Working hard is what Jimbo Mathus does. As a young boy he not only took part in his family’s music circles but also helped with his father’s business of raising hunting dogs and horses. After stints in high school bands and a brief time studying philosophy in college, he moved on to life as a deckhand and tankerman in order to travel around America. Settling in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the music world took firmer control of his life as he founded Squirrel Nut Zippers. Then, with its demise became a member of Buddy Guy’s band and followed that with a lengthy solo career that includes 15 releases and numerous singles.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers got their start in 1993. Swept up among the jump jive ‘n’ wail swing movement in the early ‘90s, the outfit had a major hit with “Hell” off of 1996’s Hot and sold millions before inner band squabbles led to a break up a few years later.
A whole new grouping of musicians joined Mathus in 2016 for a 20th anniversary tour celebrating the release of Hot. Viewing it as a rebirth or a revival rather than a reunion, Mathus and his New Orleans-based cohorts recorded and released Beasts of Burgundy in 2018.
Two years later the band had to scrap its touring plans due to COVID-19 but will still release a new album, Lost Songs of Doc Souchon. “This new album was inspired by all of the mysterious characters from the history of New Orleans jazz music,” said Mathus. “It speaks to the hidden roots of where our aesthetic, interests and philosophy comes from. It pulls on the hidden thread.”
Lost Songs features several Mathus originals along with Zipper-arranged covers of Jelly Roll Morton, Frankie Valli and the Depression anthem “Happy Days Are Here Again” as well as contributions from Andrew Bird on “Train On Fire.”
Last month the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame announced the Zippers among its 2020 class of inductees for their “important contributions made to American music.”
Mathus has also been involved in a number of other releases this year with a major collaboration already completed for 2021.
Emboldened by the artistic and commercial freedom of his Bandcamp page, he has put out a series of singles as well as used it to re-release his 2001 album with Knockdown Society, an explosive blues effort titled Stop & Let the Devil Ride.
Finally, his recording sessions in 2007 with Jim Dickinson and sons Cody and Luther of North Mississippi Allstars, Charlie Musselwhite and Alvin Youngblood Hart known collectively as New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers finally came out earlier in September.
During our time together we discuss all of Mathus’ current musical offerings as well as a collaborative album recorded with Bird.
JPG: You grew up in the Oxford, Mississippi area. How did you originally end up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where you formed Squirrel Nut Zippers?
JM: When I was about 18, I realized I wanted to be a musician. I knew that was my path, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it just because I didn’t have any resources available down here at that time. So, I worked as a river boat deck hand and a tankerman for a number of years. I’d get shore leave for extended periods of time — work a month straight, two six-hour shifts a day for a month and then you’d get a month off.
And so the month off, I would take the time to explore America with the eye of looking for a place to relocate. The place I found that I was drawn to, that I felt I could get going what I wanted to do was Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As soon as I wandered in that town…I mean, I would just go out and visit places and camp out and stuff. As soon as I hit Chapel Hill, I was there just a couple of hours, I called the barge company and said, “I quit.” That’s where my gut told me that’s where it needed to go down.
JPG: You’ve had such an affinity for New Orleans throughout the years that I’m surprised that you never moved there or that you didn’t start your music career there instead of Chapel Hill.
JM: Well, the company I worked for was called Canal Barge and they’re based out of New Orleans. So, I started prowling around there in my teens, spent a lot of time there on shore leave. Stay down there a week or two before ‘d travel out.
But, I don’t know why I didn’t pick that place. Seemed kind of overwhelming. The music was, I didn’t understand enough about it to feel like I could get a hold on it. It seemed too complex. Chapel Hill was simple. It was more the small town environment that I was used to. Once I got more confidence up there then I started taking projects to New Orleans. So, about ‘96 was the first thing I really did down there in a big way.
Most of my work over the years has been going down there for studio sessions. That has been my main thing. I almost didn’t want to ruin it for myself. I loved it so much time as time progressed. I didn’t want to, I don’t know, I’ll leave it at that. The affinity was always there but it just seemed overwhelming.
There was so much music. There was so much that I really didn’t know anything about, like the brass and all that stuff. Carolina, it was more the string band stuff and that was what I grew up in. So, it seemed more natural and as I got confidence and built confidence up there that in ‘96 I started working down there a lot. It’s been a long love affair and a long study of that town. A lot of friends and peers I have down there even though I’ve never lived there full time.
JPG: You’ve drawn on some New Orleans musicians for the latest incarnation of Squirrel Nut Zippers. How did that come about?
JM: It really wasn’t on my radar until 2015 when some associates of mine that I’ve been involved with in the Zippers days—a manager and a publicist that I had worked with a long time—approached me about doing a reunion tour for the Hot album, a 20 year reunion. It really didn’t interest me, but I thought about it for awhile and I thought, “Well, I might not be interested in a reunion. It’s a lot of work to get the Zippers together. It’s not easy stuff to do. It’s a big band and it’s a lot of work. If I’m going to take the time to even try that, I’d rather just put the band back together again and move forward with it.”
When I put the feelers out in New Orleans, I wanted this dude on trombone. I wanted this dude on piano. I wanted this dude on fiddle, et cetera. When I put the feelers out, their response was like, “Hell yeah! Let’s do it.” And I got some new life and new talent and new artistry came into the equation. Then, it became more appealing to me. So, rather than rehash something, it was like reinventing it. That was appealing to me. That’s what I did. That was 2016. We hit the road. They’re good people, incredibly talented, humble, no egos, just pure musicians. I love them and we’re able to do a lot more with the old stuff and branch out into new horizons. Now, this is our second record with the new revival.
JPG: Did the idea of keeping it going, did that occur to you during rehearsals for the 2016 tour or during the tour or when you were making the Beasts of Burgundy album?
JM: Right along all three of those times. Initially, it was just like, “This sounds really good. There’s people bringing a lot of fresh ideas in here that I couldn’t possibly think of myself because I don’t want to do it all. I like collaborating and I like being influenced by people, my peers.” So, it was just through that process.
When the first tour went along I shook out a couple cast members. A couple of cast members got replaced and just really got a strong core. That’s what inspired me to make Beasts of Burgundy. I said, “Well, I gotta do something with the new cast so they have some skin in the game, so they feel a part of, where they’re not just recreating the music that happened 20 years ago but we can play music that we’re making now and just to keep the morale, the excitement, my own level of joy and excitement.” That was part of that process. Touring that. Seeing the reaction from the audiences. It was just working, and you know in show business if it’s working and if it’s not working (laughs) and it was working.
Eventually, this made me decide to move to New Orleans—my wife and household down there. I was going to seal the deal with that and just all be in the city but that’s been put on hold for now.
JPG: Zippers music, when you’re talking about it, it encompasses so much from Delta blues, ragtime, jump blues, early jazz, barrelhouse, gypsy, klezmer, swing…
JM: Tin Pan Alley, some Eastern European.
JPG: Yeah. Exactly. Then, I read a quote of yours where you said, “We’re still a punk band at heart.” (He laughs) What did you mean by that?
JM: There are a lot of bands, there are organizations that play the music of Jelly Roll Morton. There are artists that play Charlie Patton, and they do that really well or they play Piedmont blues or hot jazz or they read Fletcher Henderson charts and do big band arrangements. So, that’s more of a recreating, more of a scholarly, approach to it. You’re not adding anything new to that. You’re just replicating what other people have done. The punk rock thing was like do it yourself, write your own stuff, make your own posters, make your own light show, whatever it takes. Leap around. Leap into the crowd. We still do that. As a jazz band, as much as a historian and a researcher as I am, that’s not what I’m about. I like the high energy shambolic, anything could happen approach onstage and in the writing, in the studio and rehearsals. So, that’s what I meant.
JPG: With that idea you could look at the approach and arrangement on the instrumental “Purim Nigram” off the new album Lost Songs of Doc Souchon. It starts off sounding like a klezmer tune. Then, it transitions around the 4:31 mark into something that’s more New Orleans jazz.
JM: That was all arranged by Dr. Sick. He’s my main bandleader. He’s a brilliant arranger. That’s the kind of thing you hear in New Orleans, where all of a sudden you’re somewhere else that you didn’t think you were going to go. If you were just doing a Purim song Sick is able to really just take that and throw it into high gear. That’s what I love about this band. Rather than us recreating a Purim song, it’s this whole new ball of wax,
JPG: Another song off the new album, a cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” (He laughs) It’s an interesting choice with a real cool and different arrangement from the original.
JM: Again, that’s a Sick arrangement on that, and that’s him on the vocals on that. I have four different singers on the album. They’re all in the band, of course. Sick arranged that and, for me, it just worked. It wouldn’t have been something I would have ever thought of but I loved it and I love what he did with it.
It’s a menacing…Frank Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons did it. It’s more romantic there but with Sick, there’s this underlying menace (laughs). “You’re too good to be true. You’d be like heaven to touch.” It sounds almost like some sort of a serial sociopath. Just the arrangement with the strings, it blends almost like a classical, Latin American orchestra and it goes across all borders, which I love.
JPG: A couple others here, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which is true according to which side of things you’re on and how you view things. A perverse choice for 2020 but a fun song.
JM: Really. It was a perverse choice when it was popular back in the early ’30s. It came out during the first Wall Street Crash. It was perverse at that time. It was a song that was not true. It was designed to make people feel better. (slight laugh) So, you’re in prohibition. You’re in the stock market crash, Great Depression, and here’s the most popular song in America.
JPG: I always thought it came out during the Roaring Twenties when everything was going so well economically.
JM: It came at the end of that. Then, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took it for his theme song. He got elected president a few years after the song was popular he made it his theme song. It played on the train as he drove through towns and bands played it at the depot and at his speeches. So, it’s a perverse history there.
Last year, when we recorded it last February it seemed perverse. Now, even more so. I had no idea. I thought it was just Trump America, which I did not agree with, but in the year-and-a-half since then look how much more it’s gone in the wrong direction. So, it’s even more perverse now.
One of my guys was like, “We can’t put that on the record ’cause see what’s going on.” I was like, “No. That’s why we’re putting it on the record. (laughs) That’s exactly why.” It’s pretty dark humor there. Again, a great arrangement and Sick pulls it off with the vocal, just a really amazing delivery. You can tell he doesn’t mean it. Those are some of the cover songs I picked. This record is about half originals, half cover songs.
JPG: I just wanted to mention one other cover, “Summer Longings,” mainly because of another quote where you described its writer, Stephen Foster, as your “spirit animal.”
JM: He was like the original rock and roller. He made popular song in America. So, he’s like Sam Phillips but of the late 1800s. Also, he represented the typical rock and roll life, which was dying penniless, selling your songs in the back of bar rooms, a hopeless alcoholic, and he’s still writing these Victorian, beautiful melodies. He’s the original dude in America to popularize, that made American music, if you really want to get to the nuts and bolts. He was the first songwriter, the first one to publish his own songs, made it so people could play them in their own homes. They weren’t orchestra scores but they were piano and vocal.
If you study him, you really see what he did. Then again, to have the stereotypical rock and roll lifestyle and to end it really badly. That’s the one thing the Zippers do is sing happy songs about some morose and dark topics.