ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons Wants to Take Us All Back to a Period When There Was Nothing Else But Vinyl

It seems only fitting that I’m speaking with ZZ Top’s guitarist/vocalist Billy F Gibbons — a.k.a. BFG — while he’s in motion. The right Rev. Billy G calls in to MM HQ while he’s being driven across the desert somewhere in Arizona where the reception is spotty at best, and the concurrent soundtrack in my head leans toward early ZZ Top tracks like “Salt Lick,” “Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell,” and, of course, “Asleep in the Desert.”

Today, we’re discussing the merits of ZZ Top’s RAW – That Little Ol’ Band From Texas’ Original Soundtrack (Tower Top Tours, Inc./BMG), an LP born and bred from an intimate performance that initially took place for the band’s June 2019 documentary, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.

RAW is available as a standard black-vinyl 180g 1LP. It was recorded by Gary G.L. G-Mane Moon and Jake Mann, mixed by Ryan Hewitt, and mastered by Howie Weinberg and Will Borza at Howie Weinberg Mastering. The RAW LP ships on August 7, and it can be pre-ordered here for $26.98. The limited-edition colored-vinyl version dubbed “Lava” sold out almost immediately — though the more resourceful of you can find a copy of said Lava wax, of course. (As of this posting, it’s currently going for $85-$95, according to Discogs.)

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As it stands, RAW is likely to be the last ZZ Top recording to feature original bassist Dusty Hill, who passed away at age 72 a little over a year ago on July 28, 2021. Prior to his passing, Hill gave both Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard, his bandmates for 51-plus years, the greenlight to carry on without him, anointing the band’s longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis to take over on bass.

“That’s what we do,” Gibbons admits about ZZ Top’s predilection for being out on the road. “At one point we were wondering, was this a forgotten endeavor? But the good news is, now that the curtain has lifted, it means we’re getting back in the swing as we like it. As we speak, we’re back to making loud noise for ya!” (If you want to see ZZ Top on their current RAW Whisky Tour, the upcoming tour dates are here.)

Gibbons, 72, and I discussed how RAW came to pass, why physical proximity can lead to better performances, and what records are never too far from his vintage Thorens turntable. There's one thing for sure and it’s on my mind. . .

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Mike Mettler: I’m glad we’re finally getting a vinyl representation of that Little Ol’ Band live session the three of you guys did together in Texas. Tell me how RAW came to pass.

Billy F Gibbons: I’m glad you’re aware of RAW. We were marginally made aware of RAW because it was an unexpected delivery — and let me explain. Going way back, we were in the middle of working on the Little Ol’ Band documentary, and the good director, Mr. Sam Dunn, he had already accepted the challenge to create the story of ZZ Top with an ending that really wasn’t an ending.

“Listen,” I said, “We’d be happy to take part in the film. However, every good story has an ending. And at this juncture, ZZ Top is still charging large.” He said, “I totally get it. I think I can work within that directive.”

So off we go, and I guess we had successfully picked up through what was about the halfway point. And he said, “By the way, I’d really like to capture an image of ZZ Top in a setting not unlike your early, early beginnings.” And then he said, “I’ve got a honky-tonk down in Texas that might be visually believable to the way you guys started out.” [The locale Dunn’s referring to here is Gruene Hall, in New Braunfels, Texas, where the live performances we’re discussing were filmed and recorded—MM]

Gibbons: And I said, “Okay. So you want to take a picture of the band.” When we arrived, we realized the equipment technicians had not been told this was a simple photo session. (MM laughs) They had set up the entire stage with our touring gear — which was much to our delight!

Mettler: So, you weren’t actually prepared to perform when you arrived. You thought you were doing a photo shoot, and then it was like, “Okay, let’s play.” You guys hadn’t rehearsed or anything — you just walked in, and got down to it. Do I have that right?

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Nationwide Blues: Above, Hill, Gibbons, and Beard (l-r) remain on top. Photo by Ross Halfin.

Gibbons: Yeah. We arrived in separate cars, unlike touring on, you know, a travel bus. We just walked in, and I said, “Gee, what’s all the equipment doing here?” And they said, “Oh, there was a mix-up in the directions.” I said, “Well, it looks like it’s lit up and ready to play. While you guys get the cameras in place, we’re gonna have a go at it.” We spent the afternoon having a blast, really doing nothing more than the way we started.

And it was about six months later when our recording engineers said, “By the way, what do you want us to do with these tapes of that session?” And we said, “What session are you talking about?” They said, “At the honky-tonk, down there in Texas.” And I said, “Well, you better let us hear it. We didn’t know that we were being recorded.” (laughs)

Mettler: Isn’t that something? And when you say recording engineers, you’re talking about Jake and Gary here, right?

Gibbons: Yes — Jake Mann, and Mr. Gary Moon. J-Mann, and the G-Moon! (chuckles) They were grinning. And they said, “Yeah, we knew you guys didn’t know we were recording, but we didn’t care [to tell you]. We liked the way you guys were jamming it up!” (chuckles)

Mettler: Yeah. As somebody who watched that performance on Blu-ray first before hearing the vinyl, the one thing I liked seeing was the physical proximity of the three of you in that space, which was sometimes a little bit different than what you guys did live onstage. So, I’m just curious — being that close was probably like old hat, to coin a phrase for you. Just the three of you guys that close, working together. Was that a different vibe when you played something like “Brown Sugar,” a song from ZZ Top’s First Album [released in January 1971], from how you do it now on the bigger stages?

Gibbons: Definitely! Unexpectedly, we were thrust into an environment that was not unlike the confines of when we started in the early days — not only playing live in small joints, but the recording studio that captured our first couple of records. It too was not a giant room. We were within reach of each other. It was quite a delight to be back doing it early-style. [ZZ Top recorded their first two albums, the aforementioned ZZ Top’s First Album and April 1972’s Rio Grande Mud, at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler, Texas.]

Mettler: Yeah, and I think, sonically, the intimacy of the RAW recording is what really appeals to me as a listener. Even with sunglasses on. you guys share certain “looks” between each other, like the way you do with Dusty [Hill]. (Gibbons laughs heartily) I mean, you can basically see each other’s eyes through your glasses, so you just know what the other guy wants to do there, right?

Gibbons: That’s right! Yeah. you might have missed a wink, but you surely didn’t miss a nod! (both laugh)

Mettler: I think that’s a song that you gotta put on an upcoming ZZ Top album — “Missed a Wink, But Not a Nod.”

Gibbons: (laughs) There you go! Yes! (continues laughing) Let’s do it.

Mettler: Well, that’s a song you’ve practically already written. But getting back to that kind of proximity in terms of where the amps and all the gear were set up in Gruene Hall, your Magnatone [amp] stack is a little bit off to the side, and so is Dusty’s stack. Did that level of physical proximity to your amps correspond to the sound for what you wanted to get in that space?

Gibbons: Oh, definitely. Here we were — I wouldn’t call it cramped. I’d call it more than cramped! (laughs) But being in such an environment, I think, it emotionally brought us back to the way we started.

Mettler: Yeah, I think so too. And I mentioned “Brown Sugar” before because that’s one of the earliest tracks where you guys just have a level of ease that we heard 50-ish years ago when that one was first laid down on wax. And speaking of vinyl, for you as a listener, is vinyl the playback medium that is still your touchstone?

Gibbons: Oh, definitely! You can’t forget anything that never left. (chuckles)

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Mettler: As somebody who’s literally made physical records for over 50 years and counting, would you say you had a specific sound in mind when somebody put a needle on one of your records? What did you want a listener to get out of that experience?

Gibbons: Yeah, making records, going way back to — gosh, you know, five decades have elapsed since we were attempting to start the process, and it’s come full circle. I’ve talked to some aspiring musicians who are just now learning how to make records, and I think it’s an experience that is quite similar to the way ZZ Top started. And that’s by setting up in a garage or a basement, and working out songs — knowing that there may not be the luxury of going back and fixing things that needed fixing. You have to learn it to the point where it didn’t require fixing.

That’s what really struck us about the outcome of what is now called RAW. Because it was definitely raw! (laughs heartily)

Mettler: And it’s perfectly named too, because it’s exactly what that record sounds like. So, taking it back even further — growing up in, I guess I’ll call it Tejas (Gibbons chuckles), what are the first couple of records that were like the real talismans for you? What are the ones that got you going as a kid?

Gibbons: Well, to this day, anything by Jimmy Reed. It still hits the turntable — and that brings us to what ZZ Top is. For forever, we’ve been referred to as a blues rock band, and it’s because of the thread of “bluesiness.” We considered ourselves as kind of interpreters — well, not kind of interpreters, we were interpreters. The blues, it’s a great American art form. And that was long before we even started.

So, to loosely embrace what we know is something now so familiar, we were simply enthralled by the sound of this genre. It allowed us to follow in the footsteps of the heroes that came looong before us! (laughs)

Mettler: Big shoes to fill for sure, but I’d say ZZ Top has filled them better than most. What kind of turntable do you use at home? What brand is it?

Gibbons: It’s an old Thorens. The stylus may change on occasion, and that’s just for the sake of getting deeper into the listening experience. And I’m with you — that cornerstone of the vinyl experience lives on. I don’t know that the numbers reflect what it was like in terms of vinyl production back in the old days of the scene, but it certainly has taken a rather intriguing turn for the better.

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Just Got Red Today: Above, Beard, Gibbons, and Hill (l-r) have it made in their shades. Photo by Ross Halfin.

Mettler: I have to agree. Why do you think people have reconnected with, or newly connected with, vinyl?

Gibbons: The experience is a very tactile event. It’s not in “the atmosphere.” It’s actually physically in hand. And it’s being produced in a size that allows the eyes to actually see what you’re hearing! (laughs)

Mettler: Yeah, that’s a good point too. That makes me think of your last solo record, [June 2021’s] Hardware. And I’m glad you did a gatefold for that one, even though it was a single LP. Even the feel and the texture of the sleeve and cover is exactly right for you as the artist. It feels like this is your record, you know what I mean?

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Gibbons: Yeah, man! It’s there for the taking it. Oddly enough, I don’t know if you go through the aisles of any of the Guitar Centers across the country, but there’s a new aisle devoted to the issuing and reissuing of vinyl — old titles, as well as brand new titles.

Mettler: Always a positive sign. I’m also glad you saw fit to reissue the balance of the ZZ Top catalog on 180g vinyl. I can’t even put on my original [July 1973] Tres Hombres anymore, because it’s so worn out. (Gibbons laughs) Did you have any specific directions for the remastering process? Did you say, “Here’s what I’d like this to be like”? Did you have any QC notes?

Gibbons: We simply said, “Take it back to a period when there was nothing else but vinyl.” And that was met with open arms. They — “they” being the guys in today’s mastering labs — have a real challenge to understand, across the board, that they’re having to deal with sonic forms that previously didn’t exist, when it was only vinyl.

But, nonetheless, they seem to get it! I’m not gonna short-change ’em — they’ve got a big job to do, but they’re doing it, and they enjoy it.

Mettler: Yeah. Well, you’ve certainly bridged the gap of decades in your sound on RAW. Okay, last thing for you because I know you’ve gotta roll, but since you recently did a 5LP box set called Goin’ 50 [in June 2019], can I have you project 50 years into the future? If somebody cues up ZZ Top on vinyl 50 years from now in 2072, what do you want them to hear?

Gibbons: Tell them to thrash on, and to have the good time that we’re having right now! (both laugh)

Music Direct Buy It Now

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ZZ TOP: RAW
180g 1LP (Tower Top Tours, Inc./BMG)

SIDE A
1. Brown Sugar
2. Just Got Paid
3. Heard It On The X
4. La Grange
5. Tush
6. Thunderbird

SIDE B
1. I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
2. Legs
3. Gimme All Your Lovin’
4. Blue Jean Blues
5. Certified Blues
6. Tube Snake Boogie

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COMMENTS
rich d's picture

As was the Klaus Schulze one (thanks for the link). Others may disagree, but I normally find it distasteful for bands to soldier on after the loss of a key member (lookin' at you, Stones) but ZZ Top appears to be doing so with Dusty Hill's blessing, so good on them. Heck I might even buy the new record.

Only kind of a hijack as the show is partly sponsored by your parent company: is anyone going to the Ascot show next month and how do you plan to get there given the likely rail strike and the dire parking situation near the racecourse?

da Choge's picture

Well, what's wrong with this edition? https://www.walmart.com/ip/ZZ-Top-RAW-Walmart-Exclusive-Vinyl-Exclusive/.... Granted, a little ugly, but ain't that what it is supposed to be? The tree section special edition isn't so pretty either, but kinda cool. And the Walmart edition is actually still available for list price!

Hoodat's picture

I wish Mescalero was released on lp ... :-(

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