A Discussion With The Head Nut: Jim Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers

By Brian L. Knight

The Squirrel Nut Zippers are by the far the freshest sound to hit the airwaves and the video circuits in some time. The irony is that their sound is a remnant of an older time. The Zippers employ the musical style of Dixieland Jazz and they use practically zero amplification. Unlike most of today's musicians, their emphasis is on the music and less on being rock and roll stars.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers first came together when Jim Mathus and Catherine Whalen left the busy city life and bought a farmhouse in Efland, North Carolina. While hanging out in the country, Mathus began to learn the guitar while Whalen picked up the banjo. After a while, a sound began to form. Soon the two were joined by Don Raleigh on bass, Ken Mosher on guitar and saxophone, Chris Phillips on the drums and Tom Maxwell on guitar, saxophone and clarinet.

Together, these musicians began to play the music of an another era. They called themselves the Zippers after a chewy peanut candy whose factory is located in Massachusetts. Thanks to success of the band, the once down and out confectioners are now experiencing a rebirth.

Before the Squirrel Nut Zippers made their debut performance in the Green Mountain State, we got a chance to bother Jim Mathus at his home in Efland, North Carolina.


Brian Knight: Can you describe your sound?

Jim Mathus: We are based on a 1930s hot jazz and Dixieland jazz and a lot of older forms of jazz that you don't hear that much anymore. Some of our heroes in that field would be Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Eddie Congdon. These are type of groups that we base our sound on, except we came from the punk rock school. If you are going to learn somebody else's song, you might as well write your own song. That is what we do. We really don't do standards, we do our own music. We are influenced by everything from swing and Dixieland and hot jazz and Trinidad calypso music. A lot of music mostly before World War II.

BK: Are there any elements to your music that has a 1990s characteristic to it?

JM: Nothing that jumps off the top of my head. I guess the way that we present it has more modern way to it. There are elements of rock and roll and stuff in there. As far as the 1990s go, I am sort of out of touch.

BK: Did you grow up listening to all the music that you play?

JM; I grew up listening to country and bluegrass. Later on in life, jazz and mostly the blues. I grew up listening to a lot of funky old stuff. My dad was really into Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass was what I grew up playing. But everybody in the band is influenced by something different. That is one of the strengths of our band.

BK: Your music automatically evokes nostalgia. Are you a history buff.

JM: Yeah. I am interested in my family history. We are all interested in the roots of music. A lot of the things that we appreciate are from a historical point of view. We are not really historians, we are really musicians. I think we have an appreciation. We try to respect what has come before us musically.

BK: Your music also has a very intimate feel to it. Do you find it hard to recreate that intimacy in larger auditoriums?

JM: It is more difficult. We do a lot fewer intimate numbers for the bigger ring. You just can't sing ballads to 5,000 people. We tailor our sets depending on the size of the auditorium.

BK: Can you describe the first Squirrel Nut Zippers concert?

JM: The first one was in a little bistro in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was unannounced and unpublicized. No one knew what we were. People around town knew who we were and what we have been doing so they were interested. They heard our group was playing so they came out. Most of the people had on evening attire or suits. We had on vintage tuxedos as well. We only knew 10 or 12 songs and we played them about 3 or 4 times. They wouldn't let us quit and we emptied the wine cellar. So it went off with a bang.

BK: When you first started off as a band, did you ever dream of the possibility of having a MTV video?

JM: No. It has never been something that has been a goal of mine. It is nice and I appreciate it. I really do. I kind of take it with a grain of salt because it is not really where I am at as a person. It is a good thing.

BK: Do think there is any difference between seeing a jazz band in the 1930s and the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the 1990s?

JM: I like to think that the band would blow us off the stage. A classic swing band would blow us off the stage and stomp on us with their Florscheims. I think something that we have in common with that is our spirit that we try to create in our music. The spirit stems from a pure source and I think a bit of the spirit from the past gets brought back depending on the participation of the audience.

BK: You recorded your last album in New Orleans. In the case of most musicians a trip to New Orleans usually means returning with a lot funk. You guys got some different musical elements of the Crescent City.

JM: It is the same with all the music we do: different overlooked forms of jazz that are not popularly done. There are a lot of traditional jazz bands in New Orleans that Civil War Era New Orleans, Creole, Cajun music. You can go down there and see that every Tuesday night at Palm Court. The Jazz Hounds will play historic music and they are all young people. There are great bands out there but you just don't see them on MTV.

BK: Have you ever been to Vermont?

JM: I never had. I think Vermont will be the only state except Hawaii that I have never been to.

BK: What are your preconceived notions of the state?

JM: When I think about Vermont, I think about farmers, beautiful countryside, a lot hardwoods and probably a lot of freaks living out in farmhouses.

BK: I Think you have been here before.