For more than three decades ZZ Top have played the loudest blooze to roar out of the Lone Star State. With a big bottom provided by bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, and guitarist Billy Gibbons’ fuzz-soaked riffs, the Top created their own blues-rock lexicon that relied on staples like border radio, alcohol, food, cars and sex.
The Little Ol’ Band From Texas came together in 1969 when Gibbons pinched the rhythm section from Dallas band the American Blues. Starting with 1970’s ZZ Top’s First Album, the group reinvented the blues to their own liking, incorporating a John Lee Hooker vibe into their whorehouse ode “La Grange” in 1973. That song appeared on Tres Hombres, ZZ’s first Top Forty album, and one that would begin a string of ten hit recordings.
MTV would usher in a greater degree of superstardom in the Eighties as Gibbons’ and Hill’s iconic beards and the former’s fleet of vintage hot rods defined their flashy videos. Last year, ZZ Top celebrated their thirty-fifth anniversary early with the release of the new album Mescalero and the four-CD box set Chrome, Smoke and BBQ that collected Top Forty hits including “Tush,” “Legs,” “Gimme All Your Lovin'” along with those songs about life’s pleasures.
So after more than thirty years, is ZZ Top routine fairly ingrained? Or are there still curveballs when you three play?
Billy Gibbons: We’d like to think it’s ingrained. But a few nights ago, I had to glance over my shoulder during “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” “Um, what happened to the 1, 2, 3, 4?” There are always moments that remind you of the old days.
Dusty Hill: One of the blessings of playing in a three-piece group, if the song changes in a spot, there’s only two more of us that gotta figure it out. You know?
Gibbons: We call it . . . [all join in] going to the Bahamas.
There really aren’t any big gaps between ZZ records, despite the long run. Is there like a Bat sign that illuminates when it’s time to make a record?
Gibbons: What we do is just take notes on the road. What happens on Monday is a song on Thursday. Pretty much that’s it. It’s just been a long week for us.
Hill: Our process has generally been whatever the hell works, musically and lyrically, as long as it goes through the process and comes out to our liking. I’m sure that everybody that’s played for a while has their little terms. We have ’em too, like “Jackie Gleason” or “thundering herd.” But ours are replacing the technical terms that we never had any hope of knowing.
There haven’t really been any public meltdowns, but have there been rough stretches?
Hill: Sure, Frank had to have his appendix taken out mid-tour once. The heat about knocked me out last summer. We’ve all pulled. But the idea of canceling a show, we don’t talk about that. We always say, “Whatever it is, don’t fuck with the show.”
Speaking of the show, you’ve had great success marrying spectacle to song.
Hill: I’m proud of everything . . . well, most everything . . . we’ve done. If we have time on our hands, we never had a problem putting together a production. Our problem is holding back.
So legend is that there were some particularly awful early gigs, including one opening for Fats Domino.
Gibbons: It was thirty years ago. It was hot as hell and my amplifier broke.
Hill: Everyone came to see Fats, they didn’t know who we were and they didn’t care. Every time we went out, we had equipment problems. We got Billy’s amp repaired, then mine broke. We went out three times, the third time I noticed Billy had his tennis shoes on. He was gonna fucking split because he didn’t wanna tangle with that crowd.
And you guys toured with Muddy Waters, right?
Beard: Yeah, all those guys came into town without a band — they made more money that way. They assume you know all their arrangements. And if you do anything — play a little guitar thing or something — oh man, Chuck Berry would just blister your ass right there on stage. Early on we got picked up by a blues tour, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and us. They were totally surprised when they saw us. We were like nineteen. There’d be a big poker game down in the dressing room, everybody had a big wad of money and their guns. It’d be like, “Alright you gotta go on stage now.” “Gaddamnshit!” They’d grab their gun and money and go.
Both Dallas and Houston had big blues scenes when you were starting. The influence there seems immense.
Gibbons: There’s this weird Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi conglomerate. There’s just something. And nobody knows what it is.
Hill: You can’t help but be influenced by that stuff. People ask about that Texas sound and they try to identify it, which is always difficult because I don’t think it’s something that you can just pinpoint. There’s country western, good swing. You could pick worse things to be influenced by. Throw a little rock & roll in there, and, why, you’re making records!
The early recordings also have a rough garage rock vibe.
Hill: There’s a song we did a long time ago called “Manic Mechanic.” We needed an engine. So we just took the microphone outside where we rehearsed and put it underneath Billy’s old Dodge Dart, which was a piece of shit and it sounded bad. That’s what’s on the record.
Is there any nostalgia for those days.
Hill: Not really. We’d play to make some money for recording time. We did a show at the armory in Alvin, Texas, one time. Opened up the curtains and there was one guy there. About fifteen years later we played at the Summit in Houston and we got a note backstage and it was from this guy. This time we had him backstage.
He’s lucky, you guys got to be a bit more successful and recognizable.
Gibbons: People still get the name wrong. Or they think one of us is ZZ Top. We have a collection of flyers with the wrong name: The EZ Top, 22 Top, the Busy Top, ZZ Toppers, ZZ Hill.
Hill: We still get that a lot. I know you! You’re ZZ Hill!