Squirrel Nut Zippers
Squirrel Nut Zippers
Jazz, blues, swing ensemble
The Squirrel Nut Zippers, a seven-piece jazz-blues-rock ensemble with the emphasis decidedly on jazz, redefined and refreshed alternative pop music by mixing various dance band rhythms from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s with nostalgic-sounding blues vocals which sound eerily similar to Billie-Holiday. A Squirrel Nut Zippers single often includes everything from a trombone with Hawaiian-style slide solos, to twangy banjos, chandelier, resonator, and the baritone ukulele; this distinctive approach renders the Squirrel Nut Zippers “an alternative to alternative” and completely different from other bands heard on the airwaves.
The original core of the band is the husband and wife team of Jim Mathus and Katharine Whalen. After marrying in 1993, Mathus and Whalen moved from Chapel Hill, NC, to the rural outpost of nearby Efland, where they renovated an old farmhouse. Mathus and Whalen also began playing music together for fun. Mathus played guitar and he taught Whalen how to play the banjo. Mathus, who had been raised in the area of the Mississippi Delta, especially loved the Delta blues of Howlin’
Band members include Jim “Jimbo” Mathus , vo cals, guitar, trombone; Tom Maxwell , vocals, guitar, baritone sax, clarinet; Ken Mosher , baritone and alto sax, guitar, vocals; Chris Phillips , percussions; Don Raleigh , bass; Katharine Whalen , vocals, banjo; and Je Widenhouse , trumpet.
Band began with husband and wife team of Jim Mathus and Katharine Whalen in Efland, NC, in the summer of 1993; Mathus and Mosher had played together in the band Metal Rake Mother; soon after the band’s first show in 1993, the band signed with North Carolina-based, alternative label Mammoth Records and began touring the South and writing original music.
The band’s first album, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, was released in 1995, followed by Hot in 1996.; the single “Anything But Love” was chosen for the soundtrack for the comedy Flirting with Disaster in 1997; performed at President Clinton’s 21st Century Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., the Summer Olympics in Atlanta; also performed on the Conan O’Brien Show, Comedy Central’s Viva Variety show, and at the Sundance Film Festival.
Addresses: Record company —c/o Mammoth Records, 101 B Street, Carrboro, NC 27510; phone (919) 932–1882. E-mail —[email protected]
Wolf, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson. Whalen had been raised in the mountain region of North Carolina, where she lived on a farm run by her grandmother. Whalen and Mathus listened to jazz musicians such as Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway, blues titans Bill Monroe and Billie Holiday, and Dixieland jazz.
In the summer of 1993, Whalen and Mathus decided to include a few friends in their unofficial jam sessions. Guitarist Ken Mosher was one of the first additions to the group. Mathus worked at a local restaurant with Mosher, and they had played together in the band Metal Flake Mother. Around this time, biomedical engineer and bassist Don Raleigh began playing with them. Before joining Squirrel Nut Zippers, Raleigh had his own band, Loose Lunatics. Raleigh’s talent for experimental music blended well with Mathus and Whalen’s love of the older jazz style.
Chris Phillips, a drummer and friend of Mosher’s, also joined the group at the farmhouse along with former What Peggy Wants bandmember Tom Maxwell. After twenty practice sessions that seemed more like house parties and potluck dinners, they knew they were becoming polished. Mosher was the type of musician who could play any instrument, and he served as the band’s early catalyst and tacit leader. Trumpet player Je Widenhouse didn’t join the band until November of 1996.
When Whalen and Mathus were first getting to know each other, she asked him what his favorite candy had been before he met her. He was so enthusiastic when describing the caramel-nut candies called Squirrel Nut Zippers that she suggested they name their band after them. It was an unusual, quirky name that seemed perfect their brand of music and, having chosen their name, the band decided to schedule their first performance in a small bistro in Chapel Hill in November of 1993. Local critics sensed the band’s enthusiasm and love of music, and they showered the Squirrel Nut Zippers with praise.
After the band’s first show, recording offers came almost immediately, and within a year, the Squirrel Nut Zippers signed with the North Carolina-based, alternative label Mammoth Records and began touring the South. Along with touring, the band members began to write their own music instead of covering the old originals. Mathus wrote “Wash Jones” after being inspired by a Faulkner character, and Raleigh’s “Anything But Love” was chosen for the soundtrack for the comedy Flirting with Disaster.
The band’s quick ascent to fame changed their perspectives: their pursuit was no longer simply an enjoyable creative outlet, it became a business as well. Their music gained momentum, and this especially surprised Whalen. She told The Oxford American ’s Frye Gaillard, “We’re drawn to old things, not to polish them up, but to make them accessible…. We want our values to show every time—our old-fashioned notions of love and music. If this experience stops being about that, something, I’m sure, would make it fly apart”.
The band’s first album, released in 1995, was aptly titled The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, followed by the release of Hot in 1996. Hotwas created in the Kingsway Studio, an old studio housed in a mansion that was once used by Jimi Hendrix and London’s Abbey Road studio musicians, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The feeling of nostalgia combined with the elegance of the mansion provided the perfect inspiration for the band’s lauded second album.
Hot was recorded with all of the band members in the studio at once, which rendered the album less streamlined and more authentic. The band has been so prolific that a third album of original songs was completed shortly after Hot ’s release. But, its release was put on hold so the band could bask in the warm reception of Hot.
After the band soaked in the musical history and ambiance of New Orleans, they made a trek to New York City’s Harlem to meet guitarist Al Casey, who had played with Fats Waller in the 1930s and 1940s. They forged a bond with the great jazzman, and played with him on stage at a club called Tramps while in New York. Then, they toured the country’s musical hot spots: Austin, Memphis, Houston, and Nashville. In Houston, Tom Maxwell sought out the dressing room where pianist Johnny Ace had killed himself playing Russian Roulette on Christmas Eve in 1954. Maxwell considered it the first rock and roll tragedy, and the dressing room was a type of Mecca for his musical pilgrimage.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers’ appeal stretches far beyond crowded theaters. They performed at the 21st Century Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C., the Sundance Film Festival, and at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1997. Their television performances include spots on the Conan O’Brien Show, and Comedy Central’s Viva Variety show.
Maxwell explained the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ philosophy to Billboard ’s Craig Rosen: “If older people who are familiar with old small-band swing listen to us and remember when they were young, that’s great, but obviously people that didn’t live at that time can’t have nostalgia for something that they didn’t experience … We are a totally modern band.” As though underscoring his assertion, Hot is an enhanced CD containing multimedia content for home computers. With the Squirrel Nut Zippers, everything old is new again.
The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mammoth Records, 1995.
Hot, Mammoth Records, 1996.
(With others) Flirting with Disaster (soundtrack), 1997.
Alternative Press, November 1996.
Billboard, March 1, 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, April 25, 1997.
Guitar Player, October 1996.
Guitar World, July 1997.
Mix, June 1997.
Musician, August 1996.
Oxford American, March 1997.
Pulse!, September 1996.
USA Today, February 21, 1997.
Additional material was provided by the publicity department of Mammoth Records.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Squirrel Nut Zippers
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS
Formed: 1993, Efland, North Carolina
Members: Jim Mathus, vocals, guitar, tenor banjo, trom-bone (born Clarksdale, Mississippi); Katherine Whalen, vocals, banjo, baritone ukelele (born Greenville, North Carolina, 24 April 1968); Tom Maxwell, vocals, guitar, baritone saxophone, clarinet, resonator (born, TK); Ken Mosher, guitar, alto and baritone saxophone, vocals (born St. Louis, Missouri); Chris Phillips, drums, percussion, backing vocals (born 19 June 1969); Don Raleigh, bass; Je Widenhouse, trumpet (joined band in August 1996).
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Hot (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "Hell," "Put a Lid on It," "Suits Are Picking Up the Bill"
Named for the old-time candy, Squirrel Nut Zippers offered a blend of swing, blues, country, and jazz that became popular in the mid-1990s, around the same time as the swing revival. The Zippers' unusual, energetic music is reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s. Their seven members are multi-instrumentalists who use old-time instruments such as banjo and ukelele to create a special sound.
Jim Mathus and Katherine Whalen, a married couple, formed Squirrel Nut Zippers in 1993 after leaving Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for the small town Efland, where they bought a farmhouse. They met the locals Don Raleigh, Chris Phillips, Ken Mosher, and Tom Maxwell. After a few months playing together, they made their debut in Chapel Hill and started to gather a strong following in the South. The alternative label Mammoth, based in North Carolina, signed them, and their second album, Hot, went platinum, thanks to the strength of the song "Hell." Their follow-up, Perennial Favorites, achieved gold status. The band's sound is typified by the samba-blues song "Hell." Rhythmically propelled by horns and zany, theatrical singing, it is a frightful tale of the afterlife.
Perennial Favorites (1998) carries on the same musical melange and yielded a hit with the slightly cynical swinger, "Suits Are Pickin' Up the Bill." In mid-1999 Tom Maxwell left the band to pursue other interests. In 2000, with the release of Bedlam Ballroom, it seemed that the band was verging on self-parody, and lackluster sales and a lukewarm critical reception suggested that the band's appeal was beginning to wane. Although Mathus and Whelan had both released solo albums by 2000, the climate of pop music had changed, with attention shifting to boy bands and teen-pop queens. Bedlam Ballroom barely made an impact; its peak position on the Billboard 200 album chart was 195.
Squirrel Nut Zippers rode their offbeat, eccentric wave through the mid- to late 1990s and emerged with a legion of fans and a platinum album.
Spot Light: "Hell"
"Hell," by Squirrel Nut Zippers, was a surprise alternative-music hit from their breakthrough album Hot (1997). The song had the timing needed to take a band to the next level. The song is not a swing song and is more akin to a samba, and the subject matter of death and the afterlife is more aligned with classic blues music, yet "Hell" peaked at number thirteen on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks because of its association with swing music. The Zippers capitalized on the momentum of the sleeper indie film Swingers (1996), which introduced a new generation to the culture of swing music. The renewed interest extended to Generation Xers who enrolled in swing dance classes and developed a fascination with martinis and lounge music. After the Zippers hit it big with "Hell," other similar retro bands became popular, including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, thanks to its placement on the successful Swingers soundtrack. Ironically, the Zippers are now associated with the swing-culture revival of the mid-to-late 1990s even though their music is far too eclectic to fit into that pigeonhole.
The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers (Mammoth, 1995); Hot (Mammoth, 1997); Perennial Favorites (Mammoth, 1999); Bedlam Ballroom (Mammoth, 2000).