Dusty Hill Never Made Any Apologies for ZZ Top’s ’80s-Era Update
Hill, who died Tuesday in Houston at the age of 72, had dealt with some health issues over the years. He battled hepatitis C in 2000, had a hip injury after falling on the tour bus in 2014 and, two years later, dealt with a fractured shoulder and a "tummy ailment." ZZ Top tours were derailed each time, so the question was valid – and it made Hill laugh.
"Maybe they should have started that earlier," he said. "I used to laugh and say, 'Any manager or agent I've ever had certainly would have enjoyed it if they could just put me in a road case and take me out to play, but ... things change through the years." Hill added that he was once an avid motorcycle rider but stopped while touring at management's insistence.
"I never really got hurt while on a bike, though," he quipped.
Hill's death is a loss for to ZZ Top and its fans but also for the music world in general. The Dallas native, who started playing with drummer Frank Beard in bands (including a faux version of the Zombies) before meeting Billy Gibbons in Houston, was a true Texas gentleman. His understated, minimalist playing represented a similarly laid-back but good-humored personality – the latter demonstrated so frequently in ZZ Top's videos.
We're reaching back a few years in the wake of his death for some valuable insights. Hill discusses ZZ Top's rocket ride to international success with 1983's Eliminator, his early years and the band's incredible longevity in the below interview from 2018.
ZZ Top are going to hit the 50-year mark [in 2019]. Surprised?
Somewhat. I understand it's not the easiest thing in the world to keep a band together. It's difficult. With us, it hasn't really been that much, and I do appreciate the uniqueness of it. While you're doing it, you don't really think about it. It's just after you start thinking about it you go, "Oh, yeah, that's pretty cool." But I can certainly understand a lot of different reasons why bands – you know, a band's like a marriage, I guess. So, you get along; you have bumps. But it worked out for us.
What's been the secret to that?
I'd tell you if I really knew. I can guess at it: Like I said, while you're doing it, you don't think about it. You just do it. I don't know if it's because we're a three-piece and there's not so many people, that cuts it down. We're a pretty democratic group, talk things over. You've got to hit it with the fun part. We enjoy what we do. That's as close as I can come to answering the question. I always make the joke that the secret is separate tour buses. It's not really a joke. We got separate tour buses really before we could afford to do it, because we travel so much. And we're always happy to see one another when we get there – because you're not traveling together. But the main thing is we just enjoy playing together.
What do you feel is the difference between the guys who released ZZ Top's First Album in 1971 and the band now?
Difficult to say. It felt so brand new for years when we first got together, because we were still exploring each other. And then it fell into a really cool thing in being able to read each other so well onstage, which is a very comforting thing and very important. Off the stage I guess you live a little different than you did then. But I knew Frank for five years before this band, since we were really kids, so we had already established a friendship. But really in the mix, it's three different guys, but onstage makes for kind of one person. Other than outside influences it's kind of the same. The excitement is still there.
Hear ZZ Top's '[Somebody Else Been] Shaking Your Tree'
How did you become a bass player?
Well, I started singing for money when I was about eight with my brother, and by the time I was 13 my brother played guitar and we had a drummer and so my brother said, "You need to play the bass. We need a bass." Most bass players are guitar players first. I wasn't. I was a singer and I came home from school and there was a bass guitar there and I played a bar that night. It wasn't very good, but I kind of learned how to play onstage and whatnot – and embarrassment is a great motivator. If you don't play well, standing up there with lights on, it really stands out. So, it behooves you to get your shit up pretty quick.
Could you have imagined where ZZ Top would go musically, from the blues to the high-tech approach on Eliminator, Afterburner and Recycler?
No. I didn't have a clue. Billy had different bands before; I had different bands, a lot of different bands. I played in different bands with Frank. I had no real reason to think this would be that much different. My brother was pretty hot guitar player, so I played with really good guitar players. I played with Freddie King and things like that. But I had no idea until we played together and that was almost spooky. That first song we played together just seemed so natural, and we were just looking to work.
Then we got the record deal and we did the first album – and the rest is history. We were so busy putting product out, recordings, and constantly touring. I would've thought towards the future, but I was really thinking just about the work. It kind of snuck up on me. I remember they wanted us to come to New York – we were on London Records – and pick up these gold records that we'd acquired. We hadn't even got them because we were so busy, so we went up there and they laid them all out in front of us, and I'm like, "Jeez, man, we're doing good!" It was kind of a shock to see a physical statement of what we'd been doing. I might have thought something then, but I've never thought this long or anything, about the success.
Even though you've done some really interesting things in the studio, ZZ Top's natural habitat has always been onstage, right?
That's right. When I'm off the road too long, I start bugging all my friends. I gotta find somebody to play for. I've done it all my life, so, yeah, playing live for me is the essence of what we do. I love recording and I love everything like that – videos, everything like that – but playing live is what does it for me.
Watch ZZ Top Perform 'Heard It on the X'
The first big hit was "Tush." Was that a surprise?
Well, you never know how these things hit. When we wrote "Tush," we did it at a sound check. We recorded our sound checks, and Billy just started playing it and I just started singing it and very, very little was changed before we recorded it. That's the way it came out. We've been trying to do that again ever since, and it hasn't really worked. There's just different times different things happen. It's just trying to be creative in the studio and in the writing process. It's always been there, and it just really came to fruition for Eliminator and Afterburner.
Eliminator was a big departure point and a huge album for you. What are your thoughts about that album now?
That was a big change for us. We've had, in a way, a few careers. We started out, just toured, toured, toured and were in the studio when we weren't touring, and the first two albums – right around Tres Hombres or something – was kind of a mark. We enjoyed doing that so much. Then we took a little bit of time before Eliminator, and we wrote that and when we did it was different. And then, of course, the videos and all that stuff came at the same time, and it was a big change for us. And we got crap about that from some people. Some of our early fans didn't like the change, but they got used to it. There were a lot of things that happened with Eliminator. Eliminator and Afterburner are kind of an extension of the same record. It's almost a two-parter.
As your music changed, were you ever apprehensive from a creative standpoint?
No. From a creative standpoint – look, we didn't really know what we were doing. That is always exciting for us. New technology, new instruments or something, it's exciting. That's all we were doing, playing around with stuff in the studio and while we were writing the record. We don't really tailor our stuff. We don't know how to. We just write what we write. It was time, creatively, to make a marked change. I hope every album was changed somewhat – more subtle, I guess, but Eliminator was a big step. It was exciting. Some people were like, "What are you doing? You're abandoning your roots, or your sound," this and that, which was not true at all. We were just extending it, trying to be more creative – and anytime you can be more creative, it's gonna be exciting.
You mention the videos. Were they as much fun to make as they were to watch?
Oh, absolutely more fun than they probably were to watch. Once again, we didn't know what we were doing, so we depended heavily on the director about what we would shoot or ideas. For instance, on ["Gimme All Your Lovin'"] we set out to have a little creative talk about what we were doing to do. We had the car, so we thought, "Let's use it." The car wasn't built for the video. It was just a hobby, and the girls were a hobby. We wanted to have fun, so we just surrounded ourselves with things that we write about, and that we sung about. We were more observers in the video. A little performing but mainly let the story play out, and that's how it worked out. We just sort of played around on the set.
They were all fun. It was hard to call that work. It was different for us, because we hadn't had much experience with filming and sitting around waiting for set-ups were foreign to us. We're used to "press play and let's go." But we got used to it and enjoyed it. We had to do "Legs" twice; something back at the process or the lab screwed it up after we filmed it once, and we got the call to come back and do it again, and we were happy as hell to do that.
Watch ZZ Top's 'Gimme All Your Lovin" Video
None of the women in the videos have any #MeToo stories about you, do they?
I hope not. It's not a #MeToo story necessarily, but when we filmed "Gimme All Your Lovin'," it was outside of L.A. kind of in the desert part, but the three main girls were there, and one of them – she was from Europe and was really, really sweet; just a nice wholesome girl – got pulled over by the cops when she was driving back [from the set] late one night. I think they thought she was a hooker, 'cause of the way they were dressed [for the video], and she took offense to that. But that wasn't us.
You've had two [then-recent] incidents, with your shoulder and your hip, that have put you on the sidelines. Should we be worried about you?
I hate to be damaged. I guess everybody does. It was a real drag. I really hated to have to cancel shows. We've played in hurricanes and all sorts of things. We go ahead and do the show, if at all possible – but if it can't be done, it can't be done. It's not a good feeling. As much as the pain and suffering of the injury, the anguish of not being able to play was at least that bad. After the hip [replacement], there was some talk about sitting on a stool, but I've never sat down. I don't play jazz; I don't sit down and play. I feel most comfortable when I can move around.
How does ZZ Top go about planning for the future?
We're always talking about doing different things. Sometimes we talk about them a lot, and after awhile they get done – or don't. I don't know if there's a normal way of doing things in rock 'n' roll or not, but we do things a little differently than other bands. We do our thing in the studio without any assistance or interruption from record companies or anyone else, and we record and we turn it in and there it is. We're not so stubborn that we don't listen to people's advice, but not when it comes to the music. That's all ours.
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