by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
August 08, 2014
William Frederick Gibbons, born to concert pianist Frederick Royal Gibbons and his wife Loraine in Tanglewood, Texas, a suburb of Houston, is one of rock's most iconic figures. He has led ZZ Top since 1969, after fronting psychedelic garage legends the Moving Sidewalks from 1965 to 1968 (famed for the oft-covered 1967 single, “99th Floor”). Remarkably, ZZ Top has only endured one lineup change in its 44 year history. It's that second permanent lineup change (with the rhythm section of Frank Beard on drums and Dusty Hill on bass and vocals) that's responsible for everything from '70s hard shuffle classics like “La Grange” to the multi-platinum hi-tech '80s blues hits from the Eliminator album. From the attendant beards/weird guitars/hot girls/hot rods videos which made MTV fun to watch in the '80s, ZZ Top has stayed true to their core musical strengths and values. A hard, solid rhythm section, strong songwriting, and Gibbons' economical riffs and pinch harmonics shine through a gloriously distorted guitar tone. Plus, ZZ Top are some of the finest showmen you could hope to see, still able to pack arenas as they navigate a tour schedule which seemingly never ends. ZZ Top's most recent full-length release, the Rick Rubin co-produced La Futura, was their strongest in years, and was highly evocative of '70s ZZ Top classics like Tres Hombres. Gibbons also plays himself in a recurring role on the TV series “Bones.”
Yeah. In fact, we've been questioned on a number of occasions recently, "How did you persuade the powers that be to go back to the unadulterated, un-tampered-with originals to be included?" Because there was a weird period right after the success of Eliminator, which was a real interesting period in the history of recorded music. There were a lot of big selling records at that time. Somewhere in the mix, somebody said, "We oughta make all the records sound like this!" ZZ Top was, what is the term? "Thrown under the bus!" (laughs) Like everybody else that was hearing the early works, quote "modernized."
I'm not gonna say that it wasn't okay. It was just so dramatically different. But there is something so quaint as the '70s era that might be heard, comparatively speaking, today. There's a real historical value in doing it like it was then: Unhampered, straight ahead. In fact, we listened to it because we learned that we weren't playing a couple of the numbers correctly! (laughs) "Oh, that's how it was supposed to go! That's how we recorded it? Okay...."
What are your general thoughts on the box?
Well, it's a very admirable, ambitious undertaking. I guess what makes it of value and interest is we've gone way beyond the curiosity of digital downloads to where it's about a 50/50 game these days. But one could say, "Geeze, a ten-disc set when everybody's slowly but surely leaning towards downloads without hard product in hand?" I think this is a genuine window to start at the beginning and bring it right up to the present. And it's well-representative.
Do you ever take a look at this thing and say, "Wow, man! This is my life's work!"
What is astounding is to stack up the sheer volume of material that's there to see, right before your very eyes, in one nice compact box. It's cool! And something that we share that the average ZZ Top fan would like to know is: Yes, listening to it today, it's not only a bonus to revisit this wide range of time, but we do remember where we were, what was going on, the restaurants that we took a break in. It's this fabric of 40 years. Put something on, and it's like, "Oh, yeah! That’s when we got stopped by the cops trying to get to the studio!"
It's also a nice bookend, in a way, with the current album. It sounds to me like ZZ Top not only going back to its roots, but it also sounds like you guys may have been listening to bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys.
They both have managed to make a fairly strident stab with an even more spare lineup than ZZ Top as a trio: Here's a duo, basically guitar and drums. And when I was reviewing your notes, no sooner had I arrived, but we were wrapping up the closing night for this segment (of the tour) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I happened to be on the way down to the venue, and we were playing a Howlin' Wolf CD: "Hey, put on some blues!" And it, too, was a duo! It was basically guitar, drums, and Wolf singing. I guess that would be a trio.
But the ferocity, just the power that can be made with just two guys is largely overlooked and highly underrated. Because it is unexpected. You see a full orchestra or a combo of five or maximum six guys, you're gonna get a powerful delivery. And when you see two guys, you think, "Okay, what are we gonna miss here?" Black Stripes, we've seen live. (catching his mistake) "White Stripes!" Excuse me! (laughs)
The Phil Spector approach to a blues duo!
The Phil Spector return to punk!
Well, how do you feel about the new album? Did you enjoy working with Rick Rubin?
Can I share something? I had known Rick a couple of decades before we officially worked together. And there was a distinctive change in the dynamic - we were pals, and now we're business associates. But we were kinda happy to be going through the motions and doing it as he would have it, because it was different, and that was of interest to us. Because we had done it from so many different angles and here was the opportunity to say, "Hey! Well, maybe - just maybe - here's something we haven't tried yet!" Well, sure enough, we were on one tune and we started...it was gentlemen's hours. We didn't get started until noon. But Dusty leaned over about 9PM, and said, "Y'know, we've done this song now for about nine hours. Do you think we can ask Rick how much better it's gonna get?" So, I said, "Yeah, come to think of it!"
So, through the glass, thanks to the microphone being right between us, I said, "Hey, Rick! We've been on this number for nine hours! Dusty and I were just wondering...?" And Frank was all smiles - he couldn't hear what we were addressing. And Rick said, "Oh, yeah! We got it second take, right after noon! (laughs) We just like watching you guys play!"
It was crazy. But it was good crazy. But without question, we can all agree on that: When it loosens up to the point where it is enjoyable, that's when the fireworks begin. The smile you crack in the studio, it falls in the grooves. Somehow, it's there.
ZZ Top seems to be in a privileged position among veteran bands. Like Cheap Trick, you've worked your way into being a working band. You're out there every year, working hard, and you're not having to play rib burnoffs of America like a lot of veteran working bands do. I've seen you play a lot of respectable theaters this tour, but you were telling me you're doing this by choice. So, you're telling me you can still play bigger venues?
Oh, yeah. Again, this was the tour where we became the promoter's nemesis, in that they would have preferred to have done arena venues. But what they're unwilling to buy into is the value of having the opportunity to reconnect from where you came. By and large, it's a notion that is sometimes unwisely overlooked by many working bands. We took a page out of the Rolling Stones' book, because I don't recall a tour in recent decades where they, too, haven't made it a point to get back to a small room. Most recently, they did that show in Los Angeles with, what was it? 300 or 500 people?
It was at The Echo, in Silverlake (in Los Angeles).
Yeah. They do it along the way. They will remind themselves. It's not only about reconnecting with the audience, it's also about reconnecting musically. The mistakes that are made in a giant arena are largely absorbed by the ambient chaos. What you don't want to do is get used to being able to get by with it. In a small room, every waking moment, every beat is right in your face, in a good way. I think that's the point. I appreciate Dusty saying, "I don't like the cliche “we're gonna get back to the roots.'" But without question, that's exactly what we're speaking of.
We don't have a view here, but (tour manager) Pablo (Gamboa)'s room was looking straight across the Alamodome (where ZZ Top had played the night before). And that is a big, huge room! There's no way that we were gonna go in there and be clubbish.
Well, you talk about going back to your roots. But ZZ Top has never strayed from your roots. Yes, in the '80s, you took on sequencers and dance beats and things like that. But basically, the fundamental of what you were doing was still guitar-driven, blues-based rock 'n' roll.
Yeah. Through all this so-called electronica era - Eliminator spilling even into Afterburner - granted, there was some experimentation that went far outside what could be considered rootsy blues. By no stretch of the imagination did it come close to the word traditional. This was experimentation at its zenith. And at the same time, you could stack the room with the latest technological breakthroughs, and we've still got one foot in the blues.
And I appreciate your alertness to the value that I made big of. That is inheriting a built-in rhythm section, Frank and Dusty having worked together since they were 14. They're by no means reduced to just sidemen. However, the function of positioning of sidemen to lay a platform makes the most beneficial springboard. Dude, I can go just crazy, and there they are, providing that platform. Probably one of the reasons it has worked so well for so long is that they enjoy being the chassis, the railbed. And I get to be the gear grinder.
Well, somebody has to be the power behind the throne. Those guys provide an eternal groove that does not relent.
Oh, yeah! And they never tire in pointing out that they come from Dallas. And I think it becomes more pronounced as a statement of braggadociousness. There's a distinctly different attitude when you address musicians from that region. There's a posture among Dallasite musicians that equates to the word "bad." As in, "tough," "rough," "down to the bone." I've yet to see a more proficient percussionist than what you experience with my drummer, Frank Beard. On the outside, he looks so non-chalant and borderline bored, but he's still delivering the goods. That is (voice drops an octave) "I'm baaaaad" attitude. (laughs) Attitudinally superior: "I can do this in my sleep." And by and large, by this point, he somewhat does.
Frank is so passive onstage, a friend thought he was in bad health in Austin. But he seemed alright to me.
Oh, definitely. Again, the poise of bad boys from Dallas. Everything is postured around non-chalance. As challenging as a particular passage may be technically, the name of the game to entertain is to make it look mindless, even borderline boring. That's what I call him: "My borderline boring beater of the skins." Or, "Frank Beard: 'Who, me? Goatee?"
It strikes me that ZZ Top created a new idea of being a Texan, in a way. You guys were not rednecks or anything like that. There was something very hip and cosmopolitan about the way you carried yourselves and made your music.
It was the bolder side of a launch. Because it was at a time when power trio music was relegated basically to England. Having taken up residency in Austin in '68 into '69 before returning to Houston, it was the sound of country music that was still considered Texas music. When you spoke of Texas music, it was not rock 'n' roll by a stretch. That was way on the fringe. Yeah, you had Dale Hawkins, you had...
Buddy Holly. Roy Orbison.
Buddy Holly, yeah. Waylon, Willie, Bob Wills even, way back. So many. But here you also have Van Cliburn from Waco, TX, the accomplished pianist. But everything took a backseat, basically, to country music. So, yeah. You're correct. But again, the propellant was that braggadociousness that most Texans just inherit. And braggers, by and large, are self-appointed and kind of elected. Texans, however, just inherit it. (laughs) You don't have to invent or you don't have to pretend. It's just part of the deal. You get it.
So, taking that into the way that the interpretation of the inspiration that brought us together was this admiration of this great American artform called the blues. It's really remained a strident cornerstone from which we spring from. Now early on, we recognized that we were not going to be Bob Dylanesque in the lyric department. We didn't grow up in a cottonfield, thumbin' our way to Chicago. We were wearing cowboy boots and Stetson western hats. But we still enjoyed the commonality of this fine style of music. So we figured, "Let's give it a shot. Maybe we can aspire to at least make that part of the presentation."
We have over time, by adapting what was a very unusual appearance, drawn attention from all corners of the globe. And slowly, we had the luxury of entering the recognition of Texas. By this time, Joe Ely and Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Eric Johnson, Van Wilks, Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, this long list of non-country expressions were all being acknowledged. That would make another great book.
You are as known for your cars as you are for your guitars. In fact, you published a book not long ago, Rock & Roll Gearhead, which spotlighted some of the best pieces from your collections of custom cars and custom guitars.
Yes, they play sweetly into all the parts of the puzzle. But it's true: All of us love cars. Someone said, "Well, what do you guys do when you're not playing together?" Well, it's not very often when we're not. But when we're not, we're tinkering with automobiles. We like wrenching on the hot rods.
So, you actually get your hands greasy and work on the cars yourself?
Yeah, I've got a warehouse here in San Antonio and one out in California. And when we do have some time off, it's always one of the coasts: The West Coast or the Third Coast. We'll be wrenching.
Actually, I don't drive anymore. So, I don't know what new cars look like these days.
You mean you own all those great custom cars, and you don't drive any of them?
My driver's license? I carry one, but it's expired. (laughs) Good thing they don't look very close. I don't know if I could get on an airplane, these days.
How many dates per year are you guys still playing?
We were out 20 consecutive months this last time. Of course, part of that was working with Rick Rubin out in California. But I'll tell you the real bonus was, after a short time in Malibu, Rick was satisfied with what he had accumulated and then he passed the torch: "Alright, Gibbons! You're now my co-producer. Take it to Houston and let's see what happens down there!" So, La Futura, which is enjoying a re-release with two bonus tracks - one is a co-write with Tom Hambridge ("Threshhold Of A Breakdown"), and the other is a co-write with Austin guitar player Van Wilks ("Drive By Lover"). Tom is another interesting guy. He just produced that award-winning piece on Buddy Guy. Now there's another interesting music town! You wouldn't think blues and rock 'n' roll would come out of Nashville, but everything is being tossed up in the air.
Oh, yeah. Nashville is developing an Austin-like feel. I could tell just from what I saw in my brief time there in November. One of the things that brought you back to Austin was playing the Austin Psych-Fest with the reunited Moving Sidewalks. That must have been interesting. Because you were playing with a lot of younger bands in a situation that was meant to mimic the psychedelic scene that you guys came out of.
Without question. Yeah. The regathering of the Moving Sidewalks was highly - well, I wouldn't call it "highly." If there was anything high, it was the band members! (laughs) But it was an unanticipated, unexpected moment to do something that really hadn't had any precedent before. I don't know of any bands that have not been around in 45 years that said, "Oh, let's do a gig!" (laughs) "Okay!"
But you know what was interesting was walking into the recording studio where the rehearsals were being staged, and within 30 seconds, it was like time travel. It was the closest thing I've experienced to time travel, because we just jetted back to 1967. It was really just a delight. And having been in a recording studio, the engineers had the wherewithal to keep the tape machine ignited. All of the material that emanated in the '60s enjoyed a quick refreshment, with a kind of contemporary, adult, more sophisticated twist and maturity.
So, you're trying to tell us there's gonna be a new Moving Sidewalks record?
In the not-to-distant future. It's right around the corner. There's a couple of more numbers that are (being worked on). I said, "Well, what are we gonna call it?" And Tom Moore, the man behind the B-3, he said, "Well, it's obvious: 444 - four guys getting back together after 44 years." I kinda like that.
About four or five years ago, you got up and played with Roky Erickson at SXSW for about five or six songs.
Yeah. I know we did Austin City Limits with him, but there was another show.
You did his Ice Cream Social that he does every year at Threadgill's. And rumor had it then that you were supposed to work with Roky.
Yeah, I'm still in touch with Darren Hill, who is his manager. And I've got a booklet full of compositions that only Roky could deliver. He's still got it, man. He's still got that maniacal voice.
You intimated to me that there is another album's worth of material from the La Futura sessions that's ready to go, possibly as a quick follow-up album.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. They're working on determining what would make sense. In fact, Rick's right hand man Dino was in Nashville when we were to discuss re-releasing La Futura with the two extra bonus tracks. So, really, that's next. And then, out of that sprang, "Well, y'know, we've got all this other stuff." What's funny is that Rick allowed us to stretch out so far, both in Houston at Foam Box Recording Studio and Shangri La Studios, which Rick runs in Malibu. And with that kinda open-ended "go for it" attitude, we ended up with 25 or 26 tracks. The irony is, we asked him, "Rick, what is your favorite?" He goes, "They're all my favorites!" So, we didn't keep anything that wasn't worth putting in the lineup. "Put 'em in a hat, draw 'em out!"
What took so long to get a new album out? This was the first one in nine years!
I think the unexpected resurgence of interest in ZZ Top's live performances kept us on the road indefinitely. The only diversion from doing live shows was a few breaks in the scheduling, which I took advantage of by starting some solo stuff. I call it "solo stuff" because I couldn't find Frank and I couldn't find Dusty! They scattered! We got way wacky in doing kinda electronica, Howlin'-Wolf-meets-Prince dance tracks with BB King autotuned guitar. It got so obtuse, people said, "Wow! That's a pretty far stretch!" I said, "It's music for strippers." They said, "Oh, okay! That qualifies!"
Basically you guys are a really good working band, at this point in your career. You've made a really strong new record. Do you think you have some more records in you?
The answer is yes, unabashedly stating in the positive, despite the stridency that we had to maintain to go through the hoops. We had to jump through hoops to create this product that we had not done before. We mentioned to you at the table yesterday, Dusty and I, about how....Well, why would we want to go and make a record with Rick Rubin? Well, Rick Rubin represented the off-the-wall extra element that maybe we had not done in four decades of making records. That pretty well covers most of the bases. But an extra voice, a once-removed objective voice. You never know what that's going to bring forth. And sure enough, Rick's expertise and extraordinary talent and his immeasurable sense of patience! Wanting to hear it again and again! That's enthusiasm at its finest moment. But the outcome was so appealing to the band members. We were thinking, "Wow! We actually learned something!" We can actually continue doing this in such an enjoyable fashion. Granted, it was a bit obtuse at the outset, but once we settled into it, it was good.