When you think of surf music, ZZ Top isn’t the first band that comes to mind. But guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons has been surfing since he was 13, when he first got a whiff of resin and foam at a Texas board shop.
While Gibbons owns the Fender Tank reverb and Jazzmaster guitars that are legendary for their surf rock sounds, he’s better known for his gruff Texas rock and blues. With bass player Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, ZZ Top has been cranking out rockers for more than 40 years now.
You can see the band at the Avila Beach Music Festival tonight. The concert benefits Options, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled locals live independently.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, who made long beards chic, met backstage at a Doors show and started out opening for acts such as Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. After early hits like “La Grange” (about a bordello)
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and “Tush” in the 1970s, the band’s fame skyrocketed in the 1980s when videos for “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and other songs became MTV staples.
As soon as the current tour ends, the band plans to record again with music titan Rick Rubin producing.
We spoke to Gibbons by phone Monday.
Q: So you’re in town, right?
A: We arrived like 30 minutes ago. We drove all night long. It was crazy. Seventeen hours on the highway.
Q: You guys are in town early. Do you have
any plans for the next couple of days?
A: I’ve got a buddy that has the luxury of being able to travel by train up
from LA. And he’s bringing all kinds of goodies: Some new costuming, a couple of new guitars we had commissioned. Some dice. We’ll play a dice game. All kinds of fun stuff.
Q: Are you guys going to get out and about or hang out in the hotel the next couple of days?
A: My knowledge of the area is restricted to that which I learned from the guy that makes all those fancy silver rings that we get to show off. Rick Maverick, who is from here. He took me to the bubblegum wall, and then he took me to one of the nicest Mexican restaurants, the name of which escapes me at the moment. And I plan to call him because it’s so good.
Q: According to liner notes, “Tube Snake Boogie” is about a surfboard. Would you consider getting on a board while here?
A: Yeah, I thought about it. We’re at Shell Beach in Pismo, and it’s so picture perfect, it feels like Sunday. Every day is Sunday. The waves are rather inviting.
Q: Have you explored the waves before?
A: Yeah. I was pals with one of the originators of the sport, Dale Velzy. And for years he concentrated on hanging around his hot rod cars. And then something struck him and he got back into making some beautiful period-perfect wood boards. And I got know his son, Matt, quite well. And I absconded with about six of Dale’s finest wood boards. Not the hotrod 7-footers. These are 8-foot-9, 9-foot-2, 9-foot-3.
Q: Classic longboards.
A: The cool ones, man. Balsa stringers. And they have Velzy’s famous decal under the glass. It’s the best. But the doggone thing is, you can ride those things.
Q: Have you taken them out?
A: Yeah. We didn’t want to get them too dinged up. We’d go out on the medium days. If it was getting too fierce, we didn’t want to wind up on the rocks.
Q: Have you guys been here before?
A: Remember when Paso Robles was home to one of the finer hot rod and custom car gatherings? We were always ready to get down in the trenches with those guys. That was some fun stuff. I think they’ve moved it elsewhere now.
Q: You spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a kid, right?
A: Yeah. Between Houston and Hollywood.
Q: Did you spend a lot of time on the sets?
A: Yeah. Hanging out with my dad. Way, way back, he was working as one of the music directors on the MGM lot. And through the years he was married to a girl from Houston, and she persuaded him to go back to her hometown of Houston. Unfortunately, she passed away, but the good news is that my dad met my mother. So we had the bonus of being born and raised in Houston, and spending most of our days between there and coming out to Hollywood. All kinds of fun. In fact, I still live in his house.
Q: ZZ Top met at a Doors show — how did you meet the other two guys from ZZ Top there?
A: I met them through Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie Ray’s older brother. Jimmy and I were talking one afternoon. It’s still this way today, there’s something with musicians from Texas — there’s a bond. There’s this kind of unspoken shared admiration for what everybody does. It’s really cool. Jimmy introduced me to Frank the drummer, and then Frank introduced me to Dusty, and we just kind of hit it off. We got together one afternoon and launched in a shuffle in the key of C. Three hours later, we were smiling and still playing, thinking, “There’s something to this.” So we let it go at that. We just said, “Cool.”
Q: I read somewhere where Dusty Hill, in talking about the song “Le Grange,” about the bordello, he said he had actually visited the Chicken Ranch. Have you ever been there yourself, or just him?
A: I think everybody, up until the day they closed, attempted to make some sort of pilgrimage. Nobody’s willing to admit it.
Q: Obviously, you wouldn’t normally think of long beards as being stylish and hip. But you guys sort of made that reputation.
A: Had we known that it was going to be splashed around the world — our little temporary disguise, which has now become a trademark—we might have picked a different costume.
It all happened quite by accident. In ‘76, we took a brief break from the rigors of the road. We were going to come off for a nice little 90-day holiday. And that turned into six months, and the next thing you know a year had gone by. Frank had gone down to Jamaica, Dusty went to Mexico, and I wound up in Paris, France. Although we were speaking by phone, this was pre-video phone. And Dusty and I did not know that we had gotten so lazy that we had decided to forget to shave. So after three years we returned and showed up, and lo and behold here was this sort of wacky-looking image. And it just kind of stuck with us.
Q: You’ve got to get a lot of salt water in the surf with that thing.
A: Oh yeah. Salt water is good for the body.