ZZTop: The creative juices are flowing again

  • ZZ-top-are-back

    Blade Illustration/Jeff Basting

  • ZZ Top’s new first new release in nine years, “La Futura,” swaggers out of the speakers like a big, bluesy musical muscle car rumbling down the strip.

    The guitars are all on overdrive, lead singer and guitarist Billy Gibbons sounds just as gleefully sleazy as ever, and rhythm section Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums provide a bedrock foundation for a set of 10 rockers that return the band to it’s mid-’70s glory.

    The Texans pretty much skip over the early ’80s synth-heavy sound that fueled hits such as “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” in favor of the down and dirty styles that were featured on earlier tunes like “Tush,” “La Grange,” and “Driving While Blind.” It’s a smart, savvy move that returns the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band to a semblance of its power trio blues roots and that also sounds remarkably fresh thanks to the production of Rick Rubin and Gibbons.

    In short, “La Futura” is a welcome return to form for a band that had wandered off its creative path years ago and settled into a kind of mediocre safety that belied ZZ Top’s status as one of the great American blues rock outfits.

    Gibbons and Hill still have their epic beards, but the band is no longer selling out arenas as it returns to a barnstorming tour of smaller places like the Stranahan Theater, where they will play Thursday night. Gibbons took time out from the tour to answer a few email questions from The Blade.

    “La Futura” is the ideal mix of the classic ZZ Top sound steeped in the blues and boogie rock while still sounding contemporary and fresh. The thing sounds like it’s going to explode out of my speakers.

    We certainly recorded it with the idea that folks would turn it up, so happy to hear that’s what you’re doing. Our not-so-secret formula: louder = better.

    I’ve read several interviews you’ve done in the past few months in which you talk about the band being at a bit of a crossroads a few years ago in terms of creative development and where you wanted to go next. I kind of get the feeling that a return to a rootsier sound — less synths, more guitars and jamming — was something you guys needed. Can you talk a little bit about what you were going through as a band during that time and how it is reflected in “La Futura”?

    A decade came and went without releasing any studio session work as the band continued touring non-stop during the interim. We hit Argentina to Zimbabwe and all points in between. When it finally came time to get back into it we approached it same as a live gig. Late night jam sessions began unfolding and got the creative juices flowing. As a result, we were good and loose when we ignited the “red light.” To be sure, the whole flow of the album is the band enjoying playing together directly to the roots in a very real way.

    ZZ Top has always been fearless in terms of adopting styles of music and genres while still maintaining a blues-based foundation. On the new disc you indirectly reflect your friendship with Houston hip-hop artists on “Gotsta Get Paid,” with its relationship to the song “25 Lighters.” As an artist why is that hybridization important to you creatively?

    If we may adapt the old expression: “No band is an island...” meaning we don’t live in isolation and are subject to influences from wherever they may originate. In “I Gotsta Get Paid” we, of course, adapted DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” but there’s also an homage to Lightnin’ Hopkins that you hear in the breakdown. That hip-hop groove, coupled with Lightnin’s spirit, is something beyond the sum of its parts. We truly enjoy reaching out and seeing what the world has to offer and this is reflection of that philosophy, and it’s remained in place since “ZZ Top’s First Album.”

    As a followup, I’m always intrigued at how some artists — and I’d put you guys in this category — can take a pretty traditional form of music and turn it inside out and find new things to explore. Why do you think the blues is so adaptable in this way?

    The blues offers the player something that’s at a big premium these days: space. You can stretch out or bear down as you see fit, the blues accommodates your imagination and whims more flexibly than any other sonic art form and that’s why it’s still with us after all this time. We continue to insist: You just can’t lose when you choose the blues.

    Dusty and Frank obviously are a big part of ZZ Top and all of you sound well-oiled and locked in now, 40 years or so down the road. Can you talk a little about each one of those guys and what makes the chemistry between the three of you work so well?

    Each of us has a sixth sense about the other two. We can predict, with a great deal of certitude, how we construct a new riff. We all feel the response to a drum fill and know what to do in juxtaposition with a new bass line. We play it as one. As far as idiosyncrasies are concerned, I don’t know if you have enough paper and ink to cover those bases but let’s say we ain’t givin’ ’em up!

    “La Futura” has a real fresh, bold sound. How conscious was it to get such an immediate sound?

    Tone just might be the single most important element in hand. We wanted the album to sound perfectly broken-in and not necessarily pristine, just down and dirty. Your comment confirms we’ve succeeded. Listening to a work or recordings can be a transporting experience and our aim is to take it to a place that’s got some grit to it.

    You’ve said that Rick Rubin pushed you guys by making you play things repeatedly to try and get the ideal take. What do you think he brought to the production that helped push the album in the direction it ended up going?

    Working with Rick gave us 20 percent of that “extra stuff” getting us to a sound, good as it possibly can get. Rick’s perspective served, on a certain level, as an ombudsman, keeping us honest and straight ahead because the easiest person to fool is often yourself. Rick had no intention of attempting to rewire ZZ Top, rather it provided a comfort level that really lubricated the sessions.

    How many of the new songs do you play in your set?

    We’ve gotten a few of them down and have been playing “I Gotsta” quite consistently though I do admit sometimes resorting to the cheat sheet. We’re working some of the others into the set so stay tuned when we’re there on Nov. 1.

    ZZ Top plays at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $48 to $68 and can be purchased by visiting www.stranahantheater.com, going to the box office at the theater, or calling 419-381-8851.

    Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.