World of Their Own

Carolina retronauts the Squirrel Nut Zippers swing clear of camp

Perhaps the best way to begin a story about the Squirrel Nut Zippers is to clear up what they aren't. They do not belong to the so-called neo-swing movement that consists of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and other like-styled rockers-turned-zoot-suit-rioters. Neither do they fall into the Vegas show band, cocktail nation, No Depression or jazz camps. Instead, what the Zippers embody is a savory, southernized gumbo of all those elements minus any overt nostalgia, homage or camp.

As for the band members themselves, a line from one of their early songs could double as their performing impetus: "If it's good enough for granddad, then it's good enough for me." Apparently, it's also good enough for a growing number of fans, who made the Zippers' "Hell" -- a rumba-and-calypso tour of Satan's domain -- last year's most unlikely radio hit. This week, the North Carolina septet hopes to build on that momentum with the release of Perennial Favorites, a dozen rock-solid originals that represent the band's finest and most ambitious collection to date.

"It really doesn't bother me at all," head Zipper and chief songwriter Jim Mathus says of the impossibility of categorizing the band. "Because my own influences growing up were a very diverse lot. That's how I got my love of early American music."

Growing up in Mississippi, Mathus was bombarded by music. Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Flatt & Scruggs were all regulars on the family turntable. Mathus's father had a band, and it wasn't unusual for a stray fiddler or dobro player to come by the house and jam. So it was hardly any big surprise when Mathus took to singing, and began playing guitar and trombone. "None of the music in my house ever sounded weird to me," he says. "But the first time I ever heard Robert Johnson -- now that was weird. And when I heard Louis Armstrong's Hot Five group, my eyes opened to another universe."

The Squirrel Nut Zippers' universe began to take shape in 1993, when Mathus and his wife (then his girlfriend), Katharine Whalen, moved from Chapel Hill to a farmhouse in nearby Elfland. While renovating their home, painting and making puppets, the two immersed themselves in classic American music from the '20s and '30s. Whalen also began singing a bit and picking the banjo. Soon enough, the couple was having potluck dinners, inviting friends over for fried chicken, cheap beer and loose jam sessions that favored vintage jazz, bluegrass and Delta blues. The hoedowns grew to include future Zippers Ken Mosher (guitar, sax, clarinet), Chris Phillips (drums), Don Raleigh (bass), Stacy Guess (trumpet) and Tom Maxwell (vocals, guitar, clarinet, sax). Maxwell, like Mathus, was an ex-rocker infatuated with Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and old-time calypso artists like Lord Executor and the Growler. He now contributes several tunes to each Squirrel Nut Zippers release.

"It never crossed our minds that we would be doing this full time," Mathus says of those early days. "We were just having a little fun."

Taking their name from a chewy vanilla-nut candy made by the Squirrel Brand Company in Massachusetts, the Squirrel Nut Zippers debuted in November 1993 in a tiny basement bistro in Chapel Hill. Before long, the band had steady regional work at nightclubs, house parties and even weddings. Things began to take off upon the release of their full-length Mammoth Records debut, The Inevitable, in 1995. Next came appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and A Prairie Home Companion.

Naturally, the Zippers' live act was a bit raw at first, but the band soon grew solid enough to record most of its 1996 follow-up, Hot, live to tape, laying down tracks in a house in New Orleans. The Hot sessions were so fruitful, in fact, that the group eschewed the formal studio environment for Perennial Favorites, as well. The new CD was recorded in a dilapidated old house, which Mosher wound up restoring and now lives in.

"We like the ambient sounds you find recording in a house," Mathus says. "When we started the band, we were playing in a big wooden parlor with ten-foot ceilings and no insulation; the music just sounded so good. For this record, we had the drums in one room and the horns in the kitchen, and we varied the bleed between instruments by cracking open the door between them."

Few knew what to make of the Zippers initially, and even fewer had ever seen or heard anything like them. But most agreed on one thing -- the music was refreshing. When MTV and alternative radio latched on to "Hell" in 1997, the band's fortunes really began to explode. They stepped up their touring schedule, and Mammoth released an EP of outtakes and live tracks called Sold Out. Even Newsweek got into the act, doing a short piece on the Zippers and accurately assuming that theirs was "music obviously made for the love of it."

Most of the tracks on the new Perennial Favorites were actually recorded some time ago. As to why the album didn't appear in stores sooner, to capitalize on the momentum of Hot, Mathus replies diplomatically, "It wasn't my decision."

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