I was really new to co-writing, so I wasn't sure how I felt about it,” Brue says. “I really just took a chance.” That chance paid off. “All of the songs were coming out with this positive, expressive, energetic vibe,” he says. “And I was really digging it.”
Of their co-writing sessions, Brue says, “It almost felt like therapy, because the songs were written from stories I was telling Iain, just venting to this man. He was writing things down as I was saying them, and then the conversation would keep going deeper and deeper into past experiences and what it was I was feeling.”
It was during one of these sessions that the song “Crash Test Kid,” a plaintive, piano-and-strings ballad that would also lend the album its title, came into being. “I was talking to Iain about the unification of people, what brings us all together, and that phrase came up,” Brue says. “It really stuck out to me. It’s almost like a superhero or something—the Crash Test Kid.”
As for what that “superhero” represents? “It’s the calloused versions of ourselves,” he explains. “You know, every day we're fighting for something, and every day we’re taking a hit on this crash test course.”
But Brue is less concerned with the hits themselves than in appreciating what comes from them. “It’s about learning from your experiences and reversing them,” Brue says. “Because we get stronger and stronger over time as a result.”
If this all sounds like a lot of life insight from someone just old enough to vote, not to mention still a few years away from being able to legally walk into a bar he might otherwise be performing in, well, Brue isn’t your average 18-year old. This is someone who, while other kids were planted in front of the TV watching cartoons, was immersing himself in his father’s Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan records (“I remember we would sing ‘This Land is Your Land’ in elementary school and I was like, ‘I know Woody Guthrie! This shit's tight!’,” Brue recalls with a laugh. “And everyone around me was like, ‘What?’ ”), someone who was learning how to fingerpick an acoustic guitar accompaniment to his own lyrics and vocal while other kids were playing with bats and balls.
“I love people and I love the kids I grew up with, but school just did not feel right to me,” Brue says. “It’s like I say in ‘Gravity’—‘I love the joy that’s all around me, I love this creaky town / the box they built was pretty but it could not bring me down.’ I think what was different about me was I wanted to get out in the world. I wanted to meet people from everywhere and play my music for them.”
One of the ways Brue did that early on was to make like his hero Woody Guthrie and hit the streets with his acoustic guitar. “Busking became my weekend thing,” Brue says. “Because my dad taught me that in order to be good, you gotta get your hours in.” While it wasn’t always easy going—Brue recalls once playing his guitar and singing “on a little wooden platform next to a ski lift in freezing temperatures,” it was also during one of these busking performances—on the streets of Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival, where he was discovered at just 14 years old. “We knew that a lot of people were going to be up at Sundance and it was just kind of how I made money,” Brue says. “So I was out on the streets playing and was spotted by a news anchor, and a crew came around to film me. It just took off from there.”
And so, just four short years later, here he is. Sammy Brue: lauded singer-songwriter; seasoned recording and performing artist; Crash Test Kid. But the journey hasn’t been without its struggles. “Early on the ups and downs were crazy,” Brue says of experiencing a fast-moving career at such a young age. “There have been times in my life where I was like, ‘I don't know what's going on right now,’ and just freaking out. I would get homesick, I would miss my family and friends, all of that. But I would say doing the Down with Desperation EP was a big turning point where I said, ‘You know what? Fuck this. We're going, and we're going 100%.’ Since then it's just been about learning and playing and fighting on and moving forward every day.”
As for what he hopes to accomplish in those coming days? “I want to spread a positive message, for sure,” Brue says. “I want to be able to have somebody listen to a song of mine and take away some good feeling from it.” He pauses. “And I want to be able to freaking throw the world's biggest drum circle.”
Brue laughs. “Yeah, that’s a big goal of mine.”