A FEW MINUTES WITH… Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top

ZZ Top
ZZ Top

By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

“The bottom line is ZZ sounds like ZZ, which is that of interpretation rather than slave to form. It’s what keeps it funky.” So says guitarist-bandleader Billy Gibbons.

It’s a slippery slope adapting hardcore electric blues to the rock world without coming across as modern-day minstrels. To add your own mojo to the mix without desecrating your mentors is harder still. To do it with the same line-up for 48 years is unprecedented. And to sell 30 million units of 15 studio albums along the way is a blues band’s wet dream.

ZZ Top has done all that and more…

On Sunday night, ZZ Top brings their Tonnage Tour to Proctors in Schenectady. Tonnage refers to the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit “Sixteen Tons.” Years ago someone posted a YouTube video of a band purported to be ZZ Top with Jeff Beck performing the song. ZZ Top, amused by the video, started performing the song on tour and recorded a London concert version with – you guessed it – Jeff Beck sitting in. It’s included on their CD, ZZ Top – Live! Greatest Hits from Around the World.

The current tour follows up the release of Billy Gibbons’ debut solo LP Perfectamundo, a Latin-flavored work that shows another side of Gibbons, who took lessons from Tito Puente at age 13.

Q: Of all the major blues-influenced rock acts of the last 60 years, ZZ Top is the best at pushing the envelope further back and further forward at the same time. What do you get out of a Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker and Tennessee Ernie Ford song that inspires your sound without ever sounding retro?

A: We rarely think of the blues as something immutable. It’s ever evolving so there’s scant reason to be too doctrinaire about such an art form. It’s difficult to imagine if Muddy Waters had never plugged in. That would have been a way different detour and perhaps that’s why we do what we do… create experimental situations.

The blues really remains a living organism on so many levels, which leads us to just do what we do and let it flourish. The bottom line is ZZ sounds like ZZ, which is that of interpretation rather than slave to form. It’s what keeps it funky.

Q: What do you do to inspire yourselves to keep it fresh and contemporary after 47 years?

A: We just get out there, and bash it out. It’s definitely cathartic, which keeps us energized (to) maintain a fresh sounding aim. Every performance date, every studio session, hell, every sound check is an opportunity to turn it up, and let it rock. It’s really an exhilarating thing, so we dig gettin’ to do it to it.

Q: Your drummer Frank Beard once told me that you guys brainstorm lyrics and get as dirty as you can and then dial it back just far enough not to get censored. Has that become easier with time as society becomes more open? What have you written in the last decade that you couldn’t have gotten away with in 2007?

A: The entendre is oft times double and sometimes triple, but coming right out and saying it wouldn’t be much of an artistic challenge. It’s not we’ve “gotten away” with anything over the years — those who know the subtext might get a charge, but those who don’t still get off, so it’s a win/win. I don’t know of anything from recent vintage that’s out of sorts from 10, 20 or even 30 years back. Nuance is everything.

Q: Most rock bands lose something of the raw blues essence by adding effects. You guys are just the opposite. Somehow your synthesizer never sounds synthetic. Is it safe to say that you use the studio almost as if it were another instrument? Does that ever become problematic translating into live concert?

A: The studio is an adjunct to what we do and something of a tool shed for us. There’s not much we’ve done in the studio that we haven’t been able to do on stage, and that’s quite intentional. We aim to sound like ourselves. It’s much more comfortable that way. Then again, we do enjoy going about figuring how to replicate the exotic when contemporary tech is in the blend.

Q: Like the best blues, you are simple without ever being simplistic, and you’ve always done that. What in your background gave you that insight at such a young age?

A: Coming up in Houston presented a grand exposure to some of the greats — B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed. When you hear those guys, you know they were advanced, almost other worldly. All of them had a certain genius that was transcendent and a source of inspiration.

Q: You turn the music inside out, “splicing” genres. Do you create in the studio like the Stones, or do you go in with the arrangements pretty much worked out?

A: We just kind of wing it. It’s always that infamous trial-and-error process. It’s fun screwing up, just as it’s a groove getting it right.

Q: You produce twisted innuendos as opposed to double entendres. Is that a white guy thing? In other words, African-Americans for centuries had to sing in code. Is there an equivalency for white artist in the pop world?

A: Twisted Innuendo sounds like the name of a hip band. Not sure if it’s a “white guy thing” because if you think about the metaphors that Howlin’ Wolf or (Isaac) Hayes and (David) Porter used, it’s just poetry actually. We just try to convey a point of view that’s a bit off-center, which a choice few can relate to if they have a mind to.

Q: What did you get out of “Perfectamundo” that you don’t get out of ZZ Top in terms of freedom to exercise your muse? I guess Tito Puente would be a no-no for ZZ Top.

A: It’s a format thing. In rock, the rhythm is out back and the guitars, etc. are up front. With Perfectamundo, it was the other way around. We put the backbeat in front and the guitars out back. It’s something that’s simply a bit outside the purview of ZZ Top. Although the Cubano thing we came up with included enough bits with that ZZ Top approach to round up Perfectamundo’s success.

Q: You were in the Delta in connection with a Muddywood guitar presentation (a guitar produced with wood from the Stovall Plantation shack Muddy lived in) in 1987. You bought an Emerson fan in Helena, Arkansas, and turned King Biscuit Blues Festival founder Bubba Sullivan onto a Warner Brothers VP who secured a film for Bubba of Sonny Boy Williamson performing. That connection inspired Bubba to open Bubba’s Blues Corner Record Store on Cherry St. behind the main stage. It’s where all the artists sign their CDs when they play there. This year that festival will celebrate its 32nd season. Bubba says hello.

A: Say “hey” back to Bubba. Wonderful that he’s still at it!

Q: I’ve been writing about blues for half a century. You guys are the number one defense against the blues Nazis’ argument. Love ya, brother!!!

A: Back atcha!

WHERE: Proctors, Schenectady
WHEN: Sunday (February 26), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $50-$325

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