Squirrel Nut Zippers regroup, set Aspen date
December 12, 2008
ASPEN ” Jimbo Mathus has been a key sideman for some legendary musicians.
He was a guitarist and arranger for two of Buddy Guy’s finest CD: 2001’s “Sweet Tea” and 2004’s Grammy-winning “Blues Singer,” both of which got much of their Mississippi flavor from the Delta-raised Mathus. Elvis Costello traveled to Como, Miss. to record at Mathus’ Delta Recording Service for his 2005 CD “The Delivery Man”; those sessions yielded the single “Monkey to a Man,” and later, the entire session was later released as a limited-edition CD. Mathus has written songs for the jam-blues heroes, the North Mississippi Allstars, and appeared on their “Electric Blue Watermelon” album.
Mathus says, however, that he spends more time, and gets more satisfaction, out of working with upstart local bands. He wants to help preserve the sounds of northern Mississippi.
“The country, the soul, the gospel, the blues,” said Mathus in his unreconstructed drawl. “I’m trying to keep Mississippi artists from thinking they have to go to Nashville to do something. They can stay here and keep it raw.” Mathus backs up that desire by running, through a Myspace page, the Mississippi Sound Cooperative, whose projects include a songwriting competition. Top prize: recording time in Mathus’ studio.
It’s hard, then, to picture Mathus caught up in any national music trends, much less at the center of one. Yet through much of the ’90s, he was riding high atop the swing craze. Living near Chapel Hill, N.C. at the time, Mathus led and played guitar for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “Hell,” from the band’s second album, 1996’s “Hot,” became a hit, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers found themselves playing the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, at President Clinton’s second inaugural ball and on tour with Neil Young. The Zippers’ style was in line with other bands of the day that borrowed heavily from 1930s dance music: Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. And as hard as it is to imagine Mathus running with that crowd, it’s even harder to see him enjoying it.
Which, after a short while, he didn’t.
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“We started without CD players, without computers. So no one really knew there was this other stuff out there,” said Mathus, who founded the Squirrel Nut Zippers in 1993, with singer Katharine Whalen, his romantic partner at the time. “But when we had our hit, ‘Hell,’ we discovered there were other bands out there. We’d get to a theater to do our show and we’d see on the poster there was another band coming the next week that did about the same thing. And another the next week. It felt old to me, kind of cheesy.” “Hell,” added Mathus wasn’t even a swing tune, but derived from ’30s calypso.
In 2000, soon after a millennium eve gig at Seattle’s Paul Allen Pavilion, Mathus pulled down the Zippers, headed back to northern Mississippi, and returned to the blues. Aside from working with Buddy Guy, he put out several albums under his own name: 2005’s “Knockdown South,” his take on raw, electric blues in the style of such Mississippi legends as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough; and 2006’s folkier “Old Scool Hot Wings.” Mathus mostly stayed close to home, picking up musicians for small blues combos to play at festivals and juke joints. He sees that raw, unsophisticated Mississippi blues style ” often played with no chord changes at all, just singing and riffing over one chord ” as his essential music.
“That was my background,” said Mathus, who started playing with his relatives at the age of 6, beginning with mandolin before adding guitar, banjo and piano. “That’s the easiest thing for me to do. It’s in me.”
But after most of a decade and six albums with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, something else got into him as well. Last year Mathus reassembled five of the original members of the band ” including Whalen, now his ex-wife ” and started the band up again. The Zippers’ run through Colorado stops at Belly Up Aspen for a gig on Thursday, Dec. 18 ” their first appearance in the valley since playing Jazz Aspen’s 2001 June Festival. The reformed band has been recording tracks for a new album, and has released a live CD, being sold in a package with a photography book documenting the band’s concerts and travels.
“I think it was just curiosity as much as anything,” said Mathus, of putting Squirrel Nut Zippers back together. “I was intrigued to see if I could still do that thing. When I do the blues, showmanship is something I stay away from. It’s keeping the beat, keep the beers flowing. With Squirrel Nut Zippers, it’s more chords, more like entertainment. It’s like theater, and inhabiting these characters we create in our songs.”
The latest version of the Zippers is turning out to be even more artistically satisfying. Like Mathus, the other members have honed their skills during the time off. Trumpeter Je Widenhouse has played old-style hot jazz in the Firecracker Jazz Band; drummer Chris Phillips’ projects include scoring music for the Comedy Central show “Lil’ Bush.” Whalen has released two solo albums and, from Mathus’ perspective, has shed the stage fright she suffered in the band’s earlier incarnation.
“Our shows tended to be pretty sloppy,” said Mathus. “They were more energetic than skillful. Now we can finally play the songs that I wrote. It’s sort of seasoned, and distilled.”
Actually, what Mathus was aiming for in first forming the Squirrel Nut Zippers wasn’t so much a musical experience as an all-encompassing artistic expression. In his Mississippi childhood, roots music was abundant, but other art forms ” theater, literature, film, cutting-edge music styles ” were not.
“One of the reasons I moved from Mississippi to North Carolina was to get around people who were doing things,” said Mathus, who relocated at the age of 21. “I wanted to figure out what there was in the art world, the world of books. I got interested in Fletcher Henderson” ” a pianist whose 1920s big band included Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins ” “and German cabaret.”
In the college-rich region of Chapel Hill, he met a sympathetic soul in Whalen. “She had the same esthetic ” antique, creepy,” said Mathus. “We were real poor, so we got all our clothes and furniture from the thrift store. So we were leading an antique lifestyle.”
Mathus was like a sponge in the early North Carolina days. “There were colleges, and college radio,” he recalled. “I’d hear a Replacements song, then a Bessie Smith song. I was really intrigued by the stuff I was hearing, and investigating it.”
Mathus began writing a batch of songs that had more to do with those varied styles than with straight-up Delta blues. Whalen’s voice, he discovered, “lent itself more to that kind of stuff than the stuff I’d been doing. It’s just one of those weird synchronicity things,” he said. The two recruited Chris Phillips ” who was the pastry chef in the same restaurant where Mathus was the bread-maker ” to play drums.
Music, though, was only part of the equation. Whalen had been a visual artist, and Mathus was dabbling in visual arts. And the two had a deep interest in theater; they presented marionette plays in the attic of their big, old farmhouse outside of Chapel Hill.
“A part of our band has always been the costumes, the design, the props,” said Mathus, noting that the band customarily travels with big Chinese lanterns as part of the set. “I researched Vaudeville, German theater, read a lot of plays to figure out how to do characters. We take pride in our visual presentation.”
Those were all aspects of performance that were not to be found in Mississippi. “In Mississippi, you didn’t have a whole lot of options to find out, if you’re into weird things.”
After several years exploring the weird, however, Mathus developed a renewed interest in the familiar. As soon as the Squirrel Nut Zippers disbanded, he heard Mississippi, and those old, comfortable sounds, calling him.
“I began to miss Mississippi,” said Mathus. “I appreciated what I had, what I’d been taught. I realized all these things I didn’t understand about Mississippi, because I was so close to it.”