Legendary ZZ Top frontman Billy F Gibbons talks cars with Geoff Seddon
This interview with Billy Gibbons was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Street Machine
IT’S FRIDAY 22 March 2013 at Leadfoot Ranch, Hahei, on New Zealand’s spectacular Coromandel Peninsula. Billy F Gibbons had performed the last concert of ZZ Top’s Australian tour just two days earlier. He immediately shot through to ‘En Zee’ with his better half, Gilligan — they call themselves Billy & Gilly — to catch up with their good mates Rod and Shelly Millen, organisers of the Leadfoot Festival (SM, Jun ’13). We commandeered a Virgin bomber to join them.
This is your second visit to Leadfoot. Do you time your tours down under just so you can come to the Festival?
This year it worked out we had the Australian tour first. They had organised a short break because the equipment is slow travelling back to the States so I said, it’s not that far to go to En Zee, so here we are.
So this is your second trip to NZ?
Second time for the Leadfoot Festival but I’ve stayed here many times.
What is it about NZ that you like?
Well, both Australia and New Zealand are so exotic.
Yeah, well, for a guy from Texas, it is! [Laughs] The novelty of the language and the culture, I just find it fascinating, I really enjoy it. But when I say exotic, by no means is there any lack of sophistication. You got everything you need.
Have you had much chance to check out the car scene here and in Australia?
Oh yeah. The rodders support ZZ Top in a big way and they made quite a showing at each stop. From Perth, Melbourne and Sydney to Brisbane and the Gold Coast, we were surrounded, it was great. There was no shortage of machinery following the tour and we got to meet a bunch of the guys.
Billy at a Spanish tapas bar in Sydney
The hot rod and custom scene in particular is getting bigger in Australia.
The cars are a bit easier to import these days.
Perhaps even easier here in En Zee. I don’t know if it’s the same, but I was speaking to one guy in Australia who said, if you buy a [modified] car from the States, you have to disassemble it into its component parts so that you can bring it into the country. He said it was quite educational, having to take it apart then rebuild it before you drive it.
Cars have always been a big part of your life — as much as the music even.
I was transfixed with cars. As my mom would tell you, the first three words I could say were Ford, Chevrolet and Cadillac. [Laughs]
You’d be enjoying all the old American cars here in New Zealand.
An interesting aspect of this particular weekend, not only is Leadfoot unfolding, but did you hear about Beach Hop? Last year it was a week following, this year it’s on the same weekend. So we were driving down from Auckland yesterday and there was a line of cars travelling with us; a ’63 Chevy Impala, there was a ’62 Cadillac, some really nice cars.
It makes you realise how much machinery is in this country; it’s amazing. Gilligan is the proud owner of a 1936 five-window Ford. There are a couple in the line-up here, a little cream-coloured one and a black one. She didn’t realise they were ever exported.
They used to build a lot of Chevs and Fords back then in Australia. They’d bring the chassis and engines out, then build the bodies and the rest of it here.
Before leaving the States, a friend of mine said, I understand you’re travelling to Australia. I said yes, we’re very excited, and he said, you’ll like this and we drove out to his friend’s house. He had a 1946 Ford ute, which I’d never seen. It was not just a box put on the back of a chopped car, it was a properly manufactured coupe utility. It was fine, mint.
A great Aussie invention, designed to take the wife to church on Sunday and the pigs to market on Monday.
[Laughs] Oh, yeah.
Do you design the cars yourself? Do you give, say, Pete Chapouris a picture of what you want or do you allow him to have his say?
Pete and I generally take a proper sit-down to share ideas and I think that our likemindedness brings the projects to a starting point quickly. It’s not that we agree on everything; if we did, then one of us is not necessary. So we actually embrace the other’s ideas and, in so doing, each and every project takes on its own personality.
Do you have a clear idea of how it will come out at the end?
Oh yeah. We’ve got an automotive designer, of course; Larry Erikson is still on the horizon, he’s never too far out of pocket, he’s always ready to start the next one. And there’s Alberto, a gentleman from Mexico City, a gifted and talented automotive artist who also throws his hat into the ring. So we’re never without a fairly decent vision.
We do full-on drawings, all the different views, three-quarter, side, front, rear.
Make no mistake, what looks good on paper may or may not totally transform [in the metal], but at least you’re halfway there.
The Eliminator coupe was a contemporary rod for its time, but CadZZilla was totally different.
In more recent times, there seems to have been more of a custom or traditional bent in what you build.
Well, the one undergoing transformation now, it was started by our good friend Rudy Rodriquez who runs Fullerton Fabrications. Rudy called me up and he said, I’ve got so many projects and I need to come off a ’33 that had that Bonneville chop. You wanna pause that for a moment?
[I switch off my recorder while Billy extracts a small video player from his backpack and plays the new ZZ Top single, I Gotsa Get Paid. You can find it on You Tube.]
So that’s your car in the film clip?
Have you seen the clip?
Of course I have. I was gonna ask you about that. Where was the clip shot?
Ah, it was El Mirage.
Is the new ’33 the one you’re driving in the clip?
You must have had a ball!
Oh yeah. There’s a few cool cars in that film clip.
That looks like Jimmy Shine’s pick-up.
Yeah, we had Shine’s truck, his dad’s ’34, and then there was another pal, one of Jimmy’s buddies, who was kind enough to be involved.
The girls are pretty tidy.
Yeah, it was the whole theme carried through, it worked out great.
Mexbird (Mexican Blackbird)
Do you have a favourite out of all the cars you’ve built?
I’m liking this new one. We call it the Whisky Runner, because it made its debut on television in conjunction with a brand of whisky that wanted to use it. But it’s got a few features that haven’t been seen before. Again, it goes back to the preplanning, another opportunity to sit around and have a chat about how to get from the mild to the wild.
You seem to like your cars low and slow.
In Los Angeles, there are few places where you can pick it up. I see all these Maseratis and Ferraris and we’re all doing 10 or 12 miles per hour, stuck in traffic. It’s pretty funny.
Do you keep them all or turn them over?
No, we’ve got a nice warehouse and it’s next to a proper automotive operation. The two guys that run it, they come in once a week, start ’em up, drive ’em around the yard, keep ’em oiled up and ready to roll. They said, you know, we’re happy to do this because we love these cars but you must keep in mind that they’re like babies. They require a lot of attention and a lot of fluids. [Laughs]
Do you have a daily driver?
Toyota has a hatchback in the US called a Sienna, a small square box that looks like a toaster. I left town to go touring and Chapouris got his hands on it. He louvred the hood, louvred the deck lid, lowered it and put on some wide whitewalls. It’s a real attention getter.
In Australia, it was CadZZilla that caught everyone’s attention. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
There had been a gathering in San Antonio aimed at bringing a bunch of rodders together. It was a great weekend and we decided to head south to a little cantina on the Mexican border to chill out. Jack Chisenhall was there, Larry Erickson was present, Pete Chapouris was present.
It was Larry who said, so we’ve seen the little red car [the Eliminator coupe] which debuted around the planet through the magic of television — what are you going to do to follow it?
I said, you know, the little 30s short-wheelbase Fords are cute; why don’t we stretch out and go Cadillac? Larry said, hand me that bar napkin, I have pen in hand!
And right then and there he sketched out what later developed into CadZZilla.
Do you still have the napkin?
I still have the napkin.