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Cuban Revolution

ZZ Top front man Billy Gibbons goes solo—with a Latin tinge.

By November 2015Comments

Gibbons at his home in Houston in 2013.
Photograph by Rodney Bursiel

These days, Billy Gibbons describes ZZ Top as “four decades, same three guys, same three chords.” Indeed, by design, not much has changed about the self-proclaimed Little Ol’ Band From Texas: Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard, who’ve been together since forming in Houston in 1969, still play the revved-up blues that made them arena-filling hit-makers for much of the seventies and eighties. But this month, with the blessing of his longtime bandmates, Gibbons will tour with a new outfit, the BFG’s, in support of his first-ever solo record, a Cuban-inspired set titled Perfectamundo. Their tour includes the Havana Jazz Festival, in December.

ANDY LANGER: You kicked off 2015 onstage with Willie Nelson at his annual New Year’s Eve gig, in Austin. What can you learn from playing for two hours with Willie?

BILLY GIBBONS: I wasn’t supposed to play two hours. I talked to him before the show and said, “How about we play ‘Milk Cow Blues’?” And Willie replied, “How about we play all the blues?” I still thought I could play a few songs and bow out, but his sets are so seamless I ended up staying the whole gig. And up close, it’s even more obvious just how exquisite a soloist he is. It goes beyond the simplicity of three-chord blues. It contains the elegance of that simplicity but gets into some very “adult” chords and melodic changes. The gypsy-jazz stuff that Willie’s capable of delivering is dazzling. I spent most of the night just watching his hands and trying to keep up.

AL: For the longest time, seeing you play with anybody other than Dusty and Frank seemed unimaginable. The rule was always that if somebody wanted to see you play guitar you had to buy a ZZ Top ticket. I assume there was value in that, and now, value in this new world where you’re free to sit in with anybody you’d like?

BG: Definitely. When you’re trying to hone a sound, to march forward as a unified front, there’s value in staying focused. Mystery and mythology was a byproduct of that too. But I didn’t see it so much as being sequestered from reality; I saw it as twenty years of devoting ourselves to the fine art of refinement. When we believed we’d reached the point of refined art, that’s the time to stretch out and see how what you do fits with what other people do. It’s all part of a learning process. And many times the magic of the moment is accepting an invitation to step up unrehearsed and unprepared.

AL: A Billy Gibbons solo album has always seemed unimaginable too.

BG: The concept of a solo record still seems somewhat strange. Until recently, the standard answer as to how I’d approach a solo record was “I’d start by going into the studio with Dusty and Frank . . .” But a while back, I was invited to play the Havana Jazz Festival. I thought it was a mistake; I can play some blues, but jazz is foreign to me. But it piqued my interest, so I booked some studio time in Houston with my friend Martin Guigui to tinker on a tune or two that leaned Afro-Cuban. And, fortuitously, on the way to the studio, I noticed a new restaurant and stopped in to get a to-go menu. That restaurant was called Sal y Pimienta, Spanish for “salt and pepper.” The song title gods were smiling on us: we emerged from that afternoon’s work with “Sal y Pimienta,” which falls between mid-fifties Cuban music and what I can’t get away from anyway—loud rock and blues. Eleven songs later, the whole thing sounded different enough from a ZZ Top record that it made sense to make it a solo record.

AL: But at its core, ZZ Top is a boogie band. It’s rhythmic music. And Cuban music is rhythmic music. That’s the correlation—and probably the attraction—right?

BG: Without question. You add “Afro” to any genre—Afro-Cuban, Afro-jazz, Afro-blues—and it’ll come back to a very fundamental propulsion. Backbeat is everything. The difference here is the addition of timbales, congas, maracas, and bongos. Cuban music is very lively, and like ZZ Top, even the slower burners still have forward motion.

AL: I imagine playing with ZZ Top is largely about playing from muscle memory by now?

BG: There’s definitely elements of muscle memory, but also telepathy. We can just about predict who’s going to do what behind the corner before it arrives. But one thread in that predictable fabric is the always present uncertainty of who will make the first mistake. When that mistake creeps into the performances, who will lead us out? That’s the fun. The uncertainty of the happy accident keeps us on our toes. That’s what keeps it so enjoyable. Even the most repetitive revisits of biggest hits still carry that uncertainty.

AL: I found a 1976 Texas Monthly piece on ZZ Top that describes the band as “banal and repetitive” and basically dismisses it as music for rebellious kids. It reads like a precursor to how someone middle-aged might’ve tried to describe and dismiss the punk rock movement a few years later.

BG: That’s when rock ’n’ roll was disruptive. Part of it was timing—that was when the development and enhancement of high-powered amplifiers and sound systems came to be. That raucous, raw unbridled rebelliousness of the music now had a delivery mechanism that made it virtually inescapable. We were happy to be driving that Cadillac. When we’d pull in, there was no denying something big and loud was coming to town.

AL: There are still a lot of people who associate ZZ Top with the MTV period. Are you okay with that?

BG: I remember not knowing anything about MTV and Frank calling me and saying, “Have you been watching this concert going on?” I turned it on and ten hours later I said, “When does this show end?” Radio that you could watch? We embraced it and it became part and parcel of who we are—we became the bearded guys who have the pretty girls and the hot rod cars. But cars are loud, music is loud. It never seemed inconsistent with who we were.

AL: And MTV made the beards iconic.

BG: At the time, chin whiskers were considered an offbeat way to express one’s appearance. We never considered it fashionable. Our position was that we were immune to fashion. A few decades later, of course, beards are commonplace. So maybe we’re getting closer to shaving ’em, taking the money and running. But we’re not sure what’s lurking under these doormats hanging from our chins. I’m not so sure we want to make that discovery.

AL: When you walk into a room, any room, the beard makes you instantly recognizable. Does that take a personal toll?

BG: Part of me loves the attention. But, yeah, what started off as a disguise has become a trademark. At the close of 1976, we’d done seven years on the road nonstop and decided to take a breather. Frank went to the Caribbean to study reggae styles. Dusty was in Mexico. I was bumming around Europe. When we finally regrouped, a three-month holiday had turned into three years. And when we marched into the room to start rehearsing, Dusty and I had gotten lazy and not shaved—in part, to make our vacations easier and get recognized less often. Even Frank had some facial hair—you can see it in a photograph in the inner sleeve of Degüello. But Frank was too far behind. So he said, “Well, I got the last name.” What’s irritating is that Frank can walk down the street undiscovered. He can buy a hamburger and move on.

AL: You’re releasing your first solo record at a time when the music business couldn’t seem any more different than the days when your band famously signed a $35 million deal with RCA. Now people are arguing over fractions of a penny per stream.

BG: There’s always going to be a nostalgia at what we could call the glory days of mega-buck deals that just fall into your lap. A big band could get bigger or, seemingly out of nowhere, a band might rise from rags to riches in thirty seconds. Let the ink dry and you could buy a Cadillac. Or ten. Those days are seemingly gone, but it doesn’t dilute the bottom line that drives the business: everyone still wants to be entertained. There’s more ways than ever before to find that entertainment. I’m comfortable staying within what I chose to follow: making loud noise. And releasing a solo record in this climate, going down a corner you haven’t been down before is energizing. If you find what you’re doing enjoyable and energizing, I think there’s a better chance you’ll be rewarded at the end of the day. It could be monetary, it could just be a round of applause.

AL: Financially, you don’t have to be working as hard as you do, touring as hard as you do. How much of that simply has to do with the roar of the crowd?

BG: It’s a curiously magnetic event. The roar of the crowd is electric. It’s dynamic. And it’s addictive. You taste it and you want more. And its impact doesn’t seem to change or dull. We all want to be liked. In show business, the sound of approval is a round of applause. Then you get to say, “If you liked that, let’s try this.”

AL: One thing you won’t try is an acoustic guitar. I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the mythology around “Billy Gibbons the guitar hero” is your absolute aversion to acoustic guitars.

BG: They’re bad luck. I won’t touch ’em. In fact, don’t bring an acoustic guitar around me. I’d rather have a high-speed cigarette racer rather than wait for a big blow of wind to power my sailboat. Don’t give me a blow-boat, I’ll take the yacht. On our 1976 album Tejas, there’s a tune called “Asleep in the Desert.” That’s the last time I’ve wrapped my hands around an acoustic, but it was a Spanish gut-string, like Willie’s Trigger. But generally, there’s just not enough power for me. It’s rock and roll’s kick-in-the-pants rebelliousness that drives me. And electric guitars part the seas that much faster.

AL: You’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You’ve sold millions of records. At 65, how much time do you spend thinking about what it all means?

BG: It would be interesting if there was a way to know in advance if what you’re doing might have a positive influence, if it was something that left the next guy in line something to shoot for. But the mystery behind it is a good thing, because you’re left with no choice but to continue striving. Along the way you may be lauded and applauded for something that becomes recognizable, like a hit song. Those are the pleasant reminders that maybe, just maybe, we’ve made a positive impact. But we still get up there not knowing who is going to make the first mistake. I hope that never changes.

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