VISITING ACT: Squirrel Nut Zippers 

Redneck Jazz Revival: Squirrel Nut Zippers still Hot after all these years

Squirrel Nut Zippers Squirrel Nut Zippers
w/ Backyard Tire Fire
Tues. Oct. 28
8 p.m.
$20, $17/adv.
Music Farm
32 Ann St.
(843) 853-3276

The origin of Chapel Hill's Squirrel Nut Zippers is a simple one, a story formed from a confluence of talent and incidence, of love and of mirth. It is, in short, not unlike the stories of many groups.

Jimbo Mathus and Katherine Whalen formed the band with a collection of friends, named themselves after a dubiously packaged peanut candy, and started attracting crowds to their shows. As percussionist Chris Phillips remembers, "When this band started, it was redneck Camelot. It was this beautiful time in our lives when we could drink and eat fried chicken and play music all at the same time. I think the Zippers are part of a great Southern tradition which is storytelling and drinking and falling over."

It wasn't long before the band signed to famed indie label Mammoth Records and released 1995's The Inevitable. But it was the sophomore LP Hot that took the Squirrel Nut Zippers from ordinary to anything but. Even in the musically adventurous realm of '90s alternative rock, the Squirrel Nut Zippers seemed unlikely stars. But "Hell," a cut from Hot, gained traction in 1997 as a novelty hit on MTV and alternative rock radio, and just happened to perfectly coincide with the short-lived swing revival that put the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies on the pop charts. It came swiftly and unexpectedly, and was most certainly a cause for celebration.

This sudden success opened new doors for the goofball band from North Carolina. "My kids can watch me on Sesame Street, and that's cool forever," says Phillips.

But nobody — the band, their fans, music critics, or the listening public — was entirely comfortable lumping the Zippers in with the other swing bands. Not enough use of the phrase "daddy-o," perhaps. Or, more likely, it had something to do with the Zippers' more organic, string-rooted sound.

Their collective musical ear is as in tune with big-band swing as it is to blues, country, and pre-WWII pop. Their defiant attitude makes the Zippers something else.

Says Phillips, "The Squirrel Nut Zippers band has the ability to have every single person in the band playing in a different genre at the same time."

Whalen's voice moves between an airy, sweet Andrews Sisters lilt to a rich Billie Holiday jazz croon. The band can swing into upbeat jump-blues, dabble in Dixieland hoo-rah, and dive headlong into nervy pop. Swing horns and walking upright basslines add color and energy. Ultimately, it plays as an amalgamation of Depression-era pop hits across genres. This band is about chemistry, not genre. It's about creating something joyful and exciting and new each time the players pick up their instruments. Phillips compares the music to the ride of life: "We want to cry a little bit, we want to laugh a lot, and we want to scare the shit out of you every now and then."

He sums it up rather simply: "Redneck jazz, that's us."

And so the band rocks its jet-fueled retro romps with humor and sarcasm. The songs remain defiantly upbeat, providing a sort of juke-joint escapism that plays like some romanticized reel of sepia-toned flappers grinning in an illicit speakeasy, hoisting dry gin in the face of Johnny Law. That very sense of riot-jubilee keeps the Zippers music relevant 10 to 15 years after their inception. As we enter the clutch of The Great Depression 2.0, the Squirrel Nut Zippers stand firm (if maybe a bit woozily), nose-to-nose with hard times. "We're not depressed," says Phillips. "We're very happy. We drink all the time. We encourage people in any depression to drink as heavily as possible."

And so the story of the Squirrel Nut Zippers continues — less as a reunion, more as a revival. Mathus spent the time off playing session guitar with Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, running a recording studio in Cuomo, Miss., and playing with his band Knockdown South. Whalen fronted her own band, Lucky. And Phillips moved to Los Angeles, where he plays with long-standing punk band the Dickies and worked as a composer for the Comedy Central animated series Lil' Bush. Other members have come and gone, notably violinist Andrew Bird, who currently tours as a successful solo musician. Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher, who both contributed heavily to the band's heyday success, have a band together in Chapel Hill. They "decided to leave the band to pursue legal careers." Their departure was not an amicable split, but Phillips says it's in the past. The Zippers are looking to the future once again.

With the band back together on its members' own terms, there's a sense of freedom and loyalty in the current incarnation. "I can say, for better or worse, I take you on as my musical partner. And I hope it is 'til death do we part," says Phillips. So far, so good. The Zippers have a new live album on the horizon and a studio recording planned for 2009.

And as long as the music is exciting, the story will continue to be written, adding adventure and embellishment along the way in true Zippers fashion. "It still feels as creatively invigorating as it always was," says Phillips. "It still feels like we're making our very own fourth-grade class play."


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