by D. House
November 01, 2008
Billy Zoom had played with Gene Vincent for a brief stint and fronted his own rockabilly band, but it was in 1977 with the forming of 'X' that Billy left an indelible mark on the history of RocknRoll. He played with X for the first five albums before leaving in 1985. Over the last few years, Billy has been playing with the original lineup again, but enjoys spending a lot of his time recording designing and repairing amplifiers and recording bands in his own recording studio where this interview was conducted.
What are your thoughts and memories of the early punk days of L.A. and how did they shape you?
The early days of the Punk thing in L.A… That was a great scene, a great time, those years from the middle to late 70’s in L.A. It was just starting there was a real cool thing and I am lucky to have been old enough at the time to appreciate it. A lot of the younger kids just kind of took it for granted and they were surprised when it went away. It was cool scene. There were some very good bands around. Some who managed to make a name for themselves and some who kind of just disappeared... you know the Dils and The Screamers, those two bands put out some good music.
Did you feel that the Decline of Western Civilization captured the L.A. scene accurately?
No. We used to play 3 nights a row at The Whiskey in those days and we’d do 2 shows a night, so we’d end up doing 6 shows in a weekend. Usually Friday and Saturday and we did that. Saturday night, we had to wait around and pack all our gear up and we didn’t get out of the Whiskey until 3 or 3:30 in the morning. At the time we were mostly on the road and so I was just sleeping on John’s couch. I'd been kicked out of my apartment and it didn’t seem worthwhile to get another one. So after our final show one night, John, Exene and I were in John’s old International Traveler with all the gear and we pull around the corner and the next thing I say is "John, there someone in our house!' All the lights are on and the door is open and John said, "Oh, crap. I think I told Penelope that we would do her movie after all whenI was out drinking at the Lingerie. I think I gave her a key to the house…" So, we didn’t even know they were going to do it and we were dead tired after playing 6 shows and by now it's 4:00 in the morning and there is all these lights and stuff and people running around in the house, which is why I look so out of it and tired. That was the couch I slept on. I was waiting for them to leave so I could go to sleep. I really didn’t want to do the film because Penelope asked all the top bands and they all turned her down except for John and then she went down line until she got to us. The Germs really didn’t get popular until the 90’s had started. At the time it was like, “WHO?” They were some teenagers from the Valley who were just learning to play and they weren’t - to me - part of the same scene. It was strange.
The next question has already been asked to death but what led you to leave X and move onto new things?
Well, we had had 4 albums out which topped all the critics’ lists across the country. We were touring 7 or 8 months straight a year, playing over 200 cities a year… and we were on a major label and we had great press and good promotion and we had never managed to make as much as I would have made working at the corner hardware store. I was about 38 years old and I was thinking, "You know, I think the Punk thing is about over and we haven’t had a hit by now. I don’t see one coming," so I told the band in 1984, I will do one more record; one more album and I will go on one more commercial tour to push the record but if it doesn’t sell significantly better than the first four I may have to look for something else to make a living. I am getting old. The 5th album ended up selling a lot less than the first four. It was our worst seller. John and Exene had just gotten divorced and they weren’t writing together. They were both living with other people. Exene would come in with her songs and John would come in with his. I am amazed we even stayed together. No one was working together. Everyone was burned out. We were getting a lot of flack from the managers and the record company who thought they could make us into a metal band.
This last whole bunch of tour dates: is this the first time you have actually gone on a full tour in quite a while?
We’ve been touring the whole time actually. We got back together and have been touring for over 2 years now. Enough to make a living which is why I am still doing it. We just did 40 cities. We had been touring for ten years all over the country and every time we go out people come up to me and say "Gosh it is so great that you got back to do this show and I hope you do it again sometime." And I would say:"well, we have been touring for 5 years" and they would kind of look at me. We finally got a real manager this last year. He actually sent out a press release saying we had all got back together because people I don’t think for the most part knew that we were back together. And he put it in all the contracts that it has to be on the marquis as "X: with all original members," because the ‘X’ just kind of disappears.
What’s your thought about playing now? you are reaching so many new people that are hearing you for the first time. There must be a kind of renewed excitement.
Well, the old people bring their kids. You see families out there…that’s fun. I don’t want to be like The Dead but it is kind of funny, and also kind of cool.
I was reading about your Dad being really musical. It sounds like he played a pretty big part in your life in terms of the direction you chose to play music.
He was a musician and when I was a little kid he was still putting on the tuxedo every weekend and disappearing and once he settled down and had me he went part time but he had a full time job playing through the big band era. He played sax mostly but played everything. He would go play some supper club as an organist and take requests and stuff part of a big band or play Dixieland. He played actually guitar for a little while and he knew all these fancy passing chords and stuff that I wish I knew better. So, he taught me to play guitar. I had lessons on piano, accordion, violin, clarinet, saxophone, and flute. I had lessons in everything except guitar because my mother said that is not a real instrument. She thought that would be like taking harmonica lessons. "It is not a real instrument. Elvis plays one." She did, however, buy all of Elvis’s records. She was very conflicted.
So did she changed her opinion later when you started playing professionally as a guitar player?
No. She wanted me to be a schoolteacher. She thought the worst 2 things in the world that I could become would be a musician or some kind of mechanic, which is basically what I am. My mother died when I was still a teenager. I have been completely on my own since I was 17. My parents got divorced when I was ten and I saw my father occasionally and then I saw him a couple of months one summer when I was 14 and I didn’t really see him again. I have basically been on my own since I was about ten I have no family; no brothers or sisters.
I heard that you recently had twins… how has that impacted your life?
Well, now it they are the focus of my whole life. Everything is about them. It is cool. I like it. I always wanted kids. Touring is difficult with them at home and the studio is leaving them at night, which is a bit easier. Having kids kind of gives me more focus. I feel like it’s about something again.
How would you feel if they, as they got older, started playing music? Would you feel good about that or would you try to convince them to do something else?
I think it is a nice hobby. I think it is nice to know how to do that. I think it is good for your brain development to do it. And they are already playing a little. They can kind of play a G chord. We have a little keyboard and they mostly make funny noises. My son knows where the button is for the sound effects. He likes that a lot. I try to expose them to all that kind of stuff. They get very selected music to listen to. They get the Ramones and Dave Brubeck. We have a CD of Burl Ives singing kids songs from the 50’s.
I understand you still listen to a lot of jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck…?
I saw them all live when I was a kid. I listened to Brubeck on the way over here. I also listen to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue…oh, and John Coltrane.
You played with Gene Vincent toward the end of his life. Tell me about that.
I was playing with this soul band in Watts and cutting demos with a couple of original bands, and I was working through Musician’s Contact Service…they are still around… you could sign up and I am a life member because I was one of the first hundred. They had books of bands looking for musicians and musicians looking for bands and stuff and he called and left a message with my neighbor that Gene Vincent was looking to put a band together and Sterling, the guy that ran the contact service he came in… him and his manager and said, "I need a list of guitar players who would be good for Gene Vincent." He said, "I only have one but he is perfect. Just call him."
Was he doing new stuff or the old standards?
You couldn’t get Gene Vincent records in those days in those days without going to England or France. Gene didn’t have any Gene Vincent records. He had some of his stuff on 8 track tape but nobody had a 8 track tape back then and you couldn’t buy or steal or borrow a Gene Vincent record so it was hard to learn his original material. We all kind of knew Bee-Bop-A-Lula. There was a lot of stuff that I couldn’t remember but I knew that I had heard at some time, but did not know how to actually play it. We did a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry covers.
Was he a hero of yours musically growing up?
More so after playing with him. He was one of those one-hitters. Bee-Bop-A-Lula was really big. Everybody knows that song. I wasn’t that aware of a lot of his other stuff: I had only heard 3 or 4 other songs by him as a kid. I like that genre. I liked Rockabilly and stuff. I had a lot of fun playing with him. It got me started thinking more about Rockabilly, so my playing started moving a bit more in that direction.
What year was that?
That was 1971. He died October 12th, 1971. I played with him April. May, June, July right in there. He went off to England and I left the group because I didn’t trust his manager and I said, “I need a round trip ticket.” He said, "We’ll get you a one-way ticket. We’ll take of it, don’t worry." I said, "I’m not leaving here without it. I can’t call home. I don’t have any family that I can call,” and as it turned out, the rest of the band did get stranded. They had to call home and get money wired to them to get back. It was a good call, but sometimes I wish I’d have just done it: maybe I should have just gone to England, and worked for the Stray Cats.
I loved the comment on the Gretch site: “Nice guy, Punk Legend! How did your signature guitar come about?
Well…slowly. We were working on it in 1999, I think. Right after they started making Gretch’s again, after Fred and Dinah bought the company… and… they had gone through a couple/few ownerships. Fred Gretch bought it back, and I talked to them at a NAMM show and they said “we wanna make a Billy Zoom model and we would like you to design some amps for us”. Not much happened for a while and they sent their district rep over to look at my guitar and take pictures and talk about it. And then it turned to silence. I never heard from them again. Then it was the next NAMM show and they said "No, he’s not working for us anymore" so after the show was over I called and they were in Germany or something and the next thing I know Fender was handling Gretch. They had licensed it to Fender and they just kind of shelved my project for about 5 years. They started making Gretch’s again in the late 80’s I think. Anyway, Fender starting running Gretch and they just were kind of un-interested in the Billy Zoom guitar and then a year and a half ago, almost 2 years ago, they changed and they got a new guy running the Gretch division, and he’s an expert.
Depending on where you grew up and how old you are, you have either never heard of X or they are the greatest band you ever heard of, ya know? So, the guy that is in charge of the Gretch division now is Joe Carducci who is in his 40’s and grew up in L.A. during X’s heyday. He’s a big fan, so I talked to him at the NAMM show and let’s see, this was 2007 I think, and he said "Oh, glad to meet you, we gotta get a signature guitar" and I said.. "You know… you already have the paperwork drawn up…" and he said "We do?" and I said, "Yeah, we do. We went through all that like 8 years ago. Why don’t you just go ahead and make it." It was frustrating that it dragged out so long, but it came out good because the guitars are a lot, lot better now than they were then. They are really good now. When they first started making Gretch again it was kind of well, but the quality has gotten that I think it actually surpasses the originals now.