The Onion talks to one of the hot-jazz band's leaders about its sudden mainstream
In the last year, the members of Squirrel Nut Zippers have played the Olympics and the Inaugural Ball, and found unexpected MTV success with the song "Hell." But listen to the group's two albums, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers and Hot, and you'll hear a giddy brand of old-time hot jazz, the likes of which haven't been heard since the 1930s. This is no mere novelty act. The Onion recently spoke with singer/multi-instrumentalist Tom Matthews about his band and the many products of its success.
The Onion: Is this '30s jazz thing some bullshit ironic joke, or what?
Tom Maxwell: Absolutely. You know it is. [Laughs.] You know, it's like The Monkees. Really, it's like The Monkees, except it's updated. It incorporates all the best of that retro and lounge thing which seems to be so hot now. You know, it seems like a way to make a lot of money real fast, and turn out a bunch of, you know, crap. [Pauses.] No, this is something we're all into. We're totally into the music, and we don't really know or care about anything else. I guess there's a lot of other people doing stuff that's kind of similar, but we didn't know about them; since we've been touring, we've seen bands that are quite similar to us. And I'm not saying we're any kind of originators, but we always felt like we were outsiders, and we definitely were. We never felt like part of any cultural movement, or whatever. We try not to think about it.
O: How do you feel about all the Royal Crown Revue/Big Bad Voodoo Daddy/Mighty Blue Kings bands?
TM: I say more power to 'em. Some of 'em I really like, some of 'em I don't like that much. It doesn't matter. I hate everything. I think by and large, it's a great thing, because you've got people who are committing themselves to instruments, and a lot of these people are better players than us. They're quite proficient, and wanting to express themselves a little bit more subtly with what they're doing: They're looking to their roots to find a sound for themselves, and I don't blame 'em a bit. When someone steps up onto a stage with a vibraphone or whatever, I love it.
O: How long have you been together?
TM: It's been, like, three and a half years, coming up on four.
O: What other bands have you guys been in?
TM: Our drummer, Chris Phillips, used to be a punk-rock guy; he used to be in a band called Subculture. The guy who's playing bass with us used to be in The Chicken Wire Gang for a while—a great Chapel Hill band. I was in What Peggy Wants, and Jimbo [Mathus, vocals/guitar/banjo/piano] and Ken [Mosher, guitar/saxophone/ukulele] were in Metal Flake Mother; their record is being re-released now. That's about it. Katharine [Whalen, vocals/banjo/ukulele] wasn't in a band.
O: Did you guys just get tired of being in conventional bands and decide to do this as a reaction to that?
TM: No, it was mostly friends getting together and picking up weird instruments, the product of that being the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Jimbo came up playing bluegrass, so he had mandolins and banjos, and Chris Phillips had a whole box of percussion equipment. I had an old guitar that I'd write songs on, because I was listening to this music, and that's the way I like to play for my own pleasure anyway. So it just happened. I guess you could say it was a reaction, but it certainly wasn't the kind of thing where people were like, "Oh, this would be a good thing to do." We were responding to music that we had heard that moved us.
O: What do you think is behind the resurgence of this kind of music?
TM: You know, I get asked this question all the time.
O: It's a lame question, I know.
TM: It's a lame question because you know it's not my job. It's so not my job to do that. I have no idea. I obviously don't. I'm trying to figure out why the fuck they're playing my song on the radio, not that I have anything against it, mind you, or that I'm not proud of the performance or the song or anything like that. I mean, I feel like I could do it better, but I always feel that way. But I don't have a fuckin' clue. I don't think my opinion on it means more than anybody else's—if anything, it's probably a little bit more skewed because I'm in the middle of all this shit. It's one thing to watch it happen; it's another thing to assign causes and effects. I don't feel qualified. Having said that, you know, because of the new sounds, the novel ways of playing instruments and writing songs and producing records—it doesn't yet appear to be just another heaping helping of the same old shit. That's about as far as I go.
O: USA Today recently named you its "Best Bet For Stardom." What are you doing to live up to that kind of pressure? Because once USA Today names you its "Best Bet For Stardom"…
TM: Whammo! [Laughs, snorts.] Let's see, what am I doing to live up to it? Trying not to crack under the pressure. Trying not to lose my fucking mind. Trying to keep my priorities straight, and trying to get better. I could really become possessed and overwhelmed with terror, but instead, I feel like I'm obligated to do a good job and be professional and entertain people, and do all the stuff I'm trying to do. You know what I'm saying? I know it sounds stupid. But I'm trying to sing better all the time; I'm trying to play my instrument better all the time. I think the band's doing that too. Basically, we're trying to live up to keeping our live performances an incredibly exciting thing, and making better records and writing better songs. You know, it's been our goal and it's always worked; there's no need to change that formula.
O: Is there a point when one of these things happens—whether it's USA Today or MTV or whatever—where all of a sudden, your family understands what you're doing?
TM: Well, my folks were always into the music anyway, from the get-go. They really liked the music. So they got it off the bat. In terms of, like, "Gee, Tom's not getting any younger and he's broke all the time," I think they figured out that things were cool when… I don't know, man. Maybe, like, when we did Conan O'Brien, and then we had a string of things like the Olympics, the Inaugural Ball and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. And now, with The Tonight Show. It probably happened about a year ago, where they're, like, "Oh, some shit's really starting to happen." It's not, like, "Tom's just bringing home some good-sounding demos" anymore. But yeah, definitely. To them—you know, they grew up in the Depression—being a musician is fine, as long as you don't try to make a career out of it. And it is such a flighty and flaky and awful business that they just want me to not have to depend on them for the rest of my life. [Laughs.] They're cool with it, especially now.
O: How did the Inaugural Ball thing go?
TM: It went fine. There aren't really any hilarious stories to tell about it; nothing really outlandish or exciting happened. We just showed up in this giant marble mausoleum-looking thing—the Postal Museum—and, you know, Jewel was there, and LL Cool J, and the mighty Squirrel Nut Zippers, Sponge, Liquid Soul. You can imagine a 40-foot ceiling and a quarter-mile-long hallway about a hundred feet wide, crammed with 3,000 people—the first four rows of which can't breathe and are getting their ribs crushed, being smashed up against these police barricades where there's at least a good 30 feet of space between the band and the crowd. And it's really brightly lit.
O: Were the barriers so you wouldn't get mobbed?
TM: No, it's like perimeters and stuff. They give you a little shakedown and they go over you with a metal detector, but everybody's cool. There's just a lot of Secret Service guys, total cartoon-character Secret Service guys. You just wouldn't believe it: square jaws, everybody wearing the same raincoat and little earpieces. It was cool, you know? They weren't trying to pretend to be anything else.
O: Did you feel really safe, like if someone were to try to bust a cap in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Secret Service would pretty much have it handled?
TM: Oh, yeah. But you can't help but be a little freaked out. Because they're pretty tight about things, and if anybody is going to do something reckless, it probably would be that sort of occasion, God forbid. It was the same thing when we played the Olympics: There were so many people, and we got a little nervous, you know? Everything was cool, but the day we left, the bomb went off, which was fucking horrible. I mean, you really don't know when that shit's going to happen.
O: So you were saying about the Inaugural Ball… Did you meet the president?
TM: I saw the back of his head. He had a great-looking tux on. I didn't get to meet him. Katharine and Jim got to meet him, because they won the name-draw out of a hat. And he basically shook their hands and said, "Hi, how are you," and that was the complete extent of their interaction with the First Family.
O: I'll bet LL Cool J got to spend time with the president.
TM: LL Cool J knows the president, yes, but he's been around a lot longer and sells a lot more records than we do. I mean, he gets to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom and we don't. We played a Rock The Vote party the night before, and for some reason they made us walk down the red carpet in front of all the paparazzi—who had no intention of taking any pictures of us—and we walked by Uma Thurman, and I saw Kevin Costner. It was all very strange before the fourth glass of champagne. Very strange. After that it was business as usual. [Laughs.] It was fine. I mean, a crowded party is a crowded party; you're still gasping for air and choking on cigarette smoke, and people are gettin' shitty. I'm glad that's universal.
O: So why weren't you at the Grammys, where music's brightest stars come out to shine?
TM: Because unfortunately, our suitcase of cash is not quite big enough, I guess. I don't know. Why should we be there? We're chumps. We're nothing. We're meat-grinders. We don't do anything. We don't sell any records. I mean, we're doing great for where we are. We're selling records, no doubt about it. But we're pretty small potatoes. There's plenty of time for us to get co-opted, don't you worry. We'll be turning into product before you know it. It'll be the best 15 minutes of my life. [Laughs.]
O: I'm going to ask you a couple of obligatory bullshit interview questions, but I'm only going to give you 60 seconds to answer them.
TM: Each one or both of 'em?
O: Sixty seconds total. Why "Squirrel Nut Zippers," and why hot jazz?
TM: Horrible, horrible questions. Awful. Stunningly bad. I can take up my whole time complaining about the lack of merit of these questions. Why hot jazz? 'Cause it's hot. It's great. America's greatest contribution to 20th century music, and a fertile ground to plow. Or whatever. That doesn't really make any sense. It's just a great foundation upon which to build your aesthetic house. Squirrel Nut Zippers?
O: Twenty-five seconds.
TM: If it hadn't been us, it would've been someone else. Fuck 'em. [Laughs.]
O: Tell me about the new record.
TM: We haven't named it yet, but we did it in Pittsboro, which is a town where I live and Ken Mosher lives. We got this hundred-year-old house, which this old woman had lived in until a couple years ago. And we fixed up the plumbing and the electricity and the heat and shit, and got it so it was halfway livable, and Ken moved in there. And we basically bought, begged and borrowed a whole bunch of analog recording equipment—like some good tubes and ribbon mics and reel-to-reel tape machines and tube-mic pre-amps and compression units—and did it in the house. We recorded it in the house in like two and a half weeks. And, you know, everybody lost their minds, and we lost our bass player in the middle of the sessions. And about half the material hadn't even been worked up by the band because we'd spent the previous year touring. So we had songs, but we hadn't even performed most of them. And we just fuckin' pulled together this awesome thing that's better than the first two combined. The production is better, and the songwriting and performances are all better, thank God. And musically, we're starting to… I can't even describe it. Getting really weird. It's definitely a Squirrel Nut Zippers record, but there's some weird and new stuff going on. I can't wait for people to hear it, but we don't know when it's coming out. Everyone at the label wants to make hay off our newfound radio play. We're working with our record label to strike a harmonious balance between taking advantage of an opportunity and driving the thing hopelessly into the ground. There's got to be some kind of middle ground there.
O: If it gets really big, and you guys get super-rich, what are you going to do with your rock-star money?
TM: Well, I basically have three goals right now: I want to pay off my credit cards, buy a house in Pittsboro or somewhere in the nearby woods, and get my '69 Fury fixed up. It's in great running shape, but the body's a little dented and it could use a new paint job. And maybe set up an IRA or something. That is truly my goal. I have no other goal than that. I'm getting married, and I just want to have a little bit of security. And that's about it. If we make shitloads of money, I suppose we'll set up our own little studio where we can do our work and record records. I really want for nothing right now; I've got pretty much everything I want. I'm tired of paying rent, though.
O: Are the Squirrel Nut Zippers going to play your wedding?
TM: No, because I want them to be there enjoying themselves. I didn't want to watch them play without me up there, and I just want everybody to get happy on their own. Every time we see each other now, it's business. We get together and have beers and stuff, but usually when we go home, we seldom hang out because we're trying to take care of our own things and take a little time off. So it's lovely to have the opportunity to get together with them as pals.