“A lot of producers would have the drummer come in on Monday, then they’d call the bass player in on Tuesday, the guitar player would show up on Wednesday and maybe the singer on Thursday," says ZZ Top guitar king Billy Gibbons. "When we got together with Rick Rubin, he said, 'My idea of ZZ Top is three guys playing together at the same time with the red light turned on.’ That sounded just right to us."
And so it was that for their forthcoming album, La Futura, their first full-length since 2003's Mescalero, that the "little ol' band from Texas" hooked up with the maverick producer. Gibbons and Rubin had rubbed shoulders before – their first meeting occurred 25 years ago during a rave at Knott's Berry Farm. Rubin had expressed interest in working with the trio over the years, but what sealed the deal, according to Gibbons, was when the producer said, ‘Hey man, I don’t have to rewire ZZ Top. My job is to make you guys work, work and work.’ And we said, ‘Superb.’ What Rick didn’t know was, that was music to our ears, because that’s what we enjoy doing the most.”
The recording process, which Gibbons admits was a "protracted affair," spread out over a nearly four-year period (during which time the band frequently broke for touring). The first session was an experimental jam in Los Angeles. "We weren’t writing or recording," says Gibbons. "This was Rick and a couple of engineers sitting behind the glass observing ZZ Top having fun. It was enough for Rick to start seeing the dynamic with the two other band members he didn’t really know."
Formal recording dates started later, at Shangri La Studios in Malibu, a facility close enough to Rubin's house that he could walk to it. "We still played as a band, and we got a chance to jam – the spirit was the same as it was when we started," says Gibbons. "Rick wanted us to work hard, but he placed an emphasis on us being casual and having a good time. And I found out that one of his high cards is patience. He was in no hurry to run the risk of having something half-baked. His attitude was, ‘It’s gonna take as long as it takes until it’s right.’”
After two months, the band had amassed roughly "20 CDs worth of starter piece material, songs, ideas and jam sessions," says Gibbons. It was then, before another touring phase was about to begin, that Gibbons and Rubin met on the pier in Santana Monica to talk about how to move forward. "Rick said, ‘Go back to Texas and draw as much as you can from our couple of months together. As you go along, we’ll keep a line of communication open to see if we’re getting somewhere.’ And that’s what we did. So I produced a number of tracks and we whittled them down to a nice, manageable batch.”
Gibbons acknowledges that some artists haven't always had a smooth ride with Rubin, and he admits that the stop-start nature of recording La Futura at times brought the band "to the brink of frustration," but he has nothing but high praise for the producer: “Rick was even gracious enough to give us fair warning right at the beginning," he says. "'I’ve been at this a while, but it hasn’t always worked out for me,’ he said. So he was upfront and said that at anytime, if we were finding stones in the pathway, that we should be men enough to address it. I took that so sincerely, especially since I knew that Rick was a fan. In setting up such a generous, two-way street, we avoided the pitfalls that have plagued him with certain artists in the past.”
The resulting album, 10 blazing tracks of gritty, funky and grinding blues that captures ZZ Top in classic, unadulterated peak form, blew Gibbons away when he first heard it. "We didn’t receive delivery of the finished piece until only two weeks ago," he says, "and I must say, we were quite pleased to hear the final version. What you suspect you’re hearing is what you’re getting: three guys playing the same three chords."
He adds, "It’s a funny thing – because the record took so long to reach its completion, we had forgotten some of its magical moments. And now we have to go learn it so we can play it live!"
As for the album title, Gibbons offers the following anecdote: “Rick said to me one day, “I’ve loved everything you’ve done, including all of those Mexican titles you’ve incorporated.’ And I said, ‘Well, Rick, you’ve brought us into the future.’ He looked at me and said, ‘How would you say ‘the future’ in Tex-Mex?’ And I said, ‘La Futura.’ And there it was - La Futura."
ZZ Top's La Futura will be released on 11 September. On the following pages, Billy Gibbons walks us through the bold and biting album track-by-track.