Squirrel Nut Zippers: Time Bomb
There’s a new/old beat on the street and in the shopping malls, and it has a kinship to jazz. But, make no mistake, it’s not exactly jazz, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’re susceptible to the campy pleasures contained therein. Young bands are raiding the second hand stores for vintage duds and copping musical attitudes borrowed from the swing and jump band era. They mean well, even if their musical chops haven’t caught up with their enthusiasm, and the audience—an unusually broad swath of age and cultural demographics—is dancing up a storm around the revival sound, nonplussed by the unripe musicianship beneath it all.
Welcome to the world, by association, of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the giddiness of whose bandname matches the nervous good cheer of their act. The unabashedly retro-glancing band from the rich music scene in Chapel Hill, N.C. has managed to sashay its way into mondo sales—1.5 million and counting—and the public ear. The band bows at the feet of Cab Calloway and the Harlem Renaissance, and other pre-war musical models, and incorporates cheeky entertainment value along with their modest musical wares, which are maturing in public. This is not a group of refined musicians, but rather a case of eager young acolytes of archival American music, seeking to connect the dots in a personal tribute to yesteryear.
Multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell, who sings and wrote the band’s surprise hit, “Hell,” from their 1996 album Hot, is as stunned as anyone that the band has taken off the way it has. “At the band’s inception, it was an art project,” he says from his home, just south of Chapel Hill. “We got together to fry chicken and play music. No one could have possibly expected this to become an occupation. We were all broke-ass musicians living in Chapel Hill.”
Success slowed down the band’s original working process. Their newly released album, Perennial Favorites, was being made just as “Hell” broke loose, and has been finished for well over a year, but was held up, “because the man was makin’ money,” he laughs.
Originally a rock’n’roll drummer around Chapel Hill, Maxwell joined the band when it was already in motion, and he quickly branched out into other instrumental talents, as guitarist, clarinetist, and saxophonist. At this point, the co-bandleaders, Jim Mathus and Katherine Whalen, are amended by instrumentalists who bring fiddle, trumpet, and other hoary tools of unplugged reckoning to bear.
The instrumental flexibility in the band resonates with the stylistic wobble. “It has all been something of a revelation to me as a musician and artist, if you will. Basically, whatever sound you wanted to hear, you made it yourself. I love that. I think that’s also a by-product of the Chapel Hill mindset, a do-it-yourself modus operandi. I don’t think we would have ever even played this music nor would we have necessarily been as warmly-received had we not gotten our footing in this community.”
Maxwell fell sideways into his obsession with this music, but he fell hard, at the ripe age of 23. “I saw a film of ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ with Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club Orchestra playing. It was an epiphany. At the same time, my friend had the Smithsonian collection of the history of jazz: I was listening to ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ and things like that. I was hooked, literally. I thought, ‘Well, something’s going on that I don’t really know about.’
“I was familiar with the more clichéd either cartoon music, or the kind of candy-ass sort of stuff that has held up as an example of that time, but I didn’t realize there was something so menacing and visceral and emotional out there. I started investigating. Once you hear Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club band, you end up hearing Ellington’s Cotton Club band and you get into Fats Waller. After a while, you find people like Eddie South or Stuff Smith or Django Reinhardt or the Hot Five and Hot Seven.
“You don’t have to do much digging to find out that Harlem was a strong musical community and then you discover what the roots of that stuff is, going back to New Orleans. You start listening to that stuff, too.”
One of the tunes on the new album with a direct link to music history is Maxwell’s own “Palling with Al,” about the veteran guitarist Al Casey, the last surviving member of Fats Waller and His Rhythm. Maxwell heard he was still alive and found him in the book, living and still playing in Harlem. At first, he was a fawning fan, but Casey set him straight. “I would say, ‘You’re the greatest; you’re the greatest of all time,’ and he said, ‘Will you stop giving me that shit?’ That’s actually when the friendship began.
“When you enter into a kind of a fan/idol relationship, you’re not really getting any communicating done. I gave him his due and his props, and then I became pals with him. I’m the better for it, I can truly say. So ‘Palling with Al’ is all about that, and the effect that he’s had on me and the band. I mention his song ‘Buck Jumping’ in the lyrics. I took his lick from ‘Buck Jumping,’ which is now at the head of ‘Palling with Al,’ which is a total Al Casey lick. I thought it was an appropriate homage, as well as a delightful thing I could lift,” he laughs.
Is this a case of lifting from the best?
“Hell yeah. Everyone will tell you that. That’s what Al told me. He said ‘Look, fellas, it’s just music. You take what you like.’”
The more Maxwell has delved into the wealth of inspiration to be found in early jazz, the more he developed an overview of American music’s vertiginous evolution. The music that fascinated him “was widely perceived as whorehouse music, frankly. The Hot music that came out in the ’20s and ’30s, especially the ’20s, it was perceived as wrong-side-of-the-tracks whorehouse music by so-called ‘darkie’ bands. When, in fact, the Hot Five was one of the most profoundly gifted and astonishing bands, and they changed the face of music. But at the time, most people didn’t really know who they were, or appreciate their value, except for a few lunatics who got consumed by the music.
“In the ’40s, things became more radicalized and playing cool became more fashionable than playing hot. In my mind, and I know a lot of people don’t agree with me, the music became more of an algorithmic equation instead of an emotive, visceral expression. It really did change. But that perception of jazz has held sway for lo, these 40 years.
“Then rock and roll came about and it had a lot of the same gut-level effect that hot jazz used to have, but so much of the style of playing and so much of its diversity of expression and fabulous musical gestures were just lost. I started listening to that music and realized what a phenomenon it was, and how much it can lend itself to modern, individual expression. None of us feel like it’s necessary to ape that stuff to be true to it. You can just proceed with it, use that as a foundation to build your aesthetic house, and then you just make your own house.”
And their own house, it turns out, found a sympathetic hook-up with the neo-swing movement among young musicians. Mention the “movement,” and Maxwell bristles a bit. “As musicians and as a band, we’re trying to make music that is considered timeless. Whether or not we succeed in this is not for us to judge. But we certainly don’t want to associate ourselves with something that we consider to be fleeting or temporary. Moreover, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the whole idea of associated iconography. I don’t think that martinis, cigars, and zoot suits have anything to do with music at all.”
He feels there are essential differences in approach between his band and others in the scene. “I don’t consider us to be a swing band. There are huge elements of swing in what we do, but there’s also a ton of Harlem hot music or Dixieland or calypso or string band or rock and roll. There’s as much rock and roll in what we do as there is swing. And frankly, when we started, everybody thought this was a lounge band. So I’ve decided that when someone asks me if I’m part of the swing movement, I say I’m actually part of the lounge movement and that swing is just a pretender to the throne of lounge.”
Critics of the young swing and retro bands point to the naivete of the musicianship, as if young musicians, seduced by not only the music itself but the sense of a scene and a lucrative trend-in-the-making, have jumped into an essentially sophisticated music way over their heads. In the punk era, you could learn the basics of guitar in a week and begin making noise, because of the aesthetic syntax involved. In jazz, there are harmonic and rhythmic elements to be grappled with and a grand tradition to live up to.
“Sure,” Maxwell admits, “we came from the same place. This band completely jumped in over our heads, and we were all totally aware of that. That’s one way of looking at it. I’m looking at it as that I’m sitting at the feet of the Buddha. One does not become perfect when you sit at the feet of the Buddha, but one understands how far one has come and how far you have to go.
“I certainly don’t feel like we have realized our full potential yet. Hopefully, we never will. I feel like this is something I can devote my life to. I was 27 and feeling too old for rock and roll. Now, I’m 32 and I feel like a rank beginner. That is a joy.”
Tom Maxwell: “I just had a guitar custom-made by Gibson. It’s a reissue of an Epiphone Emperor Regent, a big fat jazz box from the ’40s, but with a P90 single-coil pickup. I love it. I play through a 25-watt Ampeg Jet 2 tube amplifier, which is a reissue of Ampegs from the late ’30s or ’40s.
“We just got an endorsement from Selmer, thank God. We were playing Bundys and now we’ve graduated to something more professional. On Hot and even on Perennial Favorites, a lot of the horns are Bundys, which have profound intonation problems. So half the performance is unhinging your jaw to get the damn F# in tune. At least we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
JazzTimes: Is this one of the nice spoils of success?
“Probably the best.”
Tom Maxwell: “I just got a collection of music by Big Mama Thornton, which is great. Some of my favorite music is the Fats Waller pipe organ solos that he made in the 1920s, on an album called Young Fats on Organ. It was entirely unprecedented music, and was actually unique, because no one else bothered making jazz pipe organ sides, but the fact is that he kicked holy ass.
“There are also a number of compilations of so-called Western swing music, which is basically a bunch of insane white boys from Texas in the ’30s and ’40s, playing hot jazz in a fairly standard line up and then adding a pedal steel guitar, using totally overdriven amps. There were guys like Wade Ray and Noel Boggs, artists who played incredibly hot, hellacious music, which at the time, was considered black music. Of course, it was not black music. Music isn’t any color. They understood that and proceeded with that, and also put a lot of Texas in it, too.”
Originally published in October 1998