Swingin’ with an attitude

“It’s better than working in a coal mine,” reckons Squirrel Nut Zippers trumpet man Je Wiedenhouse, describing the perks of playing in a band that, in four short years, has gone from spontaneous jams held on the front porches of rickety Chapel Hill houses to international acclaim.

Wiedenhouse — a semi-professional organic farmer who lives near Asheville with his wife and 5-year-old son (he lists his primary hobby as “chopping firewood”) — joined the seven-piece Zippers soon after the recording of their second CD, Hot (Mammoth Records, 1996. Hot catapulted the band to MTV-darling status with the unlikely hit single “Hell” — a crazy, Dante-infused calypso tune.

Named after a chewy peanut candy, the Zippers first took shape as a loose group of eastern Carolina friends who regularly gathered at one or another’s house for “pickin’ parties.” As the group evolved into an actual band, playing tiny clubs in and around Chapel Hill, those parties became practice sessions that were, in true Southern tradition, as Zippers co-frontman Tom Maxwell once put it, “as much covered-dish affairs as rehearsals.”

Speaking of Southern tradition, although the Zippers play a frenzied jumble of swing, New Orleans jazz, ragtime, jump blues, klezmer, calypso and Latin (their influences include Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and old-time calypso artist Lord Executor), the band’s music and persona is as solidly Southern as the tangled kudzu that marks their home territory. And like the South itself, the band comes off as a bit dangerous — unruly as hell and spouting lyrics that hint at dark, vaguely sexual secrets. Adding to the intrigue, Zippers frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and trombone player extraordinaire Jim Malthus (whose longest-running pre-Zippers job was as a Mississippi riverboat deck hand) has alluded in several interviews to a past that involved “a criminal element.”

Malthus met his future wife, Zipper vocalist (plus banjo and ukulele player) Katherine Whalen, at a Chapel Hill restaurant where she was a long-time employee, and where he’d begun working after leaving Mississippi. In Whalen — whose voice eerily conjures up both Billie Holliday and Betty Boop — Malthus found a kindred spirit who was just as immersed in the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s as he was. Whalen, like the band itself, is a gloriously anachronistic creature. As Details magazine put it, “In the age of perfectly rehearsed waifdom, she has hips, a ukulele and stage fright.” (Whalen was so nervous in the band’s early days that she had to perform sitting in a chair, lest she should, in beautiful Southern style, swoon.)

Despite the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ decidedly throwback sound (the most obvious element of which is ’40s swing) and novelty name, don’t call them a swing band or a retro, novelty-type act. Wiedenhouse simply says you can’t pigeonhole the band’s music or style. “It’s good that [the band and its music] sort of puts you in a Catch-22 situation, because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be good art,” he suggests. Other band members have more vituperative takes on the matter. “I actively dislike our inclusion in the whole retro/swing phenomenon,” Maxwell told one interviewer, “even though it has benefited us. I dislike it because I see it almost completely as a marketing tool. It’s a trend that’s been identified, and now it’s getting codified, and the same old shit is going to happen, where it’s going to be shoved down [everyone’s] throats.”

The Zippers’ latest CD, Perennial Favorites (Mammoth Records 1998), is a perfect example of the band’s “Catch-22″ aspect. On a cursory listen, the disc sounds like a group of highly skilled musicians playing, well, a bunch of swingy, jazzy tunes infused with retro (sometimes vaudeville-inspired) vocals, and sound effects that, truth be told, bring to mind some kind of tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek novelty act.

On more careful listen, however, the disc’s musical nuances leap full-blown from the speakers to one’s ears (like Athena from the head of Zeus we’d say, if we were pretentious). The tunes on Perennial Favorites (like most of the Zippers’ music) are originals, not covers of old standards. The hit-single track, “The Suits Are Picking Up the Bill,” is a sarcastic comment on the pleasures of success, which features a rollicking, ’20s-era jazz beat … while the next track, “Low Down Man,” is a hot, sensuous, Whalen-voiced ballad marked by languid pedal-steel guitar. “Ghost of Stephen Foster” features sometime-Zipper Andrew Bird on fiddle, and careens from low-down wail to fast and furious entreaty. “Pallin’ With Al” is a playful, hopped-up, horn-infested ode to Fats Waller guitarist Al Case, while “My Drag” offers a dark, moody, minor-key orchestral feel.

In short, Perennial Favorites echoes the lyrics and sentiments of yet another “throwback” standard: “Don’t fence [us] in.” And, as Wiedenhouse points out, although the bulk of the Zippers’ musical style is technically old, it’s brand new to a generation of listeners to whom even the Beatles are often considered passe — having enjoyed a heyday so far before young listeners were born that they don’t remember it at all.

The disc was recorded a couple of years ago in an old, run-down house in Pittsboro that Zippers’ guitarist and horn player Ken Mosher rented at the time for $250 a month (he subsequently bought the place). The two-week recording session, which culminated in the critically acclaimed release (it’s received glowing reviews from publications ranging from the New York Times to Vanity Fair, from People magazine to the Utne Reader — attesting to the band’s universal appeal), was fraught with few of the tensions that are standard fare in modern recording studios. “It was really simple,” remembers Wiedenhouse. “The rooms were all made of old wood, so they sounded good, and we did [the recording] with limited microphones and equipment.” And near the end of the session, the band took a break from recording to eat Thanksgiving dinner together.

So what’s a modern band driven by old-time style — a band that’s graduated from smoky dives to massive stadiums — supposed to think of itself? Wiedenhouse waxes torn — and nostalgic — on the subject.

“The band shines best in the context of, like, an old theater,” he says with a sigh. “When we play what we call “sheds” — amphitheaters that hold about 20,000 or something — they don’t quite lend themselves to what we do best, because you’ve got seven musicians splitting probably 40,000 watts of sound. With a rock band — the people who mostly play at those stadiums — you’ve got maybe four musicians, and they get maybe 10,000 watts apiece, so it’s much more in your face and louder. … It’s a whole different ball game trying to make this kind of band fly in a sort of post-rock ‘n’ roll era. Hell, those old guys who did the [kind of] music we’re doing didn’t even have PA systems. It’s not easy for us. Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Often, though, it does work, as evidenced by the band’s stadium-driven success. Nevertheless, Wiedenhouse wishes the Zippers could reach back and capture the solid work ethic that defined the era in which they feel most comfortable. “In the old days, [musicians] could hang out for maybe a week — granted, they probably didn’t get paid that much money — but they tended to stay in each town at least a week, and could rehearse all the time, and that’s how they got as good as they got, because they were able to chill out and play every day. … They probably slept until noon, and they rehearsed all day and then went to dinner and then came back and played all night — maybe 9 at night till 3 or 4 in the morning — and then went to bed and got up and did it again the next day. Man, if you could keep that kind of schedule, it wouldn’t be long before you’d be a kick-ass player.”

Wiedenhouse admits that scenario just isn’t practical in this day and age for most musicians trying to make a living — including bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are just starting to reap the considerable financial benefits of musical success in the ’90s. “All that playing is what it takes to be a good musician … and you just can’t do that now, if you’re trying to support a family or keep up a lifestyle or whatever — unless you have a trust fund or are a member of the upper classes, which those old musicians certainly weren’t.” (He concedes, though, that the Zippers these days “make a lot more than a just-scraping-by wage.”)

Boasting a musical background that includes stints with the Sex Police (“sort of Chicago meets Aerosmith, even though it sounds punk,” Wiedenhouse explains) and — along with new Zippers bass player Stuart Cole — Waffle and Motor With the Good Old Chicken Wire Gang Boys Band Brothers (the Chicken Wire Gang, for short, “a jazz and honky-tonky kind of outfit”), Wiedenhouse is no stranger to musical metamorphoses. He predicts the band will eventually venture far from what the record-buying public currently dictates for them. “We’ve already started delving into ’50s do-wop kind of stuff,” he relates, “and Jim [Malthus] is pretty much well-founded in the blues. … There’s an infinite amount of things we can do. We’re going to take some time off next year and, hopefully, reinvent ourselves.”

In the meantime, Wiedenhouse says he and the rest of the band are content to capitalize on at least one perk that’s priceless. “The best thing is the opportunity to play with other bands that have also chosen to be a little bit broader than rock ‘n’ roll: the Dirty Dozen, Bio Ritmo, the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars,” he enthuses. “I mean, you don’t want to be down on rock; everybody has elements of rock these days — hell, our drummer is a punk-rock drummer — but we want to steer a little bit off that path.”

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