The Billboard 200 album chart for the end of June 1997 certainly cut a wide swath through musical performers and styles: The Spice Girls, Hanson, the Wallflowers, Mary J. Blige, Aerosmith, No Doubt, Jewel and the Notorious B.I.G. all made the Top 30.
But there at its peak of No. 27 was an unusual entry even by that comparison: Hot by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Buoyed by their hit single “Hell,” this band of brothers and one sister from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, formed in 1993, played way-retro hot jazz/swing of the 1920s and '30s as well as vintage-sounding original material, and dressed the part. The “Hell” video was unlike anything on MTV at the time, and was followed by the single and video "Put a Lid On It."
Lead singer/guitarist Jimbo Mathus has re-formed the band for a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hot's 1996 release, which is being reissued on vinyl and features a lost track from the era, “The Puffer.” The Zippers (named for an actual peanut and caramel candy) stop at Miller Outdoor Theatre this Friday evening for a free show.
“The anniversary was the impetus, and I decided I wanted to put a Zippers together again that could be around for a while and really showcase the repertoire,” Mathus says. “And the people I’m working with now have got me fired up. I’m not trying to re-create something. I’m trying to create a new chapter. And I want to have a fun, multi-generational experience in the concerts.”
Hot was recorded in New Orleans, and the city acts as almost another band member, so much does its musical influence pervade the resulting songs. Mathus says that he was originally invited to check out the city then by a high-school friend and the drummer for Blind Melon, Glenn Graham.
“Nobody in the band had been there before, and for our music, if you’re going to look at the birth of jazz, you have to look at New Orleans,” notes Mathus. “We absorbed that incredible environment. And we were teaching ourselves how to emulate this music, everything from Tin Pan Alley to swing to hot jazz to calypso. It was a great inspiration.”
Credit for breaking the decidedly unorthodox Zippers also must go to the band’s record label at the time, Mammoth. Mathus says that it became almost a personal challenge for the staff to make Hot a success.
“They put together a bigger picture and fought for us, and ‘Hell’ was so catchy and energetic and almost punk rock. And our live audiences were reacting very positively,” Mathus offers.
A charming documentary by band friend and collaborator Clay Walker, Musical Candy, profiles the band just prior to the album’s release.
But Mathus wants to make one thing very clear: that this anniversary jaunt is a revival, not a reunion. He fully anticipates that this incarnation of the Zippers – which features vocalist Ingrid Lucia of the Flying Neutrinos and a crack group of New Orleans players — will have a life beyond the tour.
Of the seven band members and two guest musicians who played on Hot, only Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips are in the current lineup.
After Hot, the band in 1998 released Perennial Favorites, which got even higher on the album charts. But singles "Suits Are Picking Up the Bills" and "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" didn't have the same impact.
Unfortunately, the group was also lumped in with other more cartoony, showy (and far less talented) bands of the short-lived "Swing Revival" like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Combustible Edison.
They first broke up in 2000, but have toured and recorded sporadically since then. As for the other two group principals, singer/ukukele player and Mathus’s former wife, Katharine Whalen (she of the distinctive Betty Boop-meets-Billie Holiday voice), has her own solo career, and her current group is Swedish Wood Patrol.
Thornier by far is the relationship between Mathus and singer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell, who, along with another member, successfully sued Mathus for back royalties. Maxwell also wrote a memoir of his time in the group, Hell (he wrote the song and sang lead on it), and pursues a solo career. Mathus made his stance on the relationship clear in an interview with Billboard , while Maxwell posted his thoughts on the anniversary tour with a sharp blog post.
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Outside of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus has maintained a breakneck pace career as a producer (working with Elvis Costello and Buddy Guy) and recording-studio owner. He’s also performed hundreds of shows both as a solo artist and with other groups (James Mathus and His Knockdown Society, South Memphis String Band, Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition).
The Squirrel Nut Zippers' current U.S. tour stretches through November, after which they’ll hit South America. Mathus has already written new material for a record, and is working with Lucia on maintaining the “whole Louis Prima/Keely Smith male-female” interaction that is a band’s hallmark. But for now, he is more than happy to reintroduce the band and his music to both their original fans and now their children.
“I’m just glad I’m in a position now to not only have the name and the concept of the band which I started and, frankly, I own, through all the trials and tribulations that were thrown at me,” he sums up. “I want to reinvigorate the fans and show them one thing: The Zippers are back in town!”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers and Shinyribs perform a free show 7:30 p.m. Friday, September 16 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive.