The seed around which the Squirrel Nut Zippers grew was Jim Mathus, a rock musician who had fallen in love with the 1920's swing sound of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. He taught Katherine Whalen to play the banjo at their home near Chapel Hill, NC, and that was the catalyst that started things moving. Whalen began to develop her distinctive vocal style by singing along with the music she played on her car sound system. They began gathering like-minded friends at their home for evenings of music, and the band soon crystallized. There were seven members in the ensemble when they made their first recording, The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, in 1995:
||Name (from left)
||trap kit, percussion
||vocals, banjo, baritone ukulele
||guitar, alto and baritone saxophone, baritone ukulele, vocals
||guitar, tenor banjo, piano, vocals
||guitar, baritone saxophone, percussion, clarinet, resonator, vocals
Many of the Zippers had day jobs when the recording was released, but the band quickly became a full time job. There were appearances on radio and television talk shows, and touring engagements that began taking up more and more of their time. The Zippers had arrived!
When Bob Edwards asked about the name of the band on NPR's Morning Edition, he was told that it was "a delicious candy confection" made in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I've seen the "confection" label used enough times in other places that I suspect it's a standard part of their press kit. The candy is apparently a peanut-flavored toffee; Mr Edwards commented that one of the Morning Edition staff lost a filling on it. It is not a candy you eat in a hurry. If you feel compelled by curiosity to try it out, be forewarned!
The Zippers are strongly influenced by 1920's swing music, but they are not a nostalgia band. They have their own distinctive sound, and the compositions are mostly original (two exceptions on the first recording, none on the second and third). Most of the music and lyrics are composed by Jim Mathus and Tom Maxwell. Don Raleigh and Ken Mosher have also contributed compositions.
The writing of the lyrics and tune are just the beginning, however; the entire band participates in the arrangements, a process the members call "zipperizing". The end product is frequently something greater than the writer (or writers) had forseen. The complexity of the instrumental bridges in the songs, and the few purely instrumental works, is astounding, while the vocal arrangements, particularly Whalen's, are a pleasure to hear. In addition, the music and lyrics are a lot of fun, and are sometimes aggressively strange!
SNZ's first two releases, Inevitable (1995) and Hot (1996), are especial favorites of mine, and are featured in their own reviews. In case you were wondering, I recommend them unreservedly. I was less impressed with their third release, Perennial Favorites (1998); which in general seemed to lack the sense of fun that pervaded the earlier works - I was left with the impression that certain members of the band felt the need to "grow musically". 'Nuff said.
At the time of this writing, the Zippers have also released a concert/session recording that is available only on the web or at concert appearances, titled Sold Out; I gather that this had come out prior to Perennial Favorites. The band has also recently released a Christmas album. I have not yet heard either of these.
Where do they go from here? Stacy Guess, who played trumpet on the Inevitable recording, had left the band by the time Hot was released. Hot featured two guest musicians. Don Raleigh has been replaced at bass by Stuart Cole, although he appears in four of the tracks from Perennial Favorites. A cornet player named Je Widenhouse was also added to the band for this recording. Since then, I have heard that Ken Mosher has left the band, and that Tom Maxwell and Katherine Whalen have both made recordings outside the group. You'll have to check some of the more fan-oriented web sites to get the skinny on these issues. So will there be more? Perhaps, or perhaps not. In either case, I like what they've done.
The Official Squirrel Nut Zippers Site
Squirrel Nut Zippers Webring
There's a web ring for the Zippers, of course, and you are likely to find as much as you want to know about the group on one or more of the associated sites: clips, lyrics, concert dates, bios, news etc.