‘He Will Lie About Anything': Producer Joe Hardy’s Wild Ride With ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons
Producer and engineer Joe Hardy has a history of working with Billy Gibbons that began with ZZ Top's Eliminator and has continued through the guitarist's new solo record, The Big Bad Blues, on which Hardy also plays bass. We spoke with Hardy recently to get some insight into Gibbons' creative process.
Can you take us back for a moment to what the vibe of the Perfectamundo sessions was like and the kind of discussions you’re having with Billy as you guys get ready to make that record?
That was a nutty record. It’s just a party -- it’s not songwriter material. It’s, “Let’s take a couple of shots of tequila, dance and then fuck." That’s the whole point of all of it. It’s not to make you think, it’s to make you feel good. It was guesswork from the start. What we do, we amuse ourselves. And if you liked it, great. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. We don’t really care. It’s not meant to be. We just go in and start. ... So anyway, we just enjoyed going in with absolutely nothing. There’s a blank screen and then we make something. It’s really satisfying. That record, Perfectamundo, was just a blast to make. Because it was so different for both of us.
Here’s one thing I can tell you that is absolutely true and that he will approve if I say this: He will lie about anything. Our saying is that he would rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth. ... He says that he studied with Tito Puente. Billy’s dad was a musician. He did more big band and orchestra stuff, had a B-3 at home, I mean a real B-3. And a piano and I think he did The Dean Martin Show, you know, stuff like that back then that we think is cheesy now. Although I thought it was cheesy at the time and now, I guess I think Dean Martin was one of the coolest guys ever. So anyway, he’s always been interested in Latin music. It just seemed like a bizarre direction to go in. It would have been not quite redundant, but a little bit, if we had just decided to do a blues record then. It wouldn’t have set his solo career very much apart. We have stuff in the can and I don’t if it will ever see the light of the day, but is true, actually, electronica dance music and some of it, I think is just great. But you know, it’s how far can you stray from what people perceive to be your roots?
Listen to Billy Gibbons' 'Rollin; and Tumblin''
I love the new record. You could easily see that the label could come to somebody like Billy and say, “Here’s a big check, give us a record of blues covers.” I love the way this album instead, mixes covers and Billy’s originals so expertly. It really flows well as a record.
Well, good, I’m glad to hear it. I mean, Billy is encyclopedic in his knowledge of especially blues music. I mean, he can talk for two hours and I’ve heard him do it before. Two hours without an "Uh" or a "Hmmm" or an anything. It just sounds like he’s reading from an encyclopedia entry, but he’s not. That’s just what’s in his brain. We both are especially big fans of Bo Diddley. That’s our main go-to. But it’s hard, because he’s done so much stuff. I mean, he’s been covered so many times. George Thorogood kind of made a career out of doing that sort of stuff. And you know, you want to get obscure enough that it hadn’t been covered to death, but not so obscure that people don’t recognize who the original artist was.
Billy Gibbons is not somebody who necessarily needs a producer, but he’s a guy who has made a lot of records and clearly recognizes the benefit of having one. From your perspective, what does he want from you in that role?
Obviously, the technical side of things. I know how he wants his guitar to sound. Although, it’s really, man, it’s in his hands, more than anybody I’ve ever known. He just has a way that he plays that it could be any guitar and any amp and I would immediately know it was him. But it’s always easier, you know, we go in there, just the two of us and it’s easier to have somebody to bounce stuff off of. He writes the lyrics to stuff, but he might ask me, “Should I use ‘carburetor’ or ‘instigator.’” You know, just simple things like that. He also -- and he knows this -- he can be lazy. “That solo is good enough.” “Man, you went sharp on that note in the second bar of the middle solo.” I tell him stuff like that and then he knows that he did. He can hear it just as well as I can, he’s just wanting to move onto something else. So I’m more of a taskmaster sometimes.
I love that you said that about his sound too, because you’re so right. That was one of the things that I got listening to this record immediately, there’s that classic guitar tone that you’ve heard on so many ZZ Top records. It’s just right there.
It’s weird. But we all grew up listening to Les Pauls through Marshalls and that’s just what we think is a good sound. You know, unless you’re into Dire Straits or something, and then you like Strats. But that’s just the classic Jimmy Page era, [Eric] Clapton, Yardbirds kind of thing. The only guitar player that I think is as good as he is right now, is Jeff Beck, who is just a phenomenal player. And he and Billy are friends and have very different styles. I’ve heard him do a blues shootout before and Gibbons killed him, but Beck is really, really good too. And he has a very distinctive tone. You know, he’s playing a Strat, but it’s a very distinctive tone.
I want to throw some songs at you and just kind of get your thoughts. The first one is one that just jumped at me right away and that was “Second Line.”
Yeah, I love that song. The Faces used to do this all of the time: It’s kind of swung and it’s kind of not. It’s somewhere in between, and it takes kind of a muso to get that feel, because it’s not a shuffle, but it’s not really straight 4/4. It’s a New Orleans-sounding thing. From Houston, pretty much to New Orleans, that’s just this crescent of weirdness and a lot of music has come from all of these places on the coast, all of the way to New Orleans, so we’re both influenced by New Orleans and I don’t even know what you’d call it.
What about “Let the Left Hand Know”?
I think he wrote the lyrics for that in like 10 minutes. He doesn’t slave over stuff like that, like, he’s not the tortured artist type at all -- whatever the opposite of that would be.
Another original that comes later in the record is “Hollywood 151.”
[Laughs] I don’t think he wanted to put that on there, and I didn’t get the title at first. Because his sense of logic is not the same as a normal person’s sense of logic. First of all, he loves the word “Hollywood.” He loves it. Because he’s a ‘50s fan. And he just thinks that Hollywood was the shit in the ‘50s. The “151” comes from Bacardi and he just thought it sounded cool together.
One thing I saw was Billy talking about how he was just knockin’ around in the studio and you had the tape rolling. It doesn’t seem like it would be that casual.
He’ll say, “Hey, give me a vocal track” and I’ll go, “What tempo and in what key?” “Ah, just give me a vocal track, I’ll go sing something.” And that’s what he’ll do. And then later, we have to do some surgery to get it in good time. Although his sense of timing is really good too. So I can usually find a tempo that fits and he really does sing in tune well. He did a lyric video for the first single, “Missin’ Yo Kissin’,” and there was this guy who had written, “I don’t know why anyone would put Autotune on Billy’s voice or run it through” -- he used some term that didn’t make any sense, “distorted audio synthesizer” or something. Well, we don’t Autotune him. I mean, there are places we’ve done it as an effect, like purposefully, really crazy, “Cher.” We call it “Cher,” because she did kind of the first one of those things. I don’t run him through a distortion thing, that’s what he sounds like. And if you look at him in a tuning program ... one of the reasons that we don’t use Autotune, is when he sings an E, he has so many harmonics in his voice, the computer thinks it’s a B. It can’t figure out what the hell he’s singing. You know, because there are so many overtones in his voice. You know, he’s pushing 70. I think he sings better now than he did when he was 30 or 40 or 50.
Listen to Billy Gibbons' 'Second Line'
You play yourself, so what was the experience for you, playing with Billy?
We record a lot of stuff, even if we’re not going to use it, as reference, because it’s so easy to forget a guitar lick. One good thing about owning your own studio, there’s nothing to set up. If he wants a guitar track, all I have to do is turn on the amp and then we’re done. The vocal level is set. Or the drums are set. But usually, what we do is we overdub drums. We’ll play to an actual drumbeat, but it’s something really simple. You know, no fills or anything fancy, just a fancy click track, basically. We play to that and then we overdub drums later. On this record, it was Greg Morrow, who is in Detroit now. He’s doing [Bob] Seger’s last tour. Greg has played on a lot of stuff and really knows -- he lives outside of Nashville and has his own studio. We trust him enough that we just send the stuff up there and he plays on it and sends it back. That’s it. And then I won’t play in front of anybody. Then he might want to change a few things and that’s fine too. And then he plays bass on a lot of stuff too. He doesn’t credit himself, but he does.
Tell me your favorite story from working in the studio with Billy, just generally, from across the years.
There’s so many, but one comes to mind. On Perfectamundo, we had this guy, he’s a hustler. He has a guitar store, but it’s like, he’ll sell jewelry or old china, anything. But he would come in and do the raps for us. So he comes in one day to do a rap on Perfectamundo. It’s not real long, but it might have been a 32-bar rap, fairly long for that. So he writes this rap and goes out and does it. Billy says, “Man, I don’t know. Could you try it once without vowels?” The guy just looked like, “What the hell are you … ” So he tries to do it without vowels and it’s just crazy. He would say crazy stuff like, “Can you do it, but think of penguins.” Just irrational non sequiturs. This goes on for like six or seven hours. At the end of it, I have, like, 120 takes. Billy says, “Okay, let’s wrap it up, I’m tired. I want to go have a drink, something to eat.” I said, “Well, Billy, we’ve got like 120 tracks to go through, to figure out which one we’re going to use. He goes, “Oh, the first one was fine.” He was just having a good time. He wanted to be in the studio and hang out with everybody and that’s what we did. So it’s just crazy stuff like that.
What’s the difference, working with Billy vs. working with all of ZZ Top?
Billy and I have a really close relationship. I have, I think, a good relationship with Dusty [Hill]. Frank [Beard] is something of a mystery to me. So it’s different with the band, because they have their own internal dynamic. I mean, it isn’t like they’re the Eagles and they hate each other, but they’ve been together for a long time. They’ve pretty much told all of the stories there are to tell. And Billy has quite a few different interests. Frank likes to play golf. Well, golf is just something foreign to most of us, Dusty, Billy and I, it’s real foreign. So it is different with the band. I would say it’s more fun to work with just Billy, but it’s more satisfying to work with the whole band, because you kind of hear everything at once instead of layering it. Big Nashville sessions are fun, because you might have a piano player, a B-3 player, two acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, steel guitar, all of these people and the song is done. Except for the vocal, it’s finished. Where we’ll take a week to 10 days a song, because you kind of don’t know where the drums are going to go yet or what they’re going to play or what Greg’s going to come up with. So we do a lot of revisions, because we don’t know what’s going to be there. When the band plays, that’s what’s going to be there. So it’s kind of easier.