Few bands have had a more unusual birth, death and rebirth than Squirrel Nut Zippers, who this year mark a quarter-century of intermittent existence.
And this month, the Zippers themselves, as well as former member Tom Maxwell — who wrote and sang their 1996 signature hit “Hell” — will play separate Triangle shows on back-to-back nights.
Squirrel Nut Zippers version 2018 perform at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 26. Co-founder Jimbo Mathus will be the only original member onstage. (Original drummer Chris Phillips remains involved in recordings but is no longer a touring member). In this incarnation, the Zippers are New Orleans-based and touring with the theme, “It’s not a reunion, it’s a revival.”
They’ll come bearing a new album, “Beasts of Burgundy,” the first new Zippers studio set since 2000. The roots of this latest incarnation go back a few years, when Mathus and his former co-leader (and ex-wife) Katharine Whalen had some conversations about reuniting the original lineup to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the Zippers’ 1996 landmark album “Hot.”
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“I asked Katharine, and she said she didn’t really want to get back on the road,” Mathus said by phone from Mississippi. “So she declined. I just wanted people who were sharp and would inspire me to be better — an ace cast of cool guys and cool chicks who will work and want it, you know?
“My thinking was, it’s a cast, a show,” he continued. “Squirrel Nut Zippers was never just a concert, it was a concept. Different actors play different characters in stage plays, that’s what I wanted to try and by God if it didn’t work. So after the hardship with the lawsuits, the one that ended up with the name was me, if that tells you anything. Well, it’s my name and my band.”
‘Hope he does ’em justice’
Squirrel Nut Zippers originally formed over a series of potluck dinners in 1993, as rehearsals for a performance-art project originally intended to culminate in a single performance at Henry’s Bistro in Chapel Hill. The members all came from alternative-rock backgrounds, and their punk-influenced take on jump blues and speakeasy jazz caused an immediate sensation.
They kept playing and quickly began making records, too. And then “Hell” unexpectedly blew up, earning a million-selling album and bigger stages. But internal tensions took their toll, and the group began to fracture before finally splitting in 2001 — followed by a tidal wave of divorce, bad vibes and litigation.
Years down the road, Whalen recently played her first show singing Zippers songs in nearly a decade, has a new album coming and is starting to perform again on a semi-regular basis. And Maxwell, who wrote the Zippers hits “Hell” and “Put a Lid on It” (and was also party to the lawsuits mentioned by Mathus), will perform in Wake Forest one night after the Zippers’ Durham show.
Also on the bill at the Wake Forest show is Brooke Maxwell, his wife. This will be their first show since moving back to the Triangle following sojourns in New Orleans and Los Angeles. It’s their first show anywhere in a couple of years. Maxwell has spent a lot more time writing than playing music of late.
“I don’t even have callouses on my fingers,” he said. “Luckily my guitar-playing ability is more like riding a tricycle than a bicycle, so it was easy to remember.”
The Zippers came to a bitter parting of the ways over financial issues after Maxwell left the band, and there is no love lost between them. Maxwell said he won’t be dropping in on their show in Durham and can’t even bring himself to listen to the new album.
“Jimbo doesn’t need me to hear it and I don’t need to hear it for myself, either,” Maxwell said. “I’m sure he’s keen to get on with new material, but the golden-oldies-revue aspect does not appeal. For a long time, doing ‘Hell’ has felt like singing a cover for me, too, which is weird because I wrote it.
“Anyway, I don’t want to be the ex-quarterback driving a Camaro around the high school parking lot five years after graduation,” he added. “I do miss the experience of playing Zippers shows, which were always unsurpassingly fun. That’ll hook ya. But it’s in the past. And Jimbo has still gotta sing my songs when he goes out as the Zippers. Hope he does ’em justice.”
Crescent City revival
New Orleans was always a big part of the Zippers aesthetic from the very beginning, in part because it’s where they recorded the “Hot” album. That’s even more overt with this version of the Zippers, a cast of players Mathus recruited from the Crescent City. Long before his music career began, the Mississippi-born Mathus was working as a deckhand on barges out of New Orleans.
“I was absorbing the sound and culture at a very early age,” said Mathus. “So I think this is a real full-circle dream-band scenario. With the initial cast of the Zippers, none of them had ever been to New Orleans until I brought them there. They all started vibing on it and that’s what helped create ‘Hot.’”
Two decades later, Mathus put out the word in New Orleans that he was convening a new version of the Zippers. That led him to chief collaborator Justin “Dr. Sick” Carr, with Cella Blue (from the Austin, Texas, band White Ghost Shivers) stepping into Whalen’s role as female voice.
With longtime Zippers engineer Mike Napolitano handling the boardwork, “Beasts of Burgandy” has plenty of zing — focused on the New Orleans-friendly medicine-show mojo that Mathus brought to the group in the first place.
“Since the Zippers first came on the scene, a lot of that era’s retro stuff has taken hold in alternative culture,” Mathus said. “Burlesque, circuses, swing societies, that’s all part of underground art culture now. A lot of guys in the band now grew up listening to Squirrel Nut Zippers. It’s no accident that these are the people who found me.”
Squirrel Nut Zippers
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org
Songs & Stories with Tom and Brooke Maxwell
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27
Where: Magnolia Roots Music Lounge, 219 S. White St., Wake Forest
Cost: Suggested donation of $10
Katharine Whalen opening for Ellis Dyson & the Shambles
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
Where: Pour House, 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh