Billy Gibbons

Baby, That Is Rock ‘n’ Roll
by Sal Serio
January 2016

Billy Gibbons - photo by Blain Clausen

Billy Gibbons
photo by Blain Clausen

Just when it seemed like the year was wrapped up as far as major interviews were concerned, the opportunity came about for Maximum Ink writer Sal Serio to conduct some Q&A with none other than music legend and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame inductee Billy Gibbons, obviously of ZZ Top fame. Billy and his current touring band The BFGs play the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Saturday, January 30.

MAXIMUM INK:  A Slim Harpo song starts off your new solo CD ‘Perfectamundo’. To you, what is the geographical difference in blues music? Texas blues as compared to Chicago, Kansas City, Mississippi, or wherever. Which came first in your musical vocabulary: blues or rock ‘n roll?

BILLY GIBBONS:  [My] first real exposure to live blues was a man from Mississippi, who was based in Memphis at the time, who was recording in Houston, but whose most celebrated album was ‘Live At The Regal’, which was recorded in Chicago! It was B.B. King, of course, and I got to see him record in my home town thanks to some strings pulled by my Dad, when I was about 7 or 8. I guess I’m saying that blues has no boundaries and is all interconnected. There wouldn’t have been a Chicago scene if blues cats hadn’t come up from Mississippi. Texas cats tended to gravitate to Kansas City, but there was lots of cross pollination. Slim Harpo, by the way, was from Louisiana, so you could very well say “all and none of the above.” A few years before that encounter with B.B. King I got to see Elvis perform, and, as the song goes, “baby, that is rock ’n’ roll.”

MI:  The song “Sal y Pimiento” has a distinct salsa groove. What significance does the role of dance music play in your overall musical vision? It’s obviously served you well in the 1980s, although this song is more Hispanic rootsy.

BG:  We learned the important lesson about Latin music, that, putting the rhythm up front moves things out back, so to speak. People who claim they can’t dance typically figure out a way to dance to it, despite their better judgment. We’ve long felt that keeping bodies in motion was part of our basic job description.

MI:  There is quite a bit of Spanish language and urban beats on your new CD. In this day and age of border wars, immigration controversy, and the like, the ‘Perfectamundo’ music seems to celebrate the true essence of the American melting pot. Was this done consciously, or is it just the natural result of your instincts?

BG:  We just keep a sonic open mind, knowing [that] the ways various cultures express themselves can be a broadening experience. 

MI:  With the BFG Band comes the opportunity to get back to more intimate concert settings. Is it fun and gratifying to play smaller venues with a more direct connection to the audience?

BG:  Yes, it is. In a very real sense we are a “baby band”, so taking this aggregation on the road and connecting with audiences is refreshing, and provides a context for more good times. It’s a win/win.

MI:  There were recent inductee announcements to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, and as always there’s a certain amount of controversy, both with the long time it has taken some bands to be presented with this award, as well as how to honor the original members that might not be with the current band’s line-up. ZZ Top was inducted in 2004, and there was no member controversy since it’s always been the same three guys. How have you three maintained the core Gibbons-Hill-Beard unit?

BG:  It’s true that we never broke up, while many have done so, only to reunite. We just skipped that icky middle part and stayed the good-time course. We give each other lots of space, so when we do get together on stage, or in the studio, it’s something to look forward to. We’ve been having a good time for quite a while, so never have seen any reason to pull the party train into the station.

MI:  So, why is Frank Beard the only member of ZZ Top without a beard? Speaking of, if you shaved it off, would you even recognize yourself anymore? How long has it been since you were clean shaven?

BG:  With a name like that, he’s excused for possible follicle impairment. Which, by the way, is unproven [laughing].  He carries his Beard on his driver’s license while Dusty and I carry ours on our chins. Seems fair! We’re not fond of that “if you shaved it off” concept since it’s strictly theoretical and not “real world” in our case… no idea what’s under there and no intention of finding out! Let’s just say it’s been quite a spell since our days of tangling with razors. [more laughter]

MI:  In 1975 ZZ Top shared quite a few bills with the band KISS, and it’s been documented that your crews did not get along. What was it like coming out on stage as a 3-piece boogie rock band after the opener had all the bombs, fireworks, and costumes?

BG:  Our preference is to get out there and rock it as directly as we can. [As] Sly has taught, “it’s different strokes for different folks.”

MI:  Over the years, a great deal of attention has been given to your guitar work, and perhaps your vocal ability has been a bit overshadowed as a result. You’ve got a distinct and immediately recognizable singing style, and the vocals on the new CD are quite excellent. What helps to bring out that soulful Gibbons singing style?

BG:  You’ll find this odd, but when I experience congestion of any significance I’ll do my best to get vocals recorded. That tends to beef-up the cords and give ‘em extra resonance. We try to make a vocal virtue out of necessity.

MI:  Speaking of your guitar style, the phrase “often imitated but never duplicated” seems appropriate. After all the various rigs and set-ups and different guitars, is there one you fall back on, simply for comfort or sentimental reasons? Like, the guitar that is your “old friend”?

BG:  That’s an old girl friend! [laughing] Pearly Gates, my one-of-a-kind 1959 Les Paul Standard that has got just about everything you’d ever want in one shapely body.

MI:  The BFGs tour plays Milwaukee at the Pabst Theater on January 30th. What has your relationship been with Milwaukee and the upper Midwest over the years, and what should fans anticipate at this concert?

BG:  Do you remember when ZZ played two gigs in one day, the second of which was in Milwaukee? It was a few years ago. We played Crossroads in Chicago, finished our set there, and jumped on the road to make it to Milwaukee in time for [that] set. Bottom line, because audiences in Milwaukee are so great, we always do our best to accommodate them if at all possible. And, of course, one of our favorite Jerry Lee Lewis songs is “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous”. Rock on!

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Billy Gibbons
CD: Perfectamundo Record Label: Concord Records
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