"Hell" Breaks Loose
They're headed for serious strife in the afterlife, but the Squirrel Nut Zippers remain devil-may-care
By Mark Jordan
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997: Ken Mosher's memories of Memphis are surprisingly vivid.
"Memphis is the setting of one of my most horrible childhood memories," says Mosher, a native of St. Louis and currently the saxophonist/guitarist/vocalist for Squirrel Nut Zippers. "I was playing baseball when I was like 8 years old, and we had to get to Memphis because we had won some championship in St. Louis, and we were going to Memphis to compete in the regionals. Well, we got there, and our coach had forgotten all of our birth certificates, and we were disqualified. You can just imagine the time our coach had. You had like 15 8-year-olds, and we were all crying, and you had to drive us 150 miles back home."
And then there was the pilgrimage the band made to Ardent Studios to meet Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. "He's very sweet but seems very amused and confused by [his celebrity]. He gave us some pound cake. He was like: Somebody gave me some pound cake, and I can't eat it all. Would you like some? And we're like: Yeah, we'll eat some. We're eating Jody Stephens' pound cake. Cool."
Well, while we can't promise anything along the order of those memories (though maybe a burrito with Sam Phillips can be arranged), the Squirrel Nut Zippers' pass through Memphis this time should be noteworthy enough, coming as it does on the heels of a new pinnacle of success for the North Carolina-based group. And what an unlikely success story it is. No one could have guessed 12 months ago that a band of twentysomethings playing what is essentially 1920s New Orleans-style swing jazz would have a Top 20 single, the Mephistopheles-meets-Luis Prima cautionary tale "Hell," from their second album Hell, and a video in heavy rotation on MTV.
But Mosher says the timing was right for something completely different as audiences were tiring of the unceasing sameness of grunge. "We were driving back from New Orleans a couple of years ago and listening to alternative stations the whole way, and it all sounded exactly the same," he says. "It certainly wasn't alternative. It was heavily packaged and programmed. ... So, I don't think there's necessarily a thirst for jazz, but I think there is a thirst for diversity."
Formed in 1993 by a handful of university students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (the name Squirrel Nut Zippers, by the way, comes from the name of a vanilla-nut-caramel confection produced in Massachusetts), the band also features Jim Mathus on vocals, guitar, banjo, and piano; Tom Maxwell on vocals, guitar, sax, clarinet, and resonator guitar; Chris Phillips on drums and percussion; Don Raleigh on bass and gong; and Katherine Whalen on vocals, banjo, and ukulele. "As you can imagine, in our live show there's a lot of instrument switching," Mosher says.
"We all played in rock bands in Chapel Hill, everybody but Katherine," says Mosher, explaining the band's origins. "The big club in town had closed for the summer because it was moving across town. Summer in Chapel Hill is like any college town. There's nothing going on, and there was no way to make money. So, we were just like, let's get together and play music we want to play and when school comes back around we'll all go back to our rock bands."
So, the band spent most of the summer woodshedding, sustained by plenty of beer and fried chicken, with every intention of putting together a bluegrass band, but things quickly got twisted.
"We really intended to play bluegrass," Mosher says. "I don't know what happened. I read an interview where Jimbo [Mathus] explained it really well. He said in the beginning Katherine couldn't sing harmonies, but she can sing lead great. Well, you really need harmonies in bluegrass. So then we just said, `Okay, we'll play jazz.'"
Of course, it is just that kind of seemingly cavalier attitude that will drive most jazz purists wild, but that's okay. Jazz fans need to lose the attitude that they own swung-eighth notes. The Zippers don't claim to be virtuosos, but they do bring something to jazz that has been sorely missing for about 30 years now -- songwriting.
"Actually, we are getting acceptance from a pretty wide spectrum," Mosher says. "In Chapel Hill there were the hot rock bands that everyone in their 20s went and saw. And then there was the more cerebral stuff like real heavy free jazz, which we can't play, that the professors would go see. And we immediately, as soon as we started, began to draw from both of those crowds."
The Zippers' musical interests extend beyond jazz, however. And the band is increasingly experimenting with other genres. According to Mosher, on their third album, already recorded but awaiting release, "there's one song that's pretty much straight-up klezmer, klezmer-punk, sort of. There's another that sounds like '50s country with pedal steel on it. ... Stylistically [the next album] will draw from the same basic inspiration, but the songs themselves are better recorded and better fleshed out."
Some members of the band are also involved in a side project that will find them delving into the Delta blues. Native Mississippian Mathus -- along with bassist Raleigh, violinist and occasional Zipper Andrew Bird, and producers Mike Napolitano and Brian Paulson -- is working on a tribute album to one of the earliest Delta bluesmen, Charley Patton, who worked and played on Dockery Farms near Clarksdale, Mississippi.
"Jimbo and several cousins had a nanny who it turns out is Charley Patton's daughter," Mosher says. "Well, she's real sick and doesn't have any money, so this record is really for her."
Joining Mathus on the Patton record is Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, who will also be opening for the Zippers when they hit town this Monday. "I'm hoping that there will be some jamming between the two bands on some stuff from [the Patton] record," Mosher says.
Well, that would be great. But we just hope somebody remembers to bring the band's birth certificates.
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