December 4, 2008

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Life after ‘Hell’
Chris Phillips of Squirrel Nut Zippers is still swinging

By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

In the 1990s, retro lounge band Squirrel Nut Zippers topped music charts with hits like “Hell” and “Put A Lid On It,” ushering in a swing resurgence. Eight albums and almost 15 years later, the band is still going, and will play a sold-out show at Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry on Monday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m. Founding member and drummer Chris Phillips talked about the ups and downs of success, sculpturing in the dark, The Simpsons and the importance of sharing your toys.

How did you get started with Squirrel Nut Zippers?
Jim [Mathus] and Katherine [Whalen] started this band as a great way to get Katherine into playing music — she was really talented and had been singing on her own, but hadn’t done a lot. So, they quickly got myself and a few other people in and we just started having this beautiful Camelot out at their farm house in North Carolina. There are really about five long-standing members that began things, but even Stu Cole’s been with us for 12 years, and now we’ve got Will Dawson making sure we’re keeping in touch with the young people.

When the success of the album Hot hit, were you guys at all prepared for it?
Not at all — I don’t know if you really can be prepared for something like that. Especially with us, as a band that has an all-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude, it was really unexpected. We had to really scramble and start hitting the road and it definitely took its toll after a while, particularly for Katherine. But, man, how fortunate were we? We had this radio station in Boston that gave us some late-night spins and were supporting our stuff and it just grew. It was amazing — I mean, how else could we have gotten to play President Clinton’s inaugural ball, or be on Sesame Street, or play with Tony Bennett? I think what we are trying to do now is just to go out and play to places where we can really relate and interact with the audience, realize our history and integrate it.

Do you guys thrive on people not being able to pinpoint your sound?
We’re really not trying to keep people on their toes. I think our sound is a natural result of the chemistry of this band — we are really the sum of all of our parts, we all come from relatively different places. We all listen to jazz music and punk rock and share that, but we may have someone pull something else out and do something unexpected. We have this shared sense of musical humor and never have to feel like we just had to be one musical thing.

After the success of Hot, did you ever feel pressured to change your musical style or approach due to shifting fads?
We did do a little battle with the powers that be. We didn’t want to become a caricature of the swing band resurgence, but it was the easiest thing to put us into. We had just recorded Perennial Favorites — Hot had been out already — and while we were at the studio, the label executives told us to pack up, that we were going to do a radio show, and we were like ‘What are you talking about? We’re not a radio band.’ From then on, we were slammed. I think what was tough is that we had this new sound and we had to sit on it for a while. We had to go out and promote this album that had already been out for a while, and that really laid the seeds for some burnout for us, especially for Jim.

You guys have done a video for the song “The Ghost of Stephen Foster” that was created by the people who animate The Simpsons. How did that happen?
We were on tour out in California, and it turns out that some people from The Simpsons loved the band, and they said to come by and visit if we were in the Burbank area. Of course, we did — it’s such an amazing show. They gave us the grand tour and showed us how the show is made. We got to talking with some of the animators and they also had an affinity for the early Mickey Mouse cartoons and thought it would be great to do something like that for one of our videos. It turned out amazing and we actually project the video during our live performances when we play the song — and, plus, how cool is it to have toured the Simpsons factory?

Several members of SNZ have done solo projects, you included. Do you think it’s important to the longevity of a band for its members to be able to pursue independent projects?
Yes and no. For this band, definitely. Jimbo [Jim Mathus[ in particular is a wild horse and needs to be able to sow his oats and put on the different hats. I admit I’m a jealous guy and want everyone to stay in the yard and play with our toys together, but I’ve realized that in times everybody needs to roam a bit. All of us realize that we’re a very committed family to each other — we’ve had people leave, we’ve experienced death, fortunes wafting and fading — but for better or worse, we have every intention of sticking together.

Are there any new SNZ albums or projects in the works?
We’re finishing a live record from the last year of our touring; we’ve got a photo book, Unzipped, coming out. We’re also working on some new songs — we’ve got about eight done so far. I’m really encouraging the band to start tracking and working on stuff — it’s like we’re making this big sculpture in the dark, trying to figure out what it’s going to be. But even though this stuff is different from what we’ve done before, no matter what you give us, it will always sound like Squirrel Nut Zippers.


Chris Phillips. Photo by Joshua Weinfeld.