It’s been two decades since Jimbo Mathus first assembled the Squirrel Nut Zippers, perhaps the finest single group of musicians to emerge from the 1990s swing band revival. The Zippers’ potent blend of old-timey musical styles, retro-cool aesthetics and punk rock edge blazed a path for musical traditionalism that persists today, reflected in the popularity of throwback performers like Pokey LaFarge, JD McPherson and Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
Squirrel Nut Zippers broke up in 2000, victims of the artistic differences and internal squabbles that plague many bands. But Mathus persisted on the same fiercely organic musical path. The Mississippi native began spending time in New Orleans, digging deeper into early American musicology, while working as both a solo recording artist and producer. He even spent five years playing guitar in Buddy Guy’s band, helping the Chicago blues legend win a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album in 2004.
But despite Mathus’ success as a solo artist, sideman and producer, he found himself driven to reinvigorate the music that launched his career. So, as the twentieth anniversary of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ masterpiece Hot approached in 2016, he began scouring New Orleans’ fertile music scene for players and singers who were up to the formidable musical task of recreating that experience. In a recent interview with On Tap in advance of the band’s September 2 show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Mathus said he’s convinced this entirely new incarnation of the band is better than ever.
“I not only reached out to top musicians, but musicians who also had backgrounds in theater, burlesque and dance,” Mathus explained. “I wanted to keep the energy, but bring some more skill and savvy to the concoction. I said, ‘This is going to be a wild shot, but I’ll see if I can make it happen.’ And it happened!”
Mathus, whose stage persona has been described as a cross between comedic legend Bob Hope and the fictitious mad scientist Dr. Moreau, said the new Squirrel Nut Zippers show is more than just a concert.
“The theatrical element of it is extremely important to me. When we started, we tried to bring back old-fashioned entertainment, but with an edge, of course. We still bring the corny jokes, and I borrow from all the greats – Dean Martin and Elvis and the ones who knew how to handle an audience and make it fun and lighthearted, but also extremely moving. There’s that up and down the whole show.”
He added with audible glee, “But now, I have 20 years’ more experience and a cast that’s just astounding. The vision they have is the same as mine.”
While the band’s sound initially appealed primarily to musical sophisticates and those with an adventurous ear, the music’s timeless feel manages to get people of all ages and backgrounds moving in a live setting.
“Early on, we had people in their early 20s who were really flipping out [about] what we were doing; some of them met at our concerts and even conceived their children afterward,” Mathus said, chuckling. “Now they are coming back and bringing their kids the same way they did 20 years ago when they’d bring their parents. And Grandma and Grandpa are going to like this, too!”
He said that multi-generational appeal was “the best incarnation of the original act, and is still the best part of the revival.” When asked about the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ role in the retro musical revival that continues today, Mathus conveys an obvious sense of pride.
“People talk about the 90s and how the swing thing came about and how unusual that was, which I agree, but there are some lasting things from it. I think our music is among that. It’s something that’s kind of timeless. Everybody that is still into old time music who heard us growing up took something from that, which I’m very proud of.”
While the upcoming Birchmere show is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Hot, Mathus stressed that this isn’t a one-off tour. He plans to get Squirrel Nut Zippers going full-time, with an album of all new material scheduled for release early next year.
“Since I saw how the cast was coming together and the way the show was evolving and the strengths we had, I’ve been on a big writing kick,” he said. “We’ve got a new record recorded and it is incredible, bringing all the talent of the new cast to the forefront.”
Mathus said the band’s having a huge creative spark, and he’s not willing to let go right now.
“So, look for it early next year: all original stuff in the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ vein, but like a train on fire.”
Catch Mathus and his band at the Birchmere on September 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45. Learn more about the Squirrel Nut Zippers at www.snzippers.com.
The Birchmere: 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com