ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons flies solo
Veteran rocker revisits Afro-Cuban sounds
Billy Gibbons' six-string blues riffs, gruff voice, and flowing beard have defined the legend of ZZ Top for more than four decades, casting him as a hard rock icon.
Gibbons expanded his musical palette last November with the release of Perfectamundo, a solo debut album that blends his familiar Tex-Mex rock 'n' roll with the Afro-Cuban rhythms he studied as a teenager. Backing band the BFGs spices things up with Latin percussion, and hip-hop interludes in songs such as "You're What's Happenin,' Baby" and "Quiero Mas Dinero," courtesy of fellow Houstonian Alx Guitarzza Garza.
Although Gibbons deviates slightly from the template he set with longtime ZZ Top bandmates Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, his solo material stays somewhat true to form. Before heading to Atlanta, Gibbons took a few minutes to talk about his Latin music roots, unavoidable blues undertones, pro wrestling, and what the future has in store.
As a teenager, you learned under your dad's friend Tito Puente, "the King of Latin Music." Had you been exposed to a variety of Latin sounds as a child, or did you jump in headfirst when you first visited Puente in Spanish Harlem?
I believe it's pertinent to mention when I was very young the mambo and cha-cha were all the rage, so Latin sounds had found their way into the parlance of contemporary popular music. It was my dad's idea to focus my random beating and banging in some structured way, and he called upon his friend to do just that. Quite an experience!
Had you considered pitching some ZZ Top tunes with Cuban rhythms before starting a solo project? What separates a song idea being for the BFGs instead of ZZ Top?
The whole point of Perfectamundo is to provide a platform for some ideas that don't fall within the focus of ZZ Top's 'core values.' Like the judge said about the definition of pornography: 'I just know it when I see it.' When a song comes to the fore I just know if it's a ZZ Top song when I hear it — even if it's only in my own head.
There's still a blues element to Perfectamundo. Were you trying not to stray too far from your comfort zone, or does that reflect the blues' influence on other North American popular music styles?
Yes, if you scratch the surface the blues lurks within and that's certainly not a bad thing. I can only be who I am so if you hear some blues strains and riffs, it should be understandable since I haven't undergone a personality transplant. Some of the blues stuff we do has a Latin undertone. "Got Love If You Want It" is a cha-cha when you think about it.
The cover of Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" is a great blend of the Latin percussion that permeates the album and the Texas flair of ZZ Top. Was Texas' history of songwriters and storytellers another influence you're purposefully revisiting?
Roy Head is a terrific guy and certainly a fellow Texan I've long looked up to. He recorded for Back Beat, one of the Duke/Peacock labels, based in our hometown of Houston. In the middle of the British invasion his "Treat Her Right" broke through and had a tremendous impact. He's still going strong — knocked them dead at the 2015 Ponderosa Stomp where he did two sets in one night. The last one ending at around 3 a.m.! Roy's got staying power and we've long had a mutual admiration thing going on.
"Treat Her Right" fits with a lot of ZZ Top's hits — a straightforward tale of winning over and pleasing a lady. There's no deep allegories, just the occasional double entendre, when you sing about fast women and faster cars. Is this straightforwardness another way the blues has influenced you as an artist?
You've written my answer. It's no secret that the blues is universal. It's an art form that's easy to understand and relate to and a reflection of human biorhythms. It's as real as it can be which is why we're kind of stuck on it.
One way you've stayed ingrained in pop culture has been through occasional involvement with professional wrestling. ZZ Top was shown in the crowd a few times over the years, and in 2009 you guys co-hosted Monday Night Raw. How did this connection come about? Any interest in reappearing on Raw or pay-per-view — perhaps as a new member of their Hall of Fame's celebrity wing?
We have so many threads in common with the wrestling community it's hard to say how the connection really started. Our pal and fellow fan of WWE, J. P. Shellnutt, is insistent we keep the wrestling record straight. We're just fans like you and when the call comes in to participate we do our best to say yes. It's just too much fun to pass up, and we'd be thrilled in being part of Raw or anything else that presents itself. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has prepared us for any other Halls of Fame that might have us.
What's the long-term plan for the BFGs? Will there be more Latin-tinged compositions and covers? Will you be balancing this project and future ZZ Top material?
We're taking the BFG entourage back to the touring trail with ZZ Top in March and have dates here and in Europe through the summer. What happens after that is anybody's guess, but we always keep an open mind and do what we can to carve out time for other projects that might catch our fancy. It's all about having and sharing the good times. Rock on!