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ZZ Top: Back to ‘La Futura’

The Texas trio revs up a new full-length album with surprising influences and a track premiere in outer space -- seriously

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

©American Recordings
ZZ Top (©American Recordings)

"Tone, taste and tenacity" -- that's how Billy F. Gibbons summarizes the eternal appeal of ZZ Top. This week, "that little ol' band from Texas" releases "La Futura," its first new album in nine years. The trio's influence, however, never seems to wane: Not only can you hear ZZ Top's grinding boogie in the music of new-schoolers like Jack White and the Black Keys, but less likely artists, such as Lucinda Williams and the Wallflowers, also proudly declare themselves to be fans.

Gibbons, No. 32 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest guitar players of all time, has been playing with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard for more than forty years ("same three guys, same three chords," says Gibbons). In 2004, Keith Richards, no less, inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band is currently in the midst of a world tour, bringing the tight-but-greasy blues of  La Grange, "Tush," and "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" to stages from Moscow and Helsinki to Troutdale, Ore., and Big Flats, N.Y.

For "La Futura," the hirsute trio teamed up with one of the few guys who could match them beard-for-beard: producer Rick Rubin. As they worked on the project off and on for several years, the stated goal was to get back to the classic ZZ sound -- which can be heard on tracks like "Chartreuse" and "Flyin' High" (which debuted when it was piped into the Soyuz spacecraft) -- but they also took some more surprising turns. The churning opener, "I Gotsta Get Paid," was inspired by the 1990's underground Houston rap song "25 Lighters" by DJ DMD with Lil' Keke and Fat Pat. "Over You" is a straight-up ballad, while "It's Too Easy Mañana" was written by alt-country standard-bearers Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

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Gibbons took some time from the road to answer questions via email, which may help explain some of his unique turns of phrase (though he tends to the Baroque in conversation, as well). Asked for his advice to a young, aspiring guitar player, Gibbons was as straight-shooting as his band's all-killer, no-filler songs: "Turn it up and let it loose!"

MSN Music: What was it about the original "25 Lighters" that struck you so hard? And why did it take almost 15 years to work out what you wanted to do with it?

Billy Gibbons: It's that mesmerizing rapper's sense of urgency, and the timing drives the subconscious into the ether. I just couldn't shake it! The idea of transforming it into a believable ZZ Top song presented a challenge to work out. The guitar breakdown is a tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins in a very real way. Lightnin' and the progenitors of "25 Lighters" stand as a creative product of Houston's ghettos. There's an intriguing continuity that materialized that satisfied the session.

Why did you want to work with Rick Rubin? And how did the relationship with him work? Some other veteran acts have had trouble with his approach in the studio -- Crosby, Stills, and Nash recently cut off their album with him because he was "telling them what to do."

Rick stepped into the project right off with an inviting statement of, "I don't believe I need to rewire ZZ Top. My job is to bring you to work, work, work!" Rick's approach suggested we could possibly enjoy unexpected improvements through repeating the performances, and each time something appeared that felt good to us.

I've known Rick personally for quite some time, way before the idea of collaborating as partners came to the fore, and that personal relationship made for a very comfortable arrangement. We'd do it all over again -- yet maybe now, being savvy about that kind of process, we would speed things along.

You've said that the goal with this album was to get back to the signature ZZ Top sound. What defines that sound to you, and how do you feel you had gotten away from it?

Over the years, we've orbited around that original down 'n' dirty sound, adding some filigree here and there -- yet, in truth, the gist always remains with the blues.

That dirt is the key. You hear that vocal on "Consumption"? I had one of the "best" raspy vocal days when that recording commenced and the engineers, Hardy and Moon, remarked, "Here's an opportunity to get a low-down, uncultured, guttural groove going. Let's make certain to get that red light ignited. That captured what we were after. Pretty it ain't, gritty it sho' is.

What has changed in the way the band makes records, or writes songs, after 40-plus years together?

Certainly, in the case of "La Futura,," half the numbers began with the tried-'n'-true riff 'n' beat. The other half began as a simple turn of words. It takes a bit longer to sort out what's gonna make it -- then again, our touring calendar today is way more demanding than when we began ...

The question of songwriting style comes often: "What comes first, the beat or the phrase?" Now, as then, the answer is both! When the band started, it was the blues that shined inspirational, and it still is. You just can't lose when you got the blues.

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How did "Flyin' High" wind up getting its premiere in outer space?

Dusty -- long-standing friend with NASA Astronaut Mike Fossum -- received a request from Mike inquiring if the band could offer something fresh that he could play onboard the Soyuz spacecraft that took the crew to the International Space Station. We had "Flyin' High" almost done, and it seemed to fit the mission's theme (although it's now re-versioned since liftoff), so we sent it over. Just emailed an MP3 to the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and it was blasted over the spacecraft's sound system for the gang onboard.

Do you hear the band's influence on folks like Jack White and the Black Keys, or are they just testament that the blues will find ways to survive?

Yes, we have, and it's most intriguing how we all come from the blues-rooted impulse. Think of the generations that Muddy Waters influenced over the course of his offerings, and long afterwards. In a very real way, he changed the course of history. We might never have seen the Rolling Stones if he hadn't recorded "Rollin' Stone." That's as big as this kind of thing gets.

There's a Billy Gibbons solo effort in the offing. What should we know about that?

The BFG releases (yes, there's more than one hanging fire) range from rough-cut rock way off into a vicious electronica vein -- "way fierce," as you would expect. Just waiting to avoid collision with ZZ. There's good times in the studio represented across all lines, with an aspect of experimentation, and the tracks certainly haven't forgotten the groove. That's hard-wired into just about everything we do. DNA will have its way!

Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den" and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Light is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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Sep 12, 2012 12:10AM

Love them! I remember when I was younger, wishing Billy and Dusty would run those big, bushy, manly beards between my legs!

Not so much these days, but I still luv their music! I bought "La Futura" yestersday....I LOVE IT!

Sep 11, 2012 10:29PM
ZZ Top sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! White trash biker garbage!!!!! I thought they called it quits years ago with FINAL SHOWS!!! All about the money!!! What little they can make.
Sep 11, 2012 5:38PM
Billy Gibbons & ZZ Top are one of the best Rock/Blues bands ever. To me though they sold out commercialy a long time ago. Listen to Nasty Dogs & Funky Kings,(and the whole Fandango album) its pure, 200 proof superbad Billy Gibbons. Later on, Legs, Pearl Necklace, and all that were just for the charts, and to make $ I suppose. They came to a festival in my town a few years ago, and I just new they would play Nasty Dogs for all the older fans like me(49yo). Nope just the commercial stuff..Aerosmith did the same thing, early on, the," Rocks" album was SO great, later it was all about music for the middle school kids.. wheres the guitar in, "cryin"? Apparantly it became about $, and not the original early sound the old die hard fans like me LOVED. They both SOLD OUT plain & simple.
Sep 11, 2012 3:15PM
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