Monday, September 13, 2010

A Q&A with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, which supports Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday

Posted By on Mon, Sep 13, 2010 at 7:45 AM

click to enlarge zztopweb

ZZ Top has been serving up straightforward hard-driving Texas boogie blues rock with tons of cool cock-strutting attitude for the past four decades, never straying very far from their distinctive sound and adopting a sort of “If it ain’t broke, don't fix it” creative mentality that, while not always successful, has never been considered irrelevant and continues to influence blues rockers to this day.

Eminent axeman Billy Gibbons doles out licks and riffs without any flash or pretense, his guitar tone thick and crunchy and warm with a bite. He delivers cheeky lyrics in a characteristic sandpaper growl, sometimes suggestive, other times blatantly sexual or just plain nasty (remember when you first got “Pearl Necklace”?). Bassist/backing vocalist/co-bearded frontman Dusty Hill and whisker-free drummer Frank Beard provide the relentless grinding rhythmic foundation to the band’s thunderous sound.

The trio’s unchanging image and style is as famous as their music – long trailing beards, dark sunglasses, all manner of head gear (cowboy hats, baseball caps, biker bandannas and the like), a music museum’s worth of guitars, from custom-made fuzzy white novelties to a vintage classic ’59 Les Paul so holy it’s been dubbed “Pearly Gates,” a penchant for hot rods and hogzillas...

ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, has released 14 studio albums – 1983’s Eliminator (“Legs,” “Got Me Under Pressure,” “Sharp Dressed Man”) the most successful to date – and the original lineup has been intact for the entire length of the band’s tenure. They celebrated their 40th anniversary last December and a 15th studio album commemorating the hallmark is currently in the works with producer Rick Rubin manning the boards.

I had the chance to e-mail some questions to Gibbons last week, and he responded with clever, quickfire answers. Check out our virtual conversation below.

How’s the tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers been so far?

We did two dates with Tom earlier in the tour and are looking forward to getting back with him. We were digging Tom's Mudcrutch reunion last year in a big way.

Your last studio album was in 2003, and looks like you guys have another one in the works with Rick Rubin. Have you begun the recording process yet? How’s the creativity been flowing? What can fans expect from the new album? And are you warming up any new numbers on this tour?

Yes, we've begun the process and trading licks and getting it "down." There's still a ways to go yet, but we think we're onto something: it's loud and kinda rude. We've been throwing the odd song into the setlist, so keep your ears peeled, sounds painful but it shouldn't be.

ZZ Top celebrated its 40th anniversary this past December. Can you recount a few of your fondest memories from the road, those classic moments that only happen when you’re on tour – live experiences, fan freakiness, anecdotes about bands you’ve toured with, etc.

How about the gig in our early days where the band outnumbered the audience 3 - to - 1? We thought, "this guy came to see us play so let's just do it." He seemed to have a good time. A real highlight was induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards. I mean, that's the apex of something.

You played on Conan O'Brien's last show this past January. Tell me a bit about that experience.

We woodshedded a bit earlier in the day with Jimmy Vivino, who worked out the "Freebird" parts to perfection. We did one or two run-throughs at rehearsal and then nailed it live with Will Farrell singing righteous lead and his wife doing the go-go dancing honors. She gave birth almost directly after the performance, so you could say we came up with some moving music. Conan can play, don't you know!

What else has been going on with the band lately?

Lots of tour dates in some far-flung locations including Bulgaria, Brazil, Argentina and Macedonia. Besides collecting frequent flyer miles, we've been having a ball hosting radio-controlled model car races.

ZZ Top’s wisemen beards have become part of the hard blues rock cultural landscape – they’re almost as famous as the band! How long are they now? And if you were going to give Joe Schmo on the street some advice on growing a full wiseman beard, what would be your biggest tip?

Depends on where you put the start of the tape measure. If you count down to the last straggler strand, it's something more than 2 feet. I'm speaking for myself because the length of a man's chin-whiskers is a private matter and I really can't speak for Dusty. Frank, of course, has virtual beard by dint of his last name.

Cultivating a beard is not unlike tending a garden. Plenty of rest, fertilizer and a modicum of moisture will keep things growing and flowing.

ZZ Top

with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Thurs., Sept. 16, 7:30 p.m., St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, $49.50-$125.

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