How the California Desert Shaped Billy Gibbons’ ‘Hardware’ Album
Billy F. Gibbons has been one-third of one of the most famous power trios in rock history for more than half a century. ZZ Top possess a special kind of chemistry, a type of lightning that rarely strikes twice.
But you can still see the scorched earth smoldering from the initial meeting that brought Gibbons together with drummer Matt Sorum (who's played with the Cult, Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver) and guitarist Austin Hanks (whom Gibbons refers to as "the mystery man"). The roots of this new power trio began to take shape on Gibbons' 2018 solo album, The Big Bad Blues, where Sorum sat in for sessions and Hanks rounded out the stage band.
“He’s about as eccentric of a man as you’ll ever meet, in a really beautiful way,” Sorum tells UCR. “There’s a song on the [new] album called 'Vagabond Man' that I cowrote, and that’s lyrically kind of how I felt about him. He’s a true gypsy. He’s a true vagabond. He’s a traveling minstrel. He was born to do this. There’s certain people in rock 'n' roll that are just those types of people.”
The gypsy spirit runs throughout Hardware, Gibbons' just-released third solo album, which relentlessly explores rock 'n' roll's nooks and crannies. Gibbons, Sorum and Hanks don't stay in one place; instead they they kept things free-form, listening to the individual muses that were in the air at any given moment and then following them.
The trio set up in the California desert to work without interruption on the songs that form the new album. Those surroundings clearly played an important part. “You’re surrounded with a lot of sand, rocks and cactus - maybe a few rattlesnakes thrown in for good measure," Gibbons laughs. “But that was really the environment that served as a very creative outlet to make some loud noise.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to a destination and make a record and live in a place. We lived up in Pioneertown on a ranch called Escape with about 140 acres," Sorum notes. "That was something I always loved when I looked at bands like Led Zeppelin and the [Rolling] Stones. They’d rent a castle or go down to the South of France. I always liked the imagery of the Stones in Joshua Tree with Gram Parsons and Keith Richards. The desert has a real creative feel to it. We went up there and we lived together. We’d wake up every morning, and Billy would make Mexican breakfast.”
The setting also offered a casual working vibe to the proceedings. “We’d go in the studio and cut tracks and work a bit, get enchiladas and keep working," Sorum explains. "There was no outside pressure, where you had to be somewhere or go to another appointment. The cell reception was shit, so no one could call us. It was great. We just had the best time, and we made good use of the downtime in the pandemic. I think we made a really good record out of it. It felt really good.”
Gibbons adds that they allowed for an occasional field trip, including one moment that yielded the shuffling rocker “She’s on Fire.” “We found a great Mexican restaurant," he says. "There was a young lady ... she was the cook, the owner, the bookkeeper - she was the everything. We felt so much for what was taking place inside there that we wound up piling in the hot rod and headed back in.”
When they returned to the restaurant for that second visit, after a month spent sequestered in the studio, they found a different scene. “We tiptoed through the front door, and the place was on fire,” Gibbons chuckles. “She came running around the corner smiling and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to have this under control here momentarily. I’m not burning up the breakfast.’ But not only did we have some fine Mexican cuisine, we left with a song title."
Listen to Billy Gibbons' 'She's on Fire'
Some tracks on Hardware can be easily decoded, but in others, like the cryptic “S-G-L-M-B-B-R," Gibbons invites fans to take the journey and figure it out for themselves. “When Eric Clapton joined Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form the illustrious trio called Cream, they had a song that had a similar acronym,” he notes. “I’ll let the listeners try and piece together the phraseology within those letters. It took me a while to take a stab at Cream. I’ll leave it at that.”
References to Parsons, Richards and Jim Morrison waft through the desert air and land in the spoken-word passages of the album-closing “Desert High,” a psychedelic meditation that recalls the Doors at their most mystical. Gibbons also recalls an early encounter with Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who died at Joshua Tree National Park in 1973 at age 26. “I had heard about the announcement of a live show," he says. "I was so fascinated that I immediately made my way down to the venue. I wanted to get a beat on whether or not this was going to happen.
“I pulled up and there was an ancient tour bus parked in front of the venue. I’m standing on the sidewalk admiring this bus, and I got to talking to this guy. We weren’t talking about guitars or music, we were talking about this crazy tour bus. Little did I know I was speaking with Gram Parsons! After about 30 minutes, we had circled this bus, kind of pointing out this and that and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ll come back here in a minute. I’ve got to warm up.’ I said, ‘Oh, are you the driver?’ He goes, ‘Oh, no, I’m in the band. I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Gram.’"
Watch Billy Gibbons' 'Desert High' Video
These tales run throughout Hardware's dozen songs. It's part of the evolving chapter of Gibbons’ solo career that has so far touched on Cuban music (2015's Perfectamundo) and the blues (The Big Bad Blues). It's not stretching the imagination too much to maybe see country represented somewhere down the road.
He notes that Mike Fiorentino and Chad Shlosser, the two engineers who worked on Hardware, have a “deep background” in Nashville. ”Turning the tide and leaning toward country might be another move,” he admits. “I wouldn’t be mad at it. ... We go back to that golden era from the mid-’50s - we could play just about anything that we could write. Our aim would be the incorporation of a pedal-steel man. Anytime we can get close to a guy with talents stomping on the foot pedals, that really brings it home.”
For the moment, Gibbons is splitting his attention between the solo record and his other band. ZZ Top are scheduled to play their first post-COVID shows this summer, starting with a June 23 date in El Paso.
"We’re standing in the shadows alongside everybody else we know, waiting to see the curtain rise,” he says. “I’ve got the feeling that things are thawing out. And nothing could please us more than to crank it up and make a bunch of loud noise with you.”