The success of ZZ Top as a mainstream rock band is one of the more perplexing turns in pop music history. The blues-rock trio – formed in Houston circa 1969 – began experimenting with the new sounds emerging in the rock world (think new wave, punk, dance, etc.) in the early 80s, gave MTV a few videos to put in their rotation back when that was a thing, and the next thing you know the originators of the Tube Snake Boogie were somehow major sex symbols during the Reagan years.
Of course, now the trio is looked upon more as legends than hit makers of today, but that doesn’t stop the adulation from coming. The boys in the band, guitarist and vocalist Billy Gibbons especially, are invited to appear as guests on more and more albums every year. While record labels may not view ZZ Top as a reliable source of hits in the year 2016, they sure do consider them to have a good name to slap on the back of their artists records.
But at this point the band is happy to concentrate on hitting the road a few times a year and playing to packed houses, as they are sure to do Wednesday night in Cary at Koka Booth Amphitheatre. I had a chance to converse with legendary front man Billy Gibbons before their show, and touched on inappropriate openers; playing with Jimi Hendrix; and finding yourself on the wrong end of a Buzzfeed controversy.
Isaac Weeks: You guys have Gov’t Mule opening for you on the current tour, which is just a killer choice for an opener. With all of the years ZZ Top has spent touring, I’m sure there have been some openers lined up that sounded good on paper, but once you actually hear them that first night you stop and think to yourself, “We’ve made a huge mistake…” Not asking for names, but what do you do to remedy the situation when that occurs? Check the contract for an out clause; if they are young, pull them to the side and ask what they are thinking; etc?
Billy Gibbons: Actually, we’ve had some very good luck with the many opening acts who have joined us on deck. Let’s not forget that we’ve been openers, for the Rolling Stones to cite one fantastic example. As the saying goes, “The show must go on,” so, it’s get out there and do it to it!
IW: Does getting back with the band feel like coming back home after spending a winter on a solo tour promoting your solo album Perfectamundo, or do you look at it as recharging the batteries for another solo gig – since you are sharing the pressure, as it were, with the other two members of ZZ Top on the group tours?
BG: It’s like when coming home for Thanksgiving vacation — you look forward to so much that’s familiar and spending time with your weird family because, hey, you’re kind of weird, too. It’s a good feeling to have.
IW: Any plans on another solo shot? Had any thoughts, or inspirations, for another solo album yet?
BG: We’re presently getting into the first ever ZZ Top live album, Live – Greatest Hits From Around The World, now out on the street. Then it’s back into the recording studio for something new.
IW: Both you and Warren Haynes [bandleader of Gov’t Mule] have been named as two of the greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine; on top of that, back in the day you’re first band opened for Jimi Hendrix. When you are around other great guitarists, do you feel a competitive spirit enter the situation, or at this point is it more like, “Meh, let them try to keep up with me…”
BG: Well, we both admire Jimi and remain inspired from the wild energy Jimi put behind his approach to the guitar. While there’s probably nothing we could offer Warren that he doesn’t already know, it’s just fun to spend time with a kindred spirit — it’s all about “The Brotherhood of the Geetar Get Down.”
IW: I’m sure you are hit up for advice from time to time with younger guitar players in new bands you might bump into. Is there one piece of advice when it comes to playing that you feel is your #1 most solid piece, or is it just a “practice, practice, practice,” situation?
BG: Play what you want to hear, it’s really as simple as that. If you can conceptualize it, try to figure out how to play it, and that is the real reward.
IW: I understand if you don’t want to comment on this, but I get the feeling you might be like me and the thought of the everything the Internet digs up still blows you away sometimes. When the news of Dusty [Hill, bassist for ZZ Top] and Frank [Beard, drummer for the band] being members of an impostor touring band calling themselves The Zombies [an English band who had one hit album before disbanding] back in 1969-70 broke a few months back, did that make you stop and think, “Jeez, nothing really CAN be hidden anymore…”?
BG: What do you think these beards are all about? The only safe hiding place we know of is our chin and cheeks!