Twenty years later, the swing music revival of the late nineties remains a perplexing hallmark of the decade. For a few years, bands that swung made a forceful showing on mainstream radio. Leading the pack was Carrboro's Squirrel Nut Zippers, who cloaked raucous rock in fast-and-loose hot jazz arrangements. Its ebullient songs were as inspired by the Pixies as they were by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.
Pop history has pegged Squirrel Nut Zippers as instigators of the swing revival, but the band predated the fad, growing from the same fertile indie scene that nurtured the likes of Superchunk and Archers of Loaf. The band's first LP, The Inevitable, was released on Mammoth Records in March 1995, well before the swing trend hit a fever pitch. And the Zippers' East Coast home kept them isolated from the West Coast "cocktail scene" that morphed into the new swing movement.
For a week spanning the end of October and beginning of November 1995, Squirrel Nut Zippers posted up at Daniel Lanois's Kingsway Studios in New Orleans to record its second album, Hot, which would propel the band to its strange national stardom. The Zippers never planned on hitting the big time, but an ambitious label rep and fortuitous timing helped the single "Hell" explode on mainstream radio, several months after the release of Hot in June 1996.
The movement that helped the band sell more than a million records was a boon and a curse. Locked into a trend they wanted no part of, most of the band members felt like their project suddenly had a very short shelf life.
The shadow of litigation, acrimoni-ous departures, and the divorce of Jimbo Mathus and Katharine Whalen, all of which caused Squirrel Nut Zippers to fall apart a few years after Hot, still hangs over the band. Only two members of the original lineup are on board for this year's twentieth anniversary tour for Hot: front man Jimbo Mathus and drummer Chris Phillips. Relationships remain strained enough that Katharine Whalen, whose voice lent the band so much of its signature sound, declined multiple requests for an interview.
But this isn't the story of how it all fell apart. Rather, it's a trip through the dizzy carnival ride that flung a handful of small-town oddballs, who had convened as a casual, one-off art project, into the center of a storm they never expected.
Lane Wurster (Art director, Mammoth Records): The very first thing they did was that single Merge put out [1994's Roasted Right].
Mac McCaughan (Cofounder, Merge Records): For Merge, it wasn't that weird, because it wasn't terribly far from, say, an early Lambchop record. Katharine's voice really set it apart, because she sounds so amazing.
Tom Maxwell (Vocals, guitar, baritone sax, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): The discussion was, who do we sign with? Merge offered fifty-fifty deals, which was compelling, but Mammoth had a distribution deal with Atlantic.
Lane Wurster: With The Inevitable, we gave that record away. That was the way we promoted it—send it around to people that we thought would like it instead of doing big ad buys or other promotional stuff.
Jimbo Mathus (Vocals, guitar, banjo, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): We really did a lot of heavy lifting with The Inevitable to get a sound that was cohesive, what we felt would really resonate. By the time Hot rolled around, the expectations were high.
Tom Maxwell: Something tectonic was happening, but we just were making money. We were getting a lot of wedding gigs. We could anchor little tours on it, and we played a lot. We got better, and we wrote new material. By the time we went to New Orleans, we had been touring the songs for Hot for like six months. We were a good little band, and definitely could put it across.
Tom Maxwell: Jim Mathus came to me and Ken and said that he was going to New Orleans, and did we want to come along? It sounded innocuous, but actually it felt very momentous to me. I didn't really understand why. And so we drove down in somebody's shitty car and stayed with Jimbo's high school friend.
Jimbo Mathus: A man by the name of Glenn Graham was in one of my first psychedelic rock combos. He went on to be in Blind Melon, and he's the drummer. We kept in touch.
Tom Maxwell: [Blind Melon] had recorded at Kingsway Studios, and he brought his friend Mike Napolitano, who just seemed to get it. And then Glenn says, "Yeah, you should go to Kingsway, where we made this record." We go to this fucking mansion in the French Quarter, on the corner of Chartres and Esplanade. Dan Lanois had bought it after he made all that money producing U2. He made no attempt to turn it into a studio; he just moved a bunch of gear into it.
Jimbo Mathus: It was ideal. There's no distraction. You're in an incredible space. You know it's got haints all in it. Hell yeah.
Tom Maxwell: I called Steve Balcom from the label and said, basically, "Look, we're going to do our next record here."
Steve Balcom (Label manager, Mammoth Records): We loved that studio. It was an imperfect recording environment, but it was the perfect recording environment for that band.
Chris Phillips (Percussion, Squirrel Nut Zippers): It was a magical place. The way it smelled, the way it felt when you walked in the kitchen door. It was all vibe. I certainly think that it created a creative space that encouraged everyone to enter their own fantasy world and be all that they could be as an artist.
Mike Napolitano (Engineering and mixing): Kingsway kept you. It was impossible to do the thing that is the entrenched way of making records: control, control, control. Kingsway was not built for that.
Ken Mosher (Saxophone, guitar, songwriting, Squirrel Nut Zippers): Even going to Kingsway visiting, that would be like going to Buckingham Palace and going, "OK, we're going to be living here soon."