Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
November 27, 2019
By Joshua Miner
The year was 1996 and grunge and alternative music were dominating the airwaves; seemingly from out of nowhere, the swinging stylings of the Squirrel Nut Zippers found their way to the national airwaves – their New Orleans soaked calypso rhythms bringing music lovers to a blissful and carefree vibe nearly lost to history.
James “Jimbo” Mathus was the driving force behind the fun and quirky band, which for him was always rooted in a deep love of American music of days gone by – and the snapshot in time it captures for generations to come.
Before he found himself enamored with the swinging big band music the Zippers are known for, he learned how to play with his family – for which music was an integral part of their everyday life in Mississippi.
“I started playing with my family when I was just a small child. My dad played banjo,” he explains of his musical upbringing. “It was a family band, I started playing mandolin when I was 6.”
This love of roots music has been the defining factor of Mathus’ career, as he made the study of music history not only a hobby but a responsibility. A lover of history, the Zippers are a product of extensive research, he says – as well as a conscious exploration into the history of American music itself and what it can tell us today.
In their early days, they played a wide spectrum of musical genres – until their popularity rose and record companies began to take notice.
“There was really nothing going on like that,” Mathus says of their unique sound. “There’s just something really interesting. So, we learned a lot of different kinds of music. I was teaching different folks that were interested. I was teaching them folk, jazz, country and blues. Initially, we did a lot of styles just for our own enjoyment. It was really supposed to be kind of a summer art project, and we were out doing a gig – just for fun – and the band kind of just took off.”
Soon, the Zippers were all over the airwaves, bringing to the alternative scene a style long thought dead and extinct. A relic of a past filled with prohibition and flappers, economic prosperity and the American Dream – a revival of that sort was far from what Americans were looking for in the mid-90’. Along with the Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were also spreading the swing and smiles across not only the United States, but the world.
Their 1996 album Hot would be certified platinum leading to a performance at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta as well as a gig at President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural ball.
After Mathus and his wife – fellow founding member Katharine Whalen – parted ways in 2003, the group disbanded for several years before returning in 2007. During the hiatus, both Whalen and Mathus worked on their own solo project – Mathus now having 18 albums under his belt with the release of 2019’s Incinerator. After another break, Mathus reformed the Squirrel Nut Zippers yet again with co-founder Maxwell and a who’s who of immensely talented Jazz musicians – adding new dimensions to the Zippers’ sound and the ability to dive even further into the music through newfound layers of auditory complexity.
Beasts of Burgundy, the band’s first new studio album in 17 years, is a sonic journey through the dark and mysterious lore of New Orleans and the music it later spawned. The myths of the historic city continue to live in the imaginations of Louisiana natives – an unique amalgamation of proud and rich cultures found nowhere else on the planet.
Mathus looks to the city for inspiration, and the new album does nothing less than bring the listener though the carnival atmosphere of Bourbon Street, and the ominous streets that lead to a musical carnival of sound.
The album begins with Conglomeration of Curios, a short and appropriately unsettling introduction of the strangeness that follows. The short song prepares the listener for Karnival Joe (From Kokomo), the first in a series of freaks the listeners meet throughout the album. Karnival Joe, Mathus says, is the result of a lifelong fascination with carnies and the bizarre characters that live their life as a living curiosity embracing the weird side of life.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers themselves, he says, embody the carnival spirit and all the strangeness proudly represented by those on the fringes of society. This makes New Orleans the perfect place to not only find musical inspiration, but to record the album itself. In an abandoned wine cellar beneath the French Quarter, the band finally produced their long-awaited album – with the sound fans have come to know and love. Only this time, guided by the spirits of the mysterious past and the voodoo magic of that special city.
While the history in some tracks are based on factual events, songs like Karnival Joe is a melting pot of curious characters and mythical tales.
“Let’s just say I got a lot of inspiration from [the] past. But, the big concept or the big story behind the record,” Mathus says, is a book he had been reading titled The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette. “It was a really deep dive into the Caribbean, the black influence – just the old stories of New Orleans, pre-music almost. As far as the stories, it’s like a secret history of New Orleans and the celebration of that”
One of the facets of this unique musical history were the performances at Congo Square. During these times, slaves were allowed to dance and play music; music which would ultimately lay the foundation for the American music as we know it today.
“[I] tried to imagine what it would have sounded like if you were in Congo Square,” he says about the track Hey Shango! “I always wanted to know what that would have sounded like. No one really wrote about it or talked about it, they thought it was too bizarre.”
Their new album has received plenty of recognition since its release last year, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers won’t be taking a break anytime soon. The band’s next album is already in the works – set to be released in spring of 2020 in time for their 25th anniversary tour.
However, Mathus will be bringing a slightly different kind of performance to Plattsburgh’s Strand Center Theatre for the Arts this December. For the third year running, the group is spreading holiday cheer as they bring their Christmas Caravan tour nationwide. With original Christmas songs for a new generation of yuletide enthusiasts, the Squirrel Nut Zippers will be bringing Christmas spirit to the North Country with a range of tunes sure to melt all the stress of the holidays away.
Christmas Caravan was first released in 1998, two years after their hit record Hot – later going on to sell a quarter of a million copies. While at the time Mathus says he wasn’t overly excited by the album, it has now become a cornerstone of a musical past which he has come to cherish more and more as the years go by.
“When we first made the album, it wasn’t something that we were particularly interested in. [Our] record company really wanted us to do it,” Mathus explains. “Over the years, the record has really been very popular with people, and nowadays it’s something that everyone can listen to. It’s not the same old crap, right? That [stuff] you get sick of before Thanksgiving, you’re tired of it.”
Just as The Squirrel Nut Zippers brought a fresh new take on music to the world, their Christmas tunes are a refreshingly unique way to take part in the holiday spirit we all look forward to throughout the entire year.
However, Mathus assures fans that many of their favorite tunes will be dispersed throughout their performance as well.
“There’s a lot of stress around the holidays and a lot of pressure. At least our music is something that can add some levity. It’s something I’m proud of. To get to come and bring that kind of joy to people, share the stories. You know, there’s some beautiful stories on there and some really nice songs. So, I’m very proud of [it].”
With the new nine-member lineup, the Zippers are a carnival themselves – taking their music and eccentric flare from town to town reminding us all just how fun it is to be different. What makes their brand of weirdness unique, however, is the music’s ability to cross all boundaries as people from all backgrounds can come together and forget about the stress of the outside world for a night and share the love of the holiday season.
“It’s quirky, it’s unique, it’s something that families can all kind of dig on and get something out of. It’s a real family, organic thing,” he says. “All ages can really enjoy it. [You can] bring your grandparents or your grandkids, [it’s] something [that] everyone can kind of get together and get weird.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers will be performing at Plattsburgh’s Strand Center for the Arts Theatre Thursday, December 5 at 7:30 p.m. Opening for the band is the Northampton, MA-based Bella’s Bartok. Tickets are general admission and can be purchased for $35 in advance or $40 the day of the show at strandcenter.org or by calling the box office at (518) 563-1604 (ext. 105).