By Barry Gilbert
A chance to interview Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top? Hell, yeah.
Unfortunately, Gibbons is not crazy about doing phone interviews, so we had to settle for an email exchange. That’s good, because it sure is easier. But that’s bad, because there’s no give and take, followup questions or a chance to salvage unresponsive answers. (Not that Billy really did that.)
That little ol’ band from Texas has been on the road for 43 years, and that road was taking it to St. Louis on Aug. 24. A concert advance based on this interview for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch can be found here.
Following is our email exchange, with editing only for punctuation and clarity.
BG: I’m sure you get asked this every day, but here it is again: How is it possible for a band to be together for so long with no personnel changes, no breakups and reunions, no tabloid dirt dishing? How do you all handle conflict?
Gibbons: First, and foremost, we embrace the continual good time doing the ‘whatever’…! We like to keep on keepin’ on with, as we like to say, ‘the same three guys and the same three chords.’ Maybe it’s that we’re a trio as it’s an odd number (very odd in our case) so no ties in the case of a vote. We like playing and recording, so no reason to stop. OK, most bands break up and, inevitably, get back together, so if you’d like to think of the past 10, 20 or 30 years as a ‘reunion tour,’ feel free to do so.
BG: Some of your records have had other instrumental touches, such as horns. Have you ever considered expanding the palette, expanding the lineup? You played as a quintet at Montreux last month.
Gibbons: ZZ’s always open to adding, say, a harmonica here and a B3 there on occasion, and, as you noted, for special occasions as was the case in Montreux. We recruited our Hammond organ specialist from Austin, Mike Flanigan, as well as guitar slinger Van Wilks for a special set honoring the memory of Montreux Festival founder Claude Nobs.
BG: You guys caught the video/MTV wave and expertly used it as a marketing and image-building tool. How have you used the digital wave? How do you keep a veteran band relevant in a Spotify world?
Gibbons: ZZ were, more or less, bystanders to the MTV thing. I mean our sound, in essence, played as TV guests in our own videos. The stars were the pretty girls and that shiny red car. These days are all about rockin’ new music as well as the stuff that goes waaaay back.
BG: I really enjoyed La Futura, and I caught several nods to older material, some instrumental, some lyrical. These are fun, but do you worry about being tagged as, um, recyclers?
Gibbons: Oh yes, in the best possible sense. Everything came from somewhere. The song ‘I Gotsta Get Paid’ is an homage to the musical giants of the Houston ghetto, the hip-hop cats who first cut ’25 Lighters’ from which our song is derived, as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins whose ‘out there’ riffs have long been an inspiration. You can go back as far as you like, but just after the Earth cooled, some paramecium was copping some licks from another single cell organism that preceded.
BG: You brought Rick Rubin aboard for La Futura. Why, at this point, did you go outside the band for a producer?
Gibbons: Rick’s stated purpose was not to re-invent ZZ Top but to have us be the best ZZ Top we could be. He was, shall we say, less lenient on us that we would have been. If we felt a take was “the keeper,” he’d ‘suggest’ we try again to see if we could — so to speak — top ourselves. After six-to-18 more takes, it invariably became the right move.
BG: What did Rubin bring to La Futura that might not have happened without him?
Gibbons: As noted, he got us to bear down and get things as right as they could be. A big increase, and we think it shows in the album.
BG: No band can sustain the level of what you achieved in the Eliminator era. I saw you play in ’96, and the show/stage set was already a bit simpler than it had been. How did the band react to that inevitable reduction of career heat? I kind of got the feeling that night that it was a relief to just go out and play some blues (while keeping the fuzzy guitars, of course).
Gibbons: We just like to put on a show. It could be with a monumental backdrop, with a menagerie of wildlife, with dancing girls and laser beams or just the three of us gettin’ down by our lonesome. The idea is to entertain, and that can, in fact, be accomplished in any number of ways. Long as the blues are present, we shall rock onward, amigo. Crank it up…!
BG: You’ve done a lot of work in blues preservation, raising money and so on. Do you have any feeling on whether we’ve made any progress toward fairly compensating the pioneers (or their families) for their roles in creating the blues/soul/R&B?
Gibbons: We were honored beyond belief to have inducted Howlin’ Wolf into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, to this day, we have very cordial relations with his family. As noted, we celebrate Lightnin’ Hopkins on a nightly basis, and when we inducted out old friend Freddie King, whose ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ we’ve been known to perform from time to time, it made us feel that we were doing right by him. You can’t bring those cats back, but one can certainly school folks about what they did and how to make a difference.
BG: What role do synthesizers and computers play in your music today?
Gibbons: Obviously, technology marches on, and we do keep up. We’re not self-consciously retro in our approach, and we are open to what modern science can afford us. Having said that, we’re out there doing the heavy — take that in both senses — musical lifting, but if there’s a technique that can help the cause, we’re open to it.
BG: How did the connection with Duck Dynasty come about?
Gibbons: Take a look at them. This was just something preordained or, ahem, destined to happen.
BG: I read that you’re working on something with Kid Rock and Matt Sweeney. What will that be like?
Gibbons: It’s something in the conceptual stage at the moment. We’ve both recorded with Matt and Kid in the past so turning again toward a musical troika feels like a good idea. We’ll see what we can work out during these touring shenanigins . Should be fine.
BG: What is your history with Kid Rock? How’d this tour come about?
Gibbons: Kid and I go back more than a decade together. He’s a big ZZ Top fan, and the feeling is mutual. We got to guest on ‘Hillbilly Stomp,’ and our friendship has grown over the years. When Kid came up with this $20 concert idea, we thought it a great plan and immediately threw down with ‘We’re in.’ It’s another absolute blast, and the response is enthusiastic and genuine.
BG: The ticket price is a flat $20 for this tour, whether it’s lawn or reserved. Why? What are the advantages to pricing the show this way?
Gibbons: It’s as straightforward as possible — you know what you’re getting into, what it’ll cost and it’s all set to have a great time. Lower cost to get in so you can feel liberated in terms of how you spend the rest of your funds. Beer? Check! Swag? Check! More beer? Check!