Last year, Billy F. Gibbons found himself with a lot of time on his hands. Like most musicians, the sudden cancellation of touring hit the ZZ Top guitarist hard, so he was wide open to drummer Matt Sorum’s suggestion that they get together in a studio in the California High Desert near Joshua Tree National Park to kick around some ideas with guitarist Austin Hanks. The three of them had also worked on Gibbons’ 2018 album, Big Bad Blues.
“The sessions started with what we suspected would be a 30-minute have-a-look-around-the-studio, and we walked in and didn’t leave for three months,” Gibbons says.
The result is Hardware, Gibbons’ third solo album in six years. Unlike the previous two, which leaned heavily on blues and Latin music, this one is almost all original material that leans heavily toward greasy, grungy rock. “Holing up in the desert in the heat of the summer — that in itself was pretty intense,” Gibbons says. “We let off steam by letting it rock, which is what Hardware is really all about. It’s a raging rocker but always mindful of the desert’s implicit mystery.” We caught up with the good Rev. Gibbons by Zoom.
Most of the album features you, Matt Sorum and Austin Hanks. How does your collaboration work? Is everything a group effort?
Everyone is quite familiar with the backbeat from our fearless drummer, Matt Sorum. His history having played with the Cult, Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver and on down the line speaks for itself. Matt combines with Austin Hanks, who a lot of people know as the unusual left-handed guitar player. I’ve always enjoyed Austin’s guitar playing as well as his Alabama-based style of singing. When the three of us get together, it’s kind of a natural chemistry and occurrence. Which brings up another salient point: Where’s the bottom end when it’s just two guitars and drums? Let’s shed some light on the rather interesting invention that makes this possible: A Little Thunder, the strange guitar pickup that identifies the low note of a guitar and throws it an octave lower and turns it into an accompanying bass guitar sound. When Austin and I are playing this device, it’s actually not a trio but a five-piece band. We had not one but two bass guitars to the mix, so it’s a powerhouse.
Are you both playing that pickup on every track?
Indeed we are. We also added some more traditional basslines when we found an old Fender Jazz — ’64 or ’65 — in the studio and everyone had a go. The unusual one was watching Matt step out from behind the drums and slamming down on a bass guitar. It was quite a surprise.
So what guitar are you playing? I don’t imagine you put that pickup into Pearly Gates.
No, that came later. When we first arrived at the studio we only had the gear that was existing in that studio. All the backups, the known suspects, were yet to arrive, but in the corner I picked up an old Fender Jazzmaster that was leaning up against a ’61 Fender Piggyback amp and a Fender Reverb tank, something I hadn’t had the pleasure of plugging into for seemingly forever. It was in fine working shape, and after the first few notes, the engineer said, “Billy, it’s no secret that you became pals with Jimi Hendrix. Wasn’t it Jimi who said that you will never hear surf music again?” [A line from Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.”] I said, “Well, yeah, but things have turned the corner.” There you have it. When you hear the first released track, “West Coast Junkie,” it’s definitely back to the Sixties.
You’ve said the High Desert setting of the studio (Escape, outside Pioneertown and Yucca Valley) had a profound impact on the sound of this album. Can you elaborate?
We spent three months there, and that time really allowed us to immerse ourselves in the surroundings, which are fairly sparse. You really have nothing but desert rock, a lot of sand and cacti, maybe a few rattlesnakes thrown in. Then you add the mystery quotient, that strange energy that defies description in writing — and even photographs don’t do it real justice. When you’re there, something descends and it really has an effect. We found it to be quite handy to let it lead the pencil across the blank piece of paper, and every day we were finding the creative lid was being lifted and we took that as part of that desert surrounding. You’ll hear us take a stab at the description on the closing track. We wrapped up the sessions with a song called “Desert High,” which is our take on a spoken-word delivery, and we tried to tiptoe through it.
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