For olde times’ sake

The return of the Squirrel Nut Zippers
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  July 15, 2008

VIDEO: Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Hell"

Squirrel Nut Zippers aren’t just a cult band — they’re practically a cult. The sextet’s flair for 1920s formal wear and their musical skeleton of the same era’s jazz and orchestral pop — fleshed out by blues, country, rock, and even klezmer — make them stand out as much as any group of alien worshippers. And it’s been that way since they crawled out of Chapel Hill’s club scene and carved their own path through the grunge- and alternative-rock-dominated ’90s.

Now, after a six-year absence, they’re back, regrouped since 2007, and heading toward making a new album, with a stop along the way at the Paradise this Friday.

“I can’t believe we haven’t been back to Boston yet,” says drummer Chris Phillips. “WFNX was the station that introduced Squirrel Nut Zippers to commercial radio.”

That was back in 1996, when the Zippers had just released their second album, Hot (Mammoth), which included a saucy little swing tune called “Hell.” Its horns, banjos, and Cab Calloway–style vocal delivery stood out boldly alongside R.E.M. and Nirvana. Plus, the group’s name comes from a chewy candy that Necco began manufacturing in Cambridge in the mid 1920s.

After Squirrel Nut Zippers got big in Boston, “Hell” broke out everywhere, including MTV, where the video became a camp classic. It was followed by two more singles and another brilliant video worth eyeballing on YouTube: the early-’30s-style black-and-white cartoon for 2000’s “Ghost of Stephen Foster.”

Humor has always been an essential part of the Zippers’ world view, along with an omnivorous musical diet, right from the days when Phillips and frontman Jimbo Mathus met while working in an Italian restaurant in 1993. “We had both just discovered turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz and found we had a lot of the same tastes and had both come up playing in punk-rock bands,” explains Phillips.

So he, Mathus, and Mathus’s then-wife, Katherine Whalen, dove in. “A lot of the music from that era was poorly recorded, and we were listening to most of it on tapes, so it was hard to decipher,” he goes on. “But Jimbo is a really deep musician. He started learning all the chords, and there was a lot of whisky drinking, chicken frying, and playing music until all hours of the night.”

By the time of the Zippers’ 1995 debut, The Inevitable (Mammoth), the group had become “a black box,” according to Phillips. “You stick your hand in and you could pull anything out.”

In 2001, the group’s cachet was diminishing, so they took a break to recharge. Instead, they were sidelined, Phillips says, when former members sued over disputed royalties.

The band’s core — Phillips, Mathus, and Whalen — pursued separate interests. Mathus and Whalen divorced and made solo albums. Phillips played with punk-rock originals the Dickies for a few years and formed a still-going outfit called the Lamps with the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson. He also scored the Comedy Central cartoon series Lil’ Bush.

They attempted to regroup in 2005, but the lawsuit reared its head again. “Now that’s behind us,” says Phillips. “We’re back on stage together and having fun, and the band feels like the future. We’re kicking new material around and recording a live album. When I’m not playing in this band, I don’t know what to do with myself, so it’s like having my family back.

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