Not many bands have albums released 18 years apart, but the Squirrel Nut Zippers aren’t like many bands. For one thing, when it broke big in the mid-’90s, the Squirrel Nut Zippers did so with an unbridled mix of swing jazz and then some, exploding on the music scene like a breath of fresh air and revitalizing the swing dance craze along the way.
The group sold over three million albums between 1995 and 2000, took a break soon after that, and now they’re back, with a new album “Beasts Of Burgundy” and a tour that brings them to the Fairfield Theatre Company on April 24. Jimbo Mathus, who founded the Squirrel Nut Zippers and wrote the tunes, is the primary force behind the reboot. He’s a prolific songwriter in his own right with several solo albums to his credit, plus he’s a music historian and highly-respected record producer. Mathus recently chatted with Mike Horyczun about the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ return and his own roots and current musical directions.
Mike Horyczun: Your writing for Squirrel Nut Zippers mixed older music forms, like Tin Pan Alley and New Orleans’ jazz, cabaret and Broadway music, basically the roots of a popular music, plus you wrote songs specifically for original singer Catherine Waitlin. Did you feel like you were trailblazing with your sound?
Jimbo Mathus: We knew we were onto something. It was a new twist on an old art form. We all had funky old clothes from the thrift shop. I always saw us as like the Little Rascals trying to start a band. I mean, it’s a little off. Our first show we did, we got a record deal. And we knew like nine songs. And it just grew and expanded rapidly. One show turned into two, and one record deal turned into a bigger record deal.
MH: You’ve got some deep Southern roots. You’re based between Mississippi, where you were born, and New Orleans, where the Squirrel Nut Zippers new album was made. You also played different solo gigs there for two months while the band was on a break. What’s so special about that town?
JM: It’s a great cultural city. Everything blends together, the music, the food, the culture, the hospitality. There’s a lot of a unique and powerful culture here. It’s a very Caribbean culture, very French, very European in a lot of ways and funky and Southern too.
MH: What made you want to reboot the Squirrel Nut Zippers and make the new record?
JM: It just became intriguing to me again, we did so much creative interesting work, in just a short span of time back in the 90s, and then we let it hibernate, and I got intrigued by it again, and wondered what I could do with the music with a whole new case of New Orleans players, really my cast is spread out over the country, but just pick the ideal band to play this music, and bring it into a new sphere of professionalism, skill on the instruments. We were just so raw in those days. That was part of our charm, but to take it to a more polished place, to keep the vitality. It just became interesting to me, and I wondered, could it be done?
MH: As a highly-respected music historian, musician, songwriter, bandleader and record producer, who would you have wanted to see in concert, if you had a chance?
JM: I can tell you right now, Charlie Patton, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams.