Squirrel Nut Zippers: From Candy to Music
By: Alex Steininger
Still made today, the original Squirrel Nut Zippers are an old time brand of chewy peanut-flavored sweets that are still produced in Massachusetts. Having many things in common with these fatty (but delicious) treats, some Chapel Hill, North Carolina musicians decided to use the name for their musical visitation of jazz, swing, and Dixieland. Just like the candy, their music is deeply rooted in 20's and 30's culture, and also just like the candy, their music offers an innovative, refreshing alternative in our oh-so 'modern' culture.
But who are the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and where did it all begin? Starting with Jim Mathus (vocals, guitar, trombone) and his wife, Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo), the couple moved to an old farmhouse in Efland, North Caroline in 1993. Spending time renovating their new home, they filled the rest of their time painting, creating puppets, and listening to old jazz records. At the same time they were deeply emerged in all these old time jazz artists, Jim was teaching Katharine how to play the banjo, while working on his own guitar technique. With all this music around them, and the fun they were having playing together, they started to have cook-outs and invite friends over to jam with them. From there, Don Raleigh (bass) and Ken Mosher (guitar, baritone, alto sax, vocals) started to play with them. The seeds for the Squirrel Nut Zippers had now been planted, and the only thing left for them was to grow and blossom.
Ken, who began as the drummer for the soon-to-be Zippers, was relieved of his drumming duties when Chris Phillips came along with his spontaneous charm, which fit right in with the band's overall personality. Realizing his multi-instrumental talents and ear for arrangements worked with what they had in mind, Ken quickly joined Jim in sculpturing the unique sound that was on the rise.
The sound was almost complete, but something was still missing. Then came along Tom Maxwell (vocals, guitar, baritone sax, clarinet), a man who compulsively listened to the likes of Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, and the rest of the members knew his addition was what they were looking for to complete their line-up. After a little coaxing, he joined the band.
With Hot Music pumping through its veins, the Squirrel Nut Zippers were quickly snatched up by the Mammoth Recording Company of Carrboro, North Carolina. Knowing they had something very special in their hands, they quickly got the Zippers into the studio to record an album. Recording with Brian Paulson (Uncle Tupelo, Superchunck, the Spinanes) over nine days, the outcome was their debut full-length, THE INEVITABLE.
THE INEVITABLE gained them a steady underground following, comprised of the young and old alike. After playing everything from national television to millionaire's weddings, and of course, tiny clubs all over the South and East Coast, they soon took a summer off to inhale the life of New Orleans.
While in New Orleans, they paid a visit to Daniel Lanois' Kingsway Recording Studio. Although supposedly haunted, it was love at first sight. From a mixing board made especially for Jimi Hendrix to the speakers from Abbey Road, it was both a temple of musical heritage and a warehouse for vintage recording equipment. The band knew where they were going to record their follow-up full-length, and this was the place.
With a special atmosphere all around them, the Zippers were determined to record their follow-up the way it was done when their musical form first hit the ears of Americans; live to tape in single takes, very few microphones, and over a short amount of time. Beginning at noon and working past midnight, HOT (Mammoth) was recorded in ten days.
"We did everything live, straight to the tape. The vocals, the horns, everything. 'Put a Lid On it' was done with one mic, not counting the drums and bass. And Katharine did all of her vocals right there, as the band played," explains Mathus.
With all the energy and traditions that went into HOT, the outcome was truly amazing. A traditional sounding jazz recording that both sounds and feels as if it could have been conceived in the 30's. Spawning a number one hit, "Hell," the album quickly rose to platinum status and had every modern-rock radio listener both stunned and dancing in amazement.
Ready to get back into the studio and record a new album, the success of "Hell" hit them so hard that they once again set out to tour the country and play for their ever-expanding fan base. Selling out shows across the U.S., they had planted their sound into the minds of music fans worldwide.
Initially planning to release their third full-length in the summer of 1997, they opted to release an EP of demo material and rare out-takes by the name of SOLD OUT (Mammoth). Giving hardcore fans material to feed off of, and still gaining new fans from the success of HOT, the EP takes you from the bands second practice to out-takes from their forthcoming album. It shows a natural progression in the band's musicianship, as well as their ability to work together. But that isn't the only Squirrel Nut Zippers-related material that has been released in 1997. Jim Mathus took a break from the Zippers and went and recorded a bluesy album with some fellow musicians.
Always inclined to serve the fans as best as they can, as well as have lots of fun doing what they love to do best, Jas. Mathus and His Knock-Down Society went in and recorded SONGS FOR ROSETTA.
A blues/bluegrass album right down to the very last drop, the album serves as both a dedication to the memory of, and a fund-raiser for, Rosetta Patton and her father Charlie Patton. Why dedicate it to these two? Well, Charlie Patton isn't just any old father of a baby-sitter. He is the legend of Delta Blues. Influencing such classic artists as Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon, Jim Mathus and friends decided to pay tribute to him as best as they could.
With fourteen songs to indulge in on SONGS FOR ROSETTA, and SOLD OUT's six Zipper-must's, fans should be satisfied until August 1998, when the Zippers highly anticipated third-full length is due out.