Billy Gibbons Interview: Iconic ZZ Top Lead Vocalist/Guitarist Talks "Snake and Mongoose" Soundtrack, "Bones" and Big Stella
Image attributed to Ross Halfin
Houston, Texas native Billy Gibbons is best known as the guitarist of the blues-rock band ZZ Top (formed in 1969) and is also the lead singer and writer for many of the band’s songs. In addition to Gibbons, there is bassist and co-lead vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard that make up the rest of the group.
ZZ Top is known for songs such as “Sharp Dressed Man,” “La Grange,” Legs,” Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Tush,” among many others. As a group, they possess 11 gold records and 7 platinum (13 multi-platinum) records. Their 1983 album Eliminator remains the group’s most commercially successful record, selling over 10 million units.
"We had a housekeeper named Big Stella Matthews. Three nights a week, we got to spend the night at Big Stella’s house with her children. We’d get dropped off at her house, and she would babysit. I think I was probably 5 or 6, and my little sister was 3 years old. Big Stella was exhausted at day’s end, and she’d lie down. Once she fell asleep, Little Stella, her oldest daughter, would pick up my sister, hold me by the hand and take us down the street to the black nightclub."
In 2004, ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones gave the induction speech. A master of rock and blues riffs, Gibbons’ guitar leads are what give the band its driving, gritty sound. He was ranked 32nd in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” in 2011.
The ZZ Top song “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” was used in the 2013 film Snake and Mongoose, the true story of drag racing’s greatest rivalry between Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoose" McEwen starring Jesse Williams, Ashley Hinshaw, Richard Blake, Noah Wyle, John Heard and Fred Dryer.
Gibbons has a recurring role on Fox’s comedy-drama Bones, is a car customizer, enjoys cooking and has a line of hot sauces, barbecue sauces and other products. Since 2005, he has been married to Gilligan Stillwater.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Billy, let’s talk about Snake and Mongoose for a few minutes. How did you get involved with the film?
Billy Gibbons: As it turns out, the producer, Robin Broidy, had made a connection with a songwriter in Los Angeles who happened to be a neighbor of mine, also an acquaintance. As the prospect of developing this film started unfolding, the next thing was the music. “What are we going to do about the music?” was a question Robin asked Ken. His name is Ken E.G., not to be confused with Kenny G the saxophone player.
Ken said, “Let’s allow the script writers and the general tone and feel of the picture begin to develop, and once there is something to sink our teeth into, we can start thinking about what kind of music would make sense." It didn’t take long after that for me to receive a phone call from Robin. She said, “It appears that the movie is picking up steam, and hands down we think that you would fit in quite nicely in the chronological sequence of events."
From the beginning, they had a clear vision of really telling the true story of Don Prudhomme who was the snake and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. It was from the beginning up to the crest of their careers. That’s what captured my interest, and it became fascinating for fans of drag racing and also for fans of music from the different periods of time. I was delighted to be invited to participate. It was a wonderful thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you ever drag race as a kid?
Billy Gibbons: Oh gosh. Every time I could persuade my folks to take a detour over to the nearest drag strip, we were there. Gosh, I remember going at about 9 or 10 years old. It was a famous drag strip between Houston and Galveston Island, Houston Drag Raceway. We lived part time in Texas and part time in California, and there was the Lions Drag Strip in LA. The drag strip was always a magnet. I wanted to be there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’d like to talk about your early years in Houston. Since your father was an entertainer, did he inspire you to become a performer?
Billy Gibbons: He was inspirational just having grown up within the entertainment business. He was one of the musical directors employed by MGM Studios in Hollywood back in the 1930s, and then he relocated to Texas in 1944 or 1945. When I turned 12, I started pestering my folks. I said, “A set of drums or an electric guitar.” That was a request that went on for 365 days.
I turned 13 on December 16, and 9 days later Christmas Day rolled around. Sure enough, my dad said, “Oh, you’ve overlooked something.” From behind the tree, he pulled this guitar out, and I said, “Wow! A guitar!” Then he said, “Don’t forget the amplifier.” There was a tiny little Fender Champ amp, and away we went! There was no turning back. It was game on!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have such a wide vocal range. Did you ever have singing lessons?
Billy Gibbons: No. It was all pretty much self-taught. However, there was a combo called the Kings 5, and they were the favorite rock and roll band that played a lot of the parties that were being thrown all the way through high school. The singer who is still a friend of mine to this day is Louie Crapitto, and Louie was the frontman for the band.
As I was continuing to learn how to play 3 chords, I was always on the sidelines watching Louie belt them out, and he could sing! The guy was just dynamic! I credit the Kings 5 for so much inspiration and influential input. They were really taking it on. They played rock and roll and blues and did it quite well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did you form your unique sound and tone?
Billy Gibbons: We had a housekeeper named Big Stella Matthews. Three nights a week, we got to spend the night at Big Stella’s house with her children. We’d get dropped off at her house, and she would babysit. I think I was probably 5 or 6, and my little sister was 3 years old. Big Stella was exhausted at day’s end, and she’d lie down. Once she fell asleep, Little Stella, her oldest daughter, would pick up my sister, hold me by the hand and take us down the street to the black nightclub.
We got to see B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and another great Houston guitarist by the name of Albert Collins. I suspect this was a big part of what began shaping the kind of sounds I really enjoyed hearing. It was from that humble beginning that we continued to interpret and kind of stylistically emulate what we had picked up early on. It was quite a scene though (laughs). We never dared to tell our parents, and we knew to get back to the house before Big Stella woke up (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were there difficult times for you professionally just starting a musical career?
Billy Gibbons: I had a band called The Moving Sidewalks back in the late 60s. It was a 4-piece group, and we put a couple of records out. One of them started picking up steam, which landed us a spot touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. Two of those band members were drafted into the service, and that left me kind of hanging around. I fortunately ran into Frank Beard, the ZZ Top drummer, and he introduced me to Dusty Hill who has, to this day, remained the ZZ Top bass player.
When you ask if there were difficult times, keep in mind that when you’re 18, 19 and 20, nothing’s difficult. When you’re out there playing, you’re having the best time of all (laughs). We considered it a real gift just to be able to get out there, cut up and make loud noise (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Released last year was La Futura, the band’s 15th studio album and its first in 9 years. Were you trying to recreate that old ZZ Top mojo with the music?
Billy Gibbons: Yes indeed. I had a running friendship with Rick Rubin who happens to be a neighbor of mine in LA. Rick had patiently waited for the opportunity to step forward and throw in his two cents worth and say, “It’s time for us to work together.” So the bonus of having enjoyed a long-standing friendship took a serious turn and allowed us to enter the studio together.
One of the things I admired about Rick’s approach was when he said, “I don’t have to reinvent ZZ Top. It’s running on its own steam. I’m going to get you to be more of what you already are.” I thought that was a rather esoteric way to see it, but sure enough, through preservation, we were able to get back in touch with some of the elements that we started out with.
Another example of Rick’s success is his patience. He’s in no hurry. He knows that over time, things will develop, and there’s no reason to get over anxious or be hasty. A lot of Rick’s artists complain that they’re going over the same thing many times. What we came to find out was that Rick enjoys the evolution of a song and a project. We were quite happy to play it over and over and over again because that’s what we like to do (laughs). He likes to listen, and we like to play. It was a match made in heaven.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Billy, are you enjoying Bones?
Billy Gibbons: Yes. That’s another interesting twist. I reported in for the casting call and asked, “What’s the motivation?” They said, “All you have to do is be you. We cast you to be you.” I said, “Well, I think I can handle it.” That was the genius of Hart Hanson who is the creator of the series. It’s going into the 9th season, believe it or not. It’s kind of been this unexpected runaway success, and it’s still gaining traction and winning fans worldwide.
I was in Spain just recently during a short break. I decided to take a visit and hang out with a guitar-collecting buddy of mine, Nacho Baños. Nacho asked me, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in Madrid.” So he asked, “Are you coming to Valencia?” There’s a high-speed rail between Madrid and Valencia that takes about an hour and 20 minutes between the two. I bought my ticket and got on the rail. It was a very nice, very modern train with contemporary equipment, and each car had several TV screens overhead similar to what you see on airplanes. We had just pulled out of the station, and what came on the screen was an episode of Bones (laughs). An unexpected treat!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about Renegade Guacamole. Is that a secret recipe?
Billy Gibbons: It’s soon to be publicized. I’ve had a running friendship with both Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and Rachael Ray. Between they two of them, they said it was time to let the secret out. “What’s behind the Renegade Guacamole?” they asked. I said, “Well, it just depends. You both invited me to take part on your shows. We’ll see who airs first.” We’re having a good time with that. We’re holding the high card though. The secret is not out yet.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hear you have a great barbecue sauce. Where did the interest in cooking come from?
Billy Gibbons: We found a producer on the Texas-Louisiana border that was able to reproduce the recipe I’ve held in kind since I was 17 or 18 years old. I had a girlfriend whose parents had a Mexican family living with them at their home. The mom, who was the matriarch of the clan, had the gift of culinary skills in the kitchen. She was not afraid to stand behind the flames. She knew how to cook (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you writing new music?
Billy Gibbons: That’s one of the cornerstones of what has kept ZZ Top so much fun for the 3 of us as musicians, being able to write about occurrences that unfold as we’re traveling. We can weave those into a story that usually turns out to be an interesting foray into the wild blue yonder that brings some of the road crazies to the songwriting front (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When does the tour end?
Billy Gibbons: We go through the end of 2013. We close New Year’s Eve.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Billy, we appreciate the chat today.
Billy Gibbons: Well, thanks for the time. We’ll be thinking about you. I’ll be warming up here in about 30 minutes, then we’ll take a brief break before hitting the stage. We’re going to tear ‘em up tonight (laughs).
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