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In the Spotlight with Billy Gibbons

Blain Clausen (Courtesy of Bob Merlis)

Amid a treacherous public health crisis gripping the world over, a hush fell over the music community. Darkened venues that once burst with artistic vigor and the sounds of giddy fans now echoed only the silence brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As it appeared, the standstill had reached all corners of the world-- that is, all except the heart of the Mojave Desert, where a ruckus arose from the land associated with desolation long before the pandemic. Huddled inside the aptly-named Escape Studio near California’s Joshua Tree, Billy Gibbons found salvation from both the deadly virus and the dry spell unleashed upon the music industry.

“Well,” Gibbons declares, “the constant absence from the touring trail evaporated rather abruptly following Matt Sorum’s connection suggesting we make way to the desert to get down to making LOUD noise. The notion of an escape into the surrounds of the recording studio felt like a welcomed respite and onward into the desert unknown.”

Venturing into the realm of Escape Studio would lead to the reunion of Gibbons, known best as one of the bearded front men and founders of ZZ Top, with drummer Sorum, previously of Guns ‘N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, and the Cult, as well as guitarist Austin Hanks, and result in Gibbons’ third solo effort and the group’s second collaboration, Hardware, slated for a June 4th release.

The gravelly-voiced Gibbons recounts, “Our ‘BFG Three [group comprised of Gibbons, Sorum, and fellow musician, Mike Flanigin] made way to this studio which Matt described as being ‘across the freeway,’ yet the mention was somehow slightly overlooked, being it was across twenty miles of sand, boulders, cacti, and a wealth of rattler snakes. Upon arrival and entering the control room which, mind you, was simply to take in a brief ‘look/see,’ we figured we’d find out what was shaking and, pleased with what we heard, we decided to extend our thirty-minute stay..for three months!”

As Gibbons admits, the atmosphere assumed a prominent role throughout the record itself, having influenced the creative process to a large degree.

“That’s just it exactly,” he echoes. “We were in the middle of the Mojave Desert, far removed from so-called ‘civilization.’ In those particular surroundings, it tended to set the mind wandering. Some odd, unexpected creative moments sparked up spontaneously and we embraced the energy to delve into areas we hadn’t heretofore explored. The experience got wide on many levels.”

From start to finish, Hardware leads listeners through the auditory journey described by Gibbons as “raging,” “intense,” and newly-treaded creative ground. As the record opens, audiences are thrust into the roaring first track, “My Lucky Card,” demonstrating the raw and wild energy signature to Gibbons’ vocals, instrumentation, and image. Each of the album’s twelve tracks offers its own unique style and sound, such as the country-tinged ballad, “Vagabond Man,” the exotic Spanish-style “Spanish Fly,” and the ‘60s surf-rock inspired, “West Coast Junkie.” Weaved throughout, songs like “More-More-More” and “S-G-L-M-B-B-R” invoke elements of the hard Southern rock that has remained inextricable with ZZ Top’s sound for over five decades.

With all but one track, “Hey Baby, Que Paso,” originally-penned, Hardware contrasts with Gibbons’ previous cover-based solo efforts in more ways than one.

“It was twisted in an energetic manner,” the artist compares his collaborative approach with Sorum and Hanks to their work on The Big Bad Blues, Gibbons’ 2018 solo release. “The compositions just unfolded in a super-skinny, bare bones form and then we began zeroing in while wandering down the unmarked road of arrangement. Our private outfit was quite the opposite of being tortured with a single musical genre. The sonic stretch was a ferociously lilting and liberating experience.”

Given the album’s broad scope and wildly diverse repertoire, even Gibbons himself admits to having a hard time selecting one track to best represent the essence of Hardware, though he underscores the first single, “West Coast Junkie,” as a contender.

“It’s about one’s appreciation for the California terrain, way of life, and experience,” he drills down to the core of the song. “On that initial outing, we discovered a distinctively surf-sounding guitar tone — a long lost California’s coast thing — although smack dab in a dry, desert setting. Seems counterintuitive, but out there is a land of contradictions and it’s also somewhat autobiographical: ‘I’m a West Coast junkie from a Texas town... And when I get to Cali it’s goin' down.’ ‘Junkie’ in this context has nothing to do with hard drugs, but rather, a hankering, a ‘jones,’ if you will, for leaning back to that West Coast experience.”

Perhaps most striking of all the tracks, however, remains the album clincher, “Desert High”. In the entrancing, spoken-word piece accompanied by guitar, listeners’ journeys come full circle as they are transported back to the barren, dusty landscape where Hardware was materialized. The piece, in its simplest terms, refers back to the legend of musician Graham Parsons, whose 1973 passing in the Joshua Tree area remains an enigma of sorts to this day. Through the imagery, however, Gibbons reinforces the very message that he hopes to convey to fans through Hardware.

“The immediate takeaway,” he says, “is aimed toward instilling a good time wherever, coupled with a sense of desolate mystery and intrigue.”

Over the years, that sense of mystery and intrigue has proven innate to Gibbons, who has sustained a career as a songwriter and musician in one of the most successful bands in music history. With a following that has failed to falter since the inception of ZZ Top in 1969, Gibbons’ fanbase has grown exponentially, quite possibly on account of his enigmatic and captivating qualities as an artist. This continues to be the case for Gibbons as he continues to develop artistically through both his solo endeavors and his work with ZZ Top.

Much to his delight, the rocker confirms that a tour in support of Hardware may be in the works, and that much more can be anticipated in the way of upcoming musical partnerships.

“While working on Hardware with Matt on skins and Austin Hanks astride his upside-down guitar,” he says, “our pals Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, the infamous ZZ Top rhythm section, were getting into high gear way back in Texas. The idea of reconnection across the board puts the parts and pieces of freshly minted mindshares for both stage and studio into motion, while taking advantage of the conjunction of the new turns found in the groove within Hardware. It’s a non-stop thrash-a-thon!”

Credits: Billy Gibbons, Bob Merlis

© Veronika Tacheva, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

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