Spotlight: Jimbo Mathus and the Squirrel Nut Zippers

Published on: June 25th, 2019

In the late 1990s, it was nearly impossible to turn on the radio or TV and not hear a neo-swing band underscoring a commercial for The Gap or a big box retailer. Swing was everywhere, enjoying a renaissance as unexpected as it was brief. Somewhere in all that hullabaloo was the Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose hit single “Hell” drove their album Hot (Mammoth Records, 1996) into the platinum reaches of the Billboard stratosphere. And then, shortly after the turn of the century, it was all pretty much gone — even the ’Zippers, who were cut from a different cloth than the rest. There were similarities, for sure, but the ’Zippers threw it back to an earlier era — more vaudeville than jump swing, more flapper than Frank Sinatra. Indeed, considering how popular string-band Americana is now, it makes sense that Jimbo Mathus would stage a Squirrel Nut Zipper revival, complete with a new cast of characters and a killer Big Easy-focused album to tour on. Here, Mathus gets deep into the concept album on old Nola — Beasts of Burgundy — how the revival came to pass, and his plans for the future.

FD: The ’Zippers were huge during the neo-swing revival in the late ’90s which you guys got kinda unfairly lumped in. I’ll get into that in a second. But between that Hot period and now… What’s been going on?

JM: Oh my Lord. Man I’ve just been heavy into music. Entertaining, writing, producing, running studios, touring — you name it. I think since in that twenty years I’ve released over a dozen solo albums, played with Buddy Guy for about five years, won a Grammy for blues, produced Elvis Costello in Mississippi, and just been quite the busy beaver.

FD: That Grammy must have been something real special for you.

JM: Oh yeah. My time with Buddy Guy was amazing. We did some great work together. And that really got me grounded and heavy into blues, which I’ve been known for doing quite a bit. Real Mississippi blues, either on my own or with other gentlemen or ladies and gentlemen down here. Anybody interested can look me up, you know what I’m saying? They can scope me out cause I’ve been super, super, super active. I’ve been with Fat Possum Records for about ten years as a producer and an artist, and then I revived the ’Zippers 2016.

FD: Talk about that a little bit. What was it that made you drove this revival – and why specifically 2016? Why then?

JM: That actually was the 20 anniversary of Hot. I started thinking about (a reunion tour), and I realized it was going to be a lot of time invested. The ’Zippers is not just something you can pick up and do. There’s a lot musically, a lot of theatrically, of a lot of vibe, it’s gotta be right… If I was gonna put all that time into doing a few shows, why not just get a band back together and go back to work? I realized that there is really nobody that does anything like what we do. Period. Not before then and not after, and I thought it’s really too cool to leave hanging around on the shelf. I have every intention of keeping the Zippers together, ’til the end of my days.

FD: I’m glad to hear that. You guys stood out in my opinion, because I was there covering that scene, covering music in Colorado back in ’99, ’98, 2000, when I heard Hot the first time I was like, “now these are doing something totally different than Royal Crown Revue, or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.” You guys were doing something cool that was grounded in blues and Americana that to me, should have really set you apart. But because there was a swing beat like people just kinda lumped you into the neo-swing fad.

JM: And Colorado was a huge supporter of us. You know, I mean, always. There’s a lotta cool weirdos out there you know, and we love that. That’s our people. So Colorado was on board at an early time, you know as far as Zippers fans, and it was just a weird coincidence that all of a sudden, unbeknownst to us, there were other bands getting swept up in record deals and being in Rolling Stone, and it did get a little surreal. It was just odd more than anything how those things come together in pop culture. I don’t think anything like that will ever happen again. It’s too far gone now. Weirdos can’t get under the radar now anymore… Our songs are very unique and well-written, based on as much Hoagy Carmichael as Louis Prima…As much Stephen Foster as Louis Jordan.

FD: Agreed. So then fast forward to 2016, you’re looking at a revival. How did you assemble this heavy-hitter group of New Orleans All-Stars-kinda-thing you got going on?

JM: You know, through all of my travels, and through constant gigging, touring, producing, hiring musicians for projects, and I’ve been working in New Orleans since, well shit since the ’80s…I knew a lot of people there and I knew that I wanted a real horn section. So I put the word out to a few friends and it really didn’t take long because the ’Zippers are very influential in New Orleans. I mean, you can’t walk down the street without seeing a ukulele or a banjo. I mean, that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. And we have a great reputation and I knew the right people to ask. It just came together pretty rapidly. So it made it easier for me. They brought a lot of new ideas, arrangement, skill. You know, theatrical skill and costuming, and theater background. It’s just a great cast. Multi-faceted.

FD: Talk about that a little bit more. The writing and arranging process for Beasts of Burgundy — How collaborative was that, what was it like assembling these tunes?

JM: I’m not a walled-off dude, man. I really like to use the talent that people wanna share with me. So I immediately started with Dr. Sick [a.k.a. Justin Carr, fiddle, banjo, other instruments], who’s a maestro. Colin [Meyers], one of our trombonists, turns out is an incredible arranger. He arranged “Fade” and he arranged “Karnival Joe (from Kokomo),” for the horns. When I say arranged, I mean it in a classical sense. He brought dynamic changes, and everything he wrote is what’s on the record. I just had the chords and the lyrics. But other stuff with Sick was more collaborative, and he just brought cool ideas to stuff I had, and I quickly said, “Man…I have to credit you as a producer with me on this because you’re adding so much to this stew.” I mean he plays every instrument under the sun like a virtuoso. So there was no way I could just credit him as a musician. I said, “you’re a producer with me.” And he was like, “why?” And I was like, “because you know, it would not be the thing it is without you.” And that’s the kind of bandleader I am. He brought the drummer Neilson [Bernard III], and he and Neilson are tight and had all kinds of tricks up their sleeve. And all the cats play together in different conglomerations down there. A lot of the Frenchmen Street scene, the Trad jazz guys had some of those; Sick is more avant-garde. Tamar A. [Korn, vocals], she’s classically trained. It’s just a different take on the blues, so it’s a wide and varied background.

FD: Which I think definitely kind of stands out on this album. I noticed it has those haunting undertones to everything, like a carnival of the macabre.

JM: For sure. And an ode to the roots of New Orleans, the city itself. The whole record. I masterminded the concept and the story that I wanted to tell, and then opened up the door for Sick to contribute some compositions. So it is based on the Ned Sublette book, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. A lot of the imagery and historical underpinnings are based out of that book.

FD: It’s wild, even just the idea of doing a concept album is such a throwback, people don’t do that very much anymore.

JM: Because it’s hard. You have to really know what you’re doing. You have to not only know writing and everything else, but producing. If you don’t know how to produce a record, you don’t know how to write a record like that. And Beasts of Burgundy, the concept hit me. Basically just I was reading that Ned Sublette book, several things happened all at once. But that’s the underpinnings — like the “Hey Shango” song about Samba Bambara who led the 1731 slave insurrection. Well that’s right out of the book. It’s like a headline from the newspaper from the 1800s. It’s back in the day, it’s actually based before the turn of the century. And it’s a mystery — it’s pre-recording, it’s pre-photography almost. So it’s only myth now and certain accounts that people wrote. It’s a landscape that is completely unknown. That’s why you hear the mystery in that; it’s because you’re hearing something from a place that no one knows about.

FD: It’s like – as I was listening to it, If Danny Elfman was going to do a movie score on New Orleans…

JM: I think that’s the perfect, I mean that’s an incredible compliment. So thank you, I don’t see how a better synopsis of that record could be made. It’s perfect.

FD: I like the fact that it told a whole story. Aside from that, I laughed my ass off at “Rusty Trombone.” Like I was literally laughing as I was listening to the song.

JM: Yeah, I mean that goes back to the days when music and comedy were hand in hand, before it all split off.

FD: And, you know, thoughtful innuendo…. Metaphor! Oh my God! What’s that? We’re using that again in music? Wow!

JM: That’s the way I introduced Rusty Trombone. I said, “this is not a double entendre, it’s a single entendre.” So there’s all kinds of funny things that you can pull out of those shows. So now, with the band, the touring band, we can bring that record to life. We actually embody it, act it out, as being the real characters.

FD: So tell me, are there any things that really that have struck you as really different this time around in terms of the industry, in terms of the people showing up, the way people are responding, the way that the business has changed?

JM: Well, as far as people responding as the audience, the fans, all our great weirdos, that’s unchanged. It’s still a multi-generational concert. You can bring your grandparents who turned you onto them, you can bring your kids, it was always a big multi-generational thing. That is completely unchanged. As far as the business thing, it’s changed more than I thought it had. It’s a hard one to answer. I don’t think our business is changed, we’re a band on the road. We set up our tent, and people come, thank God. They get something out of it, we get something out of it. So we’re a real thing out there, and I don’t think that’s ever gonna go out of style. No matter what’s going on with trends, or the industry of music, it’s not gonna affect us. So we put out Beasts of Burgundy on our own, you know, rather than go through a label because we’ve been there, you know, I mean we’ve been through all that. There was no great fit and we said, “we’ll do it ourselves and sell it to our fans.” So back to the DIY aesthetic of the ’80s when I came up, with punk rock and everything. Do it yourself. As far as that, it’s easier now to do yourself — there’s so many great outlets and internet, for example is around now. I mean we could go on and on about what’s changed in twenty years. I have the internet on my phone. When the Zippers were coming out back in the late mid early mid ’90s, a computer was something I had to go uptown to the record company and look at the emails people were sending. They’d print them out for me. I had to go to town, or call on the landline. It’s shocking. I don’t know if that makes sense at all, if you look back at what’s happened in the past twenty years it’s pretty remarkable.

FD: It does make sense, especially because you guys have so much emphasis on the show. I think there’s a lot of recording artists who definitely felt the punch a lot harder because their focus was just on the recording and putting out. You know, you can’t make money that way now.

JM: Pretty much, yeah. That’s exactly right. So we’re a real thing. So when we go to a concert, as anybody who’s ever seen us knows, we’re interactive. We’re in your face, we come down into you, literally. We talk to you, we shake your hand, we give you a hug around the neck. I’ll speak with every person that wants to talk to me at the end of a show. We stand in the lobby and greet every single person who comes in and out. We’re putting in that work, because it’s important. Without the Zipsters, we’re zero. Absolutely zero. There’s no point in it. And that’s another reason I wanted to put it back together and revive it was to bring that joy back to concerts, that skilled entertainment, and laughing your ass off and crying.

FD: Do you have some specific goals or a longer term vision for what happens after this tour and what’s next?

JM: Yeah, well we tour pretty much every month. We’re going to different regions all the time. It isn’t necessarily a stopping point… I would love to have a more interactive show — a musical basically, more theatrical elements with the storyline in the shows. And film. I’d like to work with more film-makers, there’s a couple that I’ve had the opportunity to work recently with, a little bit with T Bone Burnett, and I think that some of my ideas and our ideas could work really well with film again… There’s a couple film-makers in Austin that I’m really interested in for the musical.

FD: Love that idea.

JM: Yeah, I think it would be so fun, and we could costume it up. That’s another story, but we’ll talk next year when I got it going.

Squirrel Nut Zippers plays June 19 at Washington’s in Ft. Collins (www.washingtonsfoco.com/), June 20 at Black Sheep in Colorado Springs (ww.blacksheeprocks.com) and June 21 at the Gothic Theatre in Denver (www.gothictheatre.com). See the venue sites for show times and prices.

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