Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers & All the Rest’: Producer Ryan Ulyate on Unsealing the Petty Vaults

Chris Willman
·15-min read

It’s good to be keeper of the Tom Petty vaults, Ryan Ulyate has found. Just three years on from the musician’s 2017 death, it seems as if there might still be enough material left behind to keep Ulyate and Petty fans occupied for many more years to come, should his estate will it. For now, though, it’s more than enough to have “Wildflowers & All the Rest,” a package that in various configurations brings together the 1994 anchor album — Petty’s most beloved, among many fans — with an additional album’s worth of completed material from the sessions, plus home demos, alternative band versions and live tracks. As the compilation producer, it was up to Ulyate to give the jewel of his former boss’s catalog an emerald-worthy presentation.

Variety spoke with Ulyate about the years-in-the-making endeavor, along with separate Q&As with Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench (read here) and Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty (read here).

VARIETY: Can you talk about how you came to be in the world of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers?

ULYATE: Well, I was working with Jeff Lynne. We were working on an album that George Harrison was working on before he died called “Brainwashed,” and we finished that up with Dhani Harrison. The other project we were working on was “The Concert for George,” the George Harrison memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall (in 2002). Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of the performers in the show, so that’s where I got to know Tom, because after Jeff and I went over and recorded that and then mixed it, Tom came in to hear the Heartbreakers tracks and sign off on them. Right after that, Tom came in and started cutting tracks with Jeff; it was Jeff producing, and Tom and Mike (Campbell) co-producing, and me engineering and mixing the album called “Highway Companion,” around 2004, I think [it ultimately came out in 2006]. After Tom finished that album, he just started calling me up, and then promoted me to co-producer on the Mudcrutch album [a 2008 release by the side project of Petty, Campbell and Benmont Tench] and kind of stuck with that ever since.

And you’ve come to be pretty much a full-time archivist as well as producer and engineer. Do you have a brain like a filing cabinet?

No, but I keep really good notes. [Laughs.]

So you don’t necessarily have every take that’s on tape burned into your memory, so that you can say, “Oh yeah, the version of ‘It’s Good to Be King’ from the Fillmore in ’97, the one that lasts 11 minutes and has the beautiful Benmont solo, that’s the keeper”?

No. Honestly, the engineer side of me is the meticulous note-taking guy. So I’ve got Excel spreadsheets and databases and a pretty big iTunes library. And those are all tools that I use just to help me start all this stuff out. Obviously there’s a certain amount of knowledge you have of living with something as much as I have with all of Tom’s material. So it’s a combination of things, but I can only tell you that there are 135 (live) takes of “It’s Good to Be King” because I just go on (the computer) and it shows me 135 things.

You could be doing a lot of things as a producer and engineer, but there must be a lot of pride involved in this particular role that keeps you spending as much time as you do on being the key keeper of the Petty archives.

The thing that you always hope to do as a producer or an engineer is work on good music, because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. And ever since I started working with Tom in 2004, I was working with a guy who was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. That’s just a fantastic gig. To have this amazing music come out of the speakers and I get to work on it is just a joy and a pleasure and an honor. And after he passed, there’s still plenty of music left over. So if I can still be working on something that’s great, that’s wonderful. In the end, it’s all about the music, and it just makes me happy to work on it.

He put together “All the Rest,” the 10-song sequence of studio outtakes from “Wildflowers,” with you in or around 2014, right?

Yeah, we went through a ton of stuff. We did a fairly extensive dive into it, and Tom chose the tracks and we put ‘em together and Tom sequenced them and we got that disc finished. At a certain point we’d also found a certain amount of the demos, and he had signed off on those. The idea was that he really didn’t want to put this thing out as a “catalog album.” He wanted to have it have some muscle behind it. So he was thinking that maybe he’d put together a live show or something (to celebrate “Wildflowers” and an expanded reissue package). Then the Heartbreakers’ [40th anniversary] tour interrupted that, and Tom and I were all going to get right back to it, after he recuperated from the tour. And sadly, that didn’t happen. [Petty died October 2, 2017, a week after the end of the tour.] So we were definitely in the process of putting this whole thing together, and we got that one disc done.

It’s maybe worth reemphasizing that the 10-song “All the Rest” album is really the way he wanted those key additional studio tracks to come out, as of 2014 and beyond. Because there’s the mythology that builds around the double-album version of “Wildflowers” he had originally planed, and what that song sequence would have been. And you guys did some detective work on that, and it sounds like you never nailed exactly what he would have put out if it had been a double-album in ’94. But there’s still inevitable curiosity about what a 25-track-or-so sequence might have looked like.

Yeah, there is. At some point, you can get in your playlists and put your own together — roll your own! [Laughs.] I think it is worth noting, though: At the time (in 2014), Tom had considered putting the album together that way, and he decided against it. He said, “People are too used to that album” — the way that the 15 songs ended up on the album that got released in ’94 — “they’re too used to that.” And that’s why the idea of putting out the second album, “All the Rest,” as a compendium, filling out those tracks on a separate disc, was his idea. I mean, he loved listening to albums, and I think he knew that at some point, once you get that sequence baked into your head, sometimes it’s a bummer to hear a different song when your mind knows where the next song should be. [Laughs.] You know what I mean?

The outtakes people are getting to hear now may be of nearly equal or equal quality, but “Wildflowers” is not one of those albums where people really think, “Oh, the album would have been so much better if it the record company hadn’t talked him out of a double.”

People say that the inversion is true as well, going the other direction. I mean, the (Beatles’) White Album, which is one of the greatest double albums of all time, people are always fantasizing about what that would be like if it was a single album.

But you did at least try to find a double-album sequence anyway, after his death, and couldn’t find that it existed?

It didn’t really show up. We found a sequence of songs, but it was just on a chart that was saying, “This one has vocals. This one still needs guitar overdubs.” It was just the to-do list of songs. It was nothing that was sequenced. So we never found it. … I think that what happened was, the story goes, they played Lenny Waronker (then head of Warner Bros. Records) a bunch of (unsequenced) stuff and he said, “That’s too much.” They could have been working on the sequence at that time; I just really don’t know. It’s just that out of all the trying to find the stuff, we never did.

How much time did it take to get to the point that you knew the ultimate version of this would involve five components — the original album, “All the Rest,” the home demos, the alternate band takes, and a live album?

It kind of revealed itself. Obviously the disc that Tom made (“All the Rest”), we weren’t going to touch. That was sacred, the second disc: he finished it, that’s what he wants — done. Obviously the demos were so good and just had such an intimate character to ‘em that it made sense to put that on a disc. It was such a joy to just go through these things and find songs like “There Goes Angela (Dream Away)” [which never showed up in any other form], these amazing songs that are just on an unmarked tape.

And the live stuff… One of the first big archival projects that I did with Tom and Mike Campbell was “The Live Anthology” in 2008. We had found every live performance that was on multi-track that they had, and that was the beginning of a release taking a whole year and really just drilling into something. So since I had access to all the material and they had done just a great job of recording every show — really from about 2000 on, we’ve got multi-tracks of everything — it was really great to have that many takes of all the “Wildflowers” material and really fun to just sequence the show as we would have imagined that Tom would have done it, and to have those performances spaced out over 25 years, and just to hear how consistent and good that band is at interpreting that material over all that time. [A latter-day tour themed around “Wildflowers”] is what he had wanted to do, and I think the live album made us all feel good that, in our own way, we honored that thought as well.

And the alternate takes, I love that stuff. If you’re a fan, there’s a big Stan Lynch versus Steve Ferrone argument in the Heartbreakers land [re the band’s pre- and post-“Wildflowers” drummers]. If you’re a fan of Stan, you’re going to hear some stuff on that disc that’s just great. It shows how they started out approaching this music in one direction and where they ended up. Personally, I love hearing alternate takes of stuff. As far as I’m concerned, the demo of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” [on the Beatles’ White Album boxed set] is fantastic. So, for that matter, is the demo of “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”! And we’ve got a lot of things like that on this.

Do you have a favorite track from each of the four additional components in the boxed set, beyond the original “Wildflowers”?

Oh, boy. Hang on a second. No one’s ever asked me that question. I have the book for the five-CD with me and I’m going to have to look at it… There’s so many. I mean, my God,… If you look at “All the Rest,” there’s this real simple one called “Harry Green,” which really touches me in a certain way. He’s telling a story about a guy that he knew in high school. And Tom told me, “This is a real guy. It really happened.” And he says it in a way that you discover the story as he’s telling it, rather than just telling it to you, and the story itself is really good, and emotional.

And then if we get into the home recordings, I really like “There’s a Break in the Rain (Have Love, Will Travel).” There’s something about that that’s really interesting, because it’s got the same chorus as the song “Have Love Will Travel,” which eventually showed up on “The Last DJ.” But it’s got a different verse and a different bridge. And it shows you that Tom was a guy who would never let a good lyric go to waste. The line “Some things I worry about never happen anyway” shows up in about three or four different songs in this boxed set. It eventually ended up in “Crawling Back to You,” but it also occurs in other places, like in the demo of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and then a couple of other places. But this demo version of “Have Love Will Travel,” which is halfway a different song, is just beautiful. It shows his Beatles influences. And it also shows you that a chorus, even with the same words, can mean something completely different when you have different verses and a different bridge around it.

And then the live disc… All of us, Tom included, loved that version of “Girl on LSD.” He sets it up in the concert, saying, “Look, I don’t usually do requests, but someone held a sign that said ‘Girl on LSD.’ Oh, what the hell, I’m going to do it.” I just love the fact that he’s telling people, “Okay, here comes the next verse; this is really going to be a good one” — he’s doing commentary about his song while he’s singing. He heard that mix and loved it, so that’s a fun little moment that was really great to have it on there.

And then when you get to the last disc, the alternate takes one, I think my favorite track on that one is “Higher Place.” It’s a completely different drummer, Kenny Aronoff, who was (John) Mellencamp’s drummer for a while. It’s a full-on Heartbreakers version of this song, with organ, like a “Damn the Torpedoes” kind of arrangement. It’s got some Jeff Lynne (style to it), too, because it’s got a ton of overdubbed 12-strings. It’s a really fun take on that song. And to me it doesn’t diminish the one on “Wildflowers,” because “Wildflowers” is a certain aesthetic that they ended up with, this very direct, stripped down and kind of austere production style, which is lovely and really gets the intention of the song across. But this is just fun as kind of an indulgent, high-calorie version. [Laughs.]

In the liner notes, Benmont or someone says that Tom wasn’t into that arrangement of “Higher Place,” however familiar and irresistible it seems, because it sounded too much like a classic Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers track.

That’s exactly right. And that is something that Tom was always very conscious of whenever I worked with him, when we were making albums. We’d do some great track, and he’d go, “Nah, nah. Been there, done that.” He was always wanting to go someplace that he hadn’t been and that took it further. That’s what everyone really respected about him, and that’s why we all did our best and were really working our hardest when we were around him. He just brought that out in people, that excellence, that “Let’s just go for something we haven’t done before and make it better than anything we’ve ever done.”

Do you feel like, in the end, “Wildflowers” is a true solo album, or does it feel like a Heartbreakers album to you?

There certainly is the core of Tom and Mike and Ben throughout the album. To me it sounds like a Heartbreakers album, because Steve was in the Heartbreakers for as long as I was working with them [even though he hadn’t joined the band at that time]. So yeah, it’s a Heartbreakers album, absolutely. And the thing that Ferrone brought to it was great. I’m of the mind that I love both those drummers [Ferrone and Lynch], and I think they were both the right guys at the right time. If you listen to “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” that track comes on and you know that this is a different vibe here. You’ve got Ferrone playing that beat — no cymbals! Which is just great. It’s such a unique sounding record, and maybe you needed to have that change of drummer to get something like that across, to make that transition into a different kind of music.

What about the future of archive releases? Benmont has mentioned all the albums he thinks have interesting alternate versions that could be put out eventually, like “Mojo.” But he emphasizes that he hasn’t actually talked with the estate about what’s next. Do you have dreams, if not actual plans, for what you’d like to see come out?

Yes, I do. [Pauses.] How’s that for an answer? Mark that down a “yes.” [Laughs.] Look, he left a lot of stuff and it would be a pleasure and honor and joy to bring more stuff out to people, just to honor the guy. We all loved him dearly, and just to have his stuff come out and kind of keep him out there… But we’ve got to keep the bar high. If anything’s going to come out, it better be good. That’s one thing we’re all in agreement about; we have a good group mind on that.

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