Squirrel Nut Zippers aim to make America weird again

In modern American music, running counterpoint to overproduced pop there often has been something raw and original to upstage the musical centers of New York, Nashville and Los Angeles. In 1993 a band named after an obscure early 20th century candy took its quirky mix of jazz, blues, klezmer and punk music and not only shattered the conventions of the time, but achieved commercial success.

Founded in North Carolina by Jimbo Mathus and Chris Phillips, the Squirrel Nut Zippers produced its watershed album, “Hot,” and would go on to sell more than three million albums between 1995-2000.

Then the band drifted apart, its members going on to other lives and careers. Mathus, now 50, developed a solo career. Approached in 2016 about doing a reunion, Mathus decided that the Zippers should go beyond that and “reanimate and revive,” he said. Their new sound is like the old sound, but updated, with generational appeal to both original Zippers fans and their children.

“It’s not copying anything. It’s an amalgamation of old weird America,” Mathus said last Thursday in a phone interview. “Let’s make America weird again.”

The Squirrel Nut Zippers perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, in Homer at the Mariner Theatre. Sponsored by the Homer Council on the Arts, tickets are $50 general admission and $40 HCOA members, on sale at the Homer Bookstore, HCOA and online at homerart.org.

Still fronted by Mathus, the nine-piece band includes new members, most of them out of New Orleans. Mathus has returned to his home town just outside of Oxford, Mississippi on the edge of the delta. The band includes an enlarged rhythm section and a three-piece horn section.

“To have the cats in the orchestra now is always something. They bring a diverse kit bag to the temper of the Zippers,” Mathus said.

Like its audience, the band includes members in their 30s to 50s. “A lot of experience in there,” Mathus said.

“That a part of our sound, is going across the generations,” he said. “That was one of my favorite things about the band back in the ‘90s when we started. It was a multigenerational phenomena.”

With the revival, the Zippers also have made its first album in 17 years, “Beasts of Burgundy.” Recorded at Nappy’s Dugout, the studio in the New Orleans home of Mike Napolitano and Ani DiFranco, it brings back Napolitano, who worked on much of the original Squirrel Nut Zippers catalog. A single from the album, “Karnival Joe (From Kokomo),” carries on the jazzy, upbeat manic power of the band. Listen to it at https://soundcloud.com/snzippers/karnival-joe-from-kokomo/s-9FD2H

“It’s fantastic. It’s over the moon it’s so much talent,” Mathus said. “… We’ve just made something that goes lock step with what we did before. I feel like it’s our best work.”

Mathus came up with the band’s name when he and others in the original band brainstormed monikers. Mathus used to run a backhoe at an airport in North Carolina and would eat lunch at a little store that sold a candy called Squirrel Nut Zippers. Somebody said they should name the band after a candy, and Mathus said, “Oh my God. I have one in my pocket. What about Squirrel Nut Zippers? It seemed perfect for us.”

The candy was introduced in 1926 by The Squirrel Brand Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It got its name from an illegal Prohibition era drink. Mathus approached the company to see if it could license the name. Owner Hollis Gerrish asked for a tape of the band’s music. Gerrish loved the sound.

“It just seemed to be perfect. It was an arcane thing,” Mathus said. “We established a great relationship with the people there.”

The Squirrel Nut Zippers band helped revive the candy. Mathus even got the key to the city in Cambridge for helping the candy brand. After Gerrish died, the company sold and eventually came to be owned by Necco.

Touring between Homers across the country — Homer, Alaska, on Feb. 11 to Homer, New York, on March 25 — this will be the first time the band has visited Alaska and also the only state the Zippers have not yet performed in.

“There’s a master plan somehow. It’s all keeping America weird,” Mathus said.

Reach Michael Armstrong at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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