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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Up Close with Squirrel Nut Zippers
Frontman Jimbo Mathus

By Josh Max
Photo © Squirrel Nut Zippers

Retro 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.

Imagine 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 family?

Photo © Jim Mathus
Jimbo: 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 cool."

Josh:  You guys are heavily influenced by early American music, which I love.
 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.

  Photo © Squirrel Nut Zippers

Josh:  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!

Josh:  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, ( 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.


Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Article List
2000 Article List
2001 Article List
2002 Article List
2003 Article List
2004 Article List
Thrift Store Record Reviews
Up Close Squirrel Nut Zipper's
Frontman Jimbo Mathus
Catchin' Up With Claude Trenier
How to Make Out to a Monster Movie
In Remembrance of Swings Past
Interview with Dean Mora
I Want Candye!: Candye Kane
Silence Is Golden:
Exploring Early Cinema in
Present-Day Hollywood
Jive Aces Swing Through Europe
Beatin' The Chops:
Pictures Of Lulu
Girls, Cars & Tattoo Charms
Lavay Smith:
The Divine Miss Thing
Spats: A Return to Civilized Attire
My Girlfriend Loves Elvis
Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?
Adventures in Vintage Expoland
The Melody Lingers On
Shake Your Wicky Wacky Woo!
High Noon At The Hoot:
Rockabilly Hits Orange County
Pep, Vim 'n' Verve:
Bill Elliott Bounces To Stardom
The Grand Dame Gets Her Due: Louis-Dahl Wolfe
Mermaids In NYC
Recycling Vintage Rings
Kearney's Got The Cure
You're Invited to a
Hawaiian Dinner Party
Can Broadway Swing?
Swing Therapy
Thelonious Monk:
Music Of The Sphere
ATOMIC Bares All!
Pennies From Heaven
Beatin' The Chops:
Just Dance, Dammit!
Bump & Grind Southern Style:
New Orleans' Shim Shamettes
Lady Day Speaks


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