BILLY F GIBBONS
ZZ Top’s guitar burner on the blues, stormy weather and missing Mexico.
ZZ Top’s ambassador of the blues gets in Confidential mood, talks floods, fun south of the border and the undying joy of Howlin’ Wolf.
PARKED UP on the tour coach at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville, Washington, where ZZ Top have a summer date, Billy F Gibbons is idling before showtime. Seldom one to kick back despite his easy and unhurried Texan courtliness, Billy has recorded two solo albums since the last Top opus, 2013’s tremendous La Futura. While his Perfectamundo delightfully percolated blues-rock licks with Afro-Cuban rhythms in 2015, today The Big Bad Blues brings it on back to classic covers, industrial-strength boogie grooves and the lope and leer of Billy’s oak-aged voice.
Are there blues singers whose way of handling a song inspires you? Top of the list, Jimmy Reed. I was talking to my guitar-slinging pal Jimmie Vaughan, who holds the same admiration. Simple as it seems on the surface, there is a complexity he and I find baffling, and that’s what keeps it fresh. We can listen to a Jimmy Reed song we’ve heard hundreds of times and something will jump out we’ve never heard before.
On your new album there are two songs each from the canons of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. What were they like? They were genuine. Muddy Waters travelled on tour with ZZ Top in the late ’70s, Bo Diddley too. I remained friends with both those guys until the day they died. One of the first gigs ZZ Top did was backing up Bo Diddley. He was a character. Bo Diddley gave me a couple of those oddball guitars that Gretsch made for him in the ’50s. We used one for a couple of solos on the ZZ Top album Rhythmeen – plug it in and it was ferocious, terrorising!
What blues song or songwriter always makes you laugh? Howlin’ Wolf. He was fearsome – and what a sound on those early records.
Ever feel like doing a Gibbons husband and wife bluesy duo? Ha ha, yeah man! My lovely sweetheart Gilligan paid a visit to the studio one afternoon. She was scribbling away, and I was sure she was taking notes from the Gucci and Chanel catalogues. She took a break and left her notepad lying about, and I said, “Gee whiz, this looks like poetry – I think we can make a song.” The engineers said, “Take a shot – read from the paper and light up the microphone then we’ll put it to music…” They said, “Missin’ your kissin’? You’d better hope she’s writing about you!”
Then again, it’s two whole albums now without Dusty and Frank… We have the luxury of two recording studios in Texas, and while I’m slaving away on the solo stuff, they’re making new ZZ Top starter kits, pushing the pencil in all directions. After all these years together, either by design or more likely mistake we stumble into an excursion into enjoyment – we call it going to the Bahamas!
Did the Houston floods affect you? Remarkably, no. When the storms hit, we were in California and watched it unfold on the news. I saw motorboats going down streets I knew. The city was deluged, under siege by the rising waters. Though my neighbours to the left and right took on a heap of water, my condo remained high and dry. And our recording studio didn’t take a drop. ZZ Top had a show booked in Houston for months, and by the time of the date the waters had receded and we were able to raise $100,000 for a charity which got the ball rolling and rallied the city.
What do you feel about what’s happening on your border with Mexico? We’ve lost a really enlivening experience. The days of just going over the borderline are over. I have a little house on the border and on Friday night we’d go over and wouldn’t come back ’til Monday. I could rattle on for days about those excursions. We miss the music, the food, and hanging out with our Spanish-speaking pals across the line. Tell us something you’ve never told an interviewer before. I’ve got very little to complain about. However, if I could find the guy who invented the hands-free water faucet I’d like to wring his neck. You find yourself waving your hands in thin air waiting for the water to flow. The concept is lofty and that would be fine if the damned thing would function. They don’t work!
“In Houston saw motorboats going down streets I knew.” BILLY F GIBBONS