'We avoided the pitfalls that have plagued him': ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on working with Rick Rubin

Though ZZ Top now says they’re thrilled with the results on the forthcoming new longplayer La Futura, they admit that it wasn’t always smooth sailing with eccentric producer Rick Rubin.

The album, due from American Recordings on September 11, 2012, is ZZ Top’s first since 2003, and includes 10 new songs. Sessions, held in between tours at Malibu’s Shangri La Studios, began with a loose jam session in Los Angeles. Recording eventually stretched, Billy Gibbons tells Joe Bosso of Music Radar, over a nearly four-year-long period.

The informal, jam-oriented atmosphere would result in something like 20 compact discs worth of demos, ideas and “starter material,” according to Gibbons — who made the first series of edits to get the batch of song fragments down to a manageable number of possible tracks. As the project finally began to coalesce, ZZ Top settled on the release of an advance EP earlier this year.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: In our first-listen take on 'La Futura,' we praised it as a long-awaited return to ZZ Top's "lip-smacking amalgam of blues, hard rock and Texas-born don’t-give-a-damn."]

Now, with the full-length La Futura set to hit stores soon, Gibbons admits to some frustrations with the lengthy process. Still, he is ready to proclaim the project a success: “We were quite pleased to hear the final version,” Gibbons tells Bosso. “What you suspect you’re hearing is what you’re getting: three guys playing the same three chords.”

He’s also pleased with how it all ultimately shook out with Rubin. Gibbons says the producer was upfront about things, telling the trio from the beginning that he wanted to take his time to get this done right, and that helped smooth out the rough patches.

“Rick was even gracious enough to give us fair warning right at the beginning,” Gibbons says. “‘I’ve been at this a while, but it hasn’t always worked out for me,’ he said. So he was upfront and said that at anytime, if we were finding stones in the pathway, that we should be men enough to address it. I took that so sincerely, especially since I knew that Rick was a fan. In setting up such a generous, two-way street, we avoided the pitfalls that have plagued him with certain artists in the past.”

   

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on ZZ Top. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

ZZ TOP – LA FUTURA (2012): Remember how ZZ Top — a lip-smacking amalgam of blues, hard rock and Texas-born don’t-give-a-damn — sounded before they cloaked themselves in an MTV-approved sheen of synthesizers? It’s like that again. From the white-trash groove of “Heartache in Blue” to pedal-mashing boogie of “Lose Lose You,” from the slow-motion heavy-metal menace of “It’s Too Easy” to the riff and roar of “Big Shiny Nine,” ZZ Top’s forthcoming La Futura has the feel of vintage stuff, made new. The forthcoming, long-awaited Rick Rubin-helmed project is a nearly complete return to form for Billy Gibbons and Co. — the kind of record that sounds like a barroom brawl between a grease-popping guitar, an ass-whipping bass and a skull-splitting drum kit.

SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: ZZ TOP’S BILL GIBBONS, “OH WELL” (2012): Gibbons is joined by Blake Mills and Matt Sweeney for a blistering take on the Peter Green-era 1969 track “Oh Well,” ramping it up from this distorted, shivering portent into a raw, dangerous stomp. It’s an early highlight in what promises to be a fascinating 17-track tribute compilation called Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac from a group as diverse as its subject. Besides Gibbon’s update of “Oh Well,” there’s also Marianne Faithfull (“Angel”), Lykke Li (“Silver Springs”), the Crystal Ark (“Tusk”), the New Pornographers (“Think About Me”), the Kills (“Dreams”), Washed Out (“Straight Back”) and Tame Impala (“That’s All For Everyone”) offering standout takes on tracks from Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — the classic trio of Buckingham-Nicks dominated recordings.

ZZ TOP – MESCALERO (2003): “Tush” is one of those tunes that always made us reach for the volume knob. It just couldn’t be turned up too loud. The distorted blues/rock guitar, the not quite over-the-top vocals and the blistering lead guitar. Then, shortly after the dawn of MTV, somethin’ funny happened. ZZ Top just exploded. That little ‘ole band from Texas put out Eliminator, made a few videos and went on to be considered one of MTV’s pioneering artists. I basically lost track of the bearded ones, sadly figuring that they were done. As much as I try to ride it out with my old favorites, this time it seemed like that well had run dry. But then, in 2003, I saw a review for a new ZZ Top album. Steeling myself for the usual “they’re all washed up” screed, I popped open the review link to discover that, hey, Mikey liked it! So, I bought myself ZZ Top’s Mescalero. Now this is the real thing. Huge, distorted rhythm guitar, grizzled bluesy vocals, in-the-pocket drumming and snarling guitar leads.

FORGOTTEN SERIES: MOVING SIDEWALKS FEATURING ZZ TOP’S BILLY GIBBONS – FLASH (1969): Best remembered as the band that featured guitarist Billy Gibbons, who eventually reaped universal fame with ZZ Top, the Moving Sidewalks were actually a very popular local act hailing from Houston, Texas. A hot live attraction, they produced a few singles and a full-length album during their stint. Originally released on the Tantara label in 1969, Flash (reissued by Akarma Records in 2000) provides ample servings of heavy psychedelic-blues rock cuisine. The Moving Sidewalks were especially enamored with Jimi Hendrix, and such a fixation religiously invades their material. Soulful vocals, dazzling riffs, bursts of distorted feedback and patches of cosmic impressions shamelessly ape the lauded performer. The admiration was mutual, however, as Jimi publicly praised Billy, calling him his favorite new guitar player, after catching a Moving Sidewalks show.

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