Squirrel Nut Zippers leave their novelty-act reputation behind 

Jimbo Mathus calls this Squirrel Nut Zippers assembly a revival, not a reunion.
  • Jimbo Mathus calls this Squirrel Nut Zippers assembly a revival, not a reunion.

Squirrel Nut Zippers may not have been America’s version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, but their music did have dark undercurrents that went largely unnoticed during the short-lived ’90s swing revival. Back then, the North Carolina band’s tongue-in-cheek cocktail-lounge aesthetic and Calloway-gone-Calypso sound led many to dismiss them as a novelty act. The runaway success of their quirky 1996 single “Hell” heightened that perception.

And so it was that, just a few years after striking platinum, Squirrel Nut Zippers came apart at the seams. Vocalist Katharine Whalen and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jimbo Mathus went through a divorce, while two of their former bandmates sued over royalties.

But Mathus has stubbornly stayed the course. As a guitarist, he recorded and toured with Buddy Guy, appearing on the blues legend’s Grammy-winning Blues Singer album. He set up a studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi, with a long list of clients that included Elvis Costello. He’s also recorded dozens of his own albums, including the newly released Incinerator, that venture into the realms of Southern rock, blues, honky-tonk and psychedelia.

And with 2018’s Beasts of Burgundy, the first studio album to appear under the Squirrel Nut Zippers name in nearly two decades, he’s created a work that invites a revisionist take on the band’s past recordings.

“The Zippers were always very subversive,” says Mathus. “If you look at the videos, they’re quite dark. And, you know, ‘Hell’ was about hell. We got a lot of our aesthetics from the old Betty Boop cartoons and that era of German cabaret music that was very twisted and subversive.”

The band also set its sights on the deep, dark recesses of America’s musical psyche. “The Ghost of Stephen Foster,” one of the follow-up singles to “Hell,” was essentially an answer song to Foster’s 19th century minstrel tune “Gwine to Run All Night, or De Camptown Races.”

“Stephen Foster wrote ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Camptown Races,’ which is a song that all schoolchildren learn,” says Mathus. “But the camptown ladies that he was writing about, those were the prostitutes that hung around at horse tracks. And he himself died an alcoholic, you know, falling down stairs. So, I mean, there’s a very dark side to all of American culture. And we were always good at doing happy-sounding songs that had really dark messages. That’s what we do.”

Beasts of Burgundy carries on in that tradition. The music is an upbeat mix of jump blues, Harlem jazz and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms. But the lyrics are anything but lighthearted on songs like “Hey Shango!” which juxtaposes the stories of a black executioner in New Orleans and the condemned leader of a slave uprising in Natchez. “The whole record is extremely New Orleans-based,” says Mathus. “It’s a city that has inspired me for three decades, at least, and I’m sure will continue to inspire me.”

The Oxford, Mississippi, native discovered the Crescent City in much the same manner as Mark Twain, except that the 18-year-old Mathus worked on tankers and barges rather than riverboats. “You would work a month straight, and then you would have a month off. So when I was on shore leave, I would prowl the cities. That was back in the ’80s, when New Orleans was still trapped in amber. Before House of Blues moved into the French Quarter, that whole neighborhood was more like Confederacy of Dunces. Rooms were $25, with wooden-shuttered doors and no windows. Frenchman Street was just pimps and whores and Snug Harbor. So it was a very different city, and it very much rearranged my chromosomes.”

So much so, in fact, that Mathus persuaded the rest of the Squirrel Nut Zippers to venture down there to record their breakthrough album Hot. Decades later, when the time came to do Beasts of Burgundy, Mathus returned to the city and enlisted Mike Napolitano, who’d engineered Hot, along with a host of local musicians.

With drummer Chris Phillips being the only other original member, Mathus likes to call his Squirrel Nut Zippers a revival rather than a reunion. One of his former bandmates, on the other hand, has described it as Squirrel Not Zippers.

Mathus bristles at the characterization. “I have the right to use the name Squirrel Nut Zippers,” he says. “It’s my band, and I got stripped of everything except that. All the money, everything that came about, was because there were two people in the band who just couldn’t handle it mentally, and ended up taking it out on the remaining people in the group. So after it had been dormant for a certain period of time, I just felt like, this is too great a legacy to leave sitting on the shelf.”

So no more tankers and barges? “No more tankers and barges,” Mathus laughs, “although I still write songs about that to this day.”


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Latest in Concerts

More by Bill Forman

All content © Copyright 2020, The Colorado Springs Independent

Website powered by Foundation