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."
Nonetheless, Perennial Favorites was worth the wait. The playing is tighter, the numbers more diverse and richer in style and syncopation than anything the band has done before. Meanwhile, Whalen's vocals have graduated from a cute, Betty Boopish sound to that of a ginned-up chanteuse seemingly intent on sending male hormones racing. Perennial also rings in some roster changes in the form of new members Je Widenhouse (trumpet) and Stu Cole (bass), who've replaced Guess and Raleigh, respectively. Among the CD's highlights: the jaunty first single, "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill," the slow-grind "Low Down Man," the breezy "Evening at Lafitte's" and the instrumental "The Kraken" (Maxwell must be a Clash of the Titans fan). There's also Mathus's manic "Ghost of Stephen Foster," in which he envisions a meeting with the legendary composer of such American standards as "Camptown Races" and "Swanee River."
Mathus says he has always felt drawn to Foster, who died broke and an alcoholic at the age of 37. "He did a lot of writing for minstrel shows, and that became untouchable -- the blackface performers and all that," says Mathus. "It's a touchy subject, and he doesn't get a lot of credit. But his songs are a [vital] part of American music."
Mathus then proceeds to blow the lid off many a cherished childhood memory by demythologizing a Foster classic: "I mean, the Camptown ladies were prostitutes. Life is harsh, man."
Another Perennial track with personal connections is "Pallin' with Al," written in honor of Al Casey, the 82-year-old former guitarist with Fats Waller who still performs today and is a hero of the band. "He is one of those rare human links to the music of the past, and we developed a real friendship when we got to meet him," Mathus says. "He's a kindred spirit."
Tracking down these performers, their stories and their music has become a driving passion for the Zippers, making them musical archaeologists of sorts. "You're trying to uncover something which has basically vanished. The only documents you have is what is written about them and what is on record, and most of what has been written was after the fact," Mathus says. "I mean, if you could have gone and seen Jelly Roll Morton performing, that would have been a real learning experience."
As with their previous album, Perennial Favorites includes a CD-ROM portion loaded down with music clips, concert and interview footage and a 363-page interactive booklet on all things Zipper. The impressive package was assembled by Clay Walker, an early fan of the band who is now an integral part of the Squirrel Nut camp. A video for "Suits Are Picking Up the Bills" has already been released, and animators are working on a clip for "Ghost of Stephen Foster," which is said to be a wild visual romp in the style of pioneering '30s cartoonist Max Fleischer.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Given all the above, it's not surprising that Mathus is a man with next to no spare time. In addition to the Zippers, he also heads a blues-and-jug-band side project that just released its debut CD, James Mathus and the Knockdown Society Play Songs for Rosetta. "I've written hundreds of songs in every genre," he adds.
When asked what is the biggest difference in the band's daily life pre- and post-"Hell," Mathus says that while there is certainly more money now, dealing with increased business pressures while keeping the dynamic, spirit and philosophy of the band intact is a challenge. Over the next few months, the Squirrel Nut Zippers will be on the road full-time pitching Perennial Favorites to both diehard fans and newcomers. And who knows? If the Zippers' career continues to gain momentum, there might just come a time when the Mathus/Whalen farmhouse takes on the legendary aura of Graceland. Then again, maybe not.
"Nah," says Mathus, dismissing such talk with a laugh. "They'll probably just bulldoze the place."
The Squirrel Nut Zippers perform Wednesday, August 12, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $16 and $21.50. Showtime is 8 p.m. Bio Ritmo opens. For info, call 629-3700.