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More than just a couple of pretty beards, ZZ Top is the rarest of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bands. Not only is the trio still gigging with its original lineup — guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard (who with that name had to be the member without a beard) — but four decades into their career, the guys continue to record songs that capture the Texas blues of yesteryear.
New Times was granted a brief audience with Billy Gibbons, whose connection with music history precedes even this beloved Houston trio, which will play the Hard Rock Live on Saturday. Before ZZ Top, Gibbons was in the Moving Sidewalks, a recently reunited psychedelic band that opened for Jimi Hendrix when he and his Experience swung through Texas in 1968.
Allowed only a few questions with the man, the topic of conversation was kept strictly on the music. The follicly curious will have to look elsewhere to find out when he last shaved and how in the world he and Hill turned down Gillette's offer to pay them a million dollars to shave for a Super Bowl ad.
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New Times: Your newest album, La Futura, stands with ZZ Top's classics from the past. What influenced this album and brought out some of the band's best work?
Billy Gibbons: We'd have to say that ZZ Top was the main influence on the album. Rick Rubin, with whom we coproduced, said at the start, "I want you to be the best ZZ Top possible." We scratched our chins, and then there was a eureka moment: We know how to do that because that's who we are and what we've done! So the process was, in essence, a voyage of self-rediscovery. We also have had more than four decades of practice, so we're on the cusp of getting good at it.
ZZ Top has never been afraid to experiment with new technologies when creating music — most famously with the synthesizers you used in 1983's Eliminator. Are there any new gizmos you've been working with in recording and performing?
We've gone back to an old technology in terms of guitar amplification. We've been using Magnatone amps, a brand that has been reborn after a hiatus of more than 45 years. Magnatone invented pitch-shifting vibrato, and it's been great to get reacquainted with that wonder of science. We also learned a lot about how hip-hop is recorded by hanging around with some of the key players in Houston's underground rap scene.
What's the secret in making the classic songs ZZ Top has been playing for years continue to sound fresh and engaging to audiences?
It's really not a secret because we've said it many times before: You can't lose with the blues. That's the fundament of our sound, and it seems to renew itself without our having to give it much thought. Some kinda mojo.
What was your reaction when you heard Jimi Hendrix went on the Tonight Show and told Johnny Carson you and not him were the world's greatest guitarist?
Though we beg to differ it was a transformative experience. We pay tribute to him just about every night with a key Hendrix repertoire selection worked into our set. It's the very least we can do.
What was it like reuniting with the Moving Sidewalks?
That was big fun. As close to time travel as we'll probably ever get. Same exact guys, doing those songs — we just picked up where we left off, and it felt great.
Are there any future plans with the Moving Sidewalks?
It's well within the realm of possibility we'll get together again some time, and it probably won't take us 44 years this time around.