Perennial bedlam: An interview with Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers
The Squirrel Nut Zippers make records so jumpin’ they can raise the dead. They don’t claim this, but pull me aside sometime and ask about the time I visited my Kentucky grandad’s grave under a full moon with a boombox playing “Hot.” The best music takes you to church or fills the day with a smidge of magic. The bold, good-time tunes of the Squirrel Nut Zippers can’t help but conjure jubilation. Ain’t unusual to find yourself sock-steppin’ to it in the kitchen or howl-singing to the swing on a twilight drive. They have a way of making folks strut and hum.
Jimbo Mathus, founding member and lead singer, spoke to us about the 20th anniversary tour for the “Hot” album and what’s up next for the Zippers.
Americana and roots elements are on the rise. What do you think keeps people pulling buckets up from the old-time music well? Well, I think there’s a lot of truth in the older forms of music. That’s our legacy, you know, as musicians and a culture. Music is a huge part of the American scene ... The Zippers, when we were putting the band together, we were interested in taking from the deepest roots of American music. We researched everything from Stephen Foster to Tin Pan Alley and the jazz era ... Cabaret, vaudeville, all that good stuff. I think the reason it still seems to be important is simply because it is important.
Is the world turning into a digital culture going to affect the way musicians find inspiration? You know, I don’t think so. When I was coming up and researching to start the Zippers, it was hard finding things out. You had to dig for it. I love being able to go online and find out about music, about art – having it at your fingertips ... I think that it’s just fine. I think the old instruments and the old music people getting together and making music with young people will just become more important.
How do you see the resurgence of the Squirrel Nut Zippers?I see it as interesting, fun, well-written music and there’s no reason to have it sit on the shelf. I think it’s not a reunion but a revival. We are not here to capitalize off of a nostalgia trip ... Time will tell, but I think when we start doing new music and you hear that from us, that’ll be more telling.
So there’s a new Squirrel Nut Zippers’ album coming out?Oh, yeah. I have been working on it for about a year now. I’m also drawing on a lot of the talents that are in the band now. In my band, there are now a lot of 20-something, 30-something people that were actually influenced by the Zippers years back. We’re looking at a lot of the top players of the New Orleans jazz scene. The traditional jazz, the cabaret – these things have come a long way in 20 years. The burlesque scene, the vaudeville scene, the types of circus scenes are all really cool and a lot of people in the band took the Zippers and ran with it when they were just kids. They’ve made a life out of it, and so I’m drawing a lot on their talent. It’s not a one dimensional project of me writing, but a creative endeavor amongst the group.
What was one of the biggest surprises in working with a new line-up?I really didn’t know what to expect, frankly. I’ve been very active in music as a producer and an artist all these years ... So I have a lot of connections in New Orleans. New Orleans was always a big, big city for me ... I reached out to a few people and then people came to me in different ways. Each one has brought a real great talent. I was surprised how challenging the material was. It’s not cut of the same cloth as the standard, and we’re really fleshing it out to make it into something fresh and at an even higher level, while keeping the energy and punk rock nature of what we did. The performers I have on stage are fantastic. They bring a lot of dynamics and motion to the show. It’s not some hired guns reading horn charts. It’s people who care and who inspire me. I’ve got a real lotta jazz cats in here and it’s brought my game up.
Are you book people? You seem like book people. Oh, lord. I read constantly ... I’ve been doing a lot of a research on New Orleans. A book I just finished that was really fantastic was “The World That Made New Orleans,” by Ned Sublette. It’s one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while ... I just read another Graham Hancock book, “Fingerprints of the Gods.” It takes history back, way back further, and poses an alternate vision of history. I also liked J.D. Wilkes’ new book, “The Vine That Ate the South.” And, “East of Eden,” by Steinbeck. I’d never read that till recently. I’m into a lot of history and American literature. I’m always doing my Southern studies, too. Trying to put together what in the hell we are doing down here ... Then things make their way into my songs. I have a couple of new ones that have came out of that Sublette book. One about a slave insurrection. A lot of my song ideas come out of literature or history books.
What’s a dream project of yours?“The cool thing is is that someday is now. The Zippers can handle everything. There is so much that you can put in there. This is it. I’m looking forward to getting better at the things we do really well already. I mean, I can see writing more theme-based pieces and shows with the Zippers as the principal players. There’s so much talent. We could find odd stories to bring to life. More dialogue on stage. More interaction among the players. Like a Kurt Vile, subversive approach to interactive music. I’m satisfied with where I’m at and there is so much potential here.”
Patty TempletonDGO Staff WriterThis interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.