Katharine Whalen's Decade-Long Break from Playing Squirrel Nut Zippers Songs Comes to an End | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Katharine Whalen's Decade-Long Break from Playing Squirrel Nut Zippers Songs Comes to an End 

Katherine Whalen

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Katherine Whalen

One of the most commercially successful bands to ever spring out of the Triangle is Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose 1996 LP Hot sold more than a million copies. One of the group's not-so-secret weapons was Katharine Whalen, whose smoky, Billie Holiday-esque vocals gave the Zippers plenty of zing. In a chaotic radio landscape that was still reckoning with an abundance of moribund grunge, Whalen and company were an unexpected burst of fresh air. But the band's "redneck Camelot," as drummer Chris Phillips described it in 2016, wouldn't last; strained relationships within the band fractured it permanently.

But on Saturday, after a nearly decade-long break from the Zippers, Whalen returns to some of the songs that changed the course of her life for good. This time, she's making them all her own.

On stage, though, she won't be entirely alone. Her friends Danny Grewen, whom Whalen credits with reinvigorating her love of West Coast jazz, and banjo player Ellis Dyson, have been learning these songs alongside her.

"It's the songs, but it just feels different. It feels very natural and easy—kind of like the very beginning days when we used to play in our living room out in Durham, and it was super organic and quiet," Whalen says.

Her efforts to revisit those songs began when she and Dyson wanted to learn a song together. Whalen realized that the Zippers' "Wash Jones," a banjo-driven tune written by frontman Jimbo Mathus that appears on the band's 1995 debut, would be a good fit for the pair.

"Jimbo had written it for a band he was in that was sort of a surf punk band. They did a good version of it, but it wasn't exactly what he wanted," Whalen recalls. "He was like 'I want to play piano, would you learn this on the banjo?' and taught me that, so that made me feel super cool, super powerful."

As she and Dyson worked on the song, Whalen realized she wanted to build a full set, so she started searching for arrangement charts, digging up "Danny Diamond" and more. Some of her choices were dictated by which charts she could find, and Whalen had to listen to some of the songs on Spotify to jog her memory. Her set won't be limited to the tunes on which she sang lead—she says she's even likely to leave out some of the most well-worn numbers she's sung over the year (it's worth noting, though, that she's planning on doing "Hell," the band's massive hit penned by Tom Maxwell).

The Zippers first went on hiatus in 2001 and reconvened for a few strings of shows between 2007 and 2009. Under Mathus's leadership, a version of the band sprung up again in 2016 in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Hot. He and drummer Phillips are the only original Zippers personnel to participate in the revival, which has remained active. Since retiring from the Zippers for good after the first reunion, Whalen has continued to make music under her own name and with Swedish Wood Patrol. She also ran a small business where she made hats and fascinators, many of which were made from parts of an old, unfinished quilt her aunt had given her. Upon returning to the Zippers catalog, Whalen says she hasn't encountered any uncomfortable feelings about it.

"I'm just going to sing, which is very refreshing. It was just kind of in there, and it didn't make me feel sad or bad, it was just kind of like, 'Ohh.' It just made sense, in a weird way," she says.

When the Zippers were at their peak, Whalen says that an essential part of keeping her head on the shoulders was to stay engaged with other music to help her improve at her own craft. That's something she's held on to over the years.

"I would've gone crazy with the pressure of all the work if I hadn't always had something I was working on to get better at. There would be whole tours where I would try to learn an entire Loretta Lynn record on my guitar in the bus, just to have something that I was working on," she says. "It wasn't what we were performing, but it would inform it. I had to be learning."

Most recently, she's fallen in love with A Giant Dog, the Austin, Texas rock band renowned for its raucous, fast-and-loose songs. She heard them on NPR's Sound Opinions and immediately became "obsessed," as she puts it.

"It triggered something in my mind of, if you're going to perform—which I've been doing for a long time—try to do something that people want to see and want to hear," she says.

Whalen says she's gotten a blessing from Phillips and Mathus to do her Zippers show, which may be reprised later this year. Though she hasn't been in touch with the band's other members, she felt compelled to give the two active members a heads-up.

"Jimbo has a band named the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and he's touring, so I didn't want it to be like I was trying to compete. I'm not a good liar; I'm not good at being dishonest or clouding things. I'm much better with things just being out in the open," she says, continuing, "It could've been weird if they heard it from somebody. Not that they're even going to care or know—I just didn't want anybody to feel bad."

Whalen herself is eager to return to the songs that have already been such a huge part of her life, especially when they still carry meaning for audiences decades later.

"People still have such a fond feeling for it. Like 'Oh, I listened to that with my tiny baby dancing,' or 'I listened to that with my grandparents,'" she says. "We knew the whole time that if you could do that, and have every generation dig it, that was something. And I think it's still happening."

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