Billy Gibbons: Pursuit of ‘Perfectamundo’

Dean Budnick on October 30, 2015

After 46 years with ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons is finally going solo. As he explains, some of the people close to him suspected he “might be going loco” in the process.

In 2014, Gibbons received an invitation to bring a band to the Havana Jazz Festival. He soon learned that the band in question was not ZZ Top, but some to-be-determined ensemble. He had no ensemble at the ready (and so did not perform at the event), however this very offer—and the serendipity of a nearby restaurant—sparked his new Afro-Cuban infused studio album, Perfectamundo.

On Perfectamundo, Gibbons, who took lessons with Latin jazz great Tito Puente when he was only 13 years old, applied that experience to this new setting, and appeared on timbale and percussion, among many other instruments. His core group for the record also features keyboardist Martin Guigui (the one who initially fielded the offer from Havana), Hammond B3 wiz Mike Flanigin, drummer Greg Morrow, bassist Alex Garza and producer Joe Hardy. Gibbons’ friend Chino Pons and his Cubano Nationale Beat Generator percussion collective appear as well.

Gibbons’ enthusiasm for this project, and his new band, the BFG’s, will propel the group as they take the record into a live setting.

In certain respects, this current project started with Tito Puente, who taught you when you were very young. What are your recollections of that experience?

The humble beginnings started off early on when I took to banging on an upturned garbage can, much to the annoyance and disruption of the household. It came to the point where my dad, who was in the entertainment business, exiled me to Manhattan. He made arrangements for me to have a visit with Tito Puente, who really had become quite the household name in the world of Latin music. He generously offered, “Do this, don’t do that,” and it was strident, to say the least. He didn’t have time to fool around at all. I must have had enough chops because he kind of smiled and said, “OK, we’re gonna get on with this.” Not only had he mastered Latin percussion but he also really expanded the impact of the whole genre. Being the consummate professional, he was really a kind-hearted guy—always smiling. It was very informative, and learning the tricks of the trade, he knew exactly what to do and what not to do.

It’s like anything else when you’re around the master—you get to pick up a little of this and a little of that, you’re steps ahead. Fast-forward to the present, when the notion arose to bring the concept of Billy Gibbons into Afro-Cuban country. That was kind of an unexpected curiosity, shall we say. When it came time to add those elements of rhythmic percussion, those days from long ago all came back. The saying goes, “It’s like riding a long- lost bicycle—you don’t seem to forget it.”

In terms of the offer for you to appear at the Havana Jazz Festival, it sounds like it came as a bit of a surprise. Do you know the impetus?

It kind of remains a mystery, as the story goes. I received a phone call from our main man Martin Guigui, and the first question out of the box was, “I know the guys that organize the annual gathering in Havana— the big jazz festival there—and they want you to come up here.” My response was: “Well, let me check it out with Frank Beard, the man with no beard, famous drummer from ZZ Top and Dusty Hill.” And he said, “No it’s just you this time.” I paused for a moment, and I said, “How did my name get on a jazz roster? I play blues and rock.” Just having said that, I quickly added, “But don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a trip to Havana.” So that same afternoon, we already had booked some recording sessions at our studio down in Houston. I walked in and the engineer said, “Well, we’ve got everything set. What’s the direction and what do we need to know?” And I said, “Well, fellas, we’re gonna go to Cuba.”

Their immediate response was: “OK, it’s now cast in stone. Gibbons has finally lost his mind.” But just before arriving in the studio, one of the engineers had volunteered to give me a lift over to the studio. And I said, “By the way, if you don’t mind, pick me up on the backside of the hotel. I’ve spotted what appears to be a new restaurant on the other side of the courtyard.” And by the time I tiptoed over there, they saw me and said, “Come on in. We’ve seen you walking around; we were hoping you would come in. We’re a new restaurant here, it’s kind of a Latin-flavored theme—we have a lot of dishes from Cuba.” And I said, “Gee, I don’t have a lot of time.” They gave me a business card and I showed up at the studio, where they said, “Where are we going?” And I said, “Cuba.” I glanced down at the name of the restaurant and it was Spanish for salt and pepper, sal y pimienta. And they said, “OK, sounds good to us, that’s our cue.” So I took that to heart, and that became the first stab at making this statement.

Back to that fortuitous phone call and going into the restaurant—you already had the studio booked?

Yes. I just knew we had time off the touring trail, and seized the moment to rally up the engineers and fire up the studio gear. But at the moment, we had no clue if this was gonna be a ZZ Top rock record or something on the bluer side of blue. As it turned out, all of these disparate elements all aligned at the same time. It must’ve been in the stars, man. I’m kind of grateful that these unexpected elements added up.

Now, make no mistake, there was quite a bit of curiosity. As we continued to peel the onion, I called upon Chino Pons, a friend of mine from Cuba who runs a neat quartet in Manhattan. He’s very popular up in New York City, and was kind enough to pick up my phone call. I said, “Chino, we’ve been knocking on your back door. We’ve been attempting to make statements that deserve legitimizing with an unbiased listener.” And he said, “Well, believe it or not, I’m coming through Houston. I’m on my way to Miami. I’ll stop by.” We only had three tracks in the can, and he said, “Oh, yeah, Billy. This is perfect. You’ve got it, man.” What we were not expecting, though, was him to say, “I’m from Cuba, man. We can do this backwards and forwards. We can do this in our sleep. Can you give me the same kind of effect, but do a little ZZ Top and Led Zeppelin?” [Laughs.] “So instead of going Ricky Ricardo to the world, we took that as our saving grace. I said, “Well, I don’t know that we’ve done this before. But with your encouragement, we’re gonna try it.” So there are elements on there that would be appealing to the ZZ Top fan waiting for the next rock record to drop.

Have there been other situations where you’ve recorded something that hasn’t seen the light of day for one reason or another? Where you went in and said, “I’m gonna try something new today,” and the rest of us haven’t heard that yet? 

I’ve got five solo albums that have accumulated over the last five or six years. If there was any free time off the road, I would tiptoe back into the studio and lay this down or that down. And it was not nearly as dramatically different as what Perfectamundo will be offering, in that there’s a lot of great rock-and-roll music, and there’s some interesting, purist sort of blues in the mix. So yes, there’s been a generous accumulation of recorded moments, but this was the most dramatic departure from what four decades have produced, what people know. “Oh, yeah, the Bearded Boys! Mr. Bones from ZZ Top! That’s that rock and roll stuff.” So this is quite a departure, but at the same time, there’s a long, grinding guitar behind it all.

When you performed those dates with the Moving Sidewalks, did that inspire or push you to think of things in a new light? [Gibbons’ psychedelic blues-rock band, which he founded as a Texas teenager in the mid-‘60s, reunited for a couple of shows in 2013.]

Yeah, the success behind those one-off appearances set the stage for getting the nerve to go ahead and take the reins and ride with it. The Moving Sidewalks is the outfit that preceded ZZ Top. That experience was certainly the genesis for me being able to join forces with Martin Guigui on piano and Mike Flanigin, the great Hammond B3 stylist out of Austin, Texas. The ZZ Top show just made its way to La Grange, Texas. It was the first time we played in La Grange, the famous spot that launched the song. And, at the close of the evening, I hopped in a car and drove up the road. I make my way to Austin to take the stage with Mike Flanigin—who brought his Hammond B3 prowess to his first solo disc, The Drifter. He had me sing on it. He said, “We’re doing a cross- sectional thing and a few of my friends have volunteered to join me.” I said I’d be happy to step in line as well, so we did an interpretation of a song made famous by Gatemouth Brown, who did an oddball release back in the ‘70s with Roy Clark. They did a duet and one of the songs was this blues number called “The Drifter,” and that became the title of the record.

And you’re going to gig with the musicians who recorded Perfectamundo?

I have garnered Martin and Flanigin. They have been my associates on keyboards in the two appearances that we did, including an appearance with Daryl Hall on Live From Daryl’s House. And the camaraderie that bonded through those off-the-wall appearances has become the founding cornerstone of the BFG’s. You can’t argue with the power of two B3s behind you. So I’ll only front the band with their assistance. And then the question came: “Well, how do we round out this outfit?” And I said, “Well two B3s demand two drummers.” The percussion on Perfectamundo is very strident—between timbales, bongos, congas, maracas, claves… it’s a lot going on. So I’ve hired two drummers [SoZo and Melanie DiLorenzo]. And a couple of my musician buddies said, “Yeah, man, who you got? Anybody we know?” And I said, “No, I met two gals from Los Angeles that are drum-battle queens.” They can divide a time signature like nobody’s business. Believe it or not, I got lucky. They have worked together as a team, they did a residency in Las Vegas together, and they take a month at a time and swap out. So they’re very enthusiastic; they are so excited about being on this outing. And we’ll also have Alx Guitarzza [aka Alex Garza]. He’s the guy that brought the hip-hop element to the party.

Speaking of your Moving Sidewalks days, what are your recollections of Jimi Hendrix? You toured together and he singled out your guitar playing in a few interviews.

I’ve got fond recollections of glorious moments of being able to spend time with and develop a genuine friendship with this guy, who made a splash with those inventive moments in which he was doing some things with the guitar that the guitar-builders never envisioned the instrument doing. We had some really genuine moments of exchange.

This is interesting: I was heading up the Moving Sidewalks, this teen combo, and we were miraculously invited to join up with Jimi Hendrix when he toured. When we teamed up together it was the Moving Sidewalks, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt’s group out of England.

On the first night, the Moving Sidewalks didn’t have 45 minutes of material to deliver without including a couple of Jimi Hendrix songs. There was a bit of trepidation going into the first night out. I said, “Gee, what are we going to do?” And Tom Moore, the great keyboardist for the Moving Sidewalks, said, “Let’s just do them. We’ll do it a little different, and maybe he’ll like it.” [Laughs.] When we were onstage I looked over my shoulder, and there was Hendrix, checking us out. We launched into “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady,” back-to-back about halfway through, and I saw that he had a grin, ear-to-ear, he was doubled over and just digging it.

We came offstage and later that night, he barged in, he grabbed me and said, “We’re going upstairs to the dressing room.” And I said, “Am I in trouble?” And he said, “You got a lot of guts, and I dig it.” And that started it. From then on, he made sure that night-to-night I had a room across the hall from him in the hotel, and he insisted. He said, “Leave the door open; I’m leaving mine open. We’ve got things to talk about.”

Hendrix had a couple of guys on tour who would bring this record player to his room for him. It was this giant piece of furniture—one of those giant record players you’d see in somebody’s home. One night, he was playing the new Jeff Beck record and he said, “I heard you know Jeff Beck.” And I said, “Yeah, I know him.” I must have been 17, but I had met Jeff Beck earlier when the Jeff Beck Group had come through the States; we became friends. And Hendrix said, “Well, how does he do this?” And I said, “Well, you’re Jimi Hendrix, the question is reversed.” But he said, “Nah, man,” and it was fascinating to watch Hendrix sitting there, cross-legged with his Stratocaster upside down, playing Jeff Beck licks. It was crazy.