By Brian Ives
Even Billy Gibbons seems surprised that he put out a solo album. It was surprising to fans as well: 46 years into ZZ Top‘s career, the singer/guitarist finally released his solo debut. Over the course of this interview, he expressed surprise and delight that his experimental sessions are now available on his Perfectamundo album, surprise that his guitarist Alex Garza turned out to be a rapper, and surprise that the album works so well.
We also discussed the future of both ZZ Top and his other band, Moving Sidewalks, whom he recently reunited with after more than four decades, his recent collaboration with blues legend Buddy Guy, his percussion lessons from Tito Puente, and how recording at a Houston studio known for hip-hop and R&B influenced his work.
I was fortunate enough to see one of your two reunion shows with the Moving Sidewalks two years ago. When you announced your solo album, I was surprised; I figured if you had a break between ZZ Top activity, you might have done some recordings with those guys.
We did. I suggested that the Moving Sidewalks consider going back in the studio; surprisingly were all about it. And the question then came, well, do we wanna write new ones? Do we wanna replay old ones in a new way? We did both. And I bet that that will probably see the light of day sooner than later. Still got one or two things kind of bubbling under that we said, “Wait, we got more.” So more is good.
Will there be more Moving Sidewalks shows?
Yes. Time permitting, they’re ready and willing. I’ve been since rekindling that fire. By the way, the bass player, Don Summers, was always the mechanic of the band, and he’s the one that created all those crazy guitars, and in fact, he was instrumental in developing that spinning guitar that ZZ Top used years later.
So let’s talk about your album, Perfectamundo.
The Perfectamundo release is now official, which is still quite surprising to all of us that participated. It was the culmination of eleven tracks of experimentation. Not having set about to make an album, it fell into place piece by piece. And each step was just tiptoeing in uncharted waters. Those waters just happened to be 90 miles across the Strait of Florida. So we wound up with this Afro-Cubano thing. We like it.
It seems like you’ve always been a guy who is open to new sounds.
Yes. There was a surprising element that returned [on this album] from when I was 13. I’d been banging on everything metal in the house, and my dad, the orchestra leader, said, “Listen, if you’re gonna bang on things, let’s learn to do it correctly.”
So off we went to Manhattan and wound up at the feet of “the Mambo King,” Tito Puente, the master of Latin percussion. And it was quite an eye-opener. He handed me some sticks and says, “Tell me what you wanna do.” And I said “okay,” and he said, “Okay, you’ve got a pretty good hand at it, now let’s figure out where you wanna place it.”
And that was the breakthrough point, learning to divide up these four beats and find the cracks between the beats and how to get in there and get out. The phrase “learn to play what you wanna hear,” that was it. So: a good thing.
Your dad was a musician, and he knew Tito Puente.
Yes. Tito Puente, of course, still loved by many, and for good reason. Not only did he have a gift, but he was passionate about bringing it forward. And it was not taken lightly. He was dedicated to the point of precision, and it very quickly separates the men from the boys.
That influence feels prevalent on your record. Someone asked me if Perfectamundo sounds different than a ZZ Top record. I thought, “Well, his vocals are distinctive, his guitar playing is distinctive, but there’s Hammond organ and percussion that you don’t hear with ZZ Top.”
Well, ZZ Top has tiptoed toward maybe a few sounds from the Latin percussion side of things. What’s not spoken about too often is how much Cuban music has been influential in Western pop music, as long as I can remember.
As for the organ, Mike Flanigin, the great B3 player from Austin, was just wrapping up a solo record called The Drifter, and he had asked if I would lend some singing on that particular number called “The Drifter.”
And as he came in he said, “Man,” he said, “I was passing the control room, and it sounds like there’s something Cuban going on.” And I said, “Well, we got an invitation to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival, I don’t know so much about jazz, but I didn’t wanna pass up the opportunity to visit Cuba, nor did I wanna crash the party with a rock show, so we’re kinda giving our hand.”
Well, that led to the conversation of how blues plays into it, and then we stumbled into what appears on the opening track, Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It,” which is basically a cha-cha. And he said, “Well, there you have it,” and I said, “Well, there’s the B3; you get started, and I’ll start banging,” and away we went.
I love when people play the blues straight, but I also love people who can bring something new to it, which I feel like you’ve done with ZZ Top, and you definitely do it here.
Yes, the blues has remained a benchmark for everything that ZZ Top has attempted to interpret. It’s fair to say that’s always there. It’s just that constant background that brings it forward.
So yeah, it feels good. The genre is a great American art form, and some people consider it rather simplistic. On close inspection, the sophistication runs deep. And it provides a platform where there’s plenty of room to take it further. That’s a good thing.
This business of strict traditionalism has its place. But ironically, Muddy Waters, who some would consider the voice of strict traditionalism, he went from what we would classify as “country blues,” and the first opportunity to plug into an electric guitar, he was there. And the world is better for it. I guess that’s about as experimental as you could get for the time.
I love that you played with auto-tune on the record.
There were no rules, and the clock wasn’t necessarily running. It just turned out that we had the luxury of incorporating some of the more unusual unexpectedness. It’s quite delightful.
There’s been a hip-hop influence in ZZ Top from Eliminator through “I Gotsta Get Paid.” But you actually have a guy rapping on Perfectamundo.
ZZ Top gained an insight by recording in a studio that had become the favorite destination of the rap and hip-hop community down in Houston. Destiny’s Child recorded there, so did the Rap-A-Lot artists: Scarface, Getto Boys, Bushwick Bill. The studio arrangement is: there’s a cutting room, another cutting room, and a lounge in the middle. So this was the great gathering spot. And I wanted to know what those guys were doing; they wanted to know what we were doing. So there was a rather robust exchange during that period, and it seems to have stuck.
And the last ZZ Top album, La Futura, was produced by Rick Rubin, who has produced more than a few notable hip-hop recordings. But I know when he produces, he isn’t always in the studio, because he works on so many projects at once.
Definitely. That was the one surprising thing. He had a lot of patience, and whereas some artists might get a little aggravated with this protracted and somewhat extended affair, I found it a bonus. And Rick, in turn, was gratified to be seen as a focused individual with just that dedication through patience. “Do it again. We don’t know what’s gonna happen the second time you do it.”
He finally said, “Listen,” he said, “I’d like to see you take the producer’s chair for a brief moment and that’s when what came to be known as “I Gotsta Get Paid,” which is [hip-hop song] “25 Lighters” meets Lightning Hopkins. It was Rick who said, “What does this ‘25 Lighters’ mean?” That was a Houston kind of a ghetto slang; you can look it up on Google now. You get to know what it really means, and he thought that that was just the greatest thing.
Back to the rap vocals: that’s something that might be off-putting to long-time fans.
ZZ Top fans will find that Perfectamundo is a hard twist out of the predictable. Some will find it intriguing; most will find it curious; some will find it infectious; owhich is okay. I believe it’s fair to say that inasmuch as it was not by design, it was most by accident, it is what it is.
And I didn’t know that our man [guitarist] Alex Garza was such a fan of the hip hop and rap scene. He’s our resident poet. And I just heard him rapping off the cuff one day, and that’s when I decided to put him to work. And I’ve got him working overtime.
So are you planning the next ZZ Top record?
Yes. Perfectamundo has stimulated their excitement. First of all, they got excited about the fact that I’ll be taking a new band out on the road while they get a nice holiday. But in so doing, I stimulated and piqued their curiosity, so now I’ve got Frank working out new drumbeats, while Dusty’s working up basslines. By the time I get back, ZZ will go back in the studio, and it’ll be back to square one with I think some really intriguing stuff.
So you guys have been together longer, without any lineup changes, than any other band. Still, when you inform them that you’re doing something with the Moving Sidewalks, or that you’re doing a solo album… is it uncomfortable to break that news to them?
Not necessarily. The “main man” still remains ZZ Top. And they — Frank Beard, the man with no beard, Dusty Hill, the fearless bass player — we all enjoy getting to do what we get to do. The challenge is, we don’t know who’s gonna get to make the first mistake and lead us off to the Bahamas. But it always keeps us on our toes, and we get to go down to the Caribbean every once in a while. How do we get there? How do we get back?
Is it difficult to add new songs into your set when you have a career that’s spanned four decades and people always want to hear the songs they grew up with?
Yes. Contemporary music doesn’t have the luxury of the red carpet that pre-exists. You’re stepping off into the conveyance of the unknown, and that’s quite an uphill climb. However, even La Futura, as progressive as it became, it was definitely steeped in the ZZ vein, and “Chartreuse” even has elements similar to “Tush.” So there’s the convenience of a point of relation.
Yes, the odd notion of ZZ Top even considering doing a rap song… well, it’s not a rap song. it’s a blues number. It just happens to share Lightnin Hopkins’ ghetto with the Geto Boys’ ghetto, which comes together in a rock way. It’s rocking’.
You guested on Buddy Guy’s new album, Born To Play Guitar. You’ve worked with him in the past, but what has it meant to you to jam with a blues legend?
Buddy Guy holds his own. He’s never strayed away from what has made him such an admirable fellow. Tom Hambridge, his producer, and also a writer of some of the material, does not make the mistake that so many producers do, by forcing the artist to drift off out of character. I was happy to step into that scene. Knowing Buddy Guy like he’s allowed me to get to know him brought us together in fine fashion.
I read an interview with Carlos Santana, where he said that Buddy Guy doesn’t really know how great he is, or what his place in history is.
I would be curious to know if he knows just what an important position he does occupy. My suspicion is if you were to ask him outright, he might shy away from being considered too braggadocious. He’s just about playing. That’s what he is.
So how are you divying up your time next year: you have solo dates, you say the Moving Sidewalks will have an album and then there’s always ZZ Top.
Well, we’re shuffling as fast as we can, I should say. We never really anticipated this group of recording sessions to congeal into a real hit-the-streets release. It’s something you can hold in your hands. And following that it was decided to put a road show together.
January and February is more road shows for Billy Gibbons and the BFGs, and then it’s off this tour bus back onto the ZZ Top road show. So a lot of good stuff going on.
ZZ Top recently played La Grange for the first time, which is kind of surprising. Tell me about that gig.
La Grange, Texas, the home of a particular destination that stimulated the emergence of the song “La Grange,” which was ZZ Top’s first Top 10, and that was way, way back, in 1973. And we had never actually performed in La Grange; they didn’t really have a venue. And this particular invitation was connected to the country fair that is held on grounds in La Grange, and I guess on a good year the La Grange County Fair would draw maybe five or six thousand people, which is a nice weekend gathering.
We showed up as part of the fair on the closing night, and 35,000 showed up, which was a definite bonus, and out of those 35,000 that showed up, one of them was Ralph Fisher, who was the animal handler for the ZZ Top Worldwide Texas tour back in 1976, was there with the buzzard that accompanied us way back then.
And he said, “Hey man, Oscar’s here.” I said “Oscar? The only Oscar I know with you is the buzzard.”
He said, “That’s right, she’s here,” and I said “Is Oscar a she?” And he said, “Well, we thought it was a he until we’d had her for 20 years and she laid an egg!”
I must point out that Oscar is the oldest known black buzzard in captivity, and she was there. He put her up on stage with us that night in La Grange, and out the wings went, and she stayed for the whole closing two numbers.