Swing music will forever be associated with 1990s culture, thanks to the genre’s revival that made stars out of many swing groups during the decade.
You’ll remember how Brian Setzer formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra—with an electric guitar kick to the ass. The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies brought a radio-friendly pop groove to the band’s swing sound, while Lou Bega performed swing-style songs over hip-hop beats.
And then there were the Squirrel Nut Zippers—which were a different thing altogether. The band brought out some of the dark elements of swing music, and added in older sounds such as calypso, gypsy jazz, Delta blues—and even some of the old New Orleans sound.
Following some turbulent starts and stops since the band’s 1990s heyday, the band is back and touring again. The group has survived lawsuits, the divorce of frontman Jimbo Mathus and former Squirrel Nut Zippers vocalist Katharine Whalen, and scorn from former members because they were not invited to perform with the band’s current incarnation.
The band will be stopping by the McCallum Theatre on Friday, March 2.
While the Squirrel Nut Zippers are often lumped into the “Swing Revival” of the ‘90s, the band is the real deal when it comes to swing. During a recent phone interview, Jimbo Mathus explained how it all came together and led to him start the band in 1993.
“I was researching the history of American music and was really jazzed at what was at the heart of it all,” Mathus said. “That was just from going back to learning all the old forms of music on my own as a self-taught artist. I left Mississippi and went to Chapel Hill, N.C.; they had a lot more libraries and record shops in Chapel Hill. I was able to get down to some things I was really interested in. … I started gathering people around me who wanted to try something. We were in total isolation and were starving artists, and most of us didn’t even have televisions. We had no idea what was going on. A bunch of the other swing artists were doing their own thing, too, and there are still a lot of retro groups, but it just sort of happened that we kicked the door in and were able to instill a lot of different artists.”
Mathus said the band made sure it kept things traditional and old-school while recording.
“We recorded in original ways and were able to see it through to the recording,” he said. “Maybe the other groups would have sounded more authentic if they would have done it on our microphones and the way we recorded it—just live in a room with big, old RCA microphones. We recorded it like the old days and still continue to do so.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers’ biggest hit came in 1996 with “Hell.”
“That song came from a fascination with dark humor, but the delivery of it came from early calypso singers in Trinidad from the 1930s, like the Growler, Wilmoth Houdini, the Mighty Sparrow and those kinds of cats. That was a huge new music form at the time, and it was incredible. We were really interested in that, and they talked about a lot of dark subjects in those songs, too, like murders, bodies being found, police incidents. … It was a very cool phenomenon. (“Hell”) was based on that, Dante, and all the dark poets—plus The Lawrence Welk Show, because you need to have some twisted American humor in there. The video was supposed to look like The Lawrence Welk Show. It’s just a twisted joke, but it’s based on the song from the ’30s by Lord Executor called ‘My Troubles With Dorothy.’”
In the summer of 1997, the Squirrel Nut Zippers toured outdoor amphitheaters with Neil Young, Morphine, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and others as part of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival.
“We were on the bill with Morphine and all these other groups, and there was some real eclectic music going on in those days,” Mathus said. “Neil Young is killer, though, but I really liked Morphine, who was also on that bill. We were just the popular music at the time and came out to play to 10,000 people every night who would freak out and have fun. It didn’t seem weird at all. Neil really liked us, and thought we were super cool, too.
“I smoked a joint with Neil Young, and that was pretty happenin’” he added with a laugh.
Of course, retro music genres keep getting rediscovered, and Mathus said it’s a promising time for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I saw the band not long ago in Los Angeles, and the group sounds as good as it did in the ’90s.
“It’s coming back around,” Mathus said. “I don’t see how our style will ever be unpopular, because it’s fun; it’s well-done; it’s creative; it’s sardonic; and it has an edge. It’s very entertaining, and it’s something almost every age can come dig on. I don’t care if you’re 80 or 8—it’s going to be cool, and I’m very excited about it.”
The current lineup includes some well-known ringers, such as Dr. Sick (fiddle, banjo, and other various instruments), vocalist Cella Blue and other roots-music veterans.
“I just started reaching out to people who I knew were devoted, talented and skilled in so many ways,” Mathus said. “I just told them, ‘If we do this, let’s do it again and not re-enact what we did before. Let’s not make it a reunion; let’s make it like a revival of the sound, and the template of the music is so cool.’ I knew people from New Orleans and everywhere just because I’ve been so active in music. It wasn’t hard.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers will release a new album, the band’s first in 18 years, on March 23, Beasts of Burgundy.
“It was about going back to the good old formula, man, with a lot more skill, a bigger band—and it’s just ballin’,” Mathus said. “We’re still working in the good-old creepy America. I didn’t want to break the mold; I thought it was a cool mold, and we should just keep on doing it.
“Performing live with this band, it’s so joyous. That’s the point of the music—to escape and be joyous. It’s not fake, and it’s a great feeling to be up there doing what we’re doing, especially after as many years as I’ve been doing this, and I’ve had some hard miles.”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers will perform with Davina and the Vagabonds at 8 p.m., Friday, March 2, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $27 to $77. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.