By Dave Everley
Behind the beard and sunglasses there’s a very different Billy Gibbons from the one most people think they know: art lover, musical explorer, slipper salesman and much more
Some time back in the early 70s, when ZZ Top were just starting out, Billy Gibbons met blues great BB King.
Gibbons was a 20-something guitar hotshot from Texas who’d got a papal blessing from Jimi Hendrix himself a few years earlier. He had every right to be cocky, but he was enough of a class act even then to shut up and listen when BB King spoke.
At some point during their conversation, BB picked up Billy’s guitar and strummed it. He looked quizzical, then handed it back to Billy. “Why you working so hard?” asked BB. “Don’t work so hard.”
BB was talking about the thick, heavy guitar strings Gibbons used to get ZZ Top’s thick, heavy guitar sound, but he might as well have been talking about life. “Don’t work so hard.”
Taking the veteran’s advice, Gibbons ditched his thick strings for slinkier, lighter ones right away and never looked back. King’s credo has stuck with him down all these years, in life as well as in music. Few people can make not working so hard look so damn easy as The Reverend Billy F Gibbons.
“I would like to believe that,” says Gibbons. “As the old saying goes, we’re fortunate in that we get to do what we like getting to do, so why mess with it?”
It’s 11am Las Vegas time when Gibbons calls to talk about his new solo album, Hardware. Even via Zoom, his innate Billy Gibbons-ness fills the room: foot-long gingery beard, pink-rimmed glasses, bobbled beanie hat (acquired when he swapped it for a Stetson with a Cameroonian tribal chief years ago, if myth is to be believed). I can’t see him from the waist down, but there’s every chance he’s wearing pyjama bottoms.
“The only difference between Billy on stage and off stage is that off stage he’s always in pyjamas,” says Matt Sorum, former drummer with Guns N’ Roses and latterly one of Gibbons’s chief collaborators outside of ZZ Top. “If you watch the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame when he played with Jeff Beck, he went on stage in pyjamas with a leather jacket on top.”
Pyjamas or not, Gibbons is a solid-gold character, albeit less the cartoon figure the public knows from videos and shows, more curious cultural lightning rod. Few other rock’n’roll veterans of his vintage are as comfortable discussing surrealist art and 80s industrial music as they are jawing about the blues and sun-baked boogie rock.
Yet for all that, he’s proof that while you can take the boy out of Texas, you can’t take Texas out of the boy even after all this time. His stories are as rambling as a Lone Star trail and shaggier than the beard on his chin. He’s got a catchphrase: ‘Long story longer’ – a promise he delivers on every time he says it. Attempting to keep him on track is like gluing water to a balloon: fun trying but ultimately impossible. The only thing you can do is sit back and listen while Gibbons talks. In the words of BB King: don’t work so hard.
They say you can judge a person by the company they keep. Which makes Gibbons the most interesting man in the world. In fact that’s exactly what his friend Al Jourgensen, ringleader of industrial-metal hell raisers Ministry, calls him: The Most Interesting Man In The World. It’s a reference to the guy from the Don Equis beer ads: the one with the deep tan and the great beard, who ended up on a thousand ‘I don’t often…’ memes. “That is Billy Gibbons,” says Jourgensen. “He has no dark side. He’s just suave as hell. The Most Interesting Man In The World.”
Other people have other takes. Matt Sorum, who co-wrote the song Vagabond Man on Hardware, describes him as an old-school entertainer. “He’s a vaudevillian character in a way, except he’s like that all the time.”
Dave Gahan, the singer with Depeche Mode, and a man with whom Gibbons forged an unlikely friendship decades ago, speaks no less highly of him. “He’s a very polite, very kind, very genuine southern gent,” Gahan tells Classic Rock. “I think he just enjoys being around other musicians and seeing how their world works.”
Vaudevillian, Southern gent, The Most Interesting Man In The World. All of them are accurate. Today you can add ‘hot sauce pitchman’ to the list.
“I got plenty here,” he says, holding up a bottle of his own Whisker Bomb pepper sauce. “This is the original. If you want to step it up I’ve got the Have Mercy one,” he adds. But we’re not here to talk about condiments. We’re here to talk about his new album, Hardware, and maybe a little about who Billy Gibbons really is.
The former is easiest. Hardware (named in tribute to Gibbons’s late friend and engineer Joe Hardy) is a tremendous record, one that beats with a blues-rock heart but comes with twitches and twists that are pure Gibbons.
To make it, he and Sorum holed up in a remote studio out in the California desert, several hours’ drive from LA and 20 miles from the nearest town. The day they got there they were greeted by a pair of rattlesnakes on the porch. In the afternoon they’d sit and watch the eagles fly overhead.
“You read about these places, you see travelogue photos, but when you’re there the energy is imbibed,” says Gibbons. “It’s something you feel.”
Gibbons would regularly make the 20-mile drive to the nearest town to grab breakfast at a Mexican restaurant he’d found. The place was run by a young woman. One morning he walked in to find the place on fire.
“Don’t worry,” said the owner, as she tried to douse the flames, “I’m not burning your breakfast.”
The blaze was eventually put out and no one was hurt. Gibbons walked away from it with a new song: the hot-to-the-touch She’s On Fire. “And the breakfast was just great as well,” he says.
There’s a song on Hardware called Spanish Fly. The title refers to a hot rod – inevitable, given Gibbons’s love of fast and loud cars. “One of my buddies down the street has got a 1946 Ford two-door sedan, which he named Spanish Fly,” he says admiringly. “It’s quite dazzling, this piece of machinery. He wouldn’t sell it. He wouldn’t even give me a ride in it.” But there’s another meaning as well. Spanish Fly is an old, old herbal love potion that comes in many different forms and guises.
“Of course, growing up in Texas and making the pilgrimage to the Mexican border, you gotta come back with Spanish Fly,” says Gibbons. “It was this aphrodisiac, supposedly.”
And did it work?
“That’s a good question.” He leans forward conspiratorially. “I’ve always been afraid to ask.”
There’s something else about Spanish Fly, a sparse electro-blues number. The song opens with a whumping bass sound that sounds like it’s coming through the walls of a hip-hop club next door. Thing is, this isn’t Billy Gibbons straining for cross-cultural credibility. Back in the 1990s, he mixed with members of Houston’s vibrant hip-hop and R&B scene. Names roll off his tongue: the Geto Boys, Mannie Fresh, Juvenile, Destiny’s Child, the latter fronted by a teenage superstar-in-waiting named Beyoncé Knowles. They’d all hang out together at a studio down the road from ZZ Top’s HQ while ZZ fixed their place up.
“We got along quite famously,” says Gibbons. “I wanted to know what these guys were doing and they wanted to know what I was doing. It became quite the exchange, and the rate was one to one.”
At one point the locations were reversed, and his new friends decamped to ZZ Top’s studio while the place they were using was refurbished. Gibbons was on the road at the time, and he remembers getting a worried phone call from his secretary, Denise.
“I think we might have a problem,” Denise told him.
“What’s that?” asked Billy.
“Well,” said Denise, “I’m concerned there might be a fire. There’s smoke ascending through the ceiling.”
Gibbons laughs his throatiest laugh at the thought of the Fire Marshall being called out because a bunch of rappers and their entourage were blazing their way through a ton of plutonium-grade weed in his studio. “I told Denise: ‘Do not worry, it’ll be fine.’”
The signs that Billy Gibbons liked to mix with different crowds were there a long time ago. Dave Gahan recalls him turning up unexpectedly at a Depeche Mode show in Houston in the mid-80s.
“He was the last person we expected to show up,” says Gahan. “He’d come backstage beforehand, but then he’d hang out for the whole show. He was just into the music.”
A grizzled Texas boogie man and a bunch of Limey electro-pop pioneers might seem like they have little in common, but Gahan thinks there are similarities under the surface.
“I think Billy saw that we had that rock’n’roll swagger that some other people didn’t see,” he says. “And he heard the blues in our music – Martin [Gore, Depeche Mode keyboard player/songwriter] is a bit of a gunslinger when it comes to playing the guitar. He can play those riffs with the best of ’em. He was very interested in the electronic stuff, and the combination of that and the electronics.”
That much rings true. Gibbons’s discovery of Depeche Mode coincided with ZZ Top embracing the kind of state-of-the-art technology that would help 1983’s Eliminator album sell by the truckload. He admits that the British band flicked a switch in his brain. “The sound was just so bombastically beautiful. It was heavy as lead. There was no drummer – how could this possibly be? But it was h-e-a-v-y – emphasis on each letter of that word.”
Gibbons has got to know Depeche Mode pretty well over the years. In 2013 they asked him to remix Soothe My Soul, a track on their album Delta Machine. Gahan called Gibbons and told him they needed “a little Texas mud”.
“For me, the best moment was getting his mix of the song back,” says Gahan. “Just sitting there with a big smile on my face: ‘Oh, so that’s how he hears us. Depeche Mode-meets-ZZ Top. No one would’ve thought that could have happened.”
In recent months, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and his wife Toyah Wilcox kept an increasingly stir-crazy public entertained with home-made videos of them doing exuberantly OTT covers of famous rock songs, from Ace Of Spades to White Wedding. Early on, they gave that Sunday Lockdown Lunch treatment to ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’. And yes, since you ask, Gibbons has seen it.
“I was lured into that little surprise,” he says. “It was so exhilarating. I was running in the street. I was the town crier, shouting the message: ‘Forget the ZZ version, I got the new one!’”
Fripp’s name sets Gibbons off down another unexpected conversational avenue. He’s aware of King Crimson, of course, but it’s some of their guitarist’s later work that really rustled his whiskers.
“When Fripp and Brian Eno got together and started making some eerie and ethereal sounds, that’s what really got me interested,” he says. “They were treading in water that no one had even dipped their toes in, much less dived into. And then Eno continued on and made this brilliant work called Music For Films, which I still listen to today.”
On one hand, the idea of Billy Gibbons being a fan of ground-breaking ambient music should be a surprise, but on the other it kind of isn’t. Nor is his admiration for punk’s original class of ’77. At some point during his European sojourn in the late 70s, he visited the UK to check out what was happening.
“The punk scene was taking over, and I hit a couple of famous punk destinations,” he says vaguely. Nobody really recognised him; ZZ Top weren’t a household name in the UK at that point, and anyway, he was growing out his beard. “I had thrown the razors aside, which was certainly not the trend at the time. I was oddball, I was embraced. And I came back home with a full dose of something new.”
Oddballs attract oddballs, as Gibbons’s friendship with Ministry’s Al Jourgensen proves. The pair first met in the car park of a Houston club named Numbers in 1990. Jourgensen was in town with his other band industrial-metal provocateurs Revolting Cocks.
At some point in the afternoon the owner of the club told him that Billy Gibbons wanted to meet him. Al had cut his teeth on 70s rock, and bought ZZ’s Tres Hombres album when he was a kid. And now Billy Gibbons wanted to meet him?
“He pulled up in a 1934 Mercury, wearing a white suit,” says Jourgensen. “Me and Mikey [Scaccia, RevCo guitarist] got in and we were just flabbergasted: ‘It’s Billy fucking Gibbons, in a white suit, with the beard, in the middle of the day.’”
Gibbons told them he was a fan. “I love what you’re doing,” he said to the pair. “I want to take you out to dinner.” They drove to an Italian restaurant and all piled inside, one man in a white suit and a couple of grubby punks in torn T-shirts and combat boots. As they ate spaghetti – Jourgensen and Scaccia splattering themselves with tomato sauce, Gibbons not getting a speck of anything on his white suit or his beard – Al’s curiosity got the better of him.
“I finally asked him: ‘Why are we here?’ And he goes: ‘Well, I figure I owe you a dinner, because my career kind of hit a rough patch there, but now we’re selling records hand over fist,’” says Jourgensen. “‘The reason is because we switched over to programmed drums, and all the drum samples we got were from Ministry and Revolting Cocks songs.’ We just freaked out, it was such a rock-god moment. With all the egos and lawyers in the music business, it was pretty ballsy of him to say: ‘Yeah, I just ripped off all your shit, I’m gonna buy you dinner.’ That was good enough for me.”
Fast forward a decade or so. Gibbons made a stop off Sonic Ranch studio near El Paso, where Jourgensen was recording a new Revolting Cocks album. On the spur of the moment, Al invited Billy to play guitar on a couple of tracks (the two songs, Prune Tang and Pole Grinder, eventually appeared on RevCo’s 2006 album Cocked And Loaded). When they’d done, everybody decided to let their hair down.
“The wine cellar there has bottles that are worth literally fifty thousand, a hundred thousand dollars,” says Jourgensen. “We broke those out that night and got shit-faced. Billy had brought a big-ass bag of hatch chiles from New Mexico, so we were drinking ridiculously expensive wine and having this chilli-eating competition. That’s the one time I’ve seen him not so suave, cos he got down on all fours and puked all over.”
The image of Billy F Gibbons, epitome of cool, crawling drunkenly on his hands and knees, is one few people get to see. But Jourgensen wants to make one thing clear: “He never puked on his beard. That beard is like Teflon. It won’t accept spaghetti sauce and it won’t accept puke.”
One of the greatest compliments Billy Gibbons says he ever got, up there with Jimi Hendrix’s proclamation that he was “America’s best young guitar player”, was when late Rolling Stones producer Jim Dickinson told him he was “the Dali of the Delta”. “He said: ‘You’ve brought the surrealism,’” says Gibbons. “‘You’ve kept the essence, but you’ve avoided wearing a funny hat with a Hawaiian shirt and a big fat microphone.’”
Where the hat and the Hawaiian shirt and the big fat microphone come into it isn’t clear, but otherwise Dickinson was on the money. With Gibbons a strain of weirdness has always bubbled just beneath the surface. Listen to the gleefully unsettling answer-phone headfuck of Heaven, Hell Or Houston from ZZ’s El Loco, or Hardware’s closing track Desert High, a semi-spoken-word piece that finds Gibbons sounding like Tom Waits gone wandering out in the sun for too long.
Hell, listen to the unhinged ‘Haw-haw-haw’s and oddball choogling of ZZ’s 70s signature track La Grange, still the greatest and strangest rock’n’roll song to ever be written about a Texas bordello.
But Gibbons appreciated the Dali comparison for a deeper reason. He’s a huge art freak, and has been since he was a psychedelic beatnik kid. At one point during ZZ Top’s three-year break between 1976’s Tejas and 1979’s Deguello, he spent several months hanging out in Paris with a bunch of avant-garde artist buddies he knew from back in Houston.
“Going to the hangouts, drinking wine, getting into the esoteric side of things,” as he puts it. “The phrase ‘avant garde’ today has very little energy, the shock value has evaporated. But at that time there was a lot of energy, and we were following it.”
Gibbons has amassed an impressive art collection down the years. “Billy loves art,” says Matt Sorum. “He has one of the biggest collections of African artefacts I’ve ever seen. He’ll go: ‘Come on, we’re going to Paris, I have some African stuff I have to pick up’, and we’ll travel to this big warehouse. You would be mind-boggled.”
Right now, Gibbons has a thing about NFTs – the latest fad to sweep the digital world. Sorum has a handle on that kind of thing, and Gibbons will email him to ask questions. “He’ll send me multiple articles: ‘What is this?’ ‘How does this work?’ He’s very well read, very curious. He’s a deep guy.”
West Coast Junkie, one of the singles from Hardware, opens with the Reverend Billy F Gibbons laying the preacherman shtick on thick. ‘People say to me: have mercy, have mercy,’ he intones, living up to his nickname. But how did he end up becoming a Reverend? It’s probably best if he explains.
“That goes back to when I was about eighteen. We were fascinated by these high-powered radio stations along the Mexican border – XERF just across the river from Del Rio, Texas, XEG down in Reynosa. You could buy shows in fifteen-minute segments after six o’clock in the evening. You had someone selling piano lessons, you had someone selling a hundred baby chicks for two dollars, then the preachers would come on…
“Long story longer, someone coerced me into doing it. They said: ‘Hey, you oughtta go down there and buy fifteen minutes’ worth of airtime, see if you could get somebody to send you money.
“Now, we had a friend working on the docks in Houston, and he took some delivery of some Chinese slippers. But they were all left feet, and they didn’t know what to do with them. So we bought them for a dime on a dollar and called them Thought-Provoking Soul Slippers.
“I became the Reverend Willie G, selling these slippers over the airwaves. [Adopts Southern preacher voice] ‘I will send you Thought-Provoking Soul Slippers with your love offering of five, ten, a thousand dollars or more! We will stamp your favourite psalm in the sole, and with every step you take, thousands of prayers will go out to Jesus!’ That was our pitch. And it caught on. Until the mail delivered a big bag full of cash, and my folks wanted to know where it came from.”
His parents put a stop to it and the money dried up. But at least the nickname stayed.
I have my own small Billy Gibbons story. It’s not quite as funny as seeing him drunkenly puking on the floor after a chilli-eating contest, but it does say a little bit about him.
It was about 10.30 on a Saturday night a couple of years ago, and I was catching a train back to London from the coast. Somewhere around Tunbridge Wells, a man with a long beard, bobbled beanie hat and American accent gets on the train and sits on the next seat along. The only reason I didn’t ask at the time if he was Billy Gibbons was: a) I was shitfaced, and b) it really couldn’t have been anybody else. I tell him about it now.
“Was I with a gorgeous young lady called Gilligan?”
You were with a gorgeous young lady, but I don’t know her name.
“Well that was us! That was Miss Gilligan,” he says, referring to his wife of 16 years.
It turns out Gibbons is a big fan of public transport generally, and British public transport specifically. When he was in London to pick up the Living Legend award at the 2012 Classic Rock Roll Of Honour, he caught the number 27 bus from his hotel to the venue. Once, when ZZ played at Wembley Arena, he even hopped on the Tube to get to his own gig.
“They’d organised a couple of stretch limos,” he remembers. “I said: ‘Oh, you gotta be kidding, it’ll take hours. We’re sitting there [on the Tube], and I’ve got a guy across from me and he’s holding a ZZ Top ticket. We’re staring at each other across the carriage. He’s looking at me, and he’s looking down at the ticket, then he’s looking at me. And he finally goes: ‘This is so wrong.’”
When Gibbons will next get the chance to hop on a bus to one of his own gigs isn’t clear for obvious reasons. He says he got a dose of COVID early on, not long after playing the Peter Green Tribute Concert in London in March last year. He’d flown to Spain, but couldn’t taste the food at any of the expensive restaurants he was eating in. He finally got tested just as they finished recording Hardware.
“We had a visitor, an out of town physician, who asked me if I wanted to take a test. Which I did. He said: ‘You may want to consider donating some of your blood, cos your antibodies are off the chart,’” he says proudly.
One unexpected side effect of being unable to tour for the past year is that Gibbons has had a chance to put aside some music for a new ZZ Top album, which will be the first since 2012’s La Futura.
“The solo expressions are adding a sliver of interest to the golden goose,” he says, which is his way of saying some of the songs that didn’t make it on to Hardware could end up on the next ZZ album.
“The last laugh has yet to be heard,” he says of the latter. “We’re laying the foundation. I get to tiptoe out of Hardware and back into ZZ, which is under way now.”
When that album materialises remains to be seen (he’s saying maybe later this year, more likely next). Same with getting back on the tour bus. “They haven’t figured out how to shorten a mile,” he says, “but we’re ready to go make some loud noise.”
All that is in the future. Between his music, his hot sauce, his art collection, his strange and fantastic friendships and the rest, the Reverend Billy F Gibbons has plenty to get on with. Working hard on not working so hard has never looked so easy.
Billy F Gibbons’ Hardware is out now on Concord Records.
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