Close with Squirrel Nut Zippers
Frontman Jimbo Mathus
By Josh Max
© Squirrel Nut Zippers
swing bands made a huge, if brief, mainstream media splash in
1997. Two years later the craze had peaked, Hanson and their fellow
pop tots had invaded the charts, and many hep daddy-o's hung up
their creepers. What remains now are the the bands who were
into old styles before everybody jumped onto the zoot suit bandwagon.
Squirrel Nut Zippers were never swing, though journalists dubbed
them so in their quest to pigeonhole and simplify. They survived
the mass executions of bands whoíd been signed to record deals
based on a craze which quickly faded., and have a new album,
Bedlam Ballroom, on
Mammoth Records. Ballroom continues the bandís unique
blend of hot jazz, goofy feels, crazy melodies, irreverence and
excellent musicianship. The eight-member Squirrel Nut Zippers
are headed by husband-and-wife team Jimbo Mathus and Katherine
Whalen. ATOMIC author Josh Max caught up with Jimbo at Mammoth
records the day of the Zippersí Halloween show at Roseland Ballroom
in New York City.
a better-looking Billy Babbit from the 1974 film One Flew
Over The Cuckooís Nest and youíve got a pretty accurate description
of Jimbo Mathus. Tall (though it may be because of his hair,
precariously piled on top of his noggin like a house of cards
) and skinny, he seems more nervous than I, chain smoking and
drinking beer during our 4 P.M. interview. In an age where
many artists strive to appear authentic, Mathus doesnít have to
work at it. The guy is pure country through and through.
You can buy all the vintage clothing you want, but anyone who
unabashedly declares, "I donít have an Internet!"ó
now thatís retro!
Josh: Who writes Squirrel Nut Zippers songs?
Jimbo: I write and arrange. Iíve done it ever
since we started. We had a guy in the band named Tom Maxwell,
who left after the last album to seek his own thing. He
used to write about 25% of the material.
Josh: When he left, was there a question of whether
or not the band would continue?
Jimbo: Nah. He really left so the band could
continue. He was real anti-music business, so it was kind
of hard. I wanted to keep going, but Tom wanted to get away
from the business side. He wanted to sell albums just over
the Internet. I donít have an Internet, so Iím not counting
on that. I just want to keep making records with Mammoth.
Josh: When you first started out, did you try to
fashion yourself after any particular musician, or style?
Jimbo: Well, I grew up in north Mississippi, isolated from
everything. Music was just a part of our family and how I grew
up. The first musicians I knew were my Dad and his clan.
They played Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, jug music
and such. When I started guitar I really liked Robert Johnson.
I went through different spells. I usually find someone
I like and I listen to them for about 5 years.
Josh: Are you the most successful musician in your
Oh, yeah. They would never consider doing it for a living.
I was out of the family for a while because of my career choice!
But now Iím back in. (laughs) My Dad gave me a new guitar for
my birthday 5 years ago, which was an amazing expression of faith.
Iíd left home when I was 17, taking his guitar with me, an
old Gibson J-45 flattop guitar. I used to pawn it all the
time when I needed money, but Iíd always get it back. One
time I came home and had forgotten to remove the pawn ticket from
the case. My mom came up to me at a family gathering,
where weíd all play music all day and into the night, and said,
"Youíre fatherís pissed because he saw the pawn ticket on the
guitar. He wants it back, and right now." I went
to my Dad and asked him to just let me keep it, told him Iíd never
pawn it again. He agreed to let me keep it. At the time
it was the only guitar I had. A couple of months later it
got stolen. So he fuckiní hated me for a long time.
Him buying me a new guitar was his way of sayiní, "Everythingís
© Jim Mathus
You guys are heavily influenced by early American music, which
Whose lyrics do you love?
Jimbo: Man, lyrics mean less and less to me now.
I kinda feel the lyrics are secondary to the beat.
In blues, for example, getting a loud sound across to people is
important. I do like a song that tells a story. I
like a lot of Tin Pan Alley jazz. I just donít take a whole
lot of time agonizing over lyrics. I like to get a good
little beat, a title, and go for it. "If It Ainít Broke,
Donít Fix It" and "Donít Let The Bedbugs Bite"
off our new album are examples. I love early rock Ďní roll.
I love cabaret. But I donít really have a main lyricist
that I like.
© Squirrel Nut Zippers
You write Katherineís material, too, then, since youíre
the songwriter. How does it differ for you to write
for yourself and write for her?
Jimbo: Well, with her, I really have to write
for her personality. If she donít like the lyrics, she
wonít sing it. She likes standards, and she
doesnít like a whole mess of words. So I try to
write her songs that sound standard-y. It
ainít easy to write for her Ďcause sheís real picky.
She turns down a lot of stuff. But I just say, well,
try, try again!
So thatís not a source of friction between you two.
Jimbo: Not at all. I donít take it
personally. I was obsessed with songwriting for a long
time and then I got to a point where I didnít want to
think about it all the time. So it doesnít bother
me if she doesnít fall over when she hears a new song
of mine. Itís not that hard to write a song, so now Iím
going to think about some other shit, too.
Josh: Do you have any tips or tricks for
couples who work in bands together?
Jimbo: You have to listen to the other person.
It was hard with Katherine for a long time because she
really had no aspirations to be a professional musician.
She really liked just living out in the country where
itís quiet. Every time weíd leave home in
the van, sheíd cry for about 8 hours cause she was homesick.
I couldnít get mad at her about it, so I just tried to
support her. Now she loves it, loves singing, loves
the band we have now. We even have our new
baby on tour. I canít wait to see America and Europe
again. Never get tired of it!
Josh Max is the lead singer and songwriter of Josh
Maxís Outfit, (www.joshmaxsoutfit.com)
and an automotive journalist for the NY Daily News.
He is also a contributor to Maxim, New York Press,
Performing Songwriter, and other publications.
©2000 Yeah Media. No part of this article may be reproduced
without the authorís permission.