Download this interview as an ebook right here.
Billy Zoom is a man who needs no introduction—and now he’s getting two. Not only is he an icon in punk history, Billy Zoom is also an accomplished musician, a genius producer, engineer and tech repair man, and a godfather of the oft-overlooked but incredibly fascinating “punkabilly” genre. He is timeless, ageless, and unafraid to speak his mind. Billy Zoom is rock and roll personified—and I’m sure he’d gladly take that compliment.
Since this interview ran in 2005, Billy Zoom has been a very busy man. When he’s not on tour with X, he’s been doing electronics engineering. He designs amplifiers, effects pedals, and various other audio products, including creating the “Little Kahuna” in 2009—a reverb and tremolo unit that’s all tube. Zoom continues to run his audio repair shop in Orange, California, where he works on custom amps and one-off projects. Some of his more famous clients have included Brian Setzer and Mike Ness.
That’s not to say Billy’s personal life has been a smooth ride. In 2006, his wife gave birth to two fraternal twin boys. A few years later, he was given a shocking diagnosis: prostate cancer. Fortunately, it was caught in its early stages and, after a radical prostatectomy in 2010, he was successfully treated and remains cancer-free to this day. He never let his prognosis or treatment affect his music work; in fact, his shop only closed for a few months in order to move to an even bigger space. Zoom has also been an advocate of cancer research, and in 2014, he headlined the Music Has a Meaning: Rock ‘n’ Roll for Russel Hill benefit concert along with his side band, Billy Zoom And The New Moon Boys.
Two things are often synonymous with Billy Zoom’s image: his on stage wide-legged stance and satisfied-looking smile, and his vintage Gretsch Silver Jet Guitar. The latter was immortalized in June 2008, when Gretsch unveiled the G6129BZ Billy Zoom Custom Shop Tribute Silver Jet created in honor of his longevity in the music community.
And, of course, there’s X. For a man who is bored by live shows and who hates the long, grueling days of tour, he has played with X almost non-stop over the last five years at a variety of shows and festivals including Riot Fest in 2010, a tour commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Unheard Music playing Los Angelesin its entirety, a co-headlining tour with Reverend Horton Heat in 2012, and a tour with Blondie headlining in 2013. After nearly forty years, X is louder, faster, and harder than ever and Zoom still plays all of his parts effortlessly, with his signature grin wide across his face the whole time.
–Jamie Rotante, 2015
Billy Zoom, musician. Founding member and obscenely talented guitar player for X, the band. His father was an old “jazzer” and played with Django Reinhardt in Belgium. He witnessed the birth of rock‘n’roll, as we know it. What this guy knows about music could fill this magazine, probably for a year or two and now I have the task of bringing it to you in a few pages? Just know this interview is truly the tip of the iceberg and I skipped the stuff he’s been asked a million times before. Go to his website and borrow a copy of X: the Unheard Music for more background.
These days he owns and operates Billy Zoom Music, a tube audio repair shop, and his recording studio, Studio A in Orange, CA. Every once in a while I meet someone that has had a Billy Zoom encounter of some sort. It seems like many of these people don’t “get him.” I’m not really sure what that means or what their expectations are. He’s not sure either. I can’t really remember what I “expected” before I had actually met him. I remember one email I got from BZ that had me laughing for days. He was making a comparison between artists and musicians. I can’t remember his exact words but it was something about how artists don’t go on tour, sit on stage, and paint the same picture in an hour and a half, night after night. No one ever yelled, “Hey Picasso, do the lady with the three tits!”
My advice would be: don’t try to make bullshit small talk, and if you’re asking him a question, make sure it has an answer. Maybe he’ll give you a few answers, many of which you didn’t expect. Just hang in there. Eventually you’ll find a comfort zone… and if worse comes to worse, bring up British cars or motorcycles.
Interview and introduction by Julia Kwong
Originally ran in Razorcake #26, 2005
Julia:Name, age, and occupation?
Billy: Billy Zoom, fifty-seven, occupation undetermined.
Julia: Where did you grow up? What part of the country?
Billy: Illinois. The boonies.
Julia: You come from a musical family. How far back does that go?
Billy: I don’t really remember past my grandparents. My dad’s mother played piano and accordion. She had a sister who played the theatre organ in silent movie houses in the ‘20s. I had an uncle Robbie who played the violin. Actually, I had a great grandmother, who was dead by the time I was born, who had some music published and had a music degree from the University of Wisconsin, which was unusual for a woman back at the turn of the last century.
Julia: Do you have brothers or sisters?
Billy: No, I’m the only child of an only child.
Julia: What was the first instrument you played?
Billy: Define played. [laughs] The first one I had lessons on was… I’m not sure. Accordion, piano, or violin. They were all about the same time.
Julia: Did you have a favorite?
Billy: I think I wanted to play guitar.
Julia: Even when you were that young?
Billy: Well, we’re talking about when I was about four. I used to play ocarinas and tonettes and things.
Julia: What are they?
Billy: A tonette is one of those black plastic things, looks sort of like a recorder you used to play in school. An ocarina, they used to call a sweet potato. It’s made out of baked clay and you play it like this [holds his hands off to the side, like you’d play a flute] and it was shaped like a sweet potato.
Julia: So as a teenager, what was your favorite instrument?
Billy: You just skipped a lot of my life.
Julia: I know. I go back and forth.
Billy: As a teenager I was a guitar player.
Julia: Starting at how old?
Billy: I started guitar when I was six.
Julia: By choice?
Billy: No… umm, well, maybe. These are hard questions. Nobody’s ever asked me these questions before. See, my dad was a musician and the guitar was always in the corner and he would play and sing to me when I was a little kid: cowboy songs and stuff. I probably said, “Show me.” He showed me C, F, G, and D. Do you know what a tenor guitar is? It’s got four strings. It doesn’t have the two bass strings. He had one of those and I started on that ‘cause my hands were too small to play a regular six string. Then the next year, I think I was seven, I got a banjo. I used to take it to school and entertain the other kids.
Julia: Do you think you were destined for music?
Billy: Well, I hate to think I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. [laughs] My mother’s first choice would have been a schoolteacher. Her second choice would have been anything but a musician or mechanic. My dad always wanted me to be a musician.
Julia: So by the ‘70s and ‘80s, guitar was mostly what you played?
Billy: I was a horn player up until about ‘62. I played in jazz bands and was planning on having a career as a jazz saxophone player. I played clarinet, alto, tenor and baritone sax, and flute. A lot of this won’t mean anything to you ‘cause you’re too young, but I went to the Stan Kenton clinics in the summers. I went to the University of Indiana and took music theory. In ‘62, I went to “Sock Hop” MC’d by Dick Biondi, who was the big DJ at WLS in Chicago, and they had a live rock band. It was the first time I’d ever seen a live band play, other than jazz (bands). I watched the band really closely and I realized they were getting a lot of attention from my peers. I also realized that I could do what they were doing, ‘cause I already knew how to play guitar, although I had never tried to play anything like that. So, I went home and stood in front of the mirror with the guitar and played, ya know, surf songs and stuff. I thought, “I can do this.” I was a rock star in ‘67.
Julia: A rock star?
Billy: Yeah, I was a big star. The Loved Ones was the biggest band in the Quad-cities area in the Midwest. We’d get asked for autographs and we’d bring in about three to four thousand kids a week.
Julia: How old were you?
Billy: Nineteen. I thought it was going to be all up hill from there. I thought, “This is it. I’ve made it. I’ve arrived. It’s just gonna’ get better and better and better.” I had three cars, a motorcycle, a motor scooter, a room full of guitars. I was renting a house. I thought it was a done deal at that point. [laughs] Two years later, I was in Hollywood selling my saxophones to pay rent.
Julia: What age did you make a conscious decision that you were going to be a musician?
Billy: Probably… [pauses to think about it] I think it was around four. It was just expected of me, I think. That’s why I took all the years of music lessons.
Julia: Do you think you had some sort of natural ability toward it?
Billy: I hope so.
Julia: Versus just having to work at it non-stop, just practice, practice, practice.
Billy: Both. It’s both isn’t it?
Julia: There are those people that don’t really have “it,” but want it and work super hard and practice and then there are those people who just pick up any instrument and can play it.
Billy: I hate those people. I think I have some natural talent, but it takes a lot of work to get it out.
Julia: Do you think learning about music helped you a lot (like learning music theory) or was it an added bonus?
Billy: I think it helps. I think everybody should have at least a couple years of piano lessons before they play anything else. I think everybody should know how to read music and know basic music theory.
Julia: Were you a band nerd in school?
Billy: I was never a nerd, so, no. I was in the band. I was in the orchestra, the marching band, the pep band that played at the ball games, the jazz band, and a couple jazz combos. You have to remember that jazz was very big back in those days. It was actually on the charts and stuff.
Julia: Like big band stuff?
Billy: No, the hipper stuff like Dave Brubeck Quartet. “Take Five” actually charted in ‘61 or something like that. Dizzy Gillespe and Gene Ammons. There was no such thing as rock‘n’roll when I started playing.
Julia: When did rock‘n’roll come into play?
Billy: January ‘56.
Julia: Why then?
Billy: Elvis. The whole thing just broke open overnight. Everything was Elvis. Just like January ‘64 with the Beatles. Elvis, just overnight, took over the world. Everything became rock‘n’roll oriented. That’s all that was on the radio and all that was on TV. It was all everyone talked about. It was a huge deal.
Julia: Did it seem like a good deal or a bad deal?
Billy: I don’t know. My dad thought it was silly, but interesting. My mother bought all of Elvis’ records, but hated Jerry Lee Lewis. It just kind of was.
Julia: How old were you?
Billy: When Elvis first came out, I was eight. My mother had all the early Sun stuff and early RCA stuff and I listened to that a lot. I don’t think I really got into rock‘n’roll until about ‘62. I think you have to reach puberty and have the testosterone kick in and then all of the sudden it makes perfect sense to you. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of people jumping around acting silly.
Julia: Is that what brought you out to Los Angeles?
Billy:L.A. was actually my last choice. I went from the Midwest to Boston because they had the “Bosstown Sound” going. It was being hyped by the media industry as the next big thing. I had a couple friends in Boston, so I went and lived on Beacon Hill for a year and a half, got absolutely nowhere. It was interesting to escape from the Midwest. The problem with Boston is that there are like three million college students. I may be exaggerating slightly, but you know, it’s mostly students, which means that at any given time there are probably five hundred halfway decent rock bands that will play for beer. Half of them aren’t bad, ya know. They’re good enough to go get a bar gig, which makes it really hard if you’re trying to pay the rent. About the only thing you could do is play in soul bands in the combat zone. Anyway, it wasn’t really working out, so I decided to pack up and go to San Francisco because I had some friends who were moving there. I spent almost two months in San Francisco and absolutely hated it. Took me a week to find a place to live, then I got robbed the second week I was there. It (the music scene) was kind of all over there. This was ‘69. It was just a bunch of burnouts. I came down to L.A. with some friends and they had a big rock scene happening on the strip.
Julia: Rodney’s English Disco?
Billy: That wasn’t happening yet. Rodney was Mayor of the Sunset Strip though. There were clubs like the Experience and Hendrix would show up every night and jam. Grand Funk Railroad was playing there. There were hundreds of people just milling around on the sidewalk and a big street scene happening. There seemed to be a lot more going on, so I decided to stay. And then, as soon as I got settled, they closed all the clubs and closed the strip down. But it was a nicer place than San Francisco or New York. In those days, if you got two doors off of Sunset Boulevard it was little houses with yards and picket fences and little guest cottages in back you could rent for seventy five bucks a month. You’d have a garage and a driveway to park in and you could move your gear around. It was a lot easier living.
Julia: And better weather.
Billy: Much better weather.
Julia: So then what?
Billy: Then, I got a job playing in South Central with a band called Art Wheeler & The Brothers Love. We played three nights a week. I just kind of walked into that. Before that I had been playing mainly in black R&B bands.
Julia: Playing guitar?
Billy: Guitar and sax.
Julia: Both at the same time?
Billy: I built a stand that held a saxophone and a microphone and there was a little container on the back for my pick. I could throw my pick in there, play a sax solo, grab my pick, and in about one beat I could be back on guitar. So, anyway, I was doing that and I was doing session work and playing in a bunch of original bands doing demos and… what do they call it when you play for free so people will see you? [laughing] Showcases!
Julia: [laughing] South By Southwest?
Billy: Yeah. So we were playing showcases and cutting demos and I was in dozens of bands. I played with Gene Vincent for a summer. When I was with Art Wheeler & The Brothers Love we backed up Etta James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Billy: Not much touring then, unless you’d call going to Sacramento with Gene Vincent a tour. At one point I got an offer from a friend in Boston. I went back to Boston for six or eight months and toured with a folk trio back there. Sort of a folk trio… I don’t know what it was.
Julia: That doesn’t sound very lively.
Billy: I was playing electric guitar and clarinet and flute, but I was playing through a little three-watt amplifier and there was an acoustic guitar and an upright bass player. It was right at the beginning of that early seventies sensitive singer songwriter, James Taylor, Cat Stevens time, ya know? So it kind of fit in with that. Then I started this band called the Alligators. It was a bar band that played three or four nights a week. We were looking for punk. We were trying to figure out what punk was going to sound like.
Julia: This was before or after you read the Ramones review?
Billy: Before. The Ramones were the first ones to figure out what it sounded like. I think punk was a lot like rockabilly and rock‘n’roll when it started. Back in the early fifties there were a lot of records that were almost rockabilly or almost rock‘n’roll. You’ve got these music history buffs that will argue about “What was the first rock‘n’roll record?” As far as I’m concerned, it was “That’s Alright Mama” by Elvis Presley, because everything before that wasn’t quite—it was like two-thirds of the way, three-fourths of the way there—they never quite got all the ingredients right. Elvis was the first one to really get the whole combination right and it just took off like crazy. He was the first then, all of the sudden, there was a hundred people, then two hundred, then four hundred, jumping on the bandwagon. I think it was the same way with punk. I think once the hippies killed rock‘n’roll, there were a lot of disgruntled musicians who had grown up with rock‘n’roll and pop music, and were looking for a way to take music and the radio back from the hippies. Take the art out and put the rock back in. The Ramones were the first one to get the whole thing right.
Julia: Interesting, because I’ve read interviews with others (musicians of your genre) who say they think punk is “arty” and that’s what punk is all about: art. Or that there’s a lot of art in it. They were just artists trying to be arty and that’s what they came up with.
Billy: There was a t-shirt that was popular in the early punk days, like ‘77, and it said “Fuck art, let’s dance.” Have you ever seen that?
Billy: We used to see a lot of those in the audience. There were arty people that co-existed in the punk scene. It was sort of integrated, but punk rock itself was kinda anti-art. It was an attempt to bring back the essence of rock‘n’roll, which was music for fun. It just felt good. Because of the fact that they were trying to ace out hippie music and trying to take back something, there was this sarcastic edge to it. A humorous edge to it. Like the Ramones’ lyrics. They’re simple, straight-ahead rock‘n’roll songs but they’ve got kind of funny, sick lyrics. [laughs] “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.” Buddy Holly wouldn’t have sung that. It’s not supposed to be anything except fun.
Julia: In other interviews you say you read a Ramones review and that got you interested in them. It said the songs were simple, no leads…
Billy: It was Patrick, the bass player in my rockabilly band. He brought me a review. I think it was the Roxy they played, and I had missed the show. What would that be, ‘76? ‘75-‘76. Their first album had just come out.
Julia: Later, you knew Johnny Ramone. Did you ever tell him that’s what got you into…
Billy: Oh yeah. I met Johnny Ramone because I did an interview where they asked me about the Ramones. The interviewer didn’t have a very high opinion of the Ramones’ guitar playing and was surprised that I’d be into that genre because I could play better. I said, “Hey, look. Can you name anybody that can play what Johnny Ramone plays, better than Johnny Ramone can? Does he not do it perfectly? Is it not a great concept? Didn’t he come up with the right sound and doesn’t he do it perfectly and have you ever seen him make a mistake?” Frankly, I didn’t know for years if that was all he could play or whether he could blow my socks off. I had no idea because what he played was brilliant. I found out years later that that was kind of all he could play and he didn’t care. Johnny read that interview and the next time we (X) played in New York there was a note from him at the hotel desk saying he’d like to take me to dinner. I went over to his place and looked at his baseball autograph collection forever.
Julia: Hmm. Baseball.
Billy: [laughing] Yeah, I never got that. I never know when the World Series is or who’s playing.
Julia: I guess you gotta collect something.
Billy: What about guitar collecting?
Julia: Yeah. Do you have a lot of guitars?
Julia: Did you?
Billy: I had a few.
Julia: How long have you had that Gretsch?
Julia: Well, how many have you had?
Billy: I had three of the silver ones. I actually used two of them and the third was a fashion accessory. I got the first one in ‘77, and the one I have now I think I picked up about ‘83.
Julia: What happened to the first one?
Billy: I had to sell it to pay off the IRS. I had a few old Gretschs but when they started being worth thousands of dollars and I was poor I had to sell them to doctors and lawyers and dentists. I don’t understand these collectors that will pay $8,000 for a $600 guitar that they can’t play. I mean it’s nice that they drove the price way up and I made a lot of money, but still. You know where I can get a clock that goes backwards?
Billy: I want to put one on the wall behind me in the bathroom so when I’m looking in the mirror I can see what time it is.
Julia: [laughing] Oh please.
Billy: I think it would be cool. What was the question?
Julia: Let’s go back to pre-X. You’re still not “Billy Zoom” yet, right?
Billy: I became Billy Zoom in about ‘72. I had already been peddling demos all around Hollywood for a few years and had been rejected so I thought that if I did a fresh batch with a different name they’d get listened to more. I started recording as Billy Zoom in ‘74, I think. In the mid-seventies I was doing the Rollin’ Rock Records stuff.
Julia: That was the “porn-movie” stuff.
Billy: Yeah. But the Teenage Cruisers soundtrack album. None of (those songs are) in the movie. That was something that Ron Weiser, at Rollin’ Rock, came up with in about 1980 to capitalize on the success of X and the Blasters. I did the entire soundtrack for the movie. It did have a version on “Bad Boy” in it, but it was the demo version. I’ve never been paid for any of that yet.
Julia: Were you supposed to be?
Julia: Okay, so, you’re in L.A. You’ve heard the Ramones and you like what they’re doing.
Billy: I loved the Ramones the minute I heard them. They played the Gold West Ballroom in Norwalk and it just so happened that the company I worked for, my regular job, had just put in the sound system. I was an electronics guy. I saw the Ramones and said, “That’s it. That’s the sound.” I actually thought it was going to be the next big thing, I didn’t realize it was going to be banned from the radio. That was Friday or Saturday and the Monday after, I put an ad in the Recycler.
Julia: And that was that.
Billy: Yeah, two bass players answered the ad. The second one was John Doe.
Julia: Anything you want to say about radio, the music business, bands today?
Billy: I wouldn’t have much good to say about most of that stuff. Except, Lee Abrams is an asshole. You know who he is, right?
Julia: You told me, but tell everyone else.
Billy: He’s the guy who came up with the concept of having formatted radio stations, where a station played just one type of music. Before that, radio stations just played hits. If the number one record was by the Beatles and the number two record was by Frank Sinatra and number three was by George Jones, that’s what they played. The problem was, his formula didn’t leave any way for anything new to come along. They’d monitor the ratings and playlists of major stations in key markets and feed the data into a computer. The computer would come up with a formula showing if you played these songs, this often, play these during drive time, play this one four times a day, play this one six times a day, play these songs more during the morning, then your station rating will improve. It actually worked. His deal was, you subscribe to my service and I’ll send you a play list every week and if you do exactly what I tell you, I will improve your ratings.
Julia: Was that before or after payola?
Billy: Payola… I wish we still had payola. Payola got busted, like late fifties. Lee Abrams—this was all happening around the time punk started, mid seventies. The problem was, when it came to adding new records to the play list, the computers only had two criteria for deciding whether or not to add it. One was if a new album comes out by a band that has a good track record, that has been in heavy rotation, and had hits—Journey comes out with a new record, Journey’s last three albums have gone double platinum, Journey’s new album automatically gets added. The other one was if a band comes out that hasn’t had a record out before, they look at “Well, what is it like?” If people say, “It sounds a lot like Journey and Genesis,” and people who like those records should like this, then they will put that in light rotation and monitor the ratings to see how people adjust to it. Something like the Ramones comes out that doesn’t sound like anything that’s been a hit and they don’t have a track record, it automatically goes on the “do not play” list. The Ramones and X and all those bands were always on it.
Julia: K-ROQ used to play X, in the early eighties.
Billy: K-ROQ was one of five non-formatted radio stations in the whole country. They were just a little indie station. They were in a little office in Pasadena and they had their broadcast gear mounted in milk crates in the corner. What happened is they got so successful they became the top rated radio station on the West Coast, got purchased by a big corporation, moved to North Hollywood, and KROQ became a programmer. They program the playlists for all the “alternative” stations in the country. So they essentially became Lee Abrams’s competition.
Julia: I imagine he made a lot of money.
Billy: Actually, he got drummed out of the business and blamed for being the man who ruined radio. He’s trying to make a comeback now with satellite radio. Do a Google search. He has his own website.
Julia: Have you been in X the longest of any band you’ve been in?
Billy: I left X for twelve years.
Julia: Right, but not including the break.
Billy: ‘77 to ‘85 and then like January of ‘86 I quit the band. Then I started playing with them again January ‘98.
[we attempt some math, out loud]
Julia: So fourteen years?
Billy: Is it?
Julia: I think so.
Billy: I believe X is my forty-fourth band.
Billy: I think so. I figured it out once, a long time ago.
Julia: If X hadn’t reunited, would you have started another band?
Billy: I don’t know. I have no idea.
Julia: No desire to start another band?
Billy: Well, I didn’t have one in ‘98. [laughing] I had absolutely no desire, no interest in going back and playing with X again.
Julia: But it was a good deal?
Billy: Yeah. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Julia: You had your amp repair shop?
Billy: Yeah, but I was just working out of my house.
Julia: You didn’t have the studio yet, right?
Julia: So, by playing the reunion shows you could do the things you had wanted to do?
Billy: Oh, yeah. That paid for the studio and the amp shop.
Julia: You’ve said you always wanted to be a producer.
Billy: Yeah. Well, not always. That didn’t start until the late sixties. That started the first time… no, maybe the second time I did session work.
Billy: That’s the cool guy. I like records and that’s the guy that actually makes the sound of the record.
Julia: Do you think to be a good producer you have to know how to engineer, too?
Billy: Not necessarily. A lot of them don’t. I do. I don’t think you have to actually be the one who does it. You have to understand how the stuff works, I think, to be good at it. Sometimes it’s better to have someone else running that stuff because you can pay more attention. Sometimes I have another engineer in here, just not on the really, really, really, really, really cheap sessions. [Laughing, making reference to the Smut Peddlers’ session in his studio.]
Julia: Easy. What’s the worst experience you had in the studio recording a band?
Billy: Producing, you mean?
Julia: Yeah. Where you’re in charge and something’s just not working and you have to make it work.
Billy: Oh gosh, I don’t know. They’re all that way. Not counting making X records?
Julia: Yeah. Just you in charge of some other band’s session.
Billy: I don’t know. There’s always some big insurmountable problem that I have to surmount. Is that a word?
Julia: Yep. Do you think it’s true that the better a band is, the less production they need?
Billy: Not necessarily. Good bands are good at playing live and recording isn’t live. I think bands that have already made a lot of records and spent a lot of time in the studio sometimes need less production because they think that way. My favorite analogy would be: imagine there was a hit Broadway play that got rave reviews and people packed in to see it night after night after night. You were a movie producer and you were going to make it into a movie, so you took a camera, put it on a tripod, put it twelve feet out from the stage in the center, turned it on, had the actors perform the play, and you called that a movie. You get something comparable if you just record a live performance. There is no such thing as making a recording that sounds like the band live. What you have to do is create the illusion of the band playing live by doing something totally different.
Julia: At what point in producing a band do you say, “This is just what they do or can do. I think it should be different, but what I think isn’t what they do.”? Or do you just say, “Do it this way.”?
Billy: If they know what they want, then you try to create the illusion of what they want. You don’t put yourself into it unless they don’t know what they want, in which case they probably shouldn’t be making a record, but sometimes that happens. Sometimes you run into, “We don’t really know what we want, but we have this money.” Then you have to make it into something.
Julia: So say you are producing this band and you like the song, you like what they’re trying to do, but you think adding things here and there would really improve it, but a.) maybe they’re not capable of playing what you’re thinking or b.) they just don’t get what you’re saying.
Billy: That’s a difficult situation. Who are you working for: the band or the record company? If the band is signed to a record company, the record company is paying for everything, then it’s the record company you have to make happy. And they want something they can sell. It gets a little sticky if you’re working for the band, because a lot of times you know something’s best for them but they don’t want that because it’s not what they’re used to.
Julia: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Billy: No. I’m very pragmatic.
Julia: Name some records and artists that you think everybody should hear.
Billy: The Ramones, Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions, Kind of Blue—Miles Davis, Time Out—Dave Brubeck, something done in Owen Bradley’s studio like Patsy Cline or Brenda Lee, Johnny B. Goode—Chuck Berry… how long is this supposed to be? This could go on for a long time. I have a long list of required listening. I think people should have a better sense of history so they would have a better understanding of how things got to be the way they are. Just in general, because I think if people understood how things got to be the way they are, things would be different.
Julia: Do you like live music?
Billy: Mmmmmmmm. Not as much as much as I like records.
Julia: Why not?
Billy: Because it doesn’t sound as good as a record. And I get antsy. Most people play too long. I can’t really listen to the same music for more than half an hour. I’ve always been totally fascinated by the sound of good records, which is so much more than just the music. You miss so much in a live performance.
Julia: When you listen to a new record, do you pick it apart? Like, listen to the guitars, then…?
Billy: [big sigh] Oh, gosh. I pick apart the production.
Julia: Meaning? Not everyone knows what you mean when you say “the production.”
Billy: The production. Ahh, it depends on what you’re talking about by a modern CD.
Julia: How would you pick apart production if you don’t know anything about the band or you don’t know what they sound like live and you have no idea what they’re going for?
Billy: As a producer, when I hear popular records, I pick apart the production because I like to think about what they’re doing. I think about things like the over compression they’re using, the sounds they’re getting on it.
Julia: So you’re listening to the sounds, arranging, and sound quality.
Billy: Again, what are we talking about?
Julia: About listening to a band you don’t know anything about.
Billy: Are you talking about listening to hit records on the radio?
Julia: No, like if someone just gives you a CD and says, “Hey, tell me what you think.”
Billy: Oh. Then I listen to everything, yeah. Are you talking about big name bands?
Julia: No. Something you have no reference to.
Billy: Oh, if they’re a new band starting out that doesn’t have a huge hit, then usually the recording isn’t that good, so I kinda tune that out and imagine what it could be and listen to the song and the arrangements.
Julia: What do you think helped your career as a musician the most?
Billy: I think it’s been a frustrating struggle from day one and still is, so I can’t really answer that question.
Julia: So you probably can’t answer the question, “What hurt your career as a musician the most?”
Billy: I’m still trying to have a career as a musician.
Julia: Well, good or bad, you’ve had one.
Billy: I don’t know. To me, a career means you’re making at least as much money as the people in the audience.
Julia: At least as much or more?
Billy: At least as much.
Julia: You said to me once that the musician’s union sends you an invoice for everything.
Billy: What I said was, “I can’t fart without getting a call from the musician’s union.” The point I was making was I have enough of a name that I can’t just go do stuff (we were talking about playing non-X shows). I don’t have enough of a name that I can go do stuff and make it pay enough to be worthwhile. You were asking me why I don’t I put a band together, why don’t I do this, why don’t I do that—because I’m Billy Zoom and people won’t play with me unless I pay them to rehearse, because they think I’m a name and I have money. They think I should be able to pay them a hundred bucks a night for rehearsal. I can’t afford to do that and it’s that way all the way down the line. People have expectations.
Julia: I think you could find people willing to do it just because they like to play.
Billy: Yeah, but they can’t play well enough to do my material.
Julia: I think you could find people.
Billy: See, you’re expecting that I would do rock music. That would be the last thing in the world that I would do. I’m really not a rock musician. X is the only rock band I’ve ever played in. If I were going to play in another band, it wouldn’t be doing rock music ‘cause that doesn’t interest me.
Julia: What would you play?
Billy: Almost anything except rock, which rules out almost all the drummers in the world today because they’re all rock drummers. And almost all the bass players, too.
Julia: So, jazz?
Billy: I might play R&B or soul. I might play rockabilly. I might play jazzy stuff. I might play sixties beat music. I might play pop music, but I certainly wouldn’t play rock. If you want professional musicians who play those other styles, they’re expensive and hard to come by. That’s why I don’t put a band together. But, actually, I am putting a band together. We’ll see if we can make it worthwhile.
Julia: You seem to have a very strong liking for British machinery and music.
Billy: I love British sports cars and British motorcycles.
Julia: And bands. Heniz…
Billy: Not really. From certain periods and certain British producers, but I don’t think I’m partial to British music. I think I just love music. Joe Meek’s recordings fascinate me, as a producer. The Heinz stuff, the stuff that Ritchie Blackmore did on guitar in like ‘63 to ‘65 is so far ahead of its time. When I first discovered that, I was just blown away. You’ve heard some of that, right?
Julia: Yeah. You told me about it and I got the CD.
Billy: You have to understand that’s when “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was on the charts. Nobody had ever heard a guitar amp distort before and he’s doing these over-the-top rock solos. It’s pretty amazing, especially in some of the early stuff where it has absolutely nothing to do with the style of music they’re playing, but it fits. Joe Meek amazes me because he was the first indie producer in England at a time when there were just a handful of big record labels that had big studios and all the people who worked in them had white shirts and ties and wore sports coats. Joe Meek had a studio that he built in an apartment and he built most of his own recording gear. He had hundreds of hits over there, not so many over here because, until the Beatles, no one over here knew the English had rock‘n’roll. That was a big surprise. That was part of the Beatles phenomenon. It was, “They have rock‘n’roll in England? I didn’t know that.”
Julia: So, you’re not a huge Beatles fan?
Billy: I loved the first album. In fact, as far as most of those sixties English bands go, they all had one or two really good albums, which are mostly covers. They were great cover bands. The first couple Beatles albums are almost all covers. The first couple Stones albums are almost all covers. The first couple Searchers albums are almost all covers and on and on and on and on. Herman’s Hermits. The Animals. And not just covers. Today, when people do covers, it’s usually something obscure. They were actually covering songs that had just been on the charts here. The thing in England was to get the American releases as soon as they came out and try to get a copy (their own version) of it out in England before the American version broke over there. The thing that I think is funny, is when everybody went nuts with the British Invasion in ‘64, we were buying the Beatles and the Stones and the Searchers and all these bands doing covers of songs that had just been top ten hits the year before. The other thing that surprises me is how many people say, “What do you mean, the Beatles do covers?” “Haven’t you ever heard ‘Twist and Shout’?” “Yeah. It was a cover?” “Yeah, it was a top ten hit by the Isley Brothers a year before the Beatles recorded it.” What was the question?
Julia: Uhhh, do you like the Beatles?
Billy: I like the first album a lot. I liked their second and third albums okay. I hate the arty stuff. I hate Sgt. Pepper.
Julia: Hate it or you don’t get it?
Billy: I despise it. Oh, I get it. I don’t think most people get it. They were making fun of English vaudeville shows that they listened to on the radio when they were kids. I’m old enough to remember those vaudeville shows and, to me, there was absolutely nothing new on Sgt. Pepper. It was a parody of stuff that I’d heard as a kid. I think there’s a whole generation of people who thought that was something new, ya know? It’s a spoof on stuff that was happening on the radio in the forties, and in England it carried into the fifties ‘cause they didn’t really have television. They were about a decade behind us on a lot of stuff. They didn’t have things like tape records and televisions and meat. Meat was rationed up until the early sixties. Steel was rationed. You know, most of those English bands in the sixties had to make their own guitars and amps ‘cause they couldn’t buy them over there.
Julia: Yeah, I think in one of those Clash movies they talk about making amps out of dresser drawers.
Billy: There’s a book called 17 watts? that you should read.
Julia: By who?
Billy: Mo Foster, and he tells the story about the title. There was an amp called the Watkins Dominator and it was seventeen watts. It was the biggest amplifier you could buy in England. Vox had their AC15, which was the biggest amp you could buy, then Watkins came out with the one that was 17 watts. Then Marshall came out with an amp they claimed was 18 watts, which was the exact same amp, different cabinet. But anyway, the thing is, he was in a band and in those days the whole band would play through one amp. The lead, rhythm, bass and vocals: all through one amplifier. They were playing gigs and saving up their money to buy a bigger amplifier so they could play halls. Two of the guys wanted to get one of these Watkins amplifiers and they had an argument because the other two members thought that that was over the top, that was more amp than anybody would ever need.
Julia: And now look where it’s at… 400 watt bass amps. It’s insane.
Billy: It is insane. It’s counter productive.
Julia: So why is X so loud [smiling]?
Billy: Relatively speaking, X isn’t really that loud.
Julia: The guitar is loud.
Billy: 50 watts.
Julia: Yeah, but it’s loud.
Billy: 50 watts.
Julia: Louder than other 50 watt amps.
Billy: No, 50 watts is 50 watts. It’s just the way I play. 50 watts is too much any more because they mic stuff through the P.A.
Julia: How’s your hearing?
Billy: Pardon me?
Julia: Why do you mess with DJ when you’re playing?
Billy: Why do I? ‘Cause he’s the drummer. I can’t mess with John and Exene that much, because, well, John has no sense of humor, [laughing] and Exene isn’t playing an instrument, so she has too much freedom for retaliation. Besides that, X has always been me and DJ, to me. I just look at DJ and try to lock in with him. You can’t ever hear the vocals onstage anyway. If the monitors are really good, you can tell when they’re singing and when they’re not, so if I can do that I can tell where we are in the song. Because John’s always trying to put everything in his vocal performance, his bass playing is just all over the map and it’s better if I can just tune him out. So, when we play live it’s just me and DJ. I mess with him just ‘cause he’s there.
Julia: It’s funny watching you two.
Billy: I mess with John, though.
Julia: Yeah, I’ve seen you pretend to turn knobs on his amp.
Billy: I pretend to twist his knobs then he can’t figure out what I did and he goes crazy. With John, you have to be careful. There’s a fine line you don’t want to cross. You never know what mood he’s in that night.
Julia: Looking back at all these years of playing music, what time period do you remember as being the best or the most fun?
Billy: Right now.
Billy: Probably, except I’m kinda old. Fun? [sigh] I don’t know. Is it supposed to be fun?
Julia: Yeah, I hope so.
Billy: It’s the struggle that keeps you going.
Julia: You have fun out there.
Billy: I try to make the most of it. I think the audience is fun.
Julia: In that Darby Crash book (Lexicon Devil)…
Billy: I haven’t seen it.
Julia: Yeah, I should have brought it. It says Pat Smear punched you in the face?
Julia: It says something about you wouldn’t let him borrow your guitar after he broke his. I think this was at the Hong Kong or Madam Wong’s.
Billy: Okay, we got a couple different incidents there. We played a gig at Hope St. Hall and the Germs were on. They tuned for about an hour, then Pat smashed his guitar. He sent somebody backstage to ask if he could borrow mine ‘cause he just broke the neck off of his and I said “No.” That was one incident, but I didn’t even see Pat that night. There was a night at the Hong Kong. Darby was being a real asshole and trying to disrupt the show and I threw him off the stage… did you ever go to the Hong Kong?
Julia: As a kid going to Chinatown, but not to punk shows.
Billy: Well, you walked off the stage right into the kitchen. It looked like a door to the backstage, but it was just the kitchen and then you’d walk through the kitchen back to the outside. Anyway, I threw Darby off and Pat came through the door behind the drums, tried to reach over my amp and bitch slap the back of my head, but he missed and our roadie, Kit, grabbed him and threw him out of the club. That, somehow in Pat’s story telling, evolved into him punching me out. If someone needs more validation than that… look, he claims he punched me out during an X show, in front of a sold-out crowd. Don’t you think somebody would remember that? Just Pat remembers that.
Julia: You’re really accessible. You’re on the X (Yahoo) message board and email. Do you mind people emailing you? Asking questions?
Billy: No. Course not. I make it easy for them to find me. People are afraid of me for some reason. I try to be nice to people, but I don’t know what they want. I don’t know what they expect. People are afraid to hire me to play sessions. They’re afraid to approach me about producing, I don’t know. People are weird about me I don’t know why.
Julia: Weird about asking you to produce, I think, because they think maybe you won’t be into it and will say no.
Billy: Producing has gotten a bad name. People think producing is making it sound like Britney Spears.
Julia: …or “He’s not gonna like my band ‘cause we don’t sound like X, or…”
Billy: That’s a good thing for me. I try to avoid bands that sound like X. I’ve already done that.
Julia: Anything else you wanna talk about?
Billy: Mmmmmmmm gosh, we didn’t talk much about British sports cars. When I was a kid, like junior high, the ultimate cool car you could have was an English sports car, like a MG or an Austin Healey or a Triumph or a Jaguar. We didn’t want a ‘57 Chevy. We wanted a MG. ‘57 Chevy’s got popular later. That’s why Elvis is driving MGs in his movies.
Julia: Like James Bond?
Billy: In the movies, James Bond drives an Aston Martin, but the real James Bond, in the books, always drove Bentleys. Old Bentleys, like 1929.
Julia: You like movies?
Billy:I love movies.
Billy: I’m a movie buff, yes. Who’s your favorite director?
Julia: The one guy. [It takes me a minute to come up with the name] Oliver Stone. I like the angles he films from.
Billy: I used to love Claude Lelouch ‘cause he made this movie in the mid-seventies that I thought was the best movie I’d ever seen.
Julia: What movie?
Billy:Toute Une Vie, which is And Now My Love in English. I thought it was the most fantastic movie I’d ever seen. About a year ago it was released on DVD and a friend sent it to me. Not only is it on DVD, but it’s the director’s cut. And it sucks!
Billy: Because it’s got all this extra footage in it that should have been left out, and they re-did the subtitles. Actually, the new subtitles are closer to what they’re really saying in French, but I don’t like the dialogue as well. Now he’s not my favorite director, but who ever edited that (the original) is my favorite editor. Do you like Citizen Kane?
Julia: I’ve never seen it.
Billy: I want to produce the musical equivalent of Citizen Kane. A record producer and a movie director are kinda the same job. I wanna do all the shadows and camera angles musically… and Sunset Boulevard.
Julia: [shrug “no”]
Julia: I can’t sit through movies.
Julia: I can’t sit still that long.
Billy: That how I feel about live shows, concerts.
(BZ got a phone call, I started taking photos and we never went back to the interview. I found out a few days ago the Billy Zoom Band is formed and playing shows starting June 2005. Also, an X live DVD will be released in April 2005 that Mr. Zoom mixed the live sound for.)
Billy Zoom’s list of required listening
King Oliver, King Oliver Stomp
Bix Beiderbecke—anything with Frankie Trumbauer
Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France (Django)—all 1930’s sessions
Benny Goodman Orchestra, Sing, Sing, Sing
Glen Miller, Greatest Hits
Andrews Sisters, Greatest Hits, but make sure it’s the original recordings.
Johnnie Ray—anything about crying
Elvis Presley—Sun Sessions, and first RCA album with the cover the Clash copied
Jerry Lee Lewis—EVERYTHING!!!!
Roy Orbison, The Monument Hits…, Love Hurts, Pretty Woman, etc.
Brenda Lee—original hits, the Owen Bradley stuff
Patsy Cline—original hits, the Owen Bradley stuff
Buddy Holly Story, the album, not the movie!
Little Richard, 17 Grooviest Original Hits, or anything on Specialty
Chuck Berry, Greatest Hits, or everything before London Sessions
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out
Duke Ellington, Three Suites, Ellington at Newport
The Coasters,Greatest Hits
Muddy Waters—all the Chess hits
Oliver Nelson, The Blues and the Abstract Truth
Count Basie, Hall of Fame
The Shadows, first two albums
The Ventures, first two albums
The Shirelles, Baby It’s You
Claudine Clark, Party Lights
Fontella Bass, Rescue Me
The Temptations, My Girl
Bobby Bland, Stormy Monday
Lonnie Mack, Wham reissued as Memphis Wham
Jimmy Reed, Honest I Do
The Miracles, Shop Around
The Four Tops, Bernadette, Reach Out
Betty Everett, Shoop Shoop Song
Helen Shapiro, Greatest Hits
Tommy Roe, Everybody
The Drifters, Under the Boardwalk
Gene Pitney, Greatest Hits!!!!
Buddy Morrow, Night Train
Etta James, Tell Mama
Dusty Springfield, Son of a Preacher Man
Aretha Franklin, Respect, Chain of Fools
Steppenwolf, Born to Be Wild—listen only in mono
Isaac Hayes, Walk On By
Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Greatest Hits
The Youngbloods, Get Together
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Cloudburst, Twisted, etc.
Jimmy Smith, The Incredible Jimmy Smith
Sergey Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf, Lieutenant Kijé Suite
Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On?
Ray Charles—just about anything
Lloyd Price, Stagger Lee, Just Because
Brook Benton, Kiddio, Rainy Night in Georgia, It’s Just a Matter of Time
The Who, My Generation—first album ONLY!
Laurindo Almeida, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Earl Bostic, Harlem Nocturne
Tyrone Davis, Turn Back the Hands of Time
James Brown and the Flames, Greatest Hits, before Bootsy Collins
Wilson Pickett—everything except Hey Jude
Sam and Dave, Greatest Hits, but play it in MONO!
Arthur Alexander, Greatest Hits
Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Greatest Hits
The Pirates, Castin’ My Spell
Dave Berry, The Cryin’ Game
The Beatles—first album ONLY! (okay, maybe the first two, but that’s it)
The Searchers—first two albums
Desmond Dekker and the Aces, The Israelites
Heinz, Movin’ In, I’m Not a Bad Guy,Just Like Eddie
Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed… either vinyl or the Superbitmapped CD
Bay City Rollers, Saturday Night
The Ramones—at least the first two albums
Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks
(this is still only “a partial list”)
Billy Zoom – Music 101
Pop: Popular music, as in anything that gets on the charts.
Rock‘n’roll: An aggressive form of popular music that dominated the charts from 1956 to 1966.
Rockabilly: An early form of rock and roll with no drums.
R&B: A type of rhythmic Negro music with simple chord changes (compared to jazz), and the accents on 2 and 4.
Soul: A type of R&B music popular in the mid to late sixties, performed by artists such as James Brown, Sam and Dave, and Aretha Franklin.
Rock: Drug-oriented white-boy music with distorted guitars and no soul.
Punk: Ultra-aggressive form of rock and roll which used elements of rock music to poke fun at rock. Created in the ‘70s by frustrated rock and rollers who wanted to rid the world of corporate rock, and revive rock‘n’roll.