The American original talks about his new solo album, ZZ Top’s road ahead and the freedom of making loud noise among the sand, rocks and rattlesnakes.
For more than 50 years, Billy F Gibbons has served as the voice, guitarist and main beard of ZZ Top. The veteran Texas power trio, which also includes bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 by Keith Richards and continues to be a force both onstage and in the studio. They’re working on their first album since 2012’s La Futura, which was co-produced by Gibbons and Rick Rubin, and will hit the road once again in mid-July, after taking more than a year off due to the pandemic.
In the downtime, Gibbons regrouped with drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver/The Cult) and left-handed guitar slinger Austin Hanks for his third solo album, Hardware. Sorum was also onboard for Gibbons’ second solo set, 2018’s The Big Bad Blues, named Blues-Rock Album of the year at the 40th annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis. This time around, though, Sorum stepped up into the producer’s role — or co-producer’s, alongside Gibbons and Mike Fiorentino — following the death of longtime Gibbons and ZZ Top associate Joe Hardy, whose name inspired the album’s title.
We caught Gibbons, 71, on the phone from a Nashville recording studio, where he was settling in after a whirlwind of travel and promotional appearances.
Hey Billy, it’s good to speak to you again. Where are you calling from?
I guess I could say I’m at home. I’m at a recording studio. If somebody said, “Where do you live?” I’d say, “Well, it’s either on four wheels or four walls with no windows.”
Just like you sing in the ballad “Vagabond Man” on the new album. How’d this project come about?
Yeah, it’s an unexpected delivery of some work that started with inauspicious beginnings. Matt Sorum and Austin Hanks called me up from Palm Springs and they said, “Hey, we can’t sit around here doing nothing. We’re going to come scoop you up and we’re going to go look at a recording studio [Escape] in Joshua Tree.” And I said, “OK, 30 minutes won’t be long.” Well, 30 minutes turned into 30 days, which turned into months and months of just having a great time taking a shot with blank paper in one hand and a pencil in the other.
How do you know Matt?
I met Matt way back on the West Coast. But I have been drawn in, and fortunately my intrigue with Matt’s talents behind the drum kit has never wavered. That guy’s backbeat is wicked. Which actually brings me to an interesting point of how this project now titled Hardware came to be. Unlike a lot of songwriting sessions that start with a guitar riff or a melody line, we started with Austin and me with folded arms and put the evil eye on Matt and said, “Hey man, hit that kick drum and give us a backbeat on that cracking snare and we’ll start it.”
So you recorded in a studio in the desert?
Initially I thought we were going to [Rancho De La Luna], a recording studio that I had previously worked at with Josh [Homme] and Queens of the Stone Age. Matt was quick to point out, “If you know that neighborhood you’re getting close. We’re just across the street.” What he didn’t say was it was across the street and 20 miles, so we were in very desolate surroundings.
You made the album with kind of an usual lineup — two guitars and drums. Did you switch off on bass?
Oh yeah. There was a Fender Precision in the corner. The bottom end on this record is a little bit of personality from a multitude of volunteers: both engineers, [co-producer] Mike Fiorentino and Chad [Shlosser], and then they passed it to Austin who passed it to, believe it or not, Matt. Matt can set aside his drumsticks and, give him six strings or four strings, he’s quite at home with it.
When we arrived at the studio, there had been no thought about dragging an equipment truck behind us. Matt very quickly discovered a drum kit in the dusty corner. I was handed an old Fender Jaguar, and Austin had a Fender Jazzmaster. Playing through this Fender Reverb unit, we were making surf music. The irony there is that here we are miles and miles from the nearest drop of water making surf music.
I hear that on “West Coast Junkie.”
That was the first track that was laid down. It’s not bad.
I just watched that video. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so hard, seeing those girls on the rocks, out in the middle of the desert, go-go dancing.
All in perfect unison. They had it together. That was something.
Back in the heyday of MTV, video was huge for ZZ Top, but these days videos are not that big a deal. Still, you’ve made a few for this album. Is that something you like doing?
Oh yeah, man. We have an alliance with a guy named Harry Reese, and his talents behind the camera are not to be undersold. He knows a good angle. His eye behind the lens is premier. He’s just shooting in kind of old-school black-and-white, but he reaches the zenith very quickly.
Tell me how you decide what’s going to be a ZZ Top song and what’s going to be a solo track.
There’s a sound and a feeling that I call my predictable and somewhat unpredictable reference points. As we were recording and writing the songs that appear on Hardware, there were a few things that had “easy” stamped on it. I was able to embrace those things.
In fact, I was out on the West Coast while Frank and Dusty were back in Texas, and they said, “Hey, send us stuff. We’ll start peeling the onion. And when you get out of the studio there, you can bring your guitar and we’ll start making loud noise here.” The luxury for me is leaving one room of loud noise and moving into the next one.
It seems that the environment definitely seeped into the record, especially on “Desert High.” Why did you decide to do the spoken-word thing and not sing that?
We had a mysterious music track that had unfolded early on. It sounded more like a theme from a cowboy movie or something. It had been set aside, and as the sessions were nearing completion, I remember one afternoon, we were hanging around the bunkhouse and we all decided to see if we could scribble down a few recollections of what being in the desert, being in total isolation miles and miles from civilization, had meant. I didn’t have any melody in mind. I thought I could squeeze those words into a semblance of something that might make sense. I was simply reciting these lines of poetry. I wasn’t singing, but it seemed to fit between the beats. You could almost imagine Tom Waits stepping around the corner, pointing his finger saying, “Alright, you guys are getting close.”
There are references in there to Jim Morrison. Did you ever meet him?
Before ZZ Top had started to unfold, I was with this earlier group I put together, the Moving Sidewalks. We had some success from the recording sessions and got hired to work on the Jimi Hendrix Experience tour. We also got to work with the Doors early on. I was living in California and I was given a copy of the first Doors record. If you go back and listen to it, you learn very quickly that they had a thread running through it all, and that’s thanks to the great guitar work of Robby Krieger. I remember we were sharing a dressing room, and to this day I’ve got the luxury of bragging about having loaned a metal flat bar to Robby Krieger. Up until that time, he was literally playing slide with a broken soda-pop bottle. I said, “Man, you’re going to cut your hand to pieces. Take this.” But that just goes to show you that some things you learn below the surface you don’t immediately think about. The last thing that people would say about the Doors is they’re a great blues band, but there’s some really bluesy guitar riffs to be heard.
Speaking of the blues, every decade or so you start hearing that rock is dead. But you never hear anybody really say that about the blues. Why do you think that is?
I think that the blues is a handy kind of an umbrella term for a thread of what makes American pop music so appealing. There’s an overall simplicity to the expression. But then again, the blues is part of an amalgamation of so many different influential parts and pieces. Let’s not leave out the impact of what came out of Cuba. But I think the strings can go all the way back to the retentions from Africa. So yeah, there’s a little bit of that in a lot of things.
In the last decade you’ve done three solo records. ZZ Top is an incredible band, but I imagine it’s kind of like a big machine that’s hard to get rolling sometimes, and doing solo records might be a little more freeing for you. Is that the case?
You’re quite on spot. Once again, it might take a while to peel the onion and zero in on what expressions might accurately describe the moment. We come back to the spot of being in the desolation, the surroundings of the desert when there’s little more than wide, expansive sand, rocks and a few cactus, maybe some rattlesnakes thrown in for good measure. When you’re surrounded by nothing, the only way to break out is to start doing something.
I take it you’re anxious to get back on the road with ZZ Top.
Yeah, man. We’ll keep hammering away, and, in fact, it looks like the curtain might be rising soon. If we cross your path, come on out and say hey.