Today marks the release date of a much anticipated collection, Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All The Rest double album, as well as several extended sets. The history behind the solo work starts with Tom Petty's intention to create an album called Wildflowers in 1994, which he then wished to extend to a double-album due to the large amount of material generated during the Wildflowers sessions. He was dissuaded from doing that, and Wildflowers was released as a single album, to a great deal of acclaim.
A number of the other songs generated during the Wildflower sessions became part of live performances from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Some of them were loaned out to other musicians. It seems that they were never wholly absent from Tom Petty's mind. During the final year before his death, he not only had plans to release the double album as Wildflowers & All The Rest, but chose the tracks and began work on preparing the release. Now, to honor his wishes and also bring a lot more related material to the public for the first time, Wildflowers & All The Rest is being released as a two CD set, a four CD set, a 3LP set, and a deluxe 7LP set with book with a great deal of interesting finds for fans, including unreleased tracks, demo recordings, live performance recordings, and more.
Tom Petty's longtime engineer and co-Producer on Wildflowers & All The Rest, Ryan Ulyate, joins Tower's PULSE! today for a very special interview about how the materials were gathered, chosen, and mastered for this release. He also shares some wonderful stories about working closely with Tom Petty over the years.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I saw that you had done some speaking on Sirius Radio to talk about this project.
Ryan Ulyate: I think I went on there a couple of times, and once was just to announce that this project was coming out. Another one was to talk about a particular song which they had released called “Confusion Wheel”. Then a third time, I actually did my own radio show for the first time, which was a lot of fun.
HMS: Was your show a single installment?
RU: I did one radio show where I found a bunch of takes of little jams that they had been doing. When I went through all these tapes to find material for Wildflowers, every so often they’d just do a little jam, just to break the mood or clear their head. I would always make note of them, and I flagged about 12 or 15 of them. I made little rough mixes of them and put a radio show together around them, called “Between the Takes”. It was a lot of fun stuff that would not come out on a box set but was fun to hear. They did a cover of “Colours”, the Donovan song.
HMS: That is so awesome. Clearly you should do more of those for us.
RU: Absolutely! I did a show with Tom for many years called “Buried Treasure” and they run it on the Sirius channel a lot. I think there were about 200 shows and that was so much fun. He would just bring out this obscure music that I knew nothing about. It was always so much fun for me to go over to his house and see what he had dragged out of his iTunes library. He had such an encyclopedic knowledge of music, too.
HMS: That’s outstanding. That’s what you’d call a “fan’s fan”.
RU: Yes. I’ve always told people that he was as good as he was because he was a fan of music. He listened to so much stuff. He had that huge pool to draw upon and it made him a better writer.
HMS: It sounds like it was never over for him, there was always more to know or more to learn.
RU: That’s right. And that was one of the reasons we all got along so well. He was a real perfectionist and he had a very high bar. And so did I. We’d all say, “One of these days we’ll make a real good record!”
HMS: [Laughs] Wow!
RU: Sometimes we’d record something with the band and it would be great, but then he’d say, “Yeah, but I’ve already done that. I’ve been down that road. Let’s do something else.” He was always about challenging himself and those around him to go somewhere they hadn’t been before.
HMS: As we all know, I think, in life there are different ways to be a perfectionist. There’s the way that alienates people and there’s the way that’s charming, which is much rarer, and it sounds like he had the charming approach.
RU: He did. He brought out the best in people around him. He had very loyal people around him and he let everyone do their job to the best of their ability. He knew that was going to reflect well on him. He was a certain kind of perfectionist, but it was a joyous perfectionist.
HMS: That’s really special. I wonder, from a technical standpoint, how is this project similar or different from other projects that you’ve worked on in the past.
RU: The similarity is that in my years with Tom, I have pulled hundreds and hundreds of tapes out of the library, listened to what’s on them, and reported back. It’s that kind of an archival thing. The first thing we really dived into the library for as a four disc “Live Anthology” in 2008. That was literally a year’s worth of work to go through hundreds of reels of tape, make rough mixes, work with Tom and Mike, take the best takes, and make proper mixes. So I was already geared up for big, long-term project where you weed things out and look for gems. I’d been trained for that for well over a decade.
The thing that is different about this is just some of the gems that we found when transferring stuff. We found songs, we found a home recording for “There Goes Angela”. The box wasn’t even marked, it was on a blank, 8-track digital tape. The fun thing about this project was finding these moments that you’re only going to find when you actually play everything and look at everything. That was such a joy.
HMS: So the possibilities for discovery were bigger here? Did you suspect that they might be, or was that kind of a shocker for you?
RU: Yes, they were bigger. On a typical album, you have a certain amount of takes and a certain amount of outtakes. Wildflowers was 245 reels of multi-track tape. That’s a lot of tape, over 61 hours. That’s a lot of recording for one album, even a double album. You know when you have that much tape, there’s going to be stuff on there.
When they recorded it, they started in July of 1992 and ended in April of 1994. That’s a good year and eight months of recording for this thing. That tipped us off that there would be stuff to discover.
HMS: That is so amazing. You also worked on the collection, An American Treasure, which came out after Tom’s passing, I think. Was that all made of existing material that everyone knew about?
RU: There was a certain amount of looking for new material on that one, but not on the scale of this one.
HMS: Right, so it kind of eased you into the situation?
RU: That was more of an overview of Tom’s career, and there was a real overview from the family that they wanted it to be a way of introducing Tom differently than the “rock star guy”. They wanted it to be more like, “Here is this songwriter”. So we’d look at the different albums and say, “Is there an unreleased track from this album that we can find? Is there something else that highlights that artistry.” So we dipped in. But this was more of a full-on immersion, deep dive for this one particular album.
HMS: Thank you for explaining that. What’s so neat about this album is that it’s a focus in on a specific point in time, in a way. You could focus in on just those sessions.
RU: It’s also great because Tom was really proud of Wildflowers and saw it as a high point in his career, and we’d already started putting this material together for the second disc before he died. We were going through the demos. This was something he was going to get right back to. This is us, the estate, and the family, trying to do our best to honor what his wishes were and where he would have wanted to go, if he was still with us.
HMS: I think that’s really cool for fans to know that, if they look at the two CD set of Wildflowers & All The Rest, he actually chose these tracks and in this order. That is exactly what he chose to do.
RU: Yes, it is.
HMS: But, of course, on the wider, expanded release, there is so much great material also beyond that. From a professional standpoint, just to talk about the materials you were handling, I know there were two-inch tapes, there were some 8-tracks, and there were live recordings. What were some of the challenges there of working with those different formats but bringing them together into one format that you could present to the world?
RU: When you take these old tapes, you have to bake them in an oven for 12 hours at 130 degrees. It’s this dumb thing you have to do now to preserve them.
HMS: That is wild!
RU: Basically, a recording tape is a piece of plastic with a bunch of metal particles on it that are glued onto the tape. The metal has the magnetism that makes the recording. What happens over time is that the glue that holds the metal migrates to the front part of the tape and the tape gets sticky. If you try to put it on a tape machine, it plays for a minute, and then it just stops because it’s sticky.
Some archivist figured out years ago that what you do is you put a tape in the oven at 130 degrees, and it varies how long you should do it, but it pushes the glue back. Once you do that, the tapes come back fine. These tapes from Wildflowers are 25 years old. But once you do that, you can play them perfectly on any tape machine. Then you transfer it, digitizing it by transferring it into Pro Tools. You do the transfer once and you get everything.
It was the same thing with the 8-track tapes, except those were even dicier. They were in a format which was like a VHS tape. Those things you have to get transferred, once again, and have to digitize them, and then you can work with it.
Honestly, the quality of the stuff was really good. Tom always had good Producers and engineers, so the quality of the material is always good. It’s easy, on one level.
HMS: I don’t think I’ll ever get over the idea of putting valuable tapes in the oven for 12 hours, but I’ll leave it to the experts! It sounds like these were not stored in an attic or garage.
RU: Tom, very intelligently, made sure that he delivered to the record label the masters of the songs that were released and anything that was an outtake, he held onto and put in his private vault. I think he was always conscious of having a legacy and preserving that. That worked out to everyone’s advantage and I daresay, will continue to. There is more stuff that can be put out.
HMS: That’s wonderful to hear. This sounds like a great place to start because you do know so much of his intentions on this project.
I wanted going to ask you about the emotional component of bringing this material forward to The Heartbreakers and to the estate to look at. What has that journey been like for you? You’ve almost been like their guide through the material.
RU: Sometimes it’s tough for people to hear the material, because they love the guy so much and it reminds you of the fact that he’s gone. It is emotional. Sometimes it’s a lot to take. But the other side of that is that this music is so rewarding, and to have everyone else hear it and to further his legacy is also emotionally satisfying.
HMS: I can definitely understand that.
I saw this great quote from Tom’s last interview up on your website about The Hearbreakers and his work, which he describes as “holy”. But the line which reminded me of this project was,
“…it was more than commerce. It wasn’t about that. It was about something much greater. It was about moving people and changing the world. I really believed in Rock ‘n Roll and I still do.”
I wondered if you’d like to comment on that in relation to this project, because I think the care that’s gone into this project has been much more than necessary for a purely commercial project. It’s clear that everyone involved cares a great deal about the work. It goes above and beyond, in my opinion.
RU: It is like a spiritual thing, it was to Tom and, I think, to everyone around him. It is to me. My Dad was a professional musician, so music has always been very important to me on a soul level in way that makes your life rich and gives it meaning. I know that’s how the band feels, and his family. We all feel the power of music and absolutely wanted this project to be as good as it could be. Tom really wanted to celebrate the power of music.
We also just wanted to put out something really good. It feels good to put out something really good! They did a great job on the packaging and the artwork, too, and it just feels like a quality thing. We also didn’t overwork things, though, which was important.
HMS: As a listener, I feel like I can hear that, actually. In your line of work, you know what over-layering and over-compressing can do to really take the air out of things. But from what I’ve heard, there’s a real freshness to the sound on this collection. I can’t wait to hear it on vinyl, but I’m sure I’ll find that’s audible there, too.
RU: The vinyl is really nice. One of the unique things about Wildflowers was actually that they worked really hard to get something really simple and direct. They worked really hard to get to the essence of each song. Like you said, it doesn’t have any adornments that get in the way of the song. Every note of each song conveys the emotion that Tom wished to convey.
HMS: I saw some information that maybe you can enlighten me about. I heard that the demo version of “Wildflowers” is the actual method whereby he wrote that song. Did he really write it in real time while recording that demo?
RU: Yes. He told me that he wrote that song on the spot. [Laughs] He said, “I just sat down, and I played it, and out it came.” He was really proud of that. One thing you’ll notice when you listen to that demo is that he knows while he’s playing it that at some point he’s going to have to go and find a bridge for it. So he plays the bridge from “To Find a Friend”.
So while he’s spontaneously playing this thing, he knows he needs a bridge, and he’s already written “To Find a Friend” so he just throws it in there. I don’t doubt that story. I heard enough tapes of him jamming in the studio, where he’d literally be making up words and calling out the chords to the rest of the band. Some of those things are on that radio show that I did. I know he was fully capable of improvising lyrics from hearing him in other contexts. So that’s how he did that demo.
HMS: You’ve just answered my related question, which was: How often do you think he did that? The answer is: At least some of the time.
RU: Yes, they were unafraid to just go in there and bang things out. A lot of the songs Tom wrote were crafted by himself on guitar, but there were also plenty of jams that would turn into something. I think with “Honeybee”, Tom found a riff, and the band just started playing it, and he just started throwing out words. Then it’s a matter of going back, taking a rough mix home, and working on lyrics. There were several different ways of getting at a song and sometimes the spontaneous way would let stuff out of the subconscious in a way that you’re just not going to get if you think about it.
HMS: I have heard of some musicians working in that way to write songs, but the only time I’ve come across situations where they came close to a final version that way would be The Rolling Stones, coming up with things on the fly in a studio. But it can’t be that common to get so close to the final version as Tom does with “Wildflowers”.
RU: We had that rule in the studio. If you’re asking, “Should I do it?”, just do it, and the speakers won’t lie. Do it, and we’ll play it back. If it sucks, we’ll know it. It might not suck. It’s like when you’re brainstorming, there are no bad ideas.
HMS: You’ve been working in music, doing wonderful things, for some time. Did you have any overlap with Tower Records?
RU: Are you kidding? Tower Records on the Sunset Strip was like Mecca. I think I probably bought Who’s Next there. I probably bought Live at Leeds there back in 1970. Funnily, I was in Japan last September, on the last big trip that we were able to take before the world stopped. I was with my son, who was 17 at the time. I said, “We have got to go to Tower Records!” And Tower Records in Tokyo was quite a thing. A whole floor for K-Pop, a whole floor for J-Pop. I love that place.
HMS: You may remember, then, that Tower Records’ motto is “No Music, No Life”, also written as “Know Music, Know Life”.
RU: Yes, I still have that bag from Tokyo. I kept it!
HMS: Which of those do you prefer, and how does it apply to your life?
RU: In terms of my biography, “No Music, No Life” works. My whole life has been about music. My Dad was in the 20th Century Fox Orchestra who played at Disneyland. We grew up around music. He had a big old McIntosh mono amplifier and we’d play the soundtrack to The Sound of Music because he recorded on it. I discovered his mono tape recorder when I was six years old, in his closet. He had a band called The Hollywood Saxophone Quartet and they used to play these difficult classical pieces with four saxophones. My Dad played Bass Sax, a massive instrument.
I still have that moment seared into my brain when I discovered that tape recorder and that microphone. It was that moment from 2001 when the monkey picks up the bone. I thought, “This is powerful.” I started messing around from that age. I got a reel to reel when I was 12, I got a 4-track when I was 14. I have been messing around with tape recorders and music my whole life. So it is my whole life. So it’s “No Music, No Life”.