Interview: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach
Mississippi Fred McDowell’s haunted, woody voice sails through the air as the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach nurses a cup of coffee and flips through a vintage lunchbox-sized valise designed for carrying 45 rpm records.
“Lord, when you get home baby,” the late bluesman cries as his slide guitar cuts a zigzagging melody, “won’t you write me a few of your lines.”
“Found it!” Auerbach exults as McDowell keeps spinning on the well-used turntable at his Nashville home base, Easy Eye Studio. He pulls an orange-labeled single out of the case and shows it to Billy Gibbons, who’s sitting next to Auerbach on the worn office sofa, sipping a Diet Coke.
“The first ZZ Top record, on Scat. I want to have you sign it,” he says.
“Sure,” Gibbons says, examining the flashback from his—and the music industry’s—past.
“Cool,” Auerbach replies. “Which was the A-side: ‘Miller’s Farm’ or ‘Salt Lick’?”
“It was ‘Salt Lick,’ ” Gibbons says in his laconic twang.
It’s a classic moment: Gibbons, the godfather of Texas-style blues rock putting his signature on a treasured disc belonging to Auerbach, a ZZ Top devotee and today’s most prominent practitioner of blues-influenced garage rock. Separately, the men represent two badass pinnacles of rock and roll, demonstrating through their music, guitar work and choice of instruments how the blues has influenced—and continues to shape—music, well into the 21st century. Together, Gibbons and Auerbach are a blues summit—a pair of experts who can riff on the contributions of blues legends like Hound Dog Taylor, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Junior Kimbrough, while discussing the finer points of the vintage gear that helped shape the sound of classic blues records.
Although the occasion for Gibbons and Auerbach’s meeting is an interview for Guitar World, it might as well be a record collectors’ convention, a guitar swap or a blues-fan nerd-out. The conversation embraces the gleaming faux-silver-pickguard-bedazzled Silvertone charmer that Gibbons has brought along with three other guitars, plus a pair of vintage Kustom speaker towers that he and bassist Dusty Hill are using on ZZ Top’s current tour for Texicali, their new back-to-basics four-track EP. Gibbons and Auerbach also extol the charms of vintage vinyl and the sounds and rambunctious spirits of a host of bygone blues six-stringers, including McDowell, Lil’ Son Jackson, Junior Kimbrough, Hound Dog Taylor and, of course, Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose music cuts close to both men’s bones (see sidebar).
Gibbons and Auerbach have been friends for nearly a decade, and when they get together it’s like an exuberant reunion of long-parted pals. Despite the difference in their ages, the two have many similarities that belie the distance between their generations.
Gibbons got his start in the mid Sixties playing gnashing guitar in the Moving Sidewalks, a group that breathed the same dusty psychedelic Texas air as the legendary Roky Erickson and opened for Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. He educated himself in the ice-pick guitar styles of protean Texas bluesmen like Hopkins and Jackson and their Louisiana neighbor Frankie Lee Sims, plus the laconic hypnosis of Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor. Since then, Gibbons and ZZ Top have recorded 15 studio albums and 42 singles onto which he has cut one of the greatest guitar tones ever to bark out of an amp.
Auerbach, who has pasted some of the past decade’s most evil and snarling guitar sounds onto seven studio albums by the Black Keys, started clean—playing bluegrass with his family—but set out on a personal quest to explore the same dirty secrets of the blues as Gibbons, albeit 30 years later. For him, discovering the serpentine melody lines of Mississippi hill-country guitar anti-hero Junior Kimbrough was like being struck by the other kind of lightning. It jolted him out of college and into cofounding the Black Keys in Akron, Ohio, in 2001. With three Grammy Awards, a Platinum album for 2010’s sonically daring Brothers, a solo disc, March’s sold-out Madison Square Garden concert, an April headlining gig at California’s eclectic Coachella festival and a near-ubiquitous presence on TV and in film soundtracks, Auerbach and the Black Keys are burning their names into rock’s Big Black Book.
Over the course of nearly four hours Gibbons and Auerbach will laugh, talk, pick out licks and share the camera’s focus with Auerbach’s big brown dog, Bella, a natural charmer who saunters through the studio greeting visitors like Easy Eye’s unofficial hostess. They’ll also take four minutes to listen to a cut Auerbach’s been producing for Los Angeles–based songwriter-guitarist Hanni El Khatib that’s gritty, haunting and reverb-drenched enough to be a lost gem from the vault of Chicago’s Chess Records. Which prompts our opening question:
Have you guys ever recorded together?
BILLY GIBBONS: Oddly enough, we were brought into the studio under the auspices of our buddy [producer] Rick Rubin. We had developed a friendship aimed at just taking the time to talk about the kind of stuff we’re talking about now: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lil’ Son Jackson, Gold Star Records out of Houston... So much of that stuff was primitive by today’s standards but did a fine job then.
Anyway, Dan and Patrick [Carney, the Black Keys’ drummer] and me got together in California in the studio and spent a couple days knocking around, and it brought us even closer together. The funny thing was, we were having such a blast, and the richness of the exchange had Rick Rubin speechless. He just kept saying, “Keep on, keep on…”
DAN AUERBACH: Rick had us doing this weird thing where he would throw out an idea and we’d start jamming. Patrick and I would leave going, “What just happened?”
GIBBONS: Rick has got this unwarranted reputation for taking forever to get a project done. He’s quite the opposite. I think in the course of one day we had starter-kit ideas for about 20 songs. Rick would come out of the control room and go, “Well, we’ve got that. Let’s do something else.” He’d look around and say, “Patrick, give me a beat!” It was, like, hyper-pedal…
How did you guys meet?
AUERBACH: Billy came to one of our shows in New York City, at Irving Plaza.
GIBBONS: Yes, that was early on, but previous to that was the Paramount in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What drew me there… I was living out there for a time, and my buddy Freddie Lopez, who is an actor but also has a mind for sounds, said, “What are you doing tonight?” I said, “Not much. What do you have in mind?” He said, “There’s this group called the Black Keys.” “The Black Keys?” I said. “Man, I can’t believe you’re bringing this up. Just last week, I was in Los Angeles and the filmmaker David Lynch,” who is partnered up with his musical buddy, um…
GIBBONS: Yes! Well, they had come to the house, and Lynch said, “I just wanted to bring you this,” and it was the first Black Keys record.
AUERBACH: We were touring at that point in the minivan. I remember listening to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes as we were rolling over the hills at night, seeing the lights of Santa Fe in the distance.
GIBBONS: Upon hearing the Black Keys for the first time, it resonated. We stuck around after the show that night and I made it a point to get to know Dan and Patrick. I said, “I don’t know how you guys do this, but don’t change it. It is working.” The room was rocking; the walls were rattling. We got to talking about so many like-minded things. It came as no surprise that much of the inspirations that lead me to continue to do what I do are the same things that lead Dan to do what he does. So we connected. The brush fire had started.
AUERBACH: Now it’s a bro-mance that’s taken years to blossom.
GIBBONS: What I enjoy about watching the Black Keys is the sense of abandon. It’s wonderful to be embraced and appreciated by many, many fans that get it and want to be part of it. At the same time, Dan and Patrick are being propelled to deliver something.
There is something remarkably mesmerizing about getting to do what we get to do. It’s beyond design. We’re just drawn to it. And there are those moments when, I don’t know how to describe it, but you’re just enjoyably drawn to get it out. It’s beyond yourself.