Squirrel Nut Zippers

Squirrel Nut Zippers Biography

What, exactly, is a Squirrel Nut Zipper? There are two correct answers to that question. 1) A chewy peanut-flavored candy made in Massachusetts or 2) a member of the seven-person strong swing outfit from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro region of North Carolina. The band, of course, has taken its name from the Northeastern confection, and in the five years since its inception, has managed to find more popularity than the candy has in the last 70. With three full-length albums and various side projects to their credit, the band has seen success on the charts, and even performed at President Clinton's 1996 inauguration. On top of that, the Squirrel Nut Zippers have spearheaded the current swing revival, making dance lessons cool, and teaching teens that perhaps their grandparents are hipper than they ever gave them credit for.

Believe it or not, the roots of the Squirrel Nut Zippers are based in rock and roll. Many of the band's members have served time in various Chapel Hill institutions, including Metal Flake Mother, What Peggy Wants, Subculture, Grover, and the Sex Police. SNZ began with James Mathus and Katharine Whalen—a marionette maker and marionette clothier, respectively—an obvious match, at least to Whalen's mother, who introduced them. It turned out the two got along quite well; they ended up moving into a farmhouse in Efland, N.C., which they were renovating. In early 1993, they invited several friends over for dinner with the thought of making some music that evening. On the guest list were Don Raleigh, a licensed biomedical engineer, and Ken Mosher, a one-time Democratic party worker who worked at the same French restaurant as Mathus in Chapel Hill. Mathus had asked Mosher to bring drums and guitar—Mosher instead brought along percussionist Chris Phillips, and after dinner, the quintet shifted to the living room where they began to play music based in the sounds of old jazz, with the sensibilities of Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Dixieland, and Calypso. Mathus played guitar and sang, Whalen found herself picking up on the banjo, Raleigh played bass, and Mosher blew sax and played guitar. Realizing they were having more than just a good time, the group eventually decided to play a one-off gig for friends at Henry's, a Chapel Hill bistro. The event went over so well that their friends wouldn't allow them to quit—soon multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell was added into the mix, as well as trumpeter Stacy Guess, and the band cut its first single, "Roasted Right." Originally available only on 7-inch vinyl, the recording featured three songs: "You Are My Radio," "Little Mother-In-Law" (written for Katharine Whalen's mother), and the band's first big success, the Don Raleigh-penned "Anything but Love."

By now the Squirrel Nut Zippers were becoming a Chapel Hill institution in their own right, gigging around town, and even putting in an appearance in a locally made vampire film Immortal, which featured a performance from Maxwell as a record executive who meets a grisly end at the hands of the undead. Local record label Mammoth signed the group, and soon it entered the studio to record its first full-length record with Brian Paulson of Uncle Tupelo fame. The result was The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, a 12-track effort released in March 1995, recorded in nine days at the WaveCastle studio in Hillsborough. The record scored modest success, prompting a West Coast tour, where the retro-swing scene was already burgeoning. "Anything but Love," sung by Whalen with a Billie Holiday sassiness, was picked up for the soundtrack to Flirting With Disaster, and the band was booked for performances at the Sundance Film Festival and on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

The band descended on New Orleans to record its second album at producer Daniel Lanois' famed Kingsway Recording Studio, minus Stacy Guess, whose ongoing battle with addiction had taken a bad turn. Two musicians were brought in for the project: Duke Heitger and Andrew Bird. Heitger performed the parts normally laid down by Guess, while Bird, a fiddle player from Chicago, helped layer the recording with textures that didn't appear on The Inevitable. The entire album was recorded in 10 days, with all the tracks played live in their entirety. Hot was released in late 1996, just as Je Windenhouse was brought on as the band's full-time trumpet man, and the band quickly went back into the studio to record the follow-up.

It was during the sessions for what would become Perennial Favorites that Don Raleigh left the band. Dissatisfaction over creative control had long been a concern of Raleigh's, and when told that there was no time to begin his composition "Cat Town," Raleigh walked out of the studio and has not been seen since by the rest of the band. Stewart Cole was brought in to replace him, although Raleigh does appear on two tracks on Favorites.

With their third album in the can, the Zippers geared up for a summer 1997 release, and began to tour in support of Hot, which they were hoping would sell at least a modest 50,000 or so copies. But something happened, changing the futures of all Squirrel Nut Zippers for the better. Their song "Hell" began getting radio airplay on both college and alternative stations, and suddenly, the band had a hit on their hands. Riding the success of the calypso-tinged tune, the band's popularity shot straight up, as did sales of vintage clothing across the country. The infectious timeless sounds entranced both old and young, and radio programmers found themselves in the quandary of categorizing a style of music twice their ages as "alternative." Mammoth sat on the new album, preferring to ride Hot all the way to platinum status, and suddenly the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who had been playing small clubs to their cult following across the country, were in high demand. In January 1997, the band was tapped to open for LL Cool J and the Presidents of the U.S.A. at the Youth Ball—one of many events set up for President's Clinton's inauguration. The summer saw them playing the H.O.R.D.E. tour, opening for the likes of Beck, Neil Young, and Primus. The neo-swing movement was gaining converts on a daily basis, most of whom bowed down to the Zippers. In the midst of all of this, the band delivered a cease-and-desist letter to Wrigley's, who had appropriated their song "Bad Businessmen" for a commercial—even though when the gum company originally approached the band, they were turned down. Somewhere in the middle of their meteoric success, Whalen and Mathus managed to find time to tie the knot.

By the time the summer of 1997 had wrapped itself up, fans who had been on board since the beginning were clamoring for new music. After all, the band had a new album on the shelf, ready to go. Instead of dropping the new record, the Zippers elected to release a limited edition EP, designed to live in stores for a short time. Sold Out dropped in September, with six songs and three hidden tracks of rarities and live cuts, including a devastating version of "La Grippe" and a take on "Fell to Pieces," recorded during the band's second practice back at Mathus and Whalen's farmhouse in 1993.

Success affords freedom, and band members got involved with various side projects. With the help of the North Mississippi All Stars and bluesman Jerry Ricks, Mathus created Songs for Rosetta, a tribute to Delta crooner Charley Patton. All proceeds from the project went to Patton's daughter, Rosetta Patton Brown, who was Mathus' baby sitter as he grew up in Mississippi, and his aunt and uncle's maid. She had seen virtually no money from her father's royalties. Zipper members also appeared on Thrills, the 1998 release from Andrew Bird. They also remember their roots, continually returning to play in the North Carolina area; a free show in Carrboro pushed by drummer Chris Phillips in September 1997, was attended by almost 10,000 fans—the show managed to count as community service for Phillips, who had been picked up for drunk driving earlier that year.

Riding high, March 1998 saw the band take a blow. While touring in Europe, the group received word that former bandmate Stacy Guess had succumbed to a heroin overdose. Guess, 33, had been taken to the hospital by two other heroin users, and after four days in a coma, finally died. Although devastated, the band agreed to fulfill its touring obligations. After returning from the other side of the Atlantic, a break was in order—the band had been touring solidly for almost two years. After playing a few U.S. dates in April, they returned to the studio in the early summer of 1998 to record a Christmas album for Mammoth, and to gear up for the release of Perennial Favorites.

Following the release of Hot back in 1996, the one criticism that has always dogged the Squirrel Nut Zippers is that they're a novelty band—that for all the catchy sounds, horn work, and electric live performances, there's not much depth to their music. Released in August 1998, Perennial Favorites looks to be the album that convinces even the most skeptical of listeners. The record continues on the same path as the previous two, but exudes both growth and inventiveness. The musicianship is top-notch, Katharine Whalen's vocals are as sultry as ever, and "The Suits Are Picking Up the Bill," the band's treatise against the music industry, was quickly embraced by both the industry and fans alike. The past is still present in Zipper music, but it seems that an eye has been cast to the future as well.

Squirrel Nut Zippers Bio from Discogs

American band founded in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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