9 questions with Billy Gibbons
It was at an explosive 1973 Arena show that Milwaukee got its first glimpse of ZZ Top as they walked on stage to the announcement of just a "l'il ol' band from Texas."
The local newspapers described that sweltering June evening as a tense, sometimes violent situation as 12,000 people pushed, shoved and shouldered their way to the front of the stage for a better look at headliners Deep Purple, one of the biggest acts on the planet at the time. But before Deep Purple appeared, guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard delivered a fast-paced 45-minute set of loud, blues-based rock and roll with material from their third album, "Tres Hombres," along with a few numbers like "Francine" and "Just Got Paid" from the earlier LPs.
Milwaukee Journal writer Damien Jacques said, "The star of the group is Billy Gibbons, who with cowboy hat and boots looked like he belonged to a country music act. A freakier cowpoke has not been seen this side of the Rio Grande. One doesn't see too many cowboy rock bands, especially ones that are as much fun to listen to and watch as ZZ Top."
Once "Tres Hombres" hit the record stores, ZZ Top's days on the undercard were over. The band began headlining large venues all over the country and released the popular "Fandango," "Tejas," "Deguello," "Eliminator" and "Afterburner" albums during the next decade. An iconic song and a cameo appearance in the film "Back to the Future III" only added to the band's popularity.
Although ZZ Top is still going strong, Gibbons recently chose to step outside the confines of his band to work with the BFGs and record an album called "Perfectamundo." The band will appear at The Pabst Theater this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. In a recent interview, Gibbons talked about the new album, the future of ZZ Top and several other fun topics.
OnMilwaukee: I'm guessing you've got a great reason to want to break away from ZZ Top's trademark sound and try something completely different.
Billy Gibbons: "Perfectamundo" was inspired by an unexpected invitation to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival in Cuba. We certainly wanted to fit in which immediately prompted searching sonic ways to develop a sound true to the many Afro-Cuban examples in blues, rock, jazz as well as pop tunes in contemporary settings. The extremes of percussive beats on conga drums, bongos, timbales became the thread which propelled some simple blues lines well into the feel of that which comes across from the Straits of Florida. Those rhythmic Mambo things. They're fierce. The BFG's have put the rhythm up front, which is a reversal of ZZ Top's approach. Having twin B3 organists, a percussion stylist and two drummers provides a rhythm backing way different than ZZ Top. We do, however, share a guitar player.
OnMilwaukee: How the live shows have been going?
Gibbons: The showcase dates are going great. We've been gathering momentum, and now this "baby band" is getting it in high gear as a singular cohesive unit.
OnMilwaukee: Would that June 1973 show opening for Deep Purple have been ZZ Top's first Milwaukee appearance?
Gibbons: That's a pretty great review from a really great night. And I believe that was indeed our first excursion into the fine city of Milwaukee. "Tres Hombres" came out about a month or so after that, followed by the single "LaGrange." Kinda love the idea of being called a "freakier cowpoke."
OnMilwaukee: Can you talk about how exposure through MTV and "Back to the Future III" affected the band, and if new generations of fans were created in the process?
Gibbons: Who would have thought that three guys who look like us would make a splash on screen? The fact is we kind of kept to the background in those early videos seen on MTV because we thought that by being bystanders in our own videos we wouldn't wear out our welcome. Obviously, folks liked what was seen and, more importantly, what was heard, which was a definite boost.
Being in "BTTFIII" was totally off-the-cuff, and we've been hearing about it ever since. We wrote the song "Doubleback" for the film which was kind of prophetic as everybody seems to be going back to the BTTF trilogy. We're still mystified to have played a part in it.
OnMilwaukee: Part of ZZ Top's trademark sound is the snarling, squealing guitar lines. Is that caused forcing the sound back through the amps, or is it achieved by a combination of pick against strings and fretwork?
Gibbons: It's become a favored technique amongst most modern players achieving the effect in several varying ways. Jeff Beck uses the sound of harmonics at will delivering long lines of a solo and twisting the pitch on every string! The effect is certainly worth the time it might take to master it.
OnMilwaukee: A 2011 Rolling Stone poll rated you as the 32nd best guitarist of all time. Sometimes those polls are beauty contests and might turn out differently if only musicians could vote. First, do you think that's a fair assessment, you being in the top third? And secondly, who are some guitar players that you admire?
Gibbons: Whatever list there might be, except the "MOST WANTED BY THE FBI," I'm glad to be on. Not sure how the rankings are determined, but it's all good. No dispute that Jimi Hendix is number one on the list, and we were gratified to be slotted in there between Prince and Ry Cooder. Who wouldn't want those guys for neighbors?
I have a long list of guitarists I admire and, like this one, it's topped by Jimi Hendrix. He made an electric guitar do things its inventors never had in mind. A genius of the highest order! Keith Richards' single stringing tone is immediate, and our buddy Jeff Beck has an approach that is truly singular — nobody like him. Gotta salute Hubert Sumlin whose recording work with both Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters truly broke new blues ground. Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants!
OnMilwaukee: Are most of your songs autobiographical? I'm sure "Pearl Necklace" is! But how about stuff like "Heard It On The X," "Mexican Blackbird" and even "La Grange"?
Gibbons: In a way, it's all autobiographical, a reflection of real experiences. We did hear great rock 'n' roll, R&B and blues on XERF; we did meet a beautiful darkly complected señorita in Mexico; and as far as "La Grange" is concerned, let's just say, again, they got a lotta nice girls there!
OnMilwaukee: ZZ Top is a fixture at events like Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson festivals, so there's no question you'll be fronting the trio again soon. But is there anything else that you'd like to try, either as an extension of "Perfectamundo" or something else that's entirely different?
Gibbons: Yes, there's no question at all. ZZ Top dates rev up in March, so check zztop.com to see where we'll be. The "Perfectamundo" experience has become a very positive one and underscores the importance of keeping an open mind, which means there could very well be another project in the offing along these lines. But, again, ZZ Top is the main man!
OnMilwaukee: Final question. Are you ever going to retire, or are you going to follow in the footsteps of Muddy, John Lee, the Wolf and B.B. King, and just play and play and play until you drop?
Gibbons: Final answer: Well, no question that those guys are our inspiration and we, too, are in for the long haul. It's always a good time!
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