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ZZ TOP
Loaded & Truckin'...

a conversation with

BILLY F. GIBBONS

 

 

Continued From Home Page

LOADED & TRUCKIN'...
An interview with ZZ Top guitarist
Billy F. Gibbons

by Robert Silverstein

Texas blues rock legends ZZ Top are back in the spotlight again in 2003—returning with a red hot studio album and a four CD box set that chronologically cherry picks from a career that has now recorded in five different decades. Spotlighting the original 1969 ZZ Top lineup of guitar great Billy F. Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, the Fall 2003 release of Mescalero on RCA Records is quite possibly the power-rock trio’s finest studio album ever. Decked out with uncanny artwork that puts a sardonic ZZ spin on Mexico’s Dia De Los Muertes folklore imagery, Mescalero comes alive with a kick-ass wake-up call that plunders the blues and mixes things up with a bilingual Tex-Mex rock and roll gumbo flecked with a language Gibbons calls ‘Spanglish’. Adding to the current flurry of ZZ Top mania effected by the release of Mescalero, Gibbons and Co. have simultaneously brought forth a 4-CD box set entitled Chrome, Smoke & BBQ. Distilling 80 classic ZZ cuts from their early years on London Records and their decade spanning years with Warner Bros. Records, the box on Warner Bros. comes with a novel 88 page booklet packed with rare pics, interviews and discography information that goes all the way back to 1968 and Gibbons’ early recordings with The Moving Sidewalks. All the big ZZ Top hits are found on the Chrome, Smoke & BBQ box set—“Legs” (1984), “Tush” (1975), “Sharp Dressed Man” (1983) to name a few—along with a barrage of vintage blues rock rarities, live tracks, singles and even 12” dance remix versions. As mythical as ZZ comes across in the box set, the meat of their 2003 comeback can be traced to the explosive grooves of Mescalero. The bilingual burst of the lead off title track has enough energy to blow your roof off and it only gets better from there. With the release of Mescalero and the Chrome Smoke & BBQ box set, what better way to celebrate 2003—the year of the blues—then to show some long overdue appreciation for that little ‘ol blues band from Texas...ZZ Top. The following interview with Billy F. Gibbonsalso in print as the November 2003 cover story of 20th Century Guitar magazine—took place by phone on October 16th with part two taking place during the early afternoon of October 17th, 2003.

BFG: Billy F. Gibbons
RSS: Robert S. Silverstein


BFG: It’s Billy F. Gibbons from ZZ Top, your bearded buddy callin’ in.

RSS: Hi Billy, thanks for calling. Are you in L.A.?

BFG: No, I just left and arrived in Houston, Texas. Calling from Houston, Texas.

RSS: After I heard the new ZZ Top album, Mescalero I flipped out. It’s such a brilliant record. I recall we had ZZ Top on the cover of the October ‘99 issue of 20th Century Guitar.

BFG: That’s awesome man. That’s really, really cool. We’re really happy with...this Mescalero thing, it was an unexpected pleasure to finally wrap it up. You’ve heard it then I take it?

RSS: Yeah I’ve been playing it religiously.

BFG: Alright. That’s the way man...

RSS: It blew me away. It’s so superbly crafted. I’m curious about what inspired the title track, “Mescalero” and hence the album title.

BFG: Yeah, well it’s an interesting sounding word. It’s origination is from a tribe of American Indians. They were hanging out in the Southwestern part of Texas. They were kind of an offshoot of the Apaches. The Mescaleros, reportedly, they were so wild that even the Apaches...the Apaches were pretty bad-ass...but the Apaches were scared of ‘em. (laughter) They said, ‘yeah, you can hang out’ but they sent them miles away. Then there’s also Mescal, which is the step-child of tequila, which can be absolutely horrifying, and the peyote offshoot, mescaline. In fact, in the song we call it ‘combinacion pelegrosso’ which means the dangerous combination. So you get wild Indians, some bad tequila and some hallucinogenics (laughter) all in the same batch!

RSS: I like the way you brought in a little humor into the song adding in El Camino Ford Ranchero...

BFG: Yeah it’s like, ‘what language is this?’ (laughter) It’s not English, it’s not Spanish, it’s Spanglish.

RSS: You should print your own dictionary!

BFG: Yeah right...(laughter) Let’s do it.

RSS: The press behind Mescalero mentions ZZ Top is returning to their roots but there’s also some fresh energy at work as well.

BFG: Yeah! I would feel safe in stating that it seems to be...it’s a good early style ZZ with a contemporary twist in the blend. Somehow it managed to work out as just that. I mean, we could attempt to play ten different kinds of music and then somebody would probably say, ‘oh, that’s ZZ Top doing a country song or that’s ZZ Top doing Dean Martin.’ (laughter) In that respect, you go into these projects really not a hundred percent certain of where it may take you but once the energy was moving we kind of hung in there and we just really felt quite good and really comfortable playing together and we didn’t turn our backs on the early style of what was going on. At the same time we were bringing out weird guitars and different kinds of fuzz-tone pedals and wah-wah pedals. We found this box full of effects from like the ‘60s and ‘70s and the engineers are to be credited as well because they said, ‘plug em all in’. (laughter)

RSS: Which guitars are featured most prominently on Mescalero?

BFG: We started off with Pearly Gates, the classic ZZ cornerstone. The benchmark for Billy F. Gibbons is Pearly Gates, the ‘59 Les Paul. Nice little sunburst, it just popped out of the factory on the right day and I guess the wind was blowing in the right direction. That’s still the favorite starting place. And sprinkled on top is the old Esquire, the gold top and...then we were digging around in this guitar closet and I rediscovered...Bo Diddly gave me a guitar that Gretsch built for him back in 1959 and I’ve had this thing for 20 years. It’s just crazy. And, the engineers are once again to be credited for prompting us into service (laughter) They said, ‘what is that?!’, ‘plug it in, let’s go for it’. So that we did.

RSS: How do you decide which guitars to use on certain tracks?

BFG: Well...the first decision was, ‘let’s go to the old trademark and find Pearly Gates’ and after that, once we got a few tracks going, then we got a little more experimental and kind of twisted off in another direction.

RSS: There’s some really neat studio wizardry going on this new CD.

BFG: Indeed. And that I credit to both Mr. Joe Hardy, the first engineer and Mr. Gary Moon who was assisting engineer and he was the mastering agent behind the project and they said, ‘let’s not be shy here, let’s go ahead and try out a few things here and a few things there. All they really required from us was to get in there and play. And that’s basically...I think the strong point of most successful outings starts there. You start with a good song and you go in there and play with your heart and soul. Put a little emotion and feeling behind it and then you turn it over...it’s a funny thing or it’s an unusual thing that these projects...they’re never really finished...you seem to think that there’s always something else you can do. But I think it’s wiser to be brave enough to draw the line and say, ‘okay, this is done, this is a wrap, let’s go for it. And again, the engineers, they’re pretty good sports. They’ll hang in there with us...we worked some late night hours and a couple of days when we hit it off in like, one take and I’d say, ‘okay, we don’t need to do anymore’, they said, ‘let’s go for some Mexican food’ (laughter).

RSS: The Mescalero cover art is quintessential ZZ.

BFG: Yeah, and old friend of ours, a good friend of mine, Ryk Maverick took the imagery into that kind of Tex-Mex dusty desert land and he kind of resurrected the famous “Day Of The Dead” feeling. “The Day Of The Dead” is a continuing celebration in Mexico. It’s a peculiar celebration. It’s a spiritual experience that has a rather, kind of humorous twist to it and it’s expressed mostly with skeletons being poised in real life action. And one of my favorite images is from the early ‘30s and it shows a band of skeletons...it’s two skeletons with guitars and another skeleton shaking maracas. (laughter) And we saw that, and I said, ‘you know what? Why don’t you take your hand at a takeoff with this Day Of The Dead thing?’ He (Ryk) goes, ‘oh, man it’d be perfect ZZ Top’, he said, ‘I think I can do you a good job’. Which he did, as you’ve seen. He’s to be commended. He’s quite a talent, that cat.

RSS: Alot of these tracks are tailor made for some ZZ Top style videos. Anything planned?

BFG: Well, there’s the obvious... “Buck Nekkid”, another fine ZZ-esque excursion into the obvious. Then, there’s “Alley-Gator”. That too qualifies because of it’s kind of swampiness, that Gulf-coast Louisiana thing. Another favorite that seems to be surfacing since the release of this thing a couple weeks ago, got a lot of calls on, “Punk-ass Boyfriend”. And I said, ‘wow, that’s really something’. That’s a song about Allison Ohnstede. Allison Ohnstede and Joe Fazzio. Joe Fazzio is quite a talented songwriter and singer but he’s most noted for his percussion work with his new band, Super Joint Ritual. That’s Philip Anselmo’s, heavy, heavy, heavyweight band. The do two weeks out as Super Joint Ritual and then they’ll go out with Hank Williams III who is...(laughter) this is kind of crazy...Hank Williams III (the third) is the bass player for Super Joint.

RSS: That’s the grand son of Hank Williams?

BFG: Yeah, the grandson. Yeah, Hank third. So it’s a real good lineup. You might have heard, you would remember Philip’s voice from his work with Pantera, the lead singer with Pantera, with the Diamondback’s outfit. They were a Texas group and they started this offshoot thing called Super Joint Ritual. But “Punk Ass Boyfriend”...it’s kind of this combination. It’s a song about her, Allison Ohnstede, the Alley cat...or the Alley-gator (laughter). We haven’t decided which one she is. And Joe Fazzio.

RSS: There’s a new ZZ Top box set coming on October 14, 2003 called Chrome, Smoke & BBQ: The ZZ Top Box Set. Did you have a big hand in that?

BFB: Yeah, that’s another interesting offering. I spoke with the group that put so much heart and soul behind the creation of that...probably about a year...and what a lotta...(laughter) we got a lot going on this month, it’s called busy week for ZZ

RSS: I was reading that there was an extensive research to find the original, first-generation analog masters that are the source of the tracks on the box set.


BFG: Oh yeah. In fact...(laughter), they’re remaining curiously tight lipped about their sources for how they found some of these rare tracks and they’re being a little cagey about it. I said, ‘where in the world did you find this?’. At any rate, we were invited to share in the assembly of the titles. You can’t put it all, I guess or like supposedly, you could but I really appreciated their willingness to kind of cherry pick the best of the best. It’s kind of an interesting retrospective when you sit there in the course of one afternoon you’re traveling through three decades (laughter) of what you’ve been doing. And it’s really propelling. On one hand it just seems kind of ‘oh yeah, well we’ve done that’ and at the same time you go, ‘gee whiz, this is I remember when I wrote this song we were hanging out at that cantina. And I remember when I wrote this song was when that girl was riding in our car.’ All kinds of stuff.

RSS: I found the lyrics to Mescalero on the internet. Those are some great lyrics. You didn’t want to print them with the artwork?

BFG: Yeah, we decided to just let people try and figure it out. However I heard, although I haven’t seen it, a friend of mine told me I guess there’s a web site that specializes in just lyrics and...

RSS: You’re way underrated as a lyricist.

BFG: (laughter) This one’s got some fun stuff particularly, as I mentioned, “Alley-Gator” and “Punk Ass Boyfriend” but one of my favorites is “Me So Stupid” and “Dusted”. ‘Course there’s a standard ZZ riff on “Liquor” (speaks lyric) ‘she took my liquor and left me the can to crush.’

RSS: “Stackin’ Paper” really stands out on the new album.

BFG: Someone said, ‘when are you guys gonna do another song in that crazy voice effect that you used on “Legs”?’ Which is basically, it’s falsetto. We had completed recording that track and discovered that it was in that nether world, kind of in between your normal singing range and something that might be just beyond your singing range. And I said, ‘maybe we could kind of split the difference and use that falsetto effect.’ And it worked. That little staccato thing, I gotta credit the engineers. They spliced the tape and kind of chopped it up a little bit. Kind of weird.

RSS: I really like the song “What Would You Do”. Kind of reminds me of Buddy Holly calling in from planet x. Did you purposely bleep out the expletives from the song?

BFG: (laughter) Oh yeah. It’s like we wanted to do it. ZZ Top has most notably used the secret language of the blues. And that was saying something, but not saying something. Although the original version was pretty much straight up (laughter) or straight out! We want to be the band that ZZ Top is supposed to be. Although the inspiration the song...you’re right on target. It was kind of like how would rock musicians today reinterpret either Buddy Holly or even Kentucky bluegrass? I’m glad you enjoyed that track. I held on to it dearly, ‘cause Dwight Yoakam...I played it for Dwight on his bus and he adamantly demanded, he and Pete Anderson said, ‘we want it. we’ve got to have that song.’ I said, ‘nope, no this belongs to the boys.’

RSS: It’s so sonically appealing.

BFG: Yeah! And that’s Dusty singing the high harmony. If you listen closely, his voice is quite a bit different than mine and at the same time we’ve learned how to interact together and he found that sweet spot right on top and I said, ‘man, let’s do this thing.’

RSS: Speaking of the bilingual border town vibe on Mescalero, the track “Que Laste Ma” is another highlight. It’s like a drunken mariachi metal ballad.

BFG: That was inspired by a friend of ours that we’d known for quite some time. He lives just across the Mexican border, over the Texas line. And one afternoon we were visiting and he ordered a Mexican beer at a little saloon we were hanging out at before, the first thing...he rose the bottle in the air and he made this toast. And I said, ‘what did you just say?’ He kind of grinned and he said, ‘what do you think I just said?’ I said, ‘I know what you just said, it’s hilarious.’ And it remained in the back of my mind for days and at the end of the week we had some extra time in the studio and they (the engineers) said, ‘do you have anything that we could use the time with?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got this Mexican toast in mind....’we are just poor little drunks and we have nothing to hold. But in my heart there’s nothing bad but still I don’t have a girl. What a pity, what a pity, what a pity’...(laughter) And they said, ‘get to writing!’. Now traditionally, historically most Mexican ballads don’t bother with a rhyming scheme that Western pop music employs. And thanks to my limited command of the language (laughter) I picked up some words and they managed to rhyme, which is quite unusual in the Mexican tradition. But in this case, I think it’s compelling when you hear it and if you can get a translation on it you’ll really understand that we’ve all been there. (laughter) I’ve got plenty of beer, I’ve got plenty of time, It’s important to have a few pesos (laughter), but still I have no girl...(laughter)


RSS: It’s like a mariachi blues thing.

BFG: Yeah! Hey listen, what is your schedule for tomorrow? Are you available on the phone to complete this?

RSS: What time were you thinking?

BFG: I’ll be going to California so I’ll have plenty of time to catch you around say, shall we say between 2 and 3? We’ll play phone tag say 3:00 your time. Mid afternoon New York and then we can pull a wrap on it. Hey listen, by the way, track 16 on Mescalero is the last one listed but when we get to the end of the CD, when you think you’ve gotten to the end of it, let it keep rolling. There’s a ghost track hiding down there. Track 17.

RSS: I did! I was so surprised you guys would do a ZZ version of “As Time Goes By”.

BFG: Yeah!

RSS: I was going to say, that version sort of brings the album from the stratosphere back to reality.

BFG: Yeah man, we just had a ball doin’ it. I had a terrible cold that afternoon and the engineer said, ‘man, it’s like Louie Armstrong meets Ray Charles.’ They said, ‘forget about it, go sing.’ (laughter) It’s a nice closer.

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