Hot takes: Tom Maxwell discusses the Squirrel Nut Zippers' surprising hit record | Music
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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hot takes: Tom Maxwell discusses the Squirrel Nut Zippers' surprising hit record

Posted by on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 5:34 PM

click to enlarge Maxwell's memoir, which he released last year.
  • Maxwell's memoir, which he released last year.
As Tom Maxwell walks around the French Quarter on a warm, late-fall night, the sounds of New Orleans swirl around him. Jazz spills off street corners, and calliope music wafts from steamboats on the Mississippi.

Maxwell, once one of the primary songwriters for Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers, moved to New Orleans a few months ago. He lives in the Marigny neighborhood, New Orleans’ first suburb outside the French Quarter. Maxwell knows the neighborhood’s history—how Bernard de Marigny, for whom his neighborhood is named, had to sell off most of the land to repay gambling debts in 1805; how the people who first moved there were free blacks and immigrants; how white men would pick up Creole women there, send them to Europe for finishing school, build them a house and essentially have a three-month live-in mistress.

“Which is kind of in-line with this town’s despicable history,” he says.

Maxwell knows the city’s good history, too, including its long musical legacy. That tale includes Squirrel Nut Zippers. Maxwell lives close to what used to be Kingsway Studio, where the Zippers recorded Hot 20 years ago. He can’t quite throw a rock there from where he lives, but he can walk five blocks and then throw the rock.

Hot was by far the Zippers’ most successful effort. The band formed in Chapel Hill in 1993, and they drew from the brassy bounce of swing, hot jazz, jump blues and various other styles indigenous to the early 20th century. Hot, which was released in 1996, was the group’s second record; “Hell”—a jaunty, striking and garishly surreal song with a collegiate sense of humor—made it into the MTV buzz bin in 1996 and helped propel Hot toward Platinum status.

But it also started spinning the band apart. Founding bassist Don Raleigh would leave in 1996. Three years later, Maxwell and another founding member, Ken Mosher, would both quit, and the Zippers disbanded two years after that. Following the breakup, an ugly stretch of litigation over money pitted Maxwell and Mosher against their former bandmates. The Zippers have occasionally re-formed since 2007, and, according to Maxwell, will re-form next year to commemorate Hot’s 20th anniversary. (Nothing has been formally announced.)

Maxwell will not be part of that reunion. In an essay published on Medium called “Squirrel Not Zippers,” Maxwell says his former bandmates never asked him to participate in the reunion; he just “got a text telling me it wasn’t going to happen.” He also notes that Mosher and Raleigh won’t be there. Neither will Katharine Whalen, another founding member who has taken part in other Zippers reunions. 

Maxwell concludes his essay by writing that "the band that might come through your town next year celebrating this milestone for the Hot album will call themselves the Squirrel Nut Zippers," but “it just won’t bear much resemblance to that brief and dazzling spark that once characterized the group.”

The essay caught fire on the Internet during the last two weeks. Billboard covered it with a story headlined: “Former Squirrel Nut Zippers Member Claims Any 'Hot' Anniversary Tour Won't Be Legit.” When first reached by email, Maxwell—an occasional INDY contributor—even declined to talk about it. But he agreed to talk about Hot, a record of which he is “proud as hell.”

Over the phone, he ended up talking about that Medium piece, anyway, plus the whirlwind fame that followed “Hell” and how New Orleans made its mark on Hot.

INDY: I didn’t know
Hot was recorded in New Orleans.

Tom Maxwell: This is a great story. In August of ‘95, like, 20 years ago, Jimbo [Mathus, one of the founding members of Squirrel Nut Zippers] comes to me and Ken [Mosher, another founding member of Squirrel Nut Zippers] and says, “I’m going to New Orleans. You guys should come to New Orleans.” It just seemed like a thing where we would drive down and get really high and fucked up, but I immediately understood it to be of great importance—like, a very momentous thing. I talked to my then-girlfriend and now ex-wife and I was like, “I gotta do this.”

I’d never been. We go down. We stay with Jimbo’s high school buddy who happened to be the drummer for Blind Melon, who had a quadruple-platinum record on his wall and who had pulled out all of the doorbell wires on his house on Napoleon [Avenue, one of New Orleans’ main drags]. And we stayed with him, and he said, “You have to see this place where we just did a record,” and I went to Kingsway, which was a 15,000-square-foot mansion owned by Germaine Wells, who was Mardi Gras queen more than any other person. Daniel Lanois bought it after he made all of his money with U2, and it was basically a mansion that he had just moved recording gear into. And I thought, “That’s it. We’re going to have to do a record here.”

So I told the label. [At the time, the Zippers were on Mammoth, a now-defunct indie label that operated out of Carrboro.] I was like, “Dudes, this is gonna happen. And we can stay here, so we’ll be saving money. And you can send a photographer down, and there’s your album art. This is gonna happen.” And they’re like, “No, that’s OK with us, but you can only afford a week.” And I was like, “OK.” So we did the record in a week. We cut it in five days.

We had fired—well, I don’t know if fired is the right word—but our trumpet player at the time, Stacy Guess, had gone back on the needle, and it was like, “Dude, you gotta go get yourself straightened out.” And that was about two weeks before [the recording session]. So we come down, and we have no trumpet player at all. And somebody talks to Mark Mullins, [a trombonist] who was in Harry Connick’s band, and Mark said, “Oh, you need this guy Duke Heitger. He plays that kind of stuff.” We’d never met the motherfucker! So on the day that he’s supposed to come in and cut all of his tracks, Kenny and I, very wisely, go out and buy a bottle of bourbon. As I reasoned, we would need to drink it either in celebration or as consolation, you know? He could have fucked up the whole thing. But he was, of course, a monster. He made the record.

Just after I moved here, I met a very famous and accomplished tuba player, Matt Perrine, and he goes, “Yeah, I was working with Duke at that time. He came and told me about this band from North Carolina, and he said that they were sitting around drinking at, like, 10 in the morning, and that they didn’t know how to talk about this music, and that they were really thirsty for what we were doing down here, that they were starving for the music we were doing down here.” Yeah, basically.

Did you find that the environment of New Orleans seeped into how you were making Hot?
Oh my god, yes—in ways I couldn’t even describe. It really gets into you. It really gets under your skin. The whole rhythm is different. The rhythm of the place is different. The very ground upon which you walk is different. In North Carolina, everything is on granite—"Oh, this is a solid foundation with a basement!" In New Orleans, everything’s built on a waterbed. Everything is not nearly so solid. It has that undulating quality.

And then when you’re in Kingsway, you immediately bring your A-game. If we had gone to a studio back in Hillsborough or something and cut that record, it would have been good, but we would not have breathed the fire into it that we did.

And moreover, Mike Napolitano [who has engineer, mixer and producer credits on Hot] shows up, and I’m talking to him, and I’m like, “Why don’t you just set up three microphones and cut live like all the bands that we admired did?” It took me half an hour to get that idea out, and he’s like, “Oh, three mics and cut live.” We did it, and then we kind of abandoned it. We still used a lot of ambient miking, and that’s really when we started cutting records like that.

And then meeting someone like Duke [Heitger], who really, really, really, really understands that stuff and it’s not something he read out of a book and not like he happens to have a cool record collection—it’s not some esoterica like it was to me. I wasn’t meeting these people as a matter of course who were conversant in that. When I lived in North Carolina, I was like, “Oh, that’s a thrilling connection to the irretrievable past.” And now I’m just like, “Cool. Let’s go get a drink.”

When we went out into the world, people were like, “What the fuck are you?” They didn’t know Fats Waller. They didn’t know any of that shit, and they weren’t interested in schooling themselves on it. And then the jazz people were like, “You can’t play in tune. You are not an obvious rung on this ladder of linear musical progress to which we’ve subscribed for 50 years. You really need to go the fuck away.” I actually thought, “If the rock people hate us and the jazz people hate us, then we seriously must be doing something right.”

But I didn’t think about any of that shit at the time.

Is it one of those things that only comes with hindsight — in this case, two decades of it?

I knew at the time it was super, super important, because I’d never set foot in a place like Kingsway at all, ever. And that was only maybe the second time I’d been to New Orleans. And it was a good record.

I remember after we mixed it, I went to Ken and Chris Phillips [another founding member of Squirrel Nut Zippers], and I was like—and I was very serious—“This is a really good record, you guys. I’m just going to say it right now that we’re going to sell 70,000 copies of this record," which was pulled completely out of my ass, because we’d done 20 [thousand records sold] of the first one, and maybe not ever. But it just seemed so good, you know? And I felt very strongly about that. And then we were shot out of a cannon.

The funny thing about the sudden, overwhelming success of “Hell” is that Hot had already been out for a long time, right?
Hot was eight months old when it hit, yeah. It had had a good life. It sold maybe 30,000 copies, which was all really good, and we’d expanded our touring base, and everything was really peachy.

We were actually cutting the next record in North Carolina. The record is eight months old, and the label is like, “We must have a meeting with you right away.” We thought they were going to drop us. We were like, “Well, it’s been a good ride.” And then they were like, “You have a hit song.”

The West Coasters just went to KROQ and bugged the shit out of them, begged them to play it. And they did — as a joke. But then it hit big. I knew this guy who worked in radio, and he told me later that he would get these calls from program directors who would scream at him for, like 15 minutes: “I fucking hate this band! I fucking hate this song! I fucking hate this record! I fucking hate all this shit!” But the reason he was calling was to tell them that they were putting it into heavy rotation, and because they were Clear Channel station, sthey didn’t have any choice. He said it was one of the best feelings he had ever had, because he felt like we—and, by extension, him—were punk rock, and we were blowing up their precious little sandcastles. We were kicking down their sandcastles. And he loved it.

You mentioned in your reply to my first email that you weren’t particularly interested in discussing the Medium piece, but one of its points, which you reiterated, is that you were still immensely proud of Hot. , How do you quantify that pride?
The thing about the Medium piece and the “Squirrel Not Zippers” thing, I am genuinely sad about that for a lot of reasons. And some of it is, you know, the baby’s not going to get his bottle. Let’s just be honest; I’d love to go out and sop up some of that gravy and take a victory lap. Playing for Zippers crowds again is the best fucking thing I could hope for. But the other reason is that I would really, really like for the record to be the topic of conversation. It’s bumming me out that there could have been a pure, absolute celebration of this awesome fucking thing that happened. Like, the fucking, uh, In An Aeroplane Over the Sea dudes.

Neutral Milk Hotel.

They got their asses back out, and it’s like, "Good for you, motherfuckers. That’s a killer record. You should go and get all of the confetti thrown on your heads for making that record." That’s the thing that bums me out. To the extent that I’m proud of it, I’m proud because we really dug deep, and the material’s good, and the record hangs together, and it is an honest and sort of clear-eyed snapshot of who we were at that time. It was six days of pure fucking magic. And as a result, literally the course of the stream bed of my life was altered. I can look up on that now—tremendous amounts of pain and anger and resentment. But for the most part, I’ve so much gratitude for the audacity of it and the improbability of it.

Again, I know you don’t want to get very deep into the Medium piece, but the part that really struck me was that you talked not only about being able to “lay down the sword” and possibly tour with these people again but you could “let go of the shadow aspects of Squirrel Nut Zippers.” Can you talk a little bit about how you got to where you felt you were able to turn that corner?
It was a very long process. When something happens that is that huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, and then you stop, it really is like exiting the rollercoaster or a moving car, and you get hit by a wall. And then I played house when my son was treated for cancer. [Maxwell’s son, Esten, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006.]

And so he’s diagnosed, immediately taken out of school. He had just started going to nursery school. He was 3. They hit him with all of these drugs that are terrible and that almost kill him. But he doesn’t know that. The stuff that they gave him to do spinal taps? He really loves it. He loves the way it makes him feel. So he’s granted this sensation. And then he’s on steroids and shit, and we’re like, “Yes, you can have all of the plain croissants you want from The Chatham Marketplace. Yes, you can watch all the Thomas the Tank Engine you want. You’re hooked up to an IV tube, for fuck’s sake.” 

And then he’s done. Three and half years later, he’s done, and he made it. And everyone’s like, “Thank God. You get to go back to school now.” He does not want to go back to school. He does not want to be normal. He was lifted out quickly, given this sensation. He loves the drugs, and then it ended very suddenly, and now he has to be normal again. And his reaction was one of anger and resentment. And that’s exactly what happened to me.

And so I understood the emotional trajectory of it, from being the guy who was happy for him to be normal again, that knew how toxic of an environment he was in, you know? I got through that. When you have some real problems, like maybe losing a child, the not-real problems are revealed as such. The relative degree to which you want to punch your other bandmates in the mouth recedes.

The thing that really got it was, it’s not about me at all. It’s not about Jimbo at all. It’s about all of those people who bought that record, who are playing it for their kids. That Medium piece became … I had started to write this thing, initially, of you know, "Write me and tell me how you’re doing." And then I deleted it. But people started writing me. “My 7-year-old loves this record.” “This record got me through some really tough times.” All that people would say when I would go out and talk to them after shows was just the nicest stuff in the world.

And that’s what it’s really about—people giving you the energy in the crowd that you then use to give them the energy back. People come out to have the best night of their lives and then they have the best night of their lives, and that was in the ’90s when everything was great. Now everything’s really shitty, and I would really love to have that experience again, and reconnect with those people and just go, like, “Let’s just forget about the bullshit for an hour. Let’s put our phones away. Let’s just bring a very fierce get-down to this.” When I understood that that’s what it was really about and it wasn’t about whether or not someone had done me wrong, once I realized that that was the appropriate lens through which to view this, I was like, “OK. I can do this. I don’t have to talk about the past.”

This was a very fucking cool thing we did. It’s possible that some of that spark, that the embers haven’t burned out yet. All of that joy of playing music and playing music together and having a bunch of talented people doing what they do well and that’s still available to them—it’s not like you play the right notes, and it’s given to you. Obviously that’s not the case, or the Zippers never would have been successful. We had way more enthusiasm than chops, dude. But one of the things I loved about the Zippers is that we could scream at each other backstage, and then go out and play the best show. We did not ever, ever allow that stuff to go on stage with us. And I was very proud of that.

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