Like the rest of America this unreasonably cold winter, James “Jimbo” Mathus is dealing with the effects of frozen pipes. “We’re in this cold snap down South and I manage cabins down here and everyone’s water pipes are bursting,” he says, apologizing for running late to our phone call, which is made from a Memphis area code. “People around here think I’m a plumber, and clearly not an artist.”
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 16 Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston Tickets: $20-$68 Info: ticketweb.com
It would have been easy to forget since Mathus’ most famous band, the New Orleans jazz-gypsy folk-swing revival act the Squirrel Nut Zippers, has been largely inactive since the early 2000s, putting the band leader back into the throes of normal life. In 2016, Mathus finally decided to resuscitate the band for the 20th anniversary of seminal album “Hot,” which produced the thematically-linked single “Hell” (a tongue-in-cheek parody of Lawrence Welk-era entertainment) and has since been hitting the studio with a brand-new ensemble for the group’s first new music in almost 20 years.
“Some good friends of mine and business associates approached me to see if I would consider doing a reunion for the ‘Hot’ anniversary, and once I started looking at it seriously, I realized it’d be better to put a band back together, because it’s such a wonderful body of work that’s just sitting there,” says Mathus who thumbed through his Rolodex of musical cohorts — including those who he met during his solo career and who he had produced records for in the interim years — to find a lineup of new musicians. “I found that Zippers music had influenced a lot of younger talent, and they were eager to jump in and help revive this thing.”
Included in the current roster is original drummer Chris Phillips, new female lead Cella Blue, from Austin vaudeville act White Ghost Shivers, as well as “fiddle killer” Dr. Sick from New Orleans where many of the Zippers’ now nine-piece touring group (including a three-piece horn section) hail from.
“We’ve always had a big New Orleans influence. ‘Hot’ was recorded down there, and I’m [originally] from Mississippi, you know. New Orleans Jazz figures so prominently into our equation, only this time around I am able to have real New Orleans players that understand the dynamic and motif even better, so we were able to go back and look at some of the older material and bring fresh arrangements and harmonies to it to give the band a bigger and fuller sound.”
Two years ago, as the band was first getting to know each other, they assembled in a studio on Burgundy Street just outside the French Quarter and eventually started laying down tracks for the new album “Beasts of Burgundy,” a mix of jazz, calypso, cabaret and theater, which is tentatively slated to be released in March. “It’s the best record we ever made,” admits Mathus, saying the ‘beasts’ refer to all the personnel that helped put it together, recording live using vintage instruments and whimsical ones like toy pianos and musical saws. “This band is just unbelievable, with a level of skill I hadn’t ever seen. And really it’s quite a cast with all our backgrounds in theater, dance, vaudeville, burlesque and jazz.”
Mathus also brought to the project his experience of years working as a record producer and also a member in Buddy Guy’s band (from 2000-2005), helping Guy create albums “Sweet Tea” and “Blues Singer,” which nabbed a Grammy Award in 2004. “Buddy is one of the biggest influences on my life,” says Mathus who most remembers playing the January residencies at Legend’s. “The thing I really learned from him is the way he went about his business and performed his shows—the passion, the fearlessness he brought to it, the way he conserved his energy and put it out on the stage. He’s such a reserved person but onstage he turns into this madman.”
Chicago baroque folk star Andrew Bird is another of Mathus’ close associates who worked with the Squirrel Nut Zippers on their ‘90s-era albums after Mathus discovered him at a Renaissance Faire. “Spiritually and aesthetically we are still connected at the hip, but Bird has a hugely successful career now,” says Mathus with a hint in his voice that he hopes the same may befall his band again in this second coming.
“It was bizarre when all that happened in the ‘90s when rock was so dominant,” he admits of the unassuming fame that befell the Zippers—getting prominent gigs like Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Ball and the ’96 Summer Olympics in Atlanta—especially since the group initially started as a simple art project. “But I also can’t see why people wouldn’t want to see great talented bands play classical American bedrock music. I hope that will never not be cool.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.