For his third solo album, Billy Gibbons got down and dirty in the California desert, conjuring up some Texas spirituality that he mixed with Voodoo sonics, gritty guitar grooves and heartfelt reflections. And it just may be his best solo album yet.
Hardware has everything you could possibly want from the ZZ Top head honcho. It’s catchy, it’s rhythmically raunchy, it has winking innuendoes and drop-dead honesty, and the songs hum like a good engine rumble. From the hot jiggle of “More-More-More” to the mescal-hypnotic “Desert High,” from the confessional “Vagabond Man” to the sexy friskiness of “Stackin’ Bones” featuring the Larkin Poe sisters on harmony, Hardware is just what we need as summer heats up a country that has been kept too long inside. We crave to get wild, to run down the street naked, hooting and hollering and singing at the top of our lungs. And the good Reverend Gibbons is giving that to us in spades.
Bringing former Guns N Roses drummer Matt Sorum back in to play drums, and co-produce alongside Gibbons and Mike Florentino, was the crowning jewel for this album, which was released on June 4th. Sorum’s drumming on Gibbons previous solo album, The Big Bad Blues in 2018, gave that recording a juicy hard beat on which Gibbons could really slink around on.
This time out, along with guitarist Austin Hanks, “We holed up in the desert for a few weeks in the heat of the summer and that in itself was pretty intense,” Gibbons said in a press release earlier this year. “To let off steam we just ‘let it rock’ and that’s what Hardware is really all about.”
Gibbons has been coolly letting off steam since his days in Moving Sidewalks, which opened for Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties. But it was with the release of ZZ Top’s third album, Tres Hombres in the summer of 1973, which brought the trio of Gibbons, Dusty Hil,l and Frank Beard into the Top 10 charts via the growly bluesy, still-popular in 2021, “La Grange.” From then on, the hits kept coming: “Tush,” “Legs,” “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Tube Snake Boogie,” to name only a few. In 2004, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame by Keith Richards, who called them “the heartbeat of the whole country, of rock & roll, it’s no ruse. These cats know their blues and they know how to dress it up.”
Their concerts have been legendary, their beards iconic emblems of hot and sweaty electric blues, and no ensemble has represented their home state better than ZZ Top. North Mississippi All-Stars guitarist Luther Dickinson once told me during an interview in 2011: “He is the man. I’m such a huge fan. He is so amazing. He has taken the blues tradition all the way into the future in such a great, cosmically, inventive, graceful way and he just kicks ass.”
Recently, Gibbons answered a few questions for Glide via email about his new solo album and how this journalist’s favorite ZZ Top song was created.
How did Matt Sorum and Austin Hanks make Hardware a better album?
In the first place, it was both Matt and Mr. Hanks, both Palm Springs residents, who suggested the excursion out near Pioneertown into California’s high desert. I wasn’t immediately familiar with the facility so it was a voyage of discovery. Matt and Austin Hanks and I hopped in and hotrodded over to this semi-secret studio spot which immediately allowed imaginations to begin unfolding quite organically. Us three musicians joined our pairing of producers for truly a right place/right time moment.
There are some really cool, weird, mind-bending sounds on “Spanish Fly.” How did you accomplish those?
Shades of hiphop! While screwing around in the studio, the guys urged me to resurrect the Houston-styled atmosphere from the way back rap scene machine. Those are actually effects which I picked up from our homies working the street magic of the 90’s. And with that as a jumping off point, we went as far out as our collective imagination could let us. Combine that with a lot of time in isolation out in the desert, strange sounds emerge.
Larkin Poe adds some spritely right-on harmonies to “Stackin’ Bones.” How did you discover them and why did you think they would be the perfect ladies for your song?
A few years back, Tyler Bryant and his bluesy trio took on a tour with the ZZ Top roadshow. During one of the soundcheck afternoons, we heard Rebecca and Megan, the Larkin Poe sisters, for the first time. We asked Tyler who they were and he revealed at the time he was Rebecca’s boyfriend. Not long thereafter we were all on the same bill that solidified a mutual admiration of our collective spirits. The Larkin Poe sisters are brilliant musicians and their “ooh-la-las” really animate the track.
“Vagabond Man” is surrounded by a spirituality of looking back at one’s life. How has the spirituality of Texas ingrained itself into your music and what was the biggest chance you ever took?
From way out Texas way to the desert in California and then around the globe, the meanderings of a traveling musician melded into the writing process. The stark realities of actually existing as a “Vagabond Man” made us appreciate that way of life all the more. The chances one takes when hitting the road to see what this music thing might hold is a somewhat foreboding risk. Then again, glad we took it!
You continue to explore what a guitar can do. When you were first learning to play, what were you learning on?
The first guitar was found under the tree on Christmas Day, just after my 13th birthday – a fine Gibson electric. I took it straight away into a tiny Fender amplifier and immediately cranked it up to “10”. By the end of the day, the famous Jimmy Reed riff was in hand as was the opening intro with Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”. And from that point onward, we’ve not looked back.
One of my favorite ZZ Top songs is “Blue Jean Blues.” I would love to know how the song was conceived and how it built from there.
Everyone’s got their fave rave pair of well-worn, old blue jeans. I mean, think about it. How long does it take to really break in a pair and how long does it take to miss ‘em when and if they were to suddenly disappear…? That’s a known, long-lasting tale of a travesty if there ever was one! It is the key to the code where disappearing blue jeans can really leave ya’ with the blues. The track is delivered in ultra-slow tempo and recorded with that deliberate purpose knowing it might take a while, even quite a while, tracking down those missing denims. The captured sounds of the instruments on record are super clean without any semblance of distortion as the song conversely conveys the imagery of existing down and dirty remnants of both oil and gasoline with a beloved pair of well-worn 501’s.
As Hardware began to solidify into a connective piece of music, what was something you did NOT want to infiltrate into either the lyrics or the sonics; and what was something you wanted to make sure WOULD come through.
We made do with what the garage-turned-recording room could only offer. The primitive innards of the box were inescapable playing a large part of the creative forward motion. There were absolutely no alternatives but to let the raw, desert feel to come through loud and hot. It’s something that made it directly into the grooves.
I understand that you, Matt and Austin kind of sequestered yourselves out in the desert to make this album, and that ragged, sweaty, sun beating down vibe is all over this album. Were these 12 songs created during this time period or did you already have bare-bones that you (or Matt) brought in to build upon?
With only a paper tablet and pencil in hand, we were, indeed, on the path to recording the album with the desert’s energies coming together quickly. We were in total isolation with the only distraction being the nearby cafe holding delights of Mexican cuisine. The framework around some songs always rattling around in my head have the literal sounding board of Matt and Austin’s fierce approach to timing and tuning. “West Coast Junkie” and it’s surf-approved sound colliding with the opposing eerieness of “Desert High” book-ends the package rather handily. From “bare-bones, to, “Take it home, Jones” is a wrap.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
He wasn’t necessarily considered a rock star, per se, but on an entirely different plane: B.B. King. I was 7 or 8 years old and my Dad took me into a studio in Houston to see him record. That was truly ground zero for the start of my guitar obsession. I got to spend some time with him many years thereafter and he remembered the little kid in short pants who was on hand that fateful day so long ago.
Portrait by Roger Kisby; live photo by Marc Lacatell