BILLY BOB THORNTON: Well I actually really got involved in movies. I was in music always. You know, from the beginning. I started when I was 9 or 10 years old and that’s what I did and what I thought I was going to do. Then I kind of got into a theater group and accidentally became a movie star.
AD: In Tres Hombres, your ZZ Top tribute band, did you have a beard?
BBT: Yeah, but I didn’t have to have a long one because I was the drummer. The other guys had to have the beards.
AD: How do you manage to have successful careers in both music and film? Just having one of those is a feat in itself.
BBT: Well, for the last year and a half I haven’t done a movie. I simply concentrated on making this record, as well as the next record that comes out next year. I also have three kids—two boys and a daughter—so I’m kind of a hermit. My time is spent either with the kids or recording a record or making a movie. So I just try and schedule it where I can do it all. The recording studio is here in the house, so I don’t have to go anywhere for that. It’s not too bad. Plus, I love it so much it doesn’t feel like work. Making a movie to me is a joy and making records is a joy, so I consider myself a really fortunate person to be making a living and putting my kids through school and doing what I love. I get on my knees and thank the big man every day for what I got.
AD: Do you have to turn one off to do the other, or do they flow together? How does that work?
BBT: Well, I consider it all part of the same thing. I think artists in general love music and movies and painting and poetry and everything else. I just consider it all one thing, so the transition is not that hard. The lifestyles are different. Making a movie, you go away for 3 or 4 months and you are with the same people everyday and when you are going on tour, you are in a different city everyday and it’s more immediate. You’re actually confronting or interacting with your audience. With movies, I’m making a movie with a crew and I don’t get to see the audience’s reaction. Music is much more immediate. But it’s all storytelling. Songwriting and making a movie, it’s all telling a story. Other than it takes a hell of a lot longer to write a screenplay than it does to write a song.
AD: What does your songwriting process look like?
BBT: I tend to write pretty quickly. I’m real lazy and most things I do are real spontaneous, so I usually write a song quickly and we try to record it that night. If I don’t I may get onto something else and forget about it, so I have to do everything right then. When I write a screenplay I do the same thing. I’m so lazy about it that it takes me forever to start a screenplay. I’ll do anything to avoid it. I’ll say, “I guess I should start this script, but Green Acres is on so I’ll watch that first.” Once I do start writing however, I kind of go straight through. I’m a stream of consciousness writer so I don’t map things out very well—I just kind of start going.
AD: This is your second go at music. Is it easier this time because you are so well known?
BBT: Well I think the music business is harder than the movie business in a lot of ways. The music business seems to be more competitive. It’s kind of closed off and a little more possessive or jealous or whatever. Being an actor, people don’t understand I was a roadie growing up. I worked for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a lot of different people as a roadie. I was in a lot of different bands and opened for Humble Pie and Black Oak Arkansas by the time I was 20 years old. So I was a musician first. Being a popular movie actor has nothing to do with a success in music. As a matter of fact, it’s only been a hindrance because people say, “Oh you’re an actor making a record.” Not really. I’m a musician who is making movies. I went to Nashville for the first time in 1977 to be a songwriter—that was way before I came to LA. And there is that stigma which doesn’t go in reverse. If a musician wants to do a movie people don’t think anything of it but then an actor is making records…this is my fourth record. It’s not some kind of lark. I do it because it’s what I love. That’s why I love Austin because it is a music town.
AD: There is a lot of cross-pollination of thoughts and ideas here in Austin.
BBT: Absolutely. I grew up as a hippie and Austin is a hippie town. That’s why I feel comfortable there. You know, Austin is my second home. There is a house I rent out there, I’ve made a lot of movies down there, a lot of my friends are from Austin, and I lived there for quite a bit. Even though I was raised most of my life in Arkansas I did spend part of my life in Texas. It’s kind of cool, any time we get to come to Austin to play. This time we are coming to Antone’s—we’ve never played Antone’s before. We always play at Stubb’s. It worked out this time that Antone’s was available.
I always hope when I come to Austin that the same good folks will show up and we will have the same good time. They are open to music there. It’s my kind of place.
AD: What does Beautiful Door mean to you and what can we expect from this release?
BBT: Beautiful Door is kind of moody record about life and death. We demoed about 25 or 30 songs before we hit the vein we wanted to go in. It’s really a collection of stories about life and living and death and dying and how important both are. It’s got songs like “Carnival Girl” which is about not judging people by their job or the way they look. There is a song called “Rescue Your Soul” which is about suicide, speaking from the person who is left behind. Then there are three anti-war songs on the record, which I hadn’t done previously, but this time I couldn’t help it—you’re faced with it everyday. The song, “Beautiful Door” is specifically about religion being mixed with politics in war and how it seems like the big bosses are not the ones dying. It’s about religion. It is saying that each religion has their magical door that you walk through and you get all these rewards for it and they believe that whoever they have to stomp on to get there is fine. The door to me is a pretty watery entrance. The reason the cover of the record is a picture that you can’t tell quite what it is—it seems to be some kind of mixed up portal of a light show—is because that door is very unclear to me and that’s why I wrote the song. People see this beautiful door you walk through and they think the way to get there is by shutting out everybody else. My way is the right way and I get to go through this magical door to eternity. And I just think that is kind of horseshit.
AD: It’s great to have the courage and means to express this. We appreciate when musicians can reach people and get them to think.
BBT: I feel fortunate to be able to.
AD: Of all the shows that you have played, which is your favorite and why?
BBT: I got a real charge out of playing in Dublin, Ireland about 5 or 6 years ago because the Irish are storytellers and my dad was a crazy little Irishman. That was a lot of fun. It didn’t matter if I played a rock and roll song or a quiet ballad, they would listen. I always love shows in Austin because, like I said, I consider it my second home and I love the people there. New Orleans is good to play. We did a European tour back in 2000 or 2001 where we played the Cavern Club where the Beatles were discovered among many others. I have to say that was the highlight—playing up on the stage where the Beatles were discovered.
AD: Have you tried painting yet?
BBT: I’ve tried. I could never paint. I could barely write my name. I’m not exactly what you would call a painter, but I do try it—it’s pretty relaxing and a lot of fun to try but painting is probably not my bag. I do black and white photography.
AD: One last question: what wisdom can you offer other musicians?
BBT: I would say to be an innovator and an originator. When you are writing songs write what you know about or what you feel rather than trying to write for people. I try to do that in movies too. People want to see or hear what you think—that is what art is about. If people are going to judge you they should judge you based on what you really think and not on what you are trying to manufacture to sell it. I say always be honest about it and do what you feel.