There are few bands, if any, whose CV includes being present at the birth of psychedelic rock, touring with Jimi Hendrix, creating a riff as heavy as “La Grange” before embracing samplers, synthesizers, and music videos, sharing a producer with DJ Screw and dropping a late-career banger that effortlessly connects the Texas blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins with ’90s underground Houston rap. In a fuzzy 40-plus year career filled with boogie, beards and babes, ZZ Top has, rather miraculously, done it all.
Billy Gibbons was kind enough to answer a few questions by email while preparing for their upcoming spring tour, which brings them to Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre in late March.
BeatRoute: Your first band, The Moving Sidewalks, was part of the seminal psychedelic scene in Texas that grew around the legendary 13th Floor Elevators. What was in the Texas air?
Billy Gibbons: The Moving Sidewalks were our first band with a professionally recorded record release. We were very inspired by Roky and the Elevators and the psychedelic scene emerging in Texas. Everybody was into breaking down boundaries and seeing what was “beyond.” It was an era of experimentation and experiment we certainly did.
BR: What excites you about Roky’s comeback?
BG: Roky remains the seminal figure in psychedelic music and, for a while, it seemed that his legacy ran the risk of getting lost. Now, Roky’s sounds are solid, strong and he is sounding like… well, like Roky!
BR: The Moving Sidewalks opened for Jimi Hendrix, can you tell me about your most memorable experience?
BG: Jimi’s group and The Sidewalks stayed behind one night, post show, and Nigel, the only, lonely roadie was instructed to affix some large sponges to the headstock of a couple guitars which then became giant brushes dripping with day-glo paint. We hit the blacklight and let it rip and drip. A once-in-a-lifetime, ahem, “Experience.”
BG: Our friend, “R&B Bullock,” had a ranch outside of Houston where he constructed an iron cage completely spherical in shape with a tractor seat welded into it. The idea was to get inside, hold tight and go for the ride of your life while hitched to the back of a truck. At speed, the friction caused sparks to shoot across the ground as the cage bounced over rocks and gravel. Another one of those “did it once but never again” kinda things.
BR: It is really incredible to hear how you evolve the blues form in “I Gotsta To Get Paid” to encompass contemporary Houston rap. ZZ Top’s iconography (cars, fashion, money, having a good time) isn’t really all that different from what you see in DJ DMD, Lil Keke and Fat Pat’s video of “25 Lighters.” Can you tell how you came to create that song, and have you always been interested in hip hop, especially southern rap?
BG: That’s a keen observation actually. ZZ had been working and hanging out at a Houston studio, “John Moran’s Digital Services” in the late 1990s where quite a few of Houston’s underground rappers had recorded so we were on the inside, so to speak, when “25 Lighters” was conceptualized and realized. For whatever reason, that particular track stood out, and I mean way out! With the assistance of G.L. G-Mane Moon, the engineer who worked on the original, pondered along with us for the better part of the next couple of decades how to transform it into a guitar-based rocker with added inspiration from Lightnin’ Hopkins (another Houston ghetto survivor). It took a while yet we figured it out.
ZZ Top will be performing at the MTS Centre (Winnipeg) March 13, Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Calgary) March 17, Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Edmonton) March 18 and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Vancouver) March 22.
By Daniel Presnell
Photos: Ross Halfin