Billy Gibbons Of ZZ Top: You Can't Lose With The Blues

Only the coolest of the cool have nicknames like "The Reverend Willy G." In fact, the nickname alone brings to mind the iconic image of ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons to mind. He is bigger than ZZ yet ZZ remains a sum of all parts. The bearded man with the funny hat is larger than life yet he is down to earth. It is this kind of ying/yang, bearded, non-bearded funky thing that makes ZZ Top, ZZ Top.

I guess it is not just a nickname either, as the man is an ordained Reverend. I wish I would have known that when I got married as I would have paid top dollar to have him perform our nuptials. Another missed rock and roll opportunity. At least I got to pick the Rev's brain and discuss ZZ Top's excellent new album, LA FUTURA with the bearded guitar player.

Read below as The Rev takes time to talk about several songs on the new CD, as well as why long beards have never taken off as a fashion statement, the time ZZ Time played and recorded after a hurricane and who would play the band in a movie written about them.

There is only one ZZ Top. There is only one Billy Gibbons. Thank God they found each other, as our ears have been happy for the last 42 years.

Jeb: The album is out! You did it! For the last seven or so years I wondered if it was really going to happen. You not only got it out there…it kicks Texas sized ASS!

Rev. Willy G: It's not as if we spent the last 9 years (yes, that's how long it's been since Mescalero was released) doing this. We didn't really get around to writing, recording and such until about 2 or 3 years ago. We had a whole lot of touring to do: Argentina, Chile, Russia so we kind of concentrated on that for the most part but we're glad it's finally out there.

Jeb: I have some pointed questions later but lets go with the new album first and the new songs. “I Gotsta Get Paid” is based on a Houston rapper’s song…is that true? If rap sounded like this I would become a fan. How did it come to be?

Rev. Willy G: Yes, it's based on a rap song from the 1990's entitled "25 Lighters" by Lil' Keke and Fat Pat. It was recorded at a Digital Services Recording in Houston and we worked there as well, so we got to know those guys and that song just stayed with us for all that time. It really stayed in our head for all that time while we figured out how to deconstruct it and transform it into a guitar-based, blues-infused rocker as you hear it on LA FUTURA. That guitar breakdown is something of a tribute to the great Lightnin' Hopkins, another of our "heroes of the Houston ghetto."

Jeb: Much of the album has an old school ZZ Top feel. Was that Willy G and the band or Rick’s doing?

Rev. Willy G: It's truly a collaboration. Rick's stated mission was not to reinvent ZZ Top but to give us a platform to be ourselves. He was very helpful but never pressured us which made the circumstance a truly enjoyable one.

Jeb: “Chartreuse” is a great example of the old school vibe. This could have come out on Rio Grande Mud. As a guitarist is it difficult to keep coming up with such cool grooves?

Rev. Willy G: They sometimes just spring to mind and then you build the song around the riffs, but it can work the other way around. You get a lyric and then figure out a groove that works with it. Sometimes the title comes first so you never really know.

Jeb: One of the best tracks is “Consumption.” Tell me the tale behind that song.

Rev. Willy G: Had a massive chest cold and thought we needed to put that to good use in terms of the chunkiest sounding vocal one could imagine. The song kind of invented itself based on that transitory medical condition. The cure for the uncommon cold turns out to be gettin' down and then some.

Jeb: “Big Shiny Nine” is one of my favs on the album. Do you ever come up with a song like this, record it and just go, “Damn, we did everything PERFECT.”

Rev. Willy G: Well, you know we like to keep folks guessing about some of the stuff we do so the song is in the "is that what I think it's about?" tradition. Instrumentally it does kick up a lot of dust and we're really happy with it.

Jeb: “Have a Little Mercy”, I want to know how you all came up with this as well.

Rev. Willy G: That was truly a whole band effort. "The Dust" and Frank were kind of messing around and we came up with this approach and we just went with it. It's kind of mournful but in a fun way, doncha think?

Jeb: I think ZZ Top holds the record for having the words ‘have mercy’ included in recorded songs more than anyone else. Was this a plot, a plan… something for your legacy.

Rev. Willy G: You kind of found us out about that. Yeah, we've been throwing that in since almost the start because it's part of the shared blues tradition that's been at the base of what we've been doing for--can you believe it--42 years.

Jeb: Rick Rubin is loved and hated in the industry. Some say he is a genius and others say he just fires up some weed, lies down on the sofa and lets the band play. What is your take on his work effort and what he brings to the table?

Rev. Willy G: He's kind of a Zen master -- very calm and understanding but, at the same time, demanding. We knew him socially for quite a few years, so the transition to his being our co-producer was not a difficult one. How can you not like a guy with such a fine great set of chin whiskers?

Jeb: On a serious note, ZZ Top have achieved more success than any band can ever hope for. You are American musical icons. Why do feel people like me love your music so much?

Rev. Willy G: Not really a big secret; we've said it more than once: You can't lose with the blues. We fell into a groove at the start and we just kept at it and have no intention of letting go now that we're staring to get good at it.

Jeb: There is a great debate among ZZ’s fans of the Eliminator and before era, or the era that has come after, concerning the greatness of the band. What do you think was the most defining era of the band and why?

Rev. Willy G: Would have to say Tres Hombres was a real turning point when it came out in '73. We're pretty religious -- pun somewhat intended -- about performing the "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Left Chicago" medley, the first two tracks on the album, in every one of our concerts. "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" describes who's on stage and in the audience and, come on, "La Grange" is on it. Talk about a "defining moment!"

Jeb: Many artists from your era don’t have much good to say about today’s music. You, however, embrace many of the art forms out there. What are you hearing that the rest of old farts are missing out on?

Rev. Willy G: There's some great stuff out there, both in the rock genre and others. We keep an open mind and it continues to expand. Went to an East Indian soiree in Manhattan when we were there just this week and on the night of the day the LA FUTURA was released we were digging an electronica meets Indian Bhangra meets fusion kinda thing that had the joint hopping, Slum Dog Millionaire style. Great stuff!

Jeb: Before we go, I have to ask if you got to party with Jimi Hendrix when you opened for him on tour with the Moving Sidewalks. What was he really like? Did you learn anything from watching him play?

Rev. Willy G: He was actually shy off stage, the opposite of what he was like in front of a crowd. A really warm and friendly guy who we had some fun with, both musically and as a hanging out compadre. Learn anything? Are you kidding? Talk about learning at the feet of the master! He was always happy to show us how to get it done and done right. True brilliance and a totally nice guy in one amazing package.

Jeb: Did you really find your 1959 guitar, Pearly Gates, under a bed?

Rev. Willy G: Let's just say that Pearly and I were fated to spend our lives together. We met by chance and the affair bloomed and blossomed. Some things were meant to be--to quote Elvis.

Jeb: When ZZ recorded Fandango, were you really trapped with the Allman Brothers in a hurricane just hours before?

Rev. Willy G: Yes, the "live" side of the album was recorded at the Warehouse in New Orleans where we shared the bill with The Allmans. The storm hit and damaged the club and the roof was pretty torn up but we just hunkered down and rode it out. The next day some 'ad hoc' repairs were made and we did our set, most of which ended up on the album.

Jeb: Last one: I wonder if you have ever wondered why the elongated beard look has not taken off. Many rock stars start fads and fashions with their look. Other that Dusty, why hasn’t anyone taken on the elongated beard look?

Rev. Willy G: I guess because if others did it, they'd inevitably be compared to ZZ Top and that would diminish their own identity. Seriously, we ended up this way by sheer coincidence and we just kinda stayed with it but, as they say, "don't try this at home." I mean we're totally cool with anybody growing it out; we don't have the patent on beards of considerable length, despite you may think.

Jeb: Okay, really my last on here… when they make the ZZ Top movie… A) What will it be rated? B) Who will play each member of the band and C) Will the soundtrack be better than the actual movie?

It will be rated "ZZ," of course or, maybe "ZZ 13." Frank will be played by Neil Patrick Harris, Dusty will be played by Dustin Hoffman (he's already got the name part down) and yours truly, the Reverend Willy G, will be played by either George Clooney or Brad Pitt. I'm sort of kidding about that last one. Would you believe Denzel Washington? No, huh? The album won't be as good as the movie because I don't think "Doogie Howser" is a particularly great drummer, but I could be wrong.