The Squirrel Nut Zippers benefited from the ’90s Swing Revival, but they weren’t really part of it, playing an eccentric, high-energy mix of swing, blues, gypsy music, klezmer and more. Still, the North Carolina-based band had its biggest success in 1996 — with its album Hot and its single “Hell” — and is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of that with a tour that comes to the Exit 0 Jazz Festival in Cape May, Nov. 11; BergenPAC in Englewood, Nov. 12; and the Highline Ballroom in New York, Jan. 7.
The band, which takes its name from a brand of candy, has not released a studio album for 16 years, and has a mostly new lineup now, with frontman James “Jimbo” Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips still anchoring it, but a different cast of musicians joining them, including singer Ingrid Lucia (of the Flying Neutrinos), bassist Tamara Nicolai, violin and banjo player Justin Carr and trombonist Charlie Halloran.
I recently talked to Mathus:
Q: I know this is a very different lineup than in past years. Can you tell me a little about how you put the band together, and what its strengths are?
A: Well, I put the band together very carefully (laughs). I’ve used the contacts that I have from New Orleans, that I’ve cultivated over the past few decades, to put, really, the dream band together, to perform this material. These are people, some of which I’ve known for maybe 10 years, some of which I’ve just met through contacts recently. But they’re all top-notch players from the Frenchman Street scene and from the New Orleans scene. They all have a reverence for the Squirrel Nut Zippers material, either were influenced by it or … it’s been a part of their education.
So, it’s just a dream team, man. It really couldn’t be better. I’ve got people from the Creole jazz scene, from burlesque, the vaudeville scene. It’s just fantastic.
Q: Since it is such a different group of musicians, did you think of doing it under a different name?
A: Well, I’m the instigator and the originator of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. There’s no one that can use the name but me, and I can pick and choose who’s in my band. The Squirrel Nut Zippers are more of a concept. It’s like a play: You could open up the book and perform it. But I have to be there.
You could look at it, in the jazz realm, as like the Duke Ellington Orchestra. How many people came through his band? But the concept, the template, the instigation all came from him.
Some of the people from the old band have retired; some have passed away. Some have proven themselves to not be in it for the long haul. There’s different reasons why I’ve picked the musicians I’ve picked, but at the same time, the product is still the same, the brand is still the same. It’s an original, unique concept, it draws on a variety of odd, early American music, and re-creates it in a new way.
Q: After you put together this group of musicians … in the shows you’ve done already, have you found it evolving in ways you might not have expected it to?
A: Absolutely. As a bandleader, you use the strengths of the people you’re working with, and I have quite a bit to draw from now, so I’m using everyone’s strengths, from the new female lead, Ingrid Lucia … all the horn players, the pianist, they’re all bandleaders in their own right, and they’re all sort of putting their thing on hold to be a part of this. So there’s quite a bit of strength there; everybody cares about it a lot, and everybody respects it a lot, and respects their time onstage. I find myself, of course, writing a lot of new material, based on their strengths, and based on the stories that I hear … the experiences of the cats in the band.
So it’s absolutely evolved. Everything: musically, the stage show. But the concept is still the same: hot jazz, cabaret, vaudeville and early American music. “The weird, old America,” as Bob Dylan once said. (Editor’s note: I believe critic Greil Marcus actually coined that phrase, when writing about Dylan.)
Q: Do you think this will have a future beyond the shows you’re doing now? Do you see this lineup continuing to tour, or even record?
A: The whole concept right now is to put together a team that can work for quite a while, so there’s new recordings coming … it’s such a unique brand and a concept, and it’s so much fun, and there’s so much real jazz in there … the Squirrel Nut Zippers, 20 years ago, inspired a generation to pick up instruments like trombones and banjos and all the instruments of a jazz band. And the concept is still as applicable today as it was then.
It’s not a reunion. It’s a revival. My agency, the Kurland Agency, they’re quite high-powered, and really only handle world-class jazz. So, I’m trying to honor that commitment, and have a band that can really deliver the goods.
Q: Was the timing just because of the 20th anniversary, or were there other reasons why the timing seemed right?
A: It was the 20th anniversary that instigated it. But once I was able to see the Kurland Agency and other people coming to the table that had faith in it, it re-wired my thinking. I’ve been extremely active in music since the Hot record came out — a lot in the blues, and folk, and roots music, as a producer, a performer, a songwriter. And I’ve been able to bring all that experience back to the table, to the Zippers.
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