At the band’s first U.S. show after a six-week tour of Europe, ZZ Top guitarist/singer Billy Gibbons didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that the group was about to present the North American premiere of its new single.
Gibbons alerted the 1,400 fans at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield, Calif., to the newness of “I Gotsta Get Paid,” a hybrid created from late-’90s Houston hip-hop and early-’60s Houston blues, squeezing it into a set that ripples from the ’70s (“Tush”) to the ’80s (“Legs”) to the ’90s (“Pincushion”).
The song had only been performed previously in Oslo, Copenhagen and St. Julien, France. “I figured, if we’re going to unveil this and we’re searching for the guinea pigs [to test the single], let’s do it where they speak English as well as us, and kind of understand what we’re doing,” Gibbons recalls, sitting in his Hollywood Hills home prior to setting out on a nine-date Pacific Coast run.
“I Gotsta Get Paid” is the leadoff track on ZZ Top’s “Texicali” EP, released in June, and the group’s new Rick Rubin-produced “La Futura”, the first release from Rubin since he moved his American Recordings to Universal Music Group. In May, the track became the soundtrack for Jeremiah Weed, a whiskey maker entering the malt beverage marketplace. (Gibbons is already the face of Pura Vida Tequila.) Jeremiah Weed executives had asked ZZ Top for a new song, and selected the track from a collection of recordings the band had begun for Rubin.
Besides a cover of Dave Rawlings’ “It’s Too Easy,” which became a raw, effectual dirge after the group spent days just learning the complex tune, the 10 songs that made it onto “La Futura” have their roots in two weeks of jam sessions at the Shangri-La Studio in Burbank, Calif., playing tracks the band hadn’t quite learned, many of them from the songbooks of Jimmy Reed and the Rolling Stones. “Have a Little Mercy,” to be specific, began as a rearrangement of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”
“We did a couple weeks of jam sessions that allowed [Rubin] to observe us in a working environment,” Gibbons says, his speech slow and sure, his memory impeccable as evidenced by his remembering that he first met Rubin at an amusement park 35 years ago.
Those jam sessions were in 2008, when considerable hoopla was made about Rubin, fresh off a Grammy Award win as producer of the year and still a top creative executive at Columbia Records, signing ZZ Top. Road warriors to the max, the band members had to cut the sessions short for an extensive tour, and Rubin was against long-distance sessions.
“Fast forward two-and-a-half years to 2010,” Gibbons says. “We had carved out a substantial window of non-performance time. Rick, who had kept up exchanges by way of emails, had become somewhat reclusive out in Malibu. Now he’s not talking to many people. We met one night at a cute Italian place right on the water in Santa Monica that resulted in taking a walk to the Santa Monica Pier. Over the next two hours, he did this mental design of a working manner to take advantage of this dedicated window that we had offered to him.”
The band locked itself away in Shangri-La for 30 days, finessing things until Rubin suggested the group take a break. A week later he asked the act to go to Houston and return with 20 songs. Rubin’s words to the band, Gibbons recalls, were, “By me staying at a distance, you guys will have the freedom to stay ZZ Top. I’m not here to rewire ZZ Top.”
The group created about 22 songs from the original jam session tapes. Presenting Rubin with 20 tracks as he had requested, it was assumed the producer would release half of what was submitted. Though Rubin was pleased with the material, he asked the group to rerecord the songs. He would repeat that request four more times.
The result, beyond “Flyin’ High,” the track that went into orbit in 2011 on astronaut Mike Fossum’s iPod, is an album that harks back to such ’70s work as “Tres Hombres”, which peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s top albums chart in 1973. ZZ Top will start a tour in support of the album on Sept. 7 in Scarborough, Maine; play New York’s Beacon Theatre the day after “La Futura” arrives; and spend October in the Midwest and South. RockBeat Records is piggybacking on the new set, releasing on Sept. 25 a two-CD collection of Gibbons’ recordings with his band that preceded ZZ Top, the Moving Sidewalks.
“There’s a lot of unexpected ’70s presence in so much of the stuff,” Gibbons says of “La Futura”. “Again, I’m crediting Rick. He said, ‘I’m going to invite you guys to perform as three guys in the same room at the same time.'”
In a way it’s Rubin reinforcing a statement Gibbons made onstage in Bakersfield, and probably repeats at most concert venues: “Forty years together. Same three guys. Same three chords.”