ZZ Top headlines the all-star Gang of Outlaws tour. The little old blues-rocking band from Texas shares the bill with country star Gretchen Wilson and 3 Doors Down, the multi-million-selling modern Southern rock band from Escatawpa, Miss.
The other big news from ZZ Top is the band’s forthcoming album, its first since 2003’s Mescalero.
ZZ Top, aka Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, are co-producing the album with Rick Rubin. A hip-hop pioneer, Rubin produced breakthrough albums for Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys in the ’80s. In the ’90s, he guided Johnny Cash’s comeback albums as well as recordings by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty.
Four songs from the new ZZ Top album, under the collective title Texicali, were released through iTunes and other digital outlets June 4. ZZ Top, formed in 1970 in Houston, has been releasing recordings since the vinyl days of 45s and LPs, all through the CD era and now in the digital age.
It’s the music, though, not the method of delivery, that matters most to Gibbons.
“We’re in the music-making business, not the platform-specific music-making business,” he said recently. “Vinyl, wax cylinders, shellac, 8-track, CD, iPod, cranial implants … it’s just a means to an end, and the end is to let it rock loud and hard.”
Malt beverage company Jeremiah Weed is using one of the new ZZ Top songs, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” in a commercial that recalls the ZZ Top music videos that permeated MTV in the ’80s.
The Jeremiah Weed spot features unsuspecting convenience store customers who are shocked and amazed when they see ZZ Top rocking out in the store’s walk-in beer cooler.
“They’re real people,” Billy Gibbons said of the commercial’s co-stars. “No scripting! I mean, they knew something out of kilter was going on, but not quite what, yet they had as good a time as we did.”
Evidence of how much fun he and his bandmates of 42 years had during the shoot, Gibbons said, is all over singer-bassist Dusty Hill’s face.
“Did you see that massive smile on The Dust?” he asked. “And Frank, for once, couldn’t complain about it being too hot behind the kit!”
Music videos for ZZ Top’s “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimmie All Your Lovin’,” all songs from 1983’s Eliminator album, helped the already successful ZZ Top become even more popular. A similar dynamic is at work with “I Gotsta Get Paid” and the Jeremiah Weed commercial.
“It kind of works like the old MTV days, but when you’re cruising YouTube there’s a whole lot more to look at,” Gibbons reflected. “But we’re happy that a lot of people joined us in the walk-in cooler. We hope more come by as things progress.”
Gibbons’ best guess for the release date for ZZ Top’s latest full-length album is early fall. Production began more than three years ago.
“We had a lot of starts and stops, what with our intensive touring schedule, but Rick kept things on track over the long haul,” he said.
Rubin and the band have been friends for 25 years, but this is their first studio project together.
“Whenever we’re home in L.A., we inevitably spend time with Rick,” Gibbons said. “Then we more or less codified it with his participation in the album.”
Beyond being friends, Gibbons admires Rubin’s work with other artists.
“The Cash stuff is brilliant,” he said. “Rick took a force-of-nature kind of talent and showcased him for people who might otherwise have taken him for granted or just ignored him. We like his Slayer, Slipknot and Metallica stuff, too. As the Beasties might say, ‘He’s on it!’ ”
Rubin and ZZ Top have a shared vision, Gibbons added.
“We all want the same thing: a big sound with a modicum of mind-bending distortion and a heaping helping of soul. It’s been an exciting voyage. As you can see, he didn’t rush us through the process, so there’s a comfort level with him that I’m not sure we’d have with anybody else.”
The album is essentially complete, Gibbons added, “but we have too much for one album, so the pruning process is under way. We’re happy with all of the tracks but the question is: ‘Which are we the most happy with?’ Tough to answer.”
In their 42nd year of riding the ZZ Top train, Gibbons, Hill and Beard probably hold the record for a rock-star band keeping its original members for the longest time.
“We like what we do and can’t think of a reason not to do it,” Gibbons said.
“We could break up, I suppose, but we’d only get right back together. If you want to think of this and every tour as a reunion tour, go right ahead. We just eliminated the breakup part to save time.”
Through the decades, too, ZZ Top’s unmistakable sound stays locked in its blues-bottomed pocket.
“Dusty and Frank honed that rock-solid rhythm section to perfection backing Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Gibbons explained. “So, once we joined forces, we were off and running. Of course, over the years there have been some variations and additions —─horns, harmonicas, electronica — but the blues is the root of it. You just can’t lose with the blues.”