Posted July 25, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

Squirrel Nut Zippers: Until the Cows Come Home

Squirrel Nut Zippers
Squirrel Nut Zippers

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ biggest album Hot.  Originally released in the summer of 1996, it followed the band’s acclaimed debut The Inevitable and sold an astonishing 1.3 million copies. Last year, the swing/jazz/vaudeville/punk act performed its first set of tour dates since 2009. Band leader Jimbo Mathus recently spoke to us via phone from his Mississippi home.

Talk about what made you want to get the band back together.
We started last July around the Fourth, so it’s been about a year. It was the 20th anniversary of the Hot record that was so strangely successful. I started talking to some promoters about it two years ago. The more I thought about it, the more it intrigued me.

What were those shows last year like?
Well, we toured all year. It was just over the moon. Everyone was thrilled to have us back and hear those songs again and to see the new revival we have going on on-stage.

Did you write any new material?
We started out just doing the material we have available to us and over the course of the year we started writing a new album. We would pop in the studio from time to time. Now I think we have 19 compositions created. We are looking at putting that out the first of the year.

How’d the band first come together in 1993?
Very carefully. It was just a shared interest in early American music and theater. It was part of my education that I was giving myself, and I was intrigued with arts and music. I played an instrument since I was six years old. I had a couple of record deals before that. It just came together in Chapel Hill where there was a vintage vibe going on with the Flat Duo Jets and Southern Culture on the Skids and Red Clay Ramblers. They were ahead of the curve in terms of keeping that old-time music going. We took it to another level with original sounding concoctions. Me being a writer first and foremost, we put our own spin on it. It just became incredibly successful very quickly.

What was it like when Hot became a huge hit?
Man, it depends on who you ask. I thought it was fantastic. I had always been in the arts and never counted on any type of success. I never even considered making money or becoming popular. It was a cool experience for me. I really enjoyed it and took that opportunity dig in harder and learn more.

You didn’t plan for a huge swing revival, did you?
No. We didn’t plan on any of that. It was weird timing. There were a bunch of bands coming out and having that success so it was interesting and quite shocking.

The dancing came back too.
Yeah, it kicked off a resurgence of that that’s still around today. Swing dancing and ballroom dancing had fallen out of favor. We helped bring back the retro look and fashions. Our thing was pretty different from everyone else’s. Our sound wasn’t pigeonhole-able. It was a mixture of cabaret, hot jazz, calypso and early American theater music. There was some swing, but we were never really a swing band. We were more of a vaudeville punk rock band. Over time, the skill has increased and I have amazing players in the revival band. They grew up being turned out by music from bands like us. I have virtuoso players from varied backgrounds in jazz and burlesque and theater and costuming and everything. We have a great crew. They’re all very talented.

What caused the band to split up in 2000? Could it have been avoided?
I don’t think we could have avoided that. People had different goals. I’m a lifetime committed artist. It was just a bump in the road for me. I immediately went to work with Buddy Guy and went on to have a long solo career and worked as a record producer and studio owner. I’m probably responsible for over 100 records personally. I don’t think it could have been avoided because some people didn’t expect it to become what it became and thought it would be more of a temporary project. Some people just had different ideas.

How’d you get into production?
The first record I made was at Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis when I was 15. I had been around studios a lot. I had two or three record deals before the Zippers. When I had some success, I bought some gear and bought some preamps and ribbon microphones. I just launched into producing with vintage techniques. It was another facet of the whole puzzle I got into. I enjoyed helping other people bring their music to light. I can help with everything from lyrics to arrangements to you name it. It’s just something that’s part of the whole puzzle.

Do you think the band will stick around now?
Yeah. That was the plan when we were putting it together. The new band members just wanted to do some reunion shows but I wanted to make a revival. It’s not the style of music that has a shelf life. With new music coming out, I can see us keeping this thing going until the cows come home. That’s the plan. It’s not just a reunion. It’s a relaunch, and we have put together an incredible show.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].