Squirrel Nut Zippers
Sat. Sept. 29
Charleston Music Hall
In the summer of 1995, only about two years after forming the band in Chapel Hill, N.C., Jimbo Mathus came to bandmates Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher, two other co-founders of the vintage-styled old, weird Americana group Squirrel Nut Zippers with a mission: He was going to New Orleans, and the Zippers needed to come with him.
Mathus had long been fascinated with the Crescent City. Born to musically inclined parents, Mathus decamped to New Orleans when he was 18; he worked on the barges, soaking in the city’s music and culture — not to mention its seamy history and fantastic ghosts, as much as he could.
“That was a wellspring of my imagination,” Mathus says in early September from his home in Oxford, Miss. “My music especially is closely related to spirituality and to the unknown and mysticism. There’s always been a penchant in me to explore that. When I started writing, it just moved into my music writing, so you got all kinds of things on the mystical plane and the Zippers songs.”
Mathus had a high school friend who happened to be the drummer for Blind Melon; when Mathus got to NOLA, his buddy took him to where they had just cut a record. That was Daniel Lanois’ studio Kinsgway, built in the former home of Germaine Cazenave Wells, one of New Orleans’ most infamous socialites. The band — and Mathus — knew it would be the perfect place for the Zippers to harness their idiosyncratic punk-rock take on Tin Pan Alley.
They booked a week there and recorded their second album, Hot, which would propel the band to its strange national stardom when “Hell” exploded on mainstream radio several months after the record’s release in June 1996. Hot and “Hell” presaged the swing revival without remotely being a part of it; history has largely swept them in the dustbin with cartoonier (and far less talented) bands of the short-lived and much-lambasted swing revival, such as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Combustible Edison.
But swing, schming. The Zippers were unique. They worked mostly in isolation from what was happening in Chapel Hill at the time, eschewing angular and bratty indie rock for deep dives into the roots of early American music. And a large part of their personality was shaped by New Orleans; its distinct gumbo of American music and performing arts — zydeco, hot jazz, cabaret, burlesque, and, OK, yes, swing — seeped into Hot, and the city’s ghosts seemed to take up residence in the band’s songs. Indeed, that time in NOLA’s artsy ‘hood, the Marigny, is so pervasive in the hereditary template of the band that the city acts as almost another band member.
“Of any city, it’s the one, for sure,” Mathus says. “I wouldn’t want to exclude others into that gumbo, but New Orleans is the third man.”
But as “Hell” entered chart heaven, the band started spinning apart. Founding bassist Don Raleigh left in 1996. Three years later, Maxwell and Mosher quit acrimoniously; an ugly stretch of litigation over money pitted Mathus against Maxwell and Mosher for years. (Maxwell, for what it’s worth, is credited with writing “Hell” and “Put a Lid on It,” the Zippers’ biggest hits.) Singer Katharine Whalen left the band after she and Mathus divorced around the turn of the millennium. By 2001, the Zippers were fully unzipped.
Mathus tried to reconvene the Zippers a handful of times starting in 2007, but the one-off get-togethers “just didn’t seem to have an intense purpose,” Mathus shrugs. Whalen, Maxwell, Mosher, and his other former bandmates weren’t making music full-time, he reasoned. (Maxwell has released music; so, too, has Whalen.) By contrast, Mathus was keeping a breakneck pace. He recorded several solo albums, and a few with his bands Knock Down Society and Tri-State Coalition. He also toured and recorded with Buddy Guy, and recorded Elvis Costello’s Grammy Award-winning Monkey to Man.
So when the 20th anniversary of Hot rolled around two years ago, Mathus wasn’t interested in reforming Squirrel Nut Zippers, per se.
“Like, when I started talking about this in 2015, I quickly realized if I’m going to do it, I want to do it not just as a, for a few reunion shows, but let’s start the band over again,” he says. “That was my philosophy.”
And if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be Jimbo Mathus.
“Well, I started the band in the first place, so I’m the one who can call any band Squirrel Nut Zippers,” he says. “I’m the only one.”
The news didn’t sit well with some of Mathus’s former comrades — Maxwell, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of using the name for the re-formed crew. “They might also call it a reunion, if shame has abandoned them,” Maxwell wrote in a scathing piece on Medium that he titled “Squirrel Not Zippers.” But Mathus is careful not to call this latest incarnation of the Squirrel Nut Zippers a reunion. He prefers to call it a revival — partially because of the word’s extended associations.
“Of course, the first one that comes to mind to me is, like, reborn,” Mathus says. “Reinvented. Revived like someone that’s deceased, you revive them. Of course, the good, old Southern mythologies of revival: the church, the tent revival, the wood arbor revival, the riverside revival. That kind of thing. It just came to me. It’s not a reunion.”
To assemble the cadre of carnival barkers to form his new sideshow, Mathus returned to the Crescent City. He put the word out to some friends in New Orleans, and soon enough he’d staffed Squirrel Nut Zippers’ new lineup with crackerjack players from across New Orleans’s endemic scenes — burlesque, hot jazz, zydeco, second line.
“They just came out of the woodwork,” Mathus laughs. “Pretty much everyone in the lineup now is around the first people I met when I first started getting them together in 2016, 2015 really. It was easy to find the right people, and that made it seem like it was heading in the right direction to me.”
“And it just so happens that all of them are just ace, not just ace players, but incredible people and reliable and hardworking and just the best crew I could possibly imagine,” he continues. “To be doing what we’re doing, it’s a dream come true for me.”
Mathus was so enamored with his new lineup that, pretty soon, he was inspired to start writing new tunes for his new crew.
“It just seemed right, man, because it was just, like, we have a band,” Mathus says. “We have the cast that we need so I can write things to their strength like we always did. I just realized this crew needs their own songs, man; they were doing a great job playing the material from 20 years ago, but just imagine what they could do if it was their own.”
Beasts of Burgundy, released in March, is as much inspired by his new bandmates as it is a tribute to New Orleans. (The title’s final word is pronounced bur-GUN-dee, just like the famous Crescent City thoroughfare.) Its jump and swing belong to the city, especially its turn-of-last-century hot dance and Dixieland heyday. There are heavy undertones of Cajun voodoo and the daring of burlesque. But by not playing this old-timey music straight, Mathus, as he always has, emphasizes its inherent wildness and weirdness. The result finds the Zippers just where they’ve always been: filtering Delta blues, gypsy jazz, calypso, and swing through a modern mentality with plenty of dark humor and parody. It marks the bands as exciting, vibrant, interesting, and subversive as it was two decades ago.
Mathus won’t say that Beasts of Burgundy — and the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ second life — is closer to the original vision he had when he founded the band in the early 1990s. His vision’s changed over the years, anyway.
“It’s just a more mature vision and a more possible, a more probable vision,” Mathus says of the modern-day Zippers. “The first one I could have never predicted. It was just pure instinct. We caught lightning in the bottle the first time, and that’s supposed to be the only time you can do that. Well, we were able to catch it twice with the revival. To me, that’s the miracle in and of itself.”
“We play all the great shit that we did before, just with a whole bunch of new great thrown in with it,” he adds. “It’s a win-win.”.