A revived Squirrel Nut Zippers swing into Aspen
January 12, 2017
If You Go …
Who: Squirrel Nut Zippers
Where: JAS Café at the Little Nell
When: Friday, Jan. 13 & Saturday, Jan. 14; 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $40
Call it a revival of the swing revival. Two decades after the Squirrel Nut Zippers' breakout album "Hot" — which included the still-ubiquitous oddball single "Hell" and sparked the late-1990s swing revival — the band is back on the road with its vintage sound.
Lead singer and founder Jimbo Mathus brings a revamped Zippers lineup to the JAS Café at The Little Nell for four shows today and Saturday during Wintersköl weekend.
After its run at the top of the charts, the Squirrel Nut Zippers broke up following its tour for 2000's "Bedlam Ballroom," followed shortly by Mathus splitting with his bandmate and wife Katharine Whalen. But Mathus kept charging forward creatively during the 16 years that the Zippers were dormant. He toured and recorded with the legendary bluesman Buddy Guy, made a dozen solo records and fronted with his band the Tri-State Coalition, along with producing records for the likes of Elvis Costello.
This adventurous and creatively fertile period — and respite from his best-known project — informed the new version of the Zippers.
"From the greatest to the worst of the artists I've worked with, I've learned something," Mathus said from home in New Orleans. "I feel totally prepared — the timing is right to jump back into the Zippers and lead this band again because I've got so much more experience and I'm so much more prepared now. And I've still got the spark of the first creation and concoction."
He didn't make the decision to revive the Zippers casually. A brief reunion in 2008, which included a show at Belly Up Aspen, didn't stick. He was so removed from the band's swing revival heyday that he didn't realize the 20th anniversary of "Hot" was happening until someone pointed out to him early last year. That led him to dig into the old material and, eventually, launch the new version of the Zippers that is playing Aspen this weekend.
"When I dusted off the material and started looking at it again, I was really impressed," he said. "It took a while to figure out what we were doing and then to figure out how to improve on it and bring it into the new season."
His only original Zipper bandmate from the original group on the current tour is drummer Chris Phillips — the rest are newcomers. The fresh lineup is presumably, in part, a result of the band's bitter and litigious breakup. But Mathus said he also wanted to see the material as if it were new.
"I didn't want to do a reunion tour, I wanted to do a complete revival," he explained.
Mathus grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, steeped in the traditions of delta blues, early American jazz and roots music. He learned to play guitar and sing with his family band — performing with his father, uncles and cousins at home and around town. By the time he was 10 years old, he knew several hundred songs from start to finish. It was a unique, throwback musical education in which he learned the canon of American music chronologically, more or less.
Those early experience shaped his musical identity and uniquely prepared him to make the old new again with the Zippers.
"I came up in real, genuine, old-school social music," he said. "Once I started being interested in pursuing history and the roots of it, that led me to the jazz era, Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, Stephen Foster — all these types of things. So by the time I encountered that kind of music I was ready to integrate them all and not approach them as a stranger."
All of that informal study — along with a deep interest in theater — led to the idea for what would become Squirrel Nut Zippers, a group that took all those antiquated forms of American music and joyously, exuberantly made them new.
Improbably, at the tail end of the grunge era and in the heyday of boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, the Squirrel Nut Zippers became a phenomenon.
They were discovered at a coffee shop in Chapel Hill in 1993 and quite suddenly — with the release of "The Inevitable" in 1995 and the platinum-selling master work "Hot" in 1996 — suddenly found themselves one of the most popular bands in America.
Nobody on Earth foresaw the stratospheric rise of the band, and the boom of the swing revival — alongside the likes of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra — but it all made sense to Mathus.
"It never phased me all that much, any of the things about the popularity of the band," he said. "For me it was just, 'Wow, this is an incredible opportunity.' It inspired me and I felt prepared to handle it."
The four shows in Aspen this weekend will showcase retooled versions of the classic Squirrel Nut Zippers material from the '90s, an experience Mathus calls "just pure entertainment bliss."
He and the new Zippers are starting to work on new material — Mathus has been offering snippets on Instagram — with the goal of releasing some new songs this winter and an album sometime over the summer. But for now, the band is focusing on reintroducing itself to the masses on the road and sticking to the hits.
The Zippers' most high-profile gig, no doubt, was a performance at President Bill Clinton's second inaugural ball in 1997. President-elect Trump has famously been having trouble getting musicians to agree to play his inaugural next week. If Trump called the Zippers, would they reprise their role for the new president?
"Hell no!" Mathus cried. "They'd have to drag me kicking and screaming and in shackles and chains. And even then, I'd be mute."