November 5, 2009

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Squirrel Nut Zippers reunite
Jimbo Mathus talks about getting the band back together
By Wade Tatangelo music@hippopress.com

Squirrel Nut Zippers, the hot jazz ensemble that scored an unlikely hit single in 1997 with “Hell,” issued Lost at Sea late last month. It marked the group’s first live album, and first release since 2000. SNZ are back on the road elating audiences with their smartly executed brand of throwback fun. But the reunion probably would have come much sooner had it not been for the busy schedule of bandleader Jimbo Mathus. In recent years he has issued acclaimed solo discs, opened his own recording studio and worked with a pair of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Mathus’ growth as a musician is apparent on Lost at Sea, recorded last year in Brooklyn.

“I have more fluidity on the guitar, more expression on the guitar,” Mathus said on his way to a solo gig in Louisiana. “And I probably have more skills as a bandleader and arranger. But the good thing is the cool chemistry well all have. I’m really proud of [SNZ] and love them and they all do great.”

Mathus had always wanted to pursue other roots styles. As a solo artist he has created a gritty, soulful synthesis of juke joint blues and honky tonk country that teems with Southern pride. Both 2005’s Knockdown Society and his new solo record Jimmy the Kid are excellent examples of what Mathus simply calls “Mississippi music,” in honor of his home state and its rich musical legacy.

“The way I go about music is to not think about it too much — you gotta put it more in the pelvic region and get it out of the brain,” Mathus explained to this reporter with a chuckle from his Clarksdale, Miss., home in a previous interview.

When not leading his own band, the singer-songwriter produces and engineers records at his Delta Recording Service in Como, Miss. That’s where Elvis Costello cut his Grammy-nominated single “Monkey to Man.” Mathus has also played second guitar on recent Buddy Guy records and served as bandleader for the blues master on tour. Despite his hectic schedule, though, Mathus still had good reason to reunite with SNZ.

“Artistic curiosity,” Mathus said. “Artistic curiosity brought us back together. We were curious to see what it would sound like — and how the chemistry would be.”

For Mathus, the reunion places him back with old pals and his ex-wife. Mathus and singer Katharine Whalen formed SNZ while happily married in Carrboro, N.C. The two divorced years ago but Mathus insists they remain on friendly terms. When asked what it’s like performing with her, he sounds genuinely enthusiastic.

“Ah, it’s great,” he said in his thick Delta drawl. “We are both big admirers of one and other as artists first. Kathy and I know our problems. But I think she would be the first to tell you we learned a lot from each other. We’re each other’s biggest fans.”

There are no plans for a new SNZ studio album but that hasn’t stopped Mathus from penning a catchy, hilarious new Calypso number called “Snip, Nip and Tuck” specifically for his old band. Judging by a YouTube clip from July the song’s an instant crowd-pleaser.

“It’s about plastic surgery,” Mathus said with a devilish laugh, “and women trying to look like Barbie dolls.”


Squirrel Nut Zippers
When: Monday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $35
Info: 437-5100, tupelohall.com.