Interview: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach
The two guitarists discuss the history of the blues and its enduring power in the 21st century.
Billy, you’ve been eyeing the wall of about 600 albums in the studio’s office, and Dan, you’ve kept discs spinning since Billy arrived…
GIBBONS: If we can address the value of vinyl… Upon entering Dan’s Easy Eye Studio, I was drawn immediately to the Macintosh tube amp and the turntable, and it was in the groove. The rawness and the richness of music on vinyl almost went away, but it still seems to be on a lot of people’s radar, and for good reason. It does something different than more accessible means of music playing, like MP3 players and downloads and whatnot. You get in front of these archaic contraptions that go ’round and ’round. It’s mesmerizing, not only to look at but to sit back and experience. Wouldn’t you agree?
AUERBACH: Yeah, yeah. There’s nostalgia there, for sure, but it also sounds fucking great. Everything sounds really good on vinyl, if you’ve got a nice setup. I’ve got a bunch more albums at home.
Billy, do you have a big vinyl collection?
GIBBONS: Oh yeah. Unfortunately, it had to be rescued. We were in England and I was notified to call my assistant, Denise. She said, “Well, there’s been a horrific rain storm and that flat roof of your condo sprung a leak. I was retrieving the mail and I saw something that looked like a garden hose spraying straight into the room.” She called the handyman and they were able to put the valuables aside, but part of the rain went right into a column of vinyl.
Water doesn’t hurt a vinyl record. Put it into a dishwasher and you’re fine. But the paper began to mold and my secretary, being rather protective, decided it was unsafe and threw them all away. I was able to rescue several garbage bags. It was just one column, but it happened to be a column of favorites. I ordered up a bunch of plain white sleeves to put them in and they were fine.
What are some of your favorite titles on vinyl?
AUERBACH: It changes every day. I always obsess about something and listen to it over and over and over again.
GIBBONS: I’ll turn one track into a two-hour listening session. It’s that obsessive thing. I share it with Dan—the passion and obsessiveness that can enter one’s pathology when it comes to vinyl and tubes and all this crusty stuff.
I have a longstanding buddy who is a true audiophile and has invested a lot of time and money, to the point where he bought a platform that was invented to stabilize electron microscopes from the rattling as the Earth spins…
AUERBACH: The rattling of the Earth’s rotation? [laughs]
GIBBONS: It was causing this low-end rumble that he was able to perceive. Given the power of an electron microscope—and at 100,000 times magnification, it better darn well be stable or it’s going to be very fuzzy—he decided that if he put one under his turntable it would be a little more precise.
AUERBACH: Shit. Just have one of those built into the soles of your shoes. Check this out… [He pulls another single out of a case.] Here’s Hound Dog Taylor’s very first 45, before he had his band the Houserockers: “Christine” backed with “Alley Music,” on the Firma label.
Did you know that Hound Dog Taylor left Mississippi with the Ku Klux Klan on his trail? They wanted to lynch him for seeing a white woman, so he took off at night and hid by crawling through drainage ditches until he got to Memphis, where he lit out for Chicago.
GIBBONS: Well, that brings up something really interesting. How did Memphis become this musical melting pot? As the African-American exodus to leave Mississippi started building up steam to head up to Chicago—where it was a little more open and job opportunities were better—very few people had enough money to have an automobile or even to get a bus ticket, so walking out of Mississippi was the way to get on your way. From the Delta, Memphis was about as far as you could make it on one set of soles. That was a great stopping spot, with Beale Street and the nightlife. The attraction must have been beyond imagination.
AUERBACH: Think about how exciting it was before the days of being able to check shit out on the internet. All you would hear were stories, and as they were told and retold they’d get grander and grander. Can you imagine how the stories about what it was like hanging out in Memphis sounded in rural Mississippi?
GIBBONS: I heard a story: Freddie King and Little Walter walked…you know the [Howlin’ Wolf] song “I Walked from Dallas.” I think Freddie did a version. Word has it that Freddie King and Little Walter walked from Texas to Chicago. Maybe not all the way, but significantly…
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