An interview with ZZ Top guitarist
Billy F. Gibbons
blues rock legends ZZ Top are back in the spotlight again in 2003returning
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 trios finest studio album ever. Decked out with
uncanny artwork that puts a sardonic ZZ spin on Mexicos 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 setLegs
(1984), Tush (1975), Sharp Dressed Man (1983)
to name a fewalong 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 2003the year of the bluesthen 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 magazinetook
place by phone on October 16th with part two taking place during the
early afternoon of October 17th, 2003.
Billy F. Gibbons
RSS: Robert S. Silverstein
BFG: Its Billy F. Gibbons from ZZ Top, your bearded buddy callin
RSS: Hi Billy, thanks for calling. Are you in L.A.?
BFG: No, I just left and arrived in Houston, Texas. Calling from Houston,
RSS: After I heard the new ZZ Top album, Mescalero I flipped
out. Its such a brilliant record. I recall we had ZZ Top on
the cover of the October 99 issue of 20th Century Guitar.
BFG: Thats awesome man. Thats really, really cool. Were
really happy with...this Mescalero thing, it was an unexpected
pleasure to finally wrap it up. Youve heard it then I take it?
RSS: Yeah Ive been playing it religiously.
BFG: Alright. Thats the way man...
RSS: It blew me away. Its so superbly crafted. Im curious
about what inspired the title track, Mescalero and hence
the album title.
BFG: Yeah, well its an interesting sounding word. Its
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 theres 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 its like, what language is this? (laughter)
Its not English, its not Spanish, its Spanglish.
RSS: You should print your own dictionary!
BFG: Yeah right...(laughter) Lets do it.
RSS: The press behind Mescalero mentions ZZ Top is returning
to their roots but theres also some fresh energy at work as
BFG: Yeah! I would feel safe in stating that it seems to be...its
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, thats ZZ Top doing a country song or thats 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 didnt 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.
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.
Thats 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 Ive had this thing
for 20 years. Its 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, lets 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, lets 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: Theres some really neat studio wizardry going on this new
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, lets not be shy
here, lets 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 thats 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...its a funny
thing or its an unusual thing that these projects...theyre
never really finished...you seem to think that theres always
something else you can do. But I think its wiser to be brave
enough to draw the line and say, okay, this is done, this is
a wrap, lets go for it. And again, the engineers, theyre
pretty good sports. Theyll 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 Id say, okay, we dont need to do anymore,
they said, lets 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.
Its a peculiar celebration. Its a spiritual experience
that has a rather, kind of humorous twist to it and its 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...its two skeletons with guitars and another skeleton
shaking maracas. (laughter) And we saw that, and I said, you
know what? Why dont you take your hand at a takeoff with this
Day Of The Dead thing? He (Ryk) goes, oh, man itd
be perfect ZZ Top, he said, I think I can do you a good
job. Which he did, as youve seen. Hes to be commended.
Hes quite a talent, that cat.
RSS: Alot of these tracks are tailor made for some ZZ Top style videos.
BFG: Well, theres the obvious... Buck Nekkid, another
fine ZZ-esque excursion into the obvious. Then, theres Alley-Gator.
That too qualifies because of its 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, thats
really something. Thats a song about Allison Ohnstede.
Allison Ohnstede and Joe Fazzio. Joe Fazzio is quite a talented songwriter
and singer but hes most noted for his percussion work with his
new band, Super Joint Ritual. Thats Philip Anselmos, heavy,
heavy, heavyweight band. The do two weeks out as Super Joint
Ritual and then theyll 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: Thats the grand son of Hank Williams?
BFG: Yeah, the grandson. Yeah, Hank third. So its a real good
lineup. You might have heard, you would remember Philips voice
from his work with Pantera, the lead singer with Pantera, with the
Diamondbacks outfit. They were a Texas group and they started
this offshoot thing called Super Joint Ritual. But Punk Ass
Boyfriend...its kind of this combination. Its a
song about her, Allison Ohnstede, the Alley cat...or the Alley-gator
(laughter). We havent decided which one she is. And Joe Fazzio.
RSS: Theres 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, thats 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, its 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), theyre remaining curiously
tight lipped about their sources for how they found some of these
rare tracks and theyre 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 cant
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. Its
kind of an interesting retrospective when you sit there in the course
of one afternoon youre traveling through three decades (laughter)
of what youve been doing. And its really propelling. On
one hand it just seems kind of oh yeah, well weve 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 didnt want to print them with the
BFG: Yeah, we decided to just let people try and figure it out. However
I heard, although I havent seen it, a friend of mine told me
I guess theres a web site that specializes in just lyrics and...
RSS: Youre way underrated as a lyricist.
BFG: (laughter) This ones 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 theres a standard ZZ riff on Liquor
(speaks lyric) she took my liquor and left me the can to
RSS: Stackin Paper really stands out on the new
BFG: Someone said, when are you guys gonna do another song in
that crazy voice effect that you used on Legs? Which
is basically, its 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. Its 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...youre right on target. It was kind of like how would
rock musicians today reinterpret either Buddy Holly or even Kentucky
bluegrass? Im 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.
weve got to have that song. I said, nope, no this
belongs to the boys.
RSS: Its so sonically appealing.
BFG: Yeah! And thats Dusty singing the high harmony. If you
listen closely, his voice is quite a bit different than mine and at
the same time weve learned how to interact together and he found
that sweet spot right on top and I said, man, lets do
RSS: Speaking of the bilingual border town vibe on Mescalero, the
track Que Laste Ma is another highlight. Its like
a drunken mariachi metal ballad.
BFG: That was inspired by a friend of ours that wed 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, its 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, Ive
got this Mexican toast in mind....we are just poor little
drunks and we have nothing to hold. But in my heart theres nothing
bad but still I dont 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 dont 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 its compelling when you hear it and
if you can get a translation on it youll really understand that
weve all been there. (laughter) Ive got plenty of beer,
Ive got plenty of time, Its important to have a few pesos
(laughter), but still I have no girl...(laughter)
RSS: Its 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: Ill be going to California so Ill have plenty of
time to catch you around say, shall we say between 2 and 3? Well
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 youve gotten to the end of it, let it keep rolling.
Theres 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.
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, its like
Louie Armstrong meets Ray Charles. They said, forget about
it, go sing. (laughter) Its a nice closer.