Squirrel Nut Zippers Reissuing 'Hot' - Listen to Unreleased 1991 Song 'The Puffer': Exclusive
"It was quite shocking," says James "Jimbo" Mathus, the Squirrel Nuts Zippers founder, of his band's meteoric and rather unexpected mid-nineties fame. "We had been working in isolation and had played a lot of gigs by that time," he says, "to see people just insane about this music, we were shocked, we had no idea we were really reaching people."
Indeed, 20 years ago the Squirrel Nut Zippers' unique blend of roots music, jazz, cabaret and theatrics exploded with the release of their 1996 album Hot, which peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 and sold some 1.3 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music, buoyed by the hit single "Hell," which peaked at No. 13 on the Alternative Songs chart. Along with 2008's Perennial Favorites, which reached number 18 on the Billboard 200, the band's total album sales reached a whopping 2.4 million copies.
With a remastered twentieth anniversary edition of Hot slated for release July 29 on Hollywood Records and a reunion tour to follow, Billboard is exclusively debuting "The Puffer," a never-before-released bonus track written with the late Stacy Guess. The song, which is named for an old steam train, has a Duke Ellington feel and is "kind of a creepy and very typical Zippers," says Mathus.
Guess, the late horn player, had a major influence on Mathus personally as well as the band. "When I started the Zippers and we were really going toward this cabaret, early jazz sound I was enthused about and trying to figure out how to play and how to compose, Stacy was the guy who got me up to speed on the horns," he says. "I had come from a string band background in the Deep South and my father played banjo and fiddle, guitars, dog house bass -- that's the stuff that I grew up around. The song would have been on Hot, but it just didn't quite work out that way. It was in our repertoire and one of the staples of our set. The recording is from 1991 right at the end of the first incarnation."
The new nine-piece touring version of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are making their first live run in seven years, are managed by Keith Hagan and booked by the Kurland Agency and includes: original drummer Chris Phillips along with the spunky song stylings of Ingrid Lucia of Flying Neutrino’s fame, Dr. Sick from the Asylum Street Spankers and Charlie Halloran (who Mathus calls "one of the best young trombone players in New Orleans) as well as Tamara Nicholai, Kevin Louis, Dave Boswell, Henry Westmoreland, Kris Takorski and Kevin O'Donell.
Like VH1's infamous and short-lived Bands Reunited show, band reunions are not always the smoothest of endeavors. Indeed the announcement of a new Squirrel Nut Zippers tour elicited a discontented blog post at the end of last year by former SQN guitarist and vocalist Tom Maxwell who disputed the reunion's legitimacy. "I’m sorry to say I won’t be joining the Squirrel Nut Zippers on the tour supporting the 20th anniversary of the Hot album next year," he wrote. "This will put me in good company: Katharine Whalen, Ken Mosher, and Don Raleigh won’t be there either."
"He quit the band on his own and he had the hit "Hell," but he's not really a person I'm interested in working with," says Mathus when asked about the post. Mathus estimates the Zippers have had some twenty members pass through the band. "He wasn't there on the first record either so it's been more about the project then the individual members. People have come and gone over the years but the fact of the matter is it's my project. He quit the band to pursue his own devices and that's really about all I can say."
Mathus, 48, has hardly been sitting still since the height of the Zippers fame. The musician/producer based out of Oxford, Mississippi estimates he's played roughly two to three hundred shows a year for the past fifteen years. When we speak he is in the UK in the middle of a 42-date tour with Ian Siegel. He's won a Grammy for his work on Buddy Guy's Blues Singer and produced artists from Elvis Costello to a slew on the Fat Possum label including Ironing Board Sam, Leo Blood Welch, Robert Finley, and a new group called the Seratones.
Perhaps most interesting aspects of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' enormous popularity was how they were erroneously lumped in with a brief but intense mid-90s swing band revival, which Mathus never considered part of the band's DNA. "There was a connection with those people for sure but shortly after the whole movement thing popped up around us it was off-putting to us," he says. "People loved seeing us in concert and we had a very positive vibe. What I dug most about it was that young people were able to bring their grandparents out and that was the point of the band: to bridge generations and play something that would be cool for babies and old people alike and also stand up over time. I think that's what we still have to offer. Music now has gotten further partitioned and sterilized, so it's a good time for us right now. The music is still as exciting, vibrant, interesting and subversive as it was then."
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