ZZ TOP’s Mud Metal Master BILLY GIBBONS Goes To Cuba – “They Just Want You, The Billy Boy”
December 9, 2015, 2 years ago
“No complaining. I’m in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I haven’t lost anything but a lot of sleep,” muses the good Reverend Billy Gibbons, down the line and ready enough to atone for his sins, or at least explain to them asses that what he’s doing on his incendiary new Afro-Cuban-spiced solo album Perfectamundo isn’t a sin against ZZ nation, but a fresh flavour to add to your gatefold of Tres Hombres (look it up).
And so yes, why did Billy Gibbons and the BFG’s create such a percussive and B3-burbled cache of songs Latin in feel, but ZZ around the crispy-fired edges?
“Okay, we’ll start in the beginning,” drawls the mud metal master, “with the unexpected arrival of a phone call from a buddy of mine, who said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got some friends who are producing... they’re part of a long-standing tradition of running a jazz festival in Havana’—this being in their third decade of an annual event—‘and they’d like you to come down.’ And I said, ‘Well, let me check with my two partners.’ He said, ‘No, they just want you, the Billy boy.’ And I said, wow! I said, ‘You know, I might be able to play a little blues and I might be able to play a little rock, but this jazz thing, I don’t know (laughs).’”
“But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to go to Cuba,” continues Gibbons, “and so I went into the studio. And the engineer had asked me what the complexion of the sessions were going to be to start out with, and I really surprised him. I said, ‘Well, do you think we might give it a little Afro-Cuban twist?’ And of course they thought I’d lost my mind. But the more we expanded on it, the more we liked it—and things started taking shape. After about the third excursion into the unknown, it really started to make sense. And at that moment, enter Mr. Mike Flanigin, the great Hammond B3 player from Austin, Texas, who was wrapping up work on his solo record called The Drifter. And he showed up, and he said, ‘Say, could I interest you in possibly singing a blues number, to wrap up this recording? Of my own.’ I said, ‘Whatcha got?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s from a little-known collaboration record with Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown from way back in the ‘70s, and the song is called “The Drifter.”’ And I said, ‘Gee whiz, that’s that spooky, wild blues story.’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah. This will scare you right out of your wits.’”
(Photo by: Gerard Ortiz)
“And so we got to work on ‘The Drifter’ for Flanigin’s solo record, and he said, ‘By the way, when I came in, it sounded like... are you guys working on something that has some Cuban flavour?’ And I says, ‘Well, as a matter of fact, that’s the big challenge—can we do this?’ And he said, ‘Well, sounds good to me.’ And that led us into a discussion of just how impacting Cuban influence has been in, you know, Western pop and rock, even the blues, as far as we can remember. And we gravitated towards the great Slim Harpo number, ‘Got Love if You Want it,’ which appears on the Perfectamundo disc, which is basically a cha-cha. When you break it down into the parts, he’s doing a cha-cha. It’s seldom talked about, but the Cuban flavour has been a part of, well, as I mentioned, pop, blues, rock. BB King has… one of my favourites is a track he did back in the ‘60s called ‘Woke Up this Morning,’ and there was even a rock ‘n’ roll guy from Texas who had a big hit called ‘Susie Q.’ And there again you’ve got straight-ahead Cuban flavour backing up those tracks. So it’s nothing new, necessarily. It’s new for a guy like me, with four decades of playing ZZ Top stuff. Yeah, we’ve tiptoed toward some Latin effects over the long run, but this is straight-ahead... we’re taking this right to Havana. We’ll be down there shortly, and I think... I think we’re getting away with it (laughs).”
Given the Tex-Mex boogie sound of ZZ, it’s not that the sum total Perfectamundo is that much of a stretch for Billy. Indeed, given the strong stamp of producer Joe Hardy and sometime collaborating drummer Greg Morrow, as well as the general vibe of Mescalero and La Futura... well, half these songs coulda shown up on either of those two, just not all at once. And the other half, hang onto yer shorts.
“Yes, there’s been nothing quite as strident as on this new one, Perfectamundo,” answers Billy, asked where ZZ’s latent Latin was. “There might have been some maracas shaking in the past, there might be some polyrhythm stuff going on, I think we used congas on a couple of tracks. But we’ve pulled out all the stops to make this as legit as we could. We didn’t want to show up in Havana crashing the party with just a straight rock show. Although, I’ve got a buddy in Manhattan, he’s got a four-piece outfit that works around New York City, and they are straight up, all of them, just hell-bent on keeping a straight mambo and cha-cha thing alive. And they were passing through Houston, Texas on their way to Miami. So they stopped in the studio, and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got three or four experiments.’ We were still calling them experiments. And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, give it a spin.’ And they said, ‘Oh, Billy, you’ve got this down, man. That’s really old school Cuban. You’ve nailed it.’ He says, ‘But keep in mind, you know, we’re not stuck in the ‘40s or ‘50s. Some of the youngsters in Cuba, they want to hear ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin, so you better give it a twist’ (laughs).”
(Photo by: Marcel Abrego)
Like I say, producer Joe Hardy makes this record spit, shine and pop like all them ZZ records certainly back to the under-rated Antenna, as does Morrow with them gorgeous tones...
“Indeed,” agrees Billy. “Having had the pleasure of working with his talents, since 19... well, since the early ‘80s, Joe was not shy about bringing his expertise, and he’s one of the greatest bass players. He’s an unsung hero of the lowdown four-string. And he’s also responsible for turning out one of the great drummers in the business today: Mr. Greg Morrow. Who I hired to… Greg is the main backbeat provider, as you hear on Perfectamundo. And of course it goes without saying, Joe’s prowess riding gang on the control board is second to none. He does this with an elegance that is hard to beat. But I can say, Joe’s sense of timing... you put Greg Morrow on drums and you put Joe Hardy behind the board, and the big value was the fact that they understood the importance of making space for quite a few more instruments than is found in ZZ Top records. That’s three guys. And when you get an orchestra of 12 guys, it’s a challenge of getting out of everybody’s way so that everybody doesn’t step on each other. And on Perfectamundo, you’ve got two B3 players, Martin Guigui and Mike Flanigin, and we worked in two drummers. You’ve got timbales, conga, bongos, maracas, quicas, claves. You’ve got all this stuff going on, and of course it all can’t be going on at the exact same time. And that’s the fascination that I... to this day, I’m still floored by the way that Afro-Cuban rhythm sections figure out what to play, and how to stay out of the way. That’s actually a good phrase. I’m gonna use that.
And why that title, Perfectamundo, not to mention this album cover, with Billy looking downright... quizzical?
“Perfectamundo is about as twisted and the most incorrect way of using the Spanish language. I’ve been quoted in print as saying, well, some people would combine English and Spanish, and come up with Spanglish, but we’ve taken it a step further and twisted it into Slanglish. As for the cover, well, people know me as the guy with the scratchy voice that loves playing the gee-tar. And I think I’m kind of looking around, just seeing if what we’re doing is… If it’s going to get us thrown in jail, or even further down the line, to a mental institution (laughs).”
As we close, Billy brings up a point that had eluded me, coming from Toronto...
“It’s a pleasure speaking with you. You know, us Americans are kind of jealous. The Canadians get to go to Cuba anytime they want. We have to wait for an invitation. But as I mentioned, we’re down there next month, and I’ve got a couple of friends that have been. Actually, I went when I was about seven. I was with my dad. He was an orchestra leader, and he put me on a... well, we flew in a plane back in those days, just a short hop. But then when the curtain closed, for most stateside folks it’s remained a rather exotic and kind of curious destination. But you know what? When it comes down to the music, everybody wants to have a good time.”
(Top photo by: Blain Clausen)