In 1993, James “Jimbo” Mathus, a transplant from Mississippi to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, co-formed the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Comprising what Mathus describes as “starving artists working different menial jobs,” the band became a sensation and found itself near the forefront of the late-1990s swing revival.
“We were washing dishes, doing carpentry, just rehearsing and grooving on weird old American music and arts and entertainment,” says Mathus, explaining that the members were “digging on” calypso music from Trinidad, German cabaret records and whatever else they could find. “That’s what was going on for us. We didn’t have TVs, we just played music and worked. We were just juiced on what we were doing, uncovering the old weird roots.”
Early Squirrel Nut Zippers albums are high-energy and hard-swinging. The group’s live performances were spectacular throwbacks to the classic big band era. The Zippers released seven albums over the next seven years, including the platinum-certified Hot, then went their separate ways. The band reformed briefly and released a live album in 2007, but has been quiet since.
The break was due, in large part, to Mathus getting “swept up” recording and touring with blues legend Buddy Guy, including playing guitar on Guy’s Grammy-winning 2003 album Blues Singer. The experience sent Mathus down a different path and he had to put the Squirrel Nut Zippers behind him.
Since then, Mathus has been active as a producer, has been writing songs and engineering, released 15 solo albums, and has toured 225 days a year in a van.
In 2016, he reenergized the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the band has been “touring hard” for a year. With a new album, Beasts of Burgundy, set for release on March 23, the band has new life, a fresh outlook, and new tunes.
“I gave no thought to writing Squirrel Nut Zippers material for the past 17 years because I was writing other stuff,” says Mathus. “When we started getting back together, pretty quickly I realized I needed to start writing again. I was inspired through the energy of the new cast and the characters that lie therein.”
Born and raised in Mississippi, Mathus grew up in a “real musical Southern family.” He was part of a family band and grew up singing and playing all kinds of music, including folk songs from the area. He was introduced to big band music, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong through Looney Tunes cartoons.
Mathus’ appreciation of swing, big band and Southern roots traditions is at the heart of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ sound that blends jazz, cabaret, folk, punk, rock and roots. As one of the driving swing revival bands, the Zippers stood out from the pack of throwback swing bands because they brought something new to the genre while building on a solid foundation and understanding of it.
“It comes back to the songs we write,” says Mathus. “They’re kind of enduring. Our songs separate us from any type of throwback thing right off the bat … They’re well composed, interesting songs.”
Now Mathus has a bigger band, some “fresh talent,” and an opportunity to “reevaluate the material and make it even stronger than it was.” Once again, the Zippers push at genre confines. Beasts of Burgundy is dark and mysterious, a celebration of the old, weird New Orleans and a story of characters who accidentally miss Mardi Gras. The 12-song album has a carnival feel, an elaborate cast, and is a glimpse into the fantastic mind of Mathus. Inspired by New Orleans, as well as the poet Ron Cuccia, Beasts of Burgundy is the Zippers reinvigorated.
“I didn’t want to just recreate what we had done before,” says Mathus. “I wanted to revive the music, pull it off the shelf, give it a new life, give it new songs, give it a new beginning.”
Mathus’ longtime mantra is, “Let the music lead.” This revitalization of the Squirrel Nut Zippers is the latest journey led by the music—and Mathus says he couldn’t be happier.
“I just kind of rolled the dice and said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” he says. “Now it’s to the point where, after a good year on the road under our belt and a new record that’s fantastic, I’m just looking forward to the next decade.” Then he adds with a laugh. “Or so.”
Squirrel Nut Zippers will perform at 8 p.m. on Monday, March 5 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $35. 423-8209.