On the Beat

August 23, 2014

Tom Maxwell and Squirrel Nut Zippers go to “Hell” and back

Tom Maxwell of 1990s-vintage band Squirrel Nut Zippers revisits his time in the Chapel Hill hit makers with a revealing new book, “Hell.”

Back in its day, “Put a Lid on It” wasn’t Squirrel Nut Zippers’ biggest hit – that would be “Hell,” the Calypso tune that improbably took the Chapel Hill group to the masses in 1997 – but it was something of a calling card. Loopy and droll, “Put a Lid on It” has a killer horn hook and a nicely sassy vocal by Katharine Whalen. Fun tune; the music even wound up in a high-profile TV commercial for Intel pentium chips.

All of which obscures its very dark subject matter: “Put a Lid on It” was inspired by the secret shame of heroin addiction, which Zippers trumpeter Stacy Guess struggled with before it killed him in 1998. That’s one of the fascinating revelations in Tom Maxwell’s new memoir, “Hell: My Life in the Squirrel Nut Zippers” (Oyster Point Press). After Maxwell caught Guess in the act of shooting up one night, writing “Put a Lid on It” was how he tried to deal with it.

“I had no strategy for how to deal with it,” Maxwell said. “I did have this idea that the Zippers meant enough to Stacy that if that was taken away, it would be sufficiently motivating for him to give up heroin. I laugh at my own naiveté now, because vultures were always circling when we were on the road. You know, the pot dealers always found me and Kenny (Mosher), too. I couldn’t talk to Stacy about it and don’t know what I would have said if I had except that I was angry at him, and scared. So I wrote about it in a song, and it became a Super Bowl ad. That’s how non-obvious it was.”

Non-obvious darkness was pretty much standard operating procedure for the Zippers, very possibly the least likely success story of this or any other music scene.

As Maxwell recounts in “Hell,” the band started out in the early 1990s as friends getting together to play period jazz. They were enthusiastic amateurs, mostly from local punk bands, and their take on late-night jazz with a speak-easy vibe was immensely likable.

Then the Zippers caught lightning in a bottle with “Hell,” a Maxwell-written song that broke them beyond public radio and onto MTV and the upper reaches of the charts. The Zippers’ 1996 album “Hot” sold more than 1 million copies, but their time at the top was short-lived. Since they played retro music and dressed the part, the Zippers were lumped in with the late-’90s swing revival. And even though they never quite fit in with that crowd, they were still stuck as objects of a short-lived fad.

“All the other ‘swing revival’ bands were on the West Coast, these ex-rockabilly guys with tattoos and zoot suits,” Maxwell said. “Then we showed up, this motley collection of busboys from Chapel Hill, with corncob pipes and flies buzzing around our heads. The whole thing stopped being fun in a hurry. Maybe being shot from a cannon gets you to your destination faster, but you won’t survive the trip. The real shame of it is we had such potential for deep weirdness. I don’t mean that in a contrarian way, but I think we were dialed in on a genuinely authentic and unique voice. That all went out the window.”

Seeing the writing on the wall, Maxwell left the Zippers after 1998’s “Perennial Favorites” album. The band would continue on without Maxwell for a few more years before dissolving in 2001. They’ve been periodically back together on a part-time basis since 2007, but without Maxwell.

After the breakup, an ugly stretch of litigation over money pitted Maxwell and Ken Mosher against their former Zippers band mates. Ultimately, the band had to pay Maxwell and Mosher a $155,000 settlement for unpaid royalties.

Maxwell also endured a grueling stretch with his young son Esten, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006. Now 11, Esten is in remission and doing well.

None of those travails are in “Hell,” which stops with Maxwell deciding to leave the Zippers and concluding, “Well, that’s that.” Even leaving aside the Zippers’ contentious afterlife, revisiting his time in the group was difficult and bittersweet.

“That was a group of people I genuinely loved, who inspired and changed me for the better,” Maxwell said. “That’s the fundamental truth more than anything else that happened, even the stuff other people think is more important, like having a hit record.

“I remember when we were told that we had ‘a hit,’ and there being dead silence before someone asked, ‘What does that even mean?’ We had no idea about any of it. But right now, as a result of ‘Hell,’ I am wearing a suit made of solid gold, and it’s very hot and I’m sweating. But I can wear it, and so I should.”

In another case of a full circle closing, Maxwell has a new album to go with his new book – “Tom Maxwell and the Minor Drag.” Maxwell recorded it in New Orleans with Mike Napolitano, which put him back in the same city and working with one of the same producers that yielded up the Zippers’ signature album “Hot.”

“There have been some tough times,” Maxwell said. “I finally got to where I could say, ‘O.K., Esten’s doing great, I’m somewhat stabilized, maybe I can go back to what feels right and correct.’ Not doing music just really is not an option for me, because music is what I do and who I am. And ultimately I wound up back in New Orleans working with Mike Napolitano again on a good batch of songs. I’m damn proud of it.”

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David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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