Capturing a series of red-hot shows by ZZ Top all over the world, the Texas trio prepare to release a new live album. Pete catches up with blues-rock wizard Billy Gibbons to talk songs, stages and everything else
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JLTT: It’s Pete from Just Listen To This, Billy
BG: Yeah!! I’ve been looking forward to talkin’ to ya…it’s about time!
Congratulations on bringing out this live album…but before anything else I must mention Bill Ham
Oh, yeah he passed away recently..and we’re sorry to see the guy go
Looking at the tracks listed here for the release, you have the obvious problem of having so much material to draw from..these recordings though are from all over the place , the NY version of Got Me Under Pressure, is that a set-starter?
(Warmly) Well, Pete – the set is anybody’s guess ! I think one important aspect of what is going to be heard in this collection here is that we had the luxury of sifting through quite a large number of recordings..live captures..so when we started out we were going to just pick a night and put out the set from that night and just run it BUT we kept finding these errant trips to the Bahamas, finding that gee whiz there’s an even nicer version to select from, so..that extended the search. Anyway, we did have a number of recordings to work from…
So do you all sit down and compare views?
Yes, to get to choose what we all feel is the superior version to use and I have to hand it to the engineers they took all these bits and pieces and made them sound fine and clear and very ‘live’
And so they managed to create a very pleasant listening experience out of it all. If you turn it up loud enough it’s like you are there, with us in the auditoriums
Like you, I am mainly a guitar player and I HAVE to play the room, like ride the horse you’re given. I did a solo gig last year and when I played the first chord I dumped the six songs I had and substituted others as the room had a certain vibrancy
(Emphatically) Absolutely! that is something you just HAVE to do…you must be a seasoned player, cos yes you do have to forget what happened the night before, the room or space you now have now is your canvas. And that factor must keep you on your toes
What Carlos does is wander round the stage at sound check til he finds the sweet spot for most sustain, then marks it..
(Chuckles) Yeah that’s where he stays ! haha….and he knows what he’s doing, after all!
I was particularly pleased to see Pin Cushion on the record, In Berlin – maybe a song that doesn’t get played enough?
Yeah..now what happened there was that we were playing it live then we switched companies and for some reason it slipped away..but it always was a band favourite and we found ourselves coming back to it for concerts.. the final discussions on the tracks to include was kinda interesting, I have to say
I like cuts like I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide for the reason that the tempo’s vary within the song, it couldn’t be a click-track job..in fact if a young muso asks about ZZ Top I play them that and they say ‘Can you do that??’
(Laughs) Now ! That one is a longstanding favourite with us and goes pretty far back…you’re spot on as the slowing down does make it very different-sounding , the ebb and flow timewise that you note. Round about ’83 we learned the value of ‘good time’ – it became an obsession. A three-minute song is not that If you slow it down or speed it up, it becomes something different, with its own impact. But we took on the arduous task of learning to play in proper time. The challenge of taking your place on the live stage as you know is not to get too excited, not to let things run away and take you along. It demands that grip that prevents you getting too much caught up in the moment. Cos next thing you know, you’re playing at breakneck speed which sometimes…it can kill the groove, y’know?
Indeed – the other track that appeals to me as a player on use of time is the great Cheap Sunglasses as that is polyrhythmic and it sounds as though you are playing across time
(Sighs) True – it’s another good example. The thing for us to avoid is double time as that can cause havoc!
How about Master of Sparks? It’s not here but I like it
Oh Gosh… we haven’t done that one in a while. It’s a quite a mouthful to deliver, the lyrics go on and on. Believe it or not, the original track was pared down from a nine-minute version! The story went on and on and it was a tad stretched, hey talking of double-time there way back there’s Precious & Grease, another oddball tune that would make its way once in a while ..the ZZTop nightly setlist has a couple of blank spaces in the middle and everyone is given a special turn at calling out their own favourite – which I think for a live play – and you may agree – it will keep you on your toes. It’s preferable to settling into the same songs, same order every night – “ OK – you pull one out of the hat”… you better have your thinking cap on because going back now over very early records, it gets to be interesting ! The first album,,yeah! What key?
Master of Sparks I always thought of as your Dylan moment
Well as close as WE could get, I suppose that would be very game, yes we found ourselves kinda lacking in the Dylan department overall and chose; Howlin’ Wolf Alley’
You couldn’t leave off Waiting / Jesus Just Left..are you ever tempted to speed those up..because of the cool groove I guess you couldn’t, they have to pump their way out?
For this release the version you hear we very strictly adhered to the original timing as a courtesy to our guest James Harman. He was in town and we had the pleasure of hanging out beforehand and told him we’d play it straight like the record so his harp could cruise in on it. He just said he’d fall in.
Well he’s like Kim Wilson for that, isn’t he?
Yeah! I ran into Kim a few nights ago at Nortoden, up in Norway at a festival..there’s a few guys like him that can handle the harp that way..like Little Walter used to
Have you heard the Phish live version of Waiting ? It’s covered in piano, really good
Ah ! Somebody turned us onto that a while back..it’s actually not a bad version I agree
There’s a touch of Johnny Johnson that guy draws upon
(Explodes) Yeah!!!! Man, what we wouldn’t give to have Johnny around, still. He was so much the backbone of so many recordings..the story goes that when Chuck Berry stepped into the studio it was Johnny’s established band that got it all together, his orchestra. So all Berry had to do was fall into it and rock….
How do you get on with Jeff Beck?
Famously, that guy can turn the guitar inside out as we all know. I’ll be with him tomorrow night, actually – we are performing in Los Angeles, Hollywood Bowl. You’ll see he’s on our record, on Rough Boy
Yes and the Ernie Ford tune
Sixteen Tons! He’s a guy we love to play with
Here’s a question from Caro – ‘Are you continuing to appear in Bones?’
Yes, if the series continues and they go with the character it is odds on, let’s say
One from Leigh – ‘Is It true you use .008 gauge strings ?’
Yes, following B B King’s admonition to me to make things a little easier on myself. ‘Don’t work so hard !’ We are starting to develop a .007 along with our friend Jimmy Dunlop, super-light!
One from our Glenn – ‘Do you still have those furry guitars that spin round ?’
Tell him yes and you gotta remember to lean well back when they go ! Now I have to head to the airport, Pete and it’s been really great to talk music with you.
ZZ Top’s new live album ‘ZZ Top Tonite At Midnight: Live Greatest Hits From Around The World’ will be released by Warners Music on Friday 9th September 2016. For more information visit their official website here: http://bit.ly/2bmnmN6
(All photos approved by artist and provided by Warners)
(Many thanks to Billy Gibbons for the chat, Andy, Phoebe, Peu Blain and all of the question submitters)