The Squirrel Nut Zippers: Between Heaven, Hell and D-A-M-N-A-T-I-O-N
by Daniel Coston
Originally published in Tangents Magazine
September 1997 issue
Wherever you go, there they are. From sold-out shows in Charlotte and the Southeast, to last year’s Olympics and Presidential ball, Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers have become The Band That You Can’t Avoid. Conjuring up the spirits of 1920s and ‘30s hot, ragtime and swing music, what began in 1993 as the musical accompiament to some friends’ chicken barbecue parties has become an phenomena that continues to attract new listeners.
Success, however has not come to the band without a price. Their song "Hell," written and sung by guitarist Tom Maxwell, has become a popular staple on radio stations nationwide, pushing the band closer to the dreaded status of overexposure than they ever intended to be. The song’s success has also pushed back the release of the band’s third album until this spring, and bassist Don Raleigh left the band in March in a split that is still hard for the band to discuss.
Until next spring, fans of the band can tide themselves over with this month’s release of The Squirrel Nut Zippers Sell Out ("Appropriately titled," says Maxwell, wryly), a nine-song EP of live performances and demos that will mostly be distributed through the band’s mailing list, and at their concerts.
One other addition to the band’s newfound fame has been the ire of some Baptist and Christian groups, who have been conjuring up their own interpretations of "Hell" and the band’s breakthrough second album, Hot. Just before I called Tom Maxwell last month, he received a copy of a fax from the Association of the Southern California Baptists, who had informed their road manager that they were organizing a boycott of the band.
After reading me this fax, Maxwell, an intelligent man with a sharp eye on the band’s future, responded with a flippant, "That made my day."
Maxwell: It’s amusing, but we’ve gotten some harsh letters from people who think that we’re satanists.
T: Because of ["Hell"]?
M: Because of the song. One people said that we had an upside down satanic cross on the music stand in the booklet for Hot. That happens to be a flor de li, which is a French Christian symbol, actually. And Jimbo’s marionette of the devil [in the Hot booklet]. We get this kind of flak.
T: How do you deal with that?
M: Oh, like you deal with whatever negativity that comes in. You ignore it. Or you don’t ignore it, you don’t respond, although I have responded once or twice. The first time I got a devil-worshipping letter, I was like, "Oh my God, I’ve got to set this straight." Now that we’ve gotten four, or whatever, it’s like, "Okay, whatever."
The best response is no response, and personally, I know exactly where we’re coming from and what my beliefs are, and that’s not threatened at all. It’s endlessly amusing to see people’s interpretations of the band, whether it’s on that end of the spectrum, or it’s some really friendly guy telling you that "Bad Businessman" is about the evil timber companies. [laughs]
T: You’ve been told that?
M: Oh, yeah! I was just asked this morning way I spelled out "dalmatian" in "Hell," and when I had met a dog that was really mean to me. [Loud laughter from both] It’s great. It runs the gamut of what people’s interpretations of the lyrics, which are profoundly good and amusing, or we’re a bunch of baby killers, or satanists, or whatever.
There’s nothing in "Hell," nothing in the lyrics which are at all pro-devil. There’s nothing in there about redemption, but it seems to me to concur very much with Canonical teachings about hell. Eternal retribution, it’s right in there. I did not change that at all.
The funny thing is, when I sing it, I took it from the point of view of the devil. Kind of from the post-modernists point of view that the devil is a guy whose really been screwed all the way down the line. Who’s a jerk, but who’s been handed this thing that he’s never going to be able to get out of. So there’s almost a sympathetic take on it, at least as a artistic entity, not as any real creature or force. [pauses] How about that?
T: I’m always amazed to people’s reactions to such things. And these are not just a couple of people. There’s a fair amount of them out there...
M: To me, it’s completely analogous to the way that some people’s minds have changed about us, by virtue of the number of records that we’ve sold. So in other words, a year ago Hot was a backwater indie cred record that a lot of people liked, and gave us a lot of credit for. And now, some people are like, "Big sellout." Or they’re much more open to criticism [of the band], not because we have changed or the record has changed, which it cannot. It’s immutable. But just where we are. That’ll change people’s perceptions, too.
T: Does that bother you that people’s perceptions of you change if you sell a few records?
M: No, it doesn’t bother me. It fills me with a kind of dismay in recognizing how the system works, and the system is not just the ugly, perverse machine that cranks out a lot of shitty bands or plays a lot of bad videos, or no videos at all, but also the people who mean well, who work at college stations. There’s a kind of a tango that’s going on with all these people involved, a really intricate dance. So you pass from one level of credibility to another, and it just happens with a kind of a sad inevitability, ‘cause I hate the way it is. I hate the idea of trends, and fads and all that stuff.
T: I’ve never understood the idea that just because you may sell a couple of records is wrong to some people. It’s like, if you want to be considered cool, you should only sell a few records to a few people.
M: You see, I’m also something of a subscriber to that idea, I must confess, for two reasons. One, most of the bands I’ve liked have been underdogs. Some that I’ve liked have been enormously popular, but a lot of them, it runs the gamut from being underdogs to "Who?" To complete obscurity, and some of them, I think, are just phenomenal. Like Cajun music that nobody ever heard.
The other thing is, I kind of agree that after a certain level of popularity, or cultural pervasiveness, that it’s undeserved, regardless of how amazing your product is. When you get to the Disney point of plastic toy tie-ins, or you get to the point of, God help them, Hootie and the Blowfish, where they’re selling 13, 20 million records. You can’t be that good. You’ll never be that good, and should never take away that much attention from a lot of other deserving and interesting variety of bands.
It’s cool to make money. It’s cool to set up some kind of stability in your life. It’s cool to have as many people who want to buy your record, to give them a chance to hear it and get a hold of it, but Jesus. You’re really just killing yourself if you end up selling that many, I think.
T: Do you worry about the band becoming overexposed?
M: Well, sure I do, yeah. I did when they started playing "Hell," because we know what the singles market is like. They can just play something into the ground, potentially. You have no control over how many times your record is played. You just make your record. You don’t have any control over how many times your video is played, you just make your video.
We worry so much about a loss of control, or whatever our image is or it really is not, to the extent that I think that we keep a pretty good hold of it. That it won’t ultimately get out of hand because we talk about it, and we’re aware and we try to address those kinds of issues.
T: ‘Cause that was never the reason why you guys started up in the first place.
M: No. We didn’t even think we were going to be a band. That’s why the name of a product was used, because in the beginning, it was really just a one-off. By the time that I showed up, the band was actually playing shows in Chapel Hill with some regularity. And I knew that they were a great band, and I knew how popular they were, and I knew what my potential in the band was, or had some inkling. I could never have imagined what happened.
You know, my goal was to quit my day job, really. To become a professional musician, and I thought that with this band I could do it, and keep it together. So once I attained that goal, it was kind of icing on the cake, so there’s now so much icing that the cake is like, you can’t find it anymore. I never thought we’d go gold, or get airplay, or any of that kind of crap. I never thought that people would be asking me why we’re the leaders of some sort of social aesthetic movement or something, which are questions I despise, but just being in this position is remarkable.
T: Yeah, you’ve been singled out as leading this renewed mainstream interest in music from the first half of this century.
M: Who am I to say? ‘Cause for one thing, I’m in the middle of it, so I have no objectivity. And the other is that I don’t concern myself with whatever happens to be going on in the public mind, ‘cause who knows? I can talk about why it excites me, or why I think it’s timeless, or how it’s changed my life. I can talk about that all day, and maybe that can be applied to other groups of people, but that’s about as far as I can go.
Even the idea of trends and fads, it doesn’t even appeal to me. What that means is that somewhere down the road, there might be half a dozen Squirrel Nut Zipper knockoff bands with little or no merit, whereas other really good bands like the Cigar Store Indians, George Arrow, Bio Reedmo and bands that really don’t play our kind of music, but are doing something that’s aware of its roots and trying to do something new, those bands might not get recognized.
I hope that we can only try and maximize variety. In other words, if somebody had the balls to play us on a modern rock station when we bear virtually no resemblance to what else is going on there, maybe some other really good and interesting band can get a break without being a "Squirrel Nut Zippers" band, whatever that means.
T: What’s some of your musical background that brought you to the Zippers and this music?
M: I started playing the saxophone when I was eleven, ‘cause my folks didn’t want me to play drums, frankly. [laughs] So I played sax up through high school, marched a year up at Carolina to get out of a math class, and then put it down because by that time, I had taught myself drums, anyway, and I started playing rock n’ roll drums.
A guy that lived on the mountain where I grew up gave me a sheet book, ‘cause he used to play clarinet in bands in the ‘20s. It was just a bunch of standards, and I kind of treated it reverently by putting it in an envelope and stashing it, and it wasn’t until years later that I came back and realized what a total treasure it was.
And I guess around ‘88, I saw Cab Calloway singing "Minnie The Moocher" in an old film, and concurrently heard "The St. Louis Toodleloo" by Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club band, and I realized that there was something that had gone on in jazz, or in American music, which was really scary and threatening. Menacing, aggressive, and I didn’t know anything about it. And I was like, "Oh my God, I’ve got to figure this out," and I just started snapping stuff up.
And that year, I had also bought an old Arestop guitar. I just found myself drawn to this stuff. All this stuff was happening concurrently. I bought it, and the songs that I was writing were sort of those kinds of songs, although I really hadn’t mastered the "hot" song or the minor key song, but the stuff I was writing were songs like "Club Limbo," which I wrote years ago. And it wasn’t until my band forced me to write rock songs that I was out there writing rock songs, but I was getting those guys in my rock band to play this other stuff.
By that time, I had made friends with Jim and Katherine, and we’d perform when we were in our rock bands. I’d play them Fats Waller songs, and they’d play me Tito Fuente, or whoever it was they were listening to. And that’s what we would listen to when we would double-date. So by the time Squirrel Nut Zippers got going, and my band broke up, I guess it was in the stars that it was gonna happen.
T: When did you first notice that the band was attracting this [loyal] following....?
M: Oh, the first night the band ever played. I wasn’t there, I had to work tending bar, but they were phenomenally received in Chapel Hill. So by and large, the band has just been golden for us from the word go. We’ve always been playing to sellout shows, basically, starting in small clubs and getting to bigger ones. So I knew that there something great, and I knew that from the music and the vibe, and what it did to me personally, as well as how we were being received.
T: Do you think that Chapel Hill was a good launching pad for you guys?
M: Absolutely, yeah. It’s small enough to be a community, and a community of musicians who are in relativity constant contact, both musically and socially. And it’s also a musical community that embraces its variety. So all the great bands that have come out of Chapel Hill, which are pretty much legion, don’t really sound like each other, and there couldn’t be more fertile ground.
T: Looking back, how much would you say that the band progressed from the first record [The Inevitable, 1995] to Hot?
M: Huge, huge step. The first record, most of the songs off of that were songs from other bands. My songs were from What Peggy Wants, and a lot of Jim’s songs were from Metal Flake Mother. They were songs that we had already written, and just happened to work very well for the band.
I came into the band as a drummer, and about a month or two before [recording I] had stopped playing drums, and started singing more, and playing the guitar more. So I was learning guitar solos in-between takes, and we were really trying to just get our sound down. We really knew nothing of the recording process, or how we could get what we wanted, or even almost what we wanted.
And we were really not a touring entity. When Hot came around, we were a touring entity. We had been playing almost all of those songs for months, and had really gotten it down in our live show. And almost all of those songs were written for the band, with the band’s strengths in mind, and we went and set about to record it live, with a minuimum of microphones. With varied results, but we learned that we could pretty much do it. We cut Hot in six days.
T: How much difference do you think it made to not only record the album live, but also to record it in New Orleans?
M: Oh, it’s all the difference. Totally. A lot of it is learning how to create the illusion that you’re playing live, but so much of it is learning how to record in a room, how to get multiple instuments on one mic. What engineers now call "bleed-through," and considered to be a really bad thing, used to be called "ambient noise" or just room sound. It’s what you had, and that seems to be a more honest and authentic way of doing it.
I don’t see it as an obsolete way of doing things. I don’t think that shoving a microphone in front of an instrument or amplifier, and having people record all their parts separately is the best way of preserving the soul or fire of a performance, so it made a giant, giant difference. There’s little mistakes all over it, but we knew that. We accepted that, and the great thing was that virtually to a man, everybody knew what the best take of any song was. When we would get it, we would just know. And the tempo might vary. "Put A Lid On It" speeds up dramatically after the first eight bars. [laughs] It’s like, [imitates the sound of an engine firing up], but that’s what it was, man, and it works. It’s totally in your face.
I don’t think it’s slop. In fact, I think it helps some people get into the thing more. Some instruments are a little bit louder than others, or quieted down, depending on how people worked the mic, and I love it.
T: I think that the live feel definitely comes across on the record. It has a very natural quality to it, and it doesn’t feel isolated, like some recordings can.
M: We consider the room to be like another member of the band, or treat the room as an instrument, especially the way we record, ‘cause that sucker’s got to be there. You can’t eliminate it, and we don’t want to. So you’ve got to learn how to work with it, and what works best. There’s a couple of songs where you can really hear the room, and it can be quite spooky, I think. Hopefully, that’s the effect.
So yeah, I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that record, especially going into it not knowing nothing about it, and coming out of it knowing at least one volume, or knowing a couple volumes. It’s a good thing.
T: I noticed that on Hot, Katherine sings a couple of your songs. Did you write those songs especially for her, or do you decide on that when the band starts to work on the song?
M: Oh, I write them for her, pretty much. On the third record we did, which you haven’t heard yet, there’s one song which I was going to give her, but I changed my mind because I wanted to sing it. Which I felt kind of bad about, ‘cause usually I’m like, "Here’s your song," or songs. You just know with the range and the subtlety of "Meant To Be," nobody was going to want to hear me sing it. I could have gotten through it, but there’s Katherine Whalen to sing your song, and to do a great job.
By the time Hot came around, I had the good sense to go, "Well, I need to get some songs going for Katherine," and I did that. I never had any intention of singing either one of those songs, ‘cause everybody has different talents that are better suited for some things than others.
T: You mentioned your third record. Have you already recorded that?
M: Yeah. We finished it in January, ‘cause we were still on the "record a year" thing, and its release will be postponed until at least the spring, I’m sad to say. We are putting out a limited edition CD EP with nine songs on it. It’s a bunch of live stuff, like live radio performances, or theater shows, and a couple of demos.
Some interesting things, ‘cause the people who are our core fan base are thoroughly familiar with Hot, and I think are ready for something new, as we are, so we want to do give them something. That should be out in a month or so, and people will just be able to really get it at live shows or through our mailing list, so it’s kind of fans only sort of thing. And it’s appropiately titled The Squirrel Nut Zippers Sell Out, and the artwork is all touring posters over the past year from sold out shows.
T: What kind of differences, or progressions, would you say that you’ve made from Hot to this upcoming new album?
M: Yeah. I see it as very analagous to the difference between the first and second record, except that we kind of came back to the first record, and although some songs were recorded completely live or almost live, other songs are more or less tracked or built in the studio, ‘cause we’ve got some studio stuff on that, too.
We took what we learned from recording Hot and actually set up a studio in Pittsboro, NC, where my wife and I and Ken Mosher live. And we got this old house and just fixed up the plumbing, and the electricity and the heat, and just brought up a bunch of old recording equipment and did it in those rooms with six microphones.
We learned more on this one, and the production, I think, is superior to both our previous records, as are the performances of the songs, too. It’s more complex and layered, and there’s less difference in-between songs. Songs kind of run into each other, but [the album] also goes on very weird muscial tangents. Songs are constantly changing tempe and there’s a lot of weird noises and stuff [laughs] on this record, but it’s completely and unrecognizably a Squirrel Nut Zippers record.
There’s Dixieland and Hot music, and all that stuff that we love, but it’s just a little more fucked up. I love it, I’m very proud of it. We’re very excited, but of course we’re sad that its release is being withheld, but the rhythms of this kind of public good fortune are much slower than when you’re selling anything.
T: Are you worried that with this new record, that people might be expecting or hoping for another record’s worth of "Hell," or songs in that similiar vein?
M: Well, our fans won’t, that’s for sure, and that’s pretty much all we’re interested in. Not everybody’s going to clamor on board or understand it, or everything that we do, or have an appreciation for it. That’s cool, man. That’s the way it is. But just as we as a band expect to improve and better ourselves, and change and increase our ability, I think that the core of our fan base of the band will expects the same.
I think that because we’re such a nutty...band with so many aspects, I think that for the real big fans of the band, that’s something that they get into. They like the variety, just like we do. I don’t worry about that. Maybe in the big public eye, we might not never have another "Hell," whatever it was, like a hit single, which really is seriously funny, but that’s not really our concern. Our concern and our focus is to continue improving and continue making better records than the one before.
T: This upcoming record is also the first one you’ve done with Stu Cole on bass.
M: Yeah, he wasn’t even on the whole thing, either. He’s only on a few of the songs. In the middle of recording, sadly, Don Raleigh left the band, and it was tough. Tough to the point of not really being able to be described, with the stress of doing the whole thing ourselves with Michael Napalitano, and running the household and building the studio and recording an entire record, then having that happen was almost overwhelming. But we got Stu in to finish the bass parts that Don hadn’t done.
T: Was it a surprise to you when Don left?
M: No, not really. I mean, yes and no. I think it’s always going to be a surprise, but relations were strained and not really improving. To end that way, it just sucked. It sucked that it ever had to happen that way, and the timing was particularly bad, although I can how things can come to an emotional head when you’re in the middle of a recording session. There’s just a lot going on.
T: You’ve been playing on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, which has been your first festival tour. How has that been?
M: Well, we had done some radio festivals earlier the summer, and had gotten a really good idea of what it was all about, which is a herd of bands playing in an ampitheater in the blazing afternoon sun, which is just this thing is. And the way that we had to alter our sets, and the way we performed, we kind of understood that, and we had kind of gotten the hang of not getting a soundcheck and jumping on stage, so it wasn’t too much of an adjustment.
It’s a little dull, frankly, because you don’t get to spend any time in town, and the sheds, or ampitheaters we play are a good hour from town, so you’re just stuck there. We’ve gotten to be friends with guys in the different bands, and we really like going out and seeing all these different bands. We think it’s a really good lineup. And to not only meet Neil Young, but to also find out that he’s a fan, is kind of a mind blast.
So it has many positive aspects too, but it’s a little bit of a prison sentence. [laughs] Suprisingly, despite the lineup, the ticket sales have been disappointing. Very disappointing. It’s strange.
But by and large, when we get back to our routine, our routine will mainly consist of playing these older, smaller theaters sprinkling around the country. Two, three thousand seat venues. It’s a little bit more intimate and personal, and a little bit more enchanting and fascinating kind of a thing. It’s where we’d like to be.
T: Besides preparing for the next record, what’s next for you and the band?
M: What we’re trying to do is get into something of a routine and take a little time off the road, and practice again. Work up material from the third record to perform and work up brand new material and just get back in that vibe, instead of just being a touring entity. And getting back into playing some of the theaters that we like to play.
And then starting to work on the relase on the third record, frankly. Preparing for that. Taking some time off, ‘cause we need to give people a break, and cooking up some videos, and all kinds of stuff.
I’m a homebody, and I have a great home. And I’m recently married, so it gives me endless pleasure to do things that some people consider to be banal. The life that I live, it’s funny, it’s such a paradox ‘cause I’m in a touring band, and I’m somewhat famous, whatever that means. So people not only think that I’m a millionare, but I just lead a life of unrelieved glamour, which is completely not the case.
And there’s such a regiment and boredom to life on the road that I find solace in working in the garden or cutting the grass, or cooking dinner or spending time with my cats and my wife, that other people think is just drudgery or just something ordinary, which to me is not ordinary, it’s incredible. And it actually helps me deal with all the other ephemeral, fleeting [things in] life. The other life that I live.