Get Some ZZs
New album shows that ZZ Top is still delivering the goods
Ask somebody what his or her favorite ZZ Top song is, and you’ll get a quick answer. And you’ll probably get a different response every time, too, because when a band has been around for more than 40 years, they’ve had a lot of hits.
When the group formed in Houston in 1969, they had a definite blues edge. But in a short time Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard had fine-tuned their own sound, which was showcased on the 1973 breakthrough album Tres Hombres. Fourteen more albums followed, and the group has sold (to date) more than 50 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 and have lent their talents to many different charitable and civic endeavors, including raising $1 million for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss.
As the band rolls out La Futura, its first album in nine years, guitarist Billy Gibbons reflects on ZZ Top’s life on the road, as well as what keeps his motors running.
Road King: It’s been almost a decade between albums. What was the spark that led to the new recording?
Billy Gibbons: Sparking and smoldering. This new one, La Futura, came together over a luxurious, long while. In fact, Rick Rubin signed up for the deal in 2008, yet the band calendar included a lengthy string of touring dates that required time out on the road rather than studio sessions. Rick was, to say the least, extremely patient! Rick is definitely of the “it will happen when it’s supposed to happen” attitude. The real energy in the studio started the process of nailing down the songs we most preferred for completing. Sifting through the stuff takes almost as long as acquiring it.
BG: It’s very much in line with our earliest work, wherein we did a lot of live playing in the studio and kept it straightforward. As we said then and still say now, “You can’t lose with the blues.” That’s always been at the root of what we do. Over the years we’ve refined it and now we’ve, in a manner of speaking, unrefined it. The constant is our desire to play it low, down ’n’ dirty, and we think we’ve accomplished that on the new album in no uncertain terms.
RK: Making and distributing an album is very different now from the last time you were in the studio. What do you like about how the industry does things now, and what’s more of a challenge?
BG: Well, presently, all it takes is a keystroke to get studio material delivered, evidenced with the success of the four-track Texicali preview set that went out in advance of the new album. Then again, in the past we enjoyed the splashy “release events” aspect, where all hell broke loose when the release hit the street. Today, it’s seamless.
RK: At Road King, we’re all about truckers. They love ZZ Top because you make great traveling/on-the-road music. Have you interacted a lot with this section of your fan base over the years?
BG: Yes, of course! We spend at least eight to 10 months per year on the road both here and abroad in Europe, South America, Australia and Africa. Trucking and rock touring have much in common — the aim of the band is to deliver the goods and that is what long haul truckers are also up to, day-to-day, night after night.
RK: As you prepare to go out on the road again, what are some of your favorite moments with regard to the drivers you’ve worked with on tours past?
BG: The guys who commandeer the touring coaches become friends as we share stories and encounters daily. We’ve been known to park the rigs to hold radio-controlled car races in parking lots throughout the continent. We’ve had adventures seeking out old hot rods and guitars when we’re not dashing from concert venue to concert venue. We make it an excursion into an appealing unknown.
RK: Is there less equipment and other material to ship on tour now, or is there more than you had in years past? Do you still have the same number of trucks hauling everything, or is it a smaller proposition now?
BG: It’s not small by any measure. The demand requires hauling the show’s gear at any given moment. There was a time that required bigger: The Texas World Tour hauled bison, rattlesnakes, wildcats, buzzards and a Texas-shaped stage fitted with a 30-foot-long treadmill and even an onstage metal crusher. Who’d a think’d it?
RK: Even though you’ve toured a lot, I imagine that you still make stops in new cities and towns. How do you make the time to get out and see the countryside from the locals’ perspective while you’re there?
BG: We rarely know where we are — HA! In light of the fact that we’ve been at it for four decades, ain’t too many locales we haven’t hit on this continent. Then again, there’s always something new to see and, especially, taste. If there’s a barbecue joint out there we haven’t previously sampled, it’s gonna be on the hit list for sure. Bring on the TexMex and hot sauce!
RK: The band has a lot of fans, both longtime and new. How do you interact with them now, compared to 10 or 20 years ago? Has social media made that process more personal, or less so?
BG: The social media outlets bring our friends, fans and followers to get to know each other. Yes, they have the band in common and now they make friends along the way. Awareness of the band is immediate — beats the tin-can and string method for sure.
RK: You’ve worked with Michael Nott, our Creative Director, on album covers and fan-club material in the past, and he says you’ve really got an eye for artwork. How much input did you have on the concepts surrounding the new album?
BG: Mr. Michael Nott is a genuinely gifted artist and visionary. Mr. Nott actually pressed us into getting involved in the look and style for album art and imagery. The La Futura art concept has us anticipating what’s coming up, so we thought the silhouette added mystery, graphically illustrating that the album is the embodiment of a premonition.
RK: You’re a hot-rod collector; how big is your collection now? What do you look for in a car, and what’s the one that (so far) has gotten away?
BG: Cars that relate to the history of hot-rodding are it! If it recalls some of the touchstones of the gold era of hot-rodding — the late 1940s and the 1950s that created art from junk — we’re interested. Of course, smooth-looking customs of the later years remain inspiring and have caused us to commission quite a number of pieces of rolling sculpture of recent construction. The fleet now numbers in the 30s, but the tally changes all the time as a new ride arrives. We’re presently stalking the next “secret one” and don’t wanna spook our chances of acquisition. Stay tuned.
La Futura The trio’s first album in nine years is being hailed as a triumphant return to their bluesy roots. One reviewer called the new music “both timely and timeless” and the record debuted at #6 on The Billboard 200.