To Hell and Back
A chat with Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Jimbo Mathus
Squirrel Nut Zippers exploded into the mainstream in 1996 with the hit single “Hell,” from their platinum-selling album Hot. The tune was, well, devilishly catchy. And despite a distinctive calypso feel, it thrust the band to the forefront of the late ’90s swing revival alongside contemporaries Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. If only SNZ actually played swing.
Squirrel Nut Zippers went on hiatus in 2000, reemerging for a run of tour dates in 2007. Now touring on the strength of an acclaimed new live album, Lost at Sea, the band appears to be back for the foreseeable future, and have hinted at plans for a new album of original material.
In advance of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Higher Ground Ballroom performance, Seven Days chatted on the phone with cofounder Jimbo Mathus, who was on the road somewhere in Mississippi.
SEVEN DAYS: You returned from hiatus in 2007 and toured a little bit. But it seems like the band is really back now, with an extensive tour and the release of a new live album. Why get back together when you did?
JIMBO MATHUS: I think we were just curious as to how it would sound with so much distance between then and now. It was such an intense project initially and we just needed a break. So I think we were all just curious how it would sound to get back together.
SD: When you first really broke out, you were kinda lumped into the swing revival that was happening at the time. Did you feel that was accurate?
JM: Not so … We put ourselves together in Chapel Hill, N.C. and we were the only ones doing anything like that around there. Then, once we went out to the West Coast, we saw there were a bunch of groups doing more of the swing sound. But we never really were swing. I mean, our hit was calypso. So I really always thought of us more as a vaudeville act. We can’t play swing, I don’t think. But it was just weird, because everything sort of came out at the same time. It was strange timing.
That was one reason we quit, actually. It just seemed ridiculous. We would be at a theater or a club and the week after us would be a string orchestra of some stripe. And the week before us would be some sort of quasi-swing thing, and it just seemed silly.
SD: It never really seemed like a good description to me.
JM: I think it’s just more a matter of timing. It just so happened there were other groups out there doing more actual swing-type music. But I think we broke the trail, if I’m not mistaken, as far as more commercial success for a lot of those groups — Brian Setzer Orchestra probably excluded. I think he was doing pretty good right around the same time we came out. But it was just more one of those cosmic calendar-type events, you know? Things happen. But I don’t think we’ll ever see that again, do you?
SD: I don’t know. Maybe not to that degree or on that scale.
JM: It was all dinosaurs running in circles.
SD: Well, everything is cyclical. So you never know.
JM: You never know.
SD: Andrew Bird was actually a member of the band for a while, right?
JM: Yes. He’s an honorary member now. Katharine [Whalen] found him playing fiddle for a Celtic singer at a hippie festival in North Carolina, up in the mountains, and brought him back to the tent. And he basically joined our band right then.
SD: It must be cool to see him have as much success as he’s had.
JM: Yes. I’ve been so proud of him. It’s great to see him do what he’s been doing and see him grow. I mean, I was one of his early mentors, you know? As was Katharine. I’m very, very happy for him. He’s a wonderful friend and a great collaborator. There are a lot of songs I couldn’t have done without him.
SD: Tell me a little bit about the new live album.
JM: The band just sounds so much different. The songs are from our whole catalog, even the single we did on Merge [Roasted Right, 1997], Hot, Bedlam Ballroom, even the Christmas record. So we do stuff from all of our releases. Some of those records we made in the mid- and early 1990s. So we’ve all progressed as musicians and we sound a lot better, more mature. The songs are reenergized and rearranged. It sounds really cool, and we wanted to capture that while we had it.