Back after hiatus, Squirrel Nut Zippers continues to defy labels
Squirrel Nut Zippers was dubbed "a swing revival band" by the music world in the mid-1990s, achieving commercial success with their 1996 album, "Hot," and singles "Hell" and "Put a Lid on It." But frontman James "Jimbo" Mathus begs to differ with that label.
"Squirrel Nut Zippers is a unique thing. I never thought of us as a swing band," the 51-year-old musician said in an easy drawl during a recent telephone interview. "We're a mixture of cabaret, vaudeville, calypso and New Orleans jazz."
After a 15-year hiatus, Squirrel Nut Zippers is back on the road to promote their new album, "Beasts of Burgundy," named after a street in New Orleans. "It's pronounced Bur-GUN-dy – a lot of people get that wrong," said Mathus.
The tour, which began on the West Coast, will now make its way to the Midwest, with the band performing Saturday, May 19 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield.
"It's a great opportunity for us, after all this time. It's a real treat," said Mathus. He will be traveling with a group of musicians, including three different female singers, two piano players and a horn section.
Concertgoers will enjoy a variety of material from the new records and back catalogue, and a lively show complete with stage props and costumes.
Mathus said the band is "amazing" and embodies the spirit of the original Squirrel Nut Zippers. "We had a frenetic energy, a hanging-on-for-dear-life energy," he said. "I didn't want to break the mold."
The original Squirrel Nut Zippers formed in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and disbanded around 2000 due to interpersonal and legal problems. Mathus is the only original member.
"Beasts of Burgundy" is "a love letter to New Orleans," with songs such as "Axeman Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)" and "West of Zanzibar" paying tribute to the people, places and African gods that have contributed to the city's culture.
Mathus resides in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, a place rich in music history. Growing up in the South in a musical family profoundly influenced his career.
Mathus has had the opportunity to work with numerous jazz and blues musicians who acted as mentors to him, including guitarist Al Casey, who played with Fats Waller, rockabilly musician Sonny Burgess and Buddy Guy.
"I've been able to know people who were there at the birth of music I love," he said. "There are still a lot of leftover guys and gals. I enjoy working with older musicians."
Touring with Guy especially helped Mathus hone his skills as a bandleader, as the renowned and dignified blues musician knows how to conserve his energy in private and let loose and command the stage.
"He's like a king," said Mathus.
He started working with Guy in 1999, playing guitar on the Grammy-winning album "Sweet Tea."
The multitalented Mathus also works for Fat Possum Records as a producer and has worked with national and international musicians, including Elvis Costello. A lover of vintage equipment and raw sound, Mathus incorporates 1950s-style microphones and pre-amps in his recordings.
"I get it live in two or three takes," he said.
Mathus, who has a theatrical background, wrote the musical revue "Mosquitoville" in 2010 and performed with an 11-piece cast throughout Mississippi. He is working on a theatrical production involving current Squirrel Nut Zippers members.
Although the band's revival has been a lengthy process with releasing a record and touring, it's a labor of love for Mathus.
"I'm just a journeyman musician, a writer. I do what I was born to do," he said.
Squirrel Nut Zippers will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 19 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. To reach the box office, call (262) 781-9520. For more information, click here.
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