It would be easy to write off a band like Squirrel Nut Zippers. Coming into their own during one of the weirdest music/genre revivals ever - 90’s Swing - then moving through it in their own very, very weird way, then, just kind of… disappearing, they’re a band that felt out of time even as they were happening.
Founding member and de facto band leader Jimbo Mathus has been at this for a long time. Even before the Zippers started in the early 90’s and broke out shortly after, he played in a couple bands, and was raised on an incredible diet of music dating back to the creation of the first truly American styles. It shows in both his musical output and his onstage persona. “I'm not up there to just, you know, play music. I mean I'm there to entertain people and to make something happen. You know, communicate right? I’m an old school entertainer,” he tells me during what would be a 45 minute conversation that was as entertaining as it was enlightening. “It always seemed like, dumb… It always seemed like we were like The Little Rascals trying to do grown up jazz music, you know, and it still works somehow because it's charming and just… off the wall.” He says this good naturedly, his pleasant southern drawl loud and clear through the phone speaker, birds chirping as he walks his property in his home state of Mississippi.
While various members of the band went on to do their own thing (or didn’t), Squirrel Nut Zippers ceased to exist in its original form in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, quietly fading away in much the same manner as the Swing Revival did. The band would come back in full force in 2018… and then, the Pandemic. It was about as bad a time as something like this could happen for a band just starting to get back into the swing of things.
“If your job’s to draw crowds and you're in the Pandemic, you can't do that. I did not like the, you know, the computer concerts or any of that. I did some of those and I just didn't like it. You know, with the audience not there. It just takes away, well, you know more than half the deal, or the half the experience for me, personally,” Mathus tells me. I can hear a hint of sadness as he’s remembering that time.
“It definitely took away my ability to do what I'm best at doing.”
Like so many who knew of or still know the Squirrel Nut Zippers, I found them fairly early on in my brief jaunt into that Swing thing, but they were really the only band that I kept up with after the rest of that particular musical moment in time petered out. Even then, though, they couldn’t honestly be lumped in with the more straight down the middle acts of the day like Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.
Mathus recalls what it was like when things broke out into the open for both the band and the musical moment at large. “Everything just seemed to pile on, you know, with the other groups and all that, which was just odd. More than anything, it's just a thing that makes you go, “Well, seems like we timed it out just right like that, I guess. But, also, you know I have to say that I think that we had something different then, even from the groups that we were lumped in with and obviously lumped in with because it all was similar or had some similarities. But we were something quite different.”
Their style was too steeped in days of old, their knowledge of jazz, swing, big band, hotmusic, blues, rock, calypso, and so many others too deep. That wasn’t just by design, though. It was and is intrinsic to who the Squirrel Nut Zippers are. “We had the elements, you know, I think the thing that we had was like the ties to New Orleans, the old Weird New Orleans, that nobody else really had,” Mathus points out. “When we first started we really did like, a lot of everything. The subversive lyrics of the Calypso. The threepenny opera, too. Billie Holiday type stuff, or we had Champagne Alley type stuff, and we had Appalachian stuff. And then, you know, I came from a hillbilly musical family, so we had all kinds of mountain music and different things. When we were going in to make The Inevitable, the first record, we really, actually, consciously kind of got together and said, “What kind of group are we going to be?”
Sometime in 1996 or 1997 I would catch them live for the first time at a sold out show at Bogart's, with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band playing as direct support (coincidentally, the same band they’re playing with on a handful of dates on this tour). It was, truly, unlike anything I’d experienced to that point. It was essentially Bill & Ted bringing a bunch of historical figures through time and space to perform for everyone, but real, and all the stranger for it.
Their second and arguably most popular album, Hot, seemed to come out of nowhere, but also felt like it had been around for decades. A love letter to pre-1950’s songwriting and composition, it remains a brilliant work of purposeful anachronism and nostalgic homage. Of course “Hell” hit the hardest, a single that touched on musical stylings that were still very much not what would have been hip even then, but somehow managed to capture the imagination of thousands, if not millions of folks, and that’s where my particular journey with the band began.
In much the same way I fell head over heels for other bands (and still do), I picked up the album, then went backwards and got their debut, The Inevitable. And this is actually where the band and what the future would bring first elbows. That, to be quite honest, was news to me. And it was very much a surprise to the band.
Mathus tells me when it began to sink in just what was happening. “The single “Roasted” came out in, if I'm not mistaken, ’92 or ‘93. And then when the whole thing started happening with the group. For example, when we first toured to LA, you know we, uh, we're driving up to this place, The Brown Derby it was called and was an old school Speakeasy type joint. It’s not there anymore,” he says. “And you know, there's a line around the block of people dressed in vintage clothes like we wore, and we're like “Hey you know what's going on?” and it's like, you know “They're here for you, you know, these are your people.” I had no idea,” and as he’s retelling this story even Mathus sounds a bit incredulous.
“And so we had, you know, we were doing good in the southeast and it just never occurred to us that we were… that it was growing like that.”
What would come after was, as I’ve mentioned, one of the weirder things to happen to Pop Music in my lifetime. And now, in 2022, we’ve kind of circled back around again in a strange way - the 90’s aren’t just alive in Portland anymore. Doubly strange - and equally entertaining - are their fans, and their live show. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, though, and it seems we’re in the midst of a lot of reminiscing, of trying to tap into a sort of Ur-Nostalgia. For the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band already drenched in nostalgia - both as homage and original experience, “There's now it's nostalgia for our nostalgia,” Mathus says.
"I mean, the whole point initially was to really just be this kind of timeless time capsule event. And so the performance of it was as big a part of it as anything. It's almost like, you know, reenacting a play or something that's been written and you try to breathe fresh life, and it's a great play. You know it was written well, so now it's just a matter of keeping the cast and the audience involved.”
Considering where the band is now - and where so many of their peers are, he has a hunch about why that is. “There's just nothing like a Zippers show out there. You know that's another thing I learned. There's just really nothing like this out there. There's no kind of music really like it, and there's no performance like it. So I don't know, I really appreciate it and the fact that we get to do it again.”
My genuine love and appreciation for this band has been there from the beginning, and as soon as they came back to life, it was easy to remember what I loved about them. I was able to catch them live for the second time in 2018, at The Southgate House Revival. I fully admit that I was unsure how it would all shake out, but as soon as they took the stage I was all-in.
“They're all band leaders in their own right,” Mathus tells me of this reincarnation of the band. “You know they all have their own groups in New Orleans and elsewhere. And yet we come together and we just submit to this template.“ From their garb, to their sense of playfulness - Vaudevillian, baroque, bawdy - to the tight, learned, and undeniable musical prowess, they’re a band that is, was, and always will be most “them” on stage.
I was excited to chat with Mathus about one album in particular - so I’d be remiss not to mention it here. Christmas Caravan has become a holiday staple at my house, one of the rare albums my partner and I agree on and enjoy (at least I think that’s the case). I was thrilled to hear Mathus finds that album to be as special as I do. I could hear some genuine excitement in his voice as he laid it all out.
“The reason I love it is because of what you just said, because it has become like a staple of the holidays and that's what you want. The Christmas record is probably my favorite because and again, if you listen to that, it kind of goes back to what I said earlier because since it wasn't necessarily a Zippers record, but it was full of the holiday theme, we were able to do some things. There's some hillbilly, you know some Appalachian stuff on there, and there's some more R&B. And you know, there's some kind of Elvis type ballads and stuff. So we were able, since it had a kind of a theme and a point like that, we did actually stretch out a little bit. I mean if you listen to “Gift of the Magi,” you can hear what we sound like as a hillbilly band.”
When the band arrives in Cincinnati this Thursday night, they’ll be taking the stage at The Ludlow Garage, in Clifton. Mathus tells us what to expect - and if you’ve never seen them live, well, I’ll let him explain…
“You know, especially for the Zippers, man, you know 'cause, we're just… we're a live act. And we're active. The old school, it's supposed to bring joy.”
It absolutely does, and it undoubtedly will.