Squirrel Nut Zippers Bring Their Big-Band Music to the Parker

Squirrel Nut Zippers
Squirrel Nut Zippers Photo by Gregory Nolan
As unlikely as it sounds, in the mid-'90s there was a swing music revival. Movies like Swing Kids and Swingers inspired a new generation to sign up for swing-dancing classes.

Right in the middle of the nostalgia-inspired craze were Squirrel Nut Zippers, a swing band that seemed to have time traveled right out of the 1920s to inspire the masses to Lindy Hop and Charleston.

"It was a total coincidence," says Jimbo Mathus, the band's founder, guitarist, and vocalist. "We didn't know it would get hot. It was supposed to be an art project with music. It was very odd that people got into what we were doing."

Mathus was born in Mississippi to a musical family.

"I heard music in utero," he says. "My family passed instruments around, the mandolin, the guitar, harmonica, piano."

After moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he bought The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz box set from a local thrift shop.

"I sat around listening to it and tried to figure it out," Mathus adds. "Then the local college radio station was playing all this big-band jazz from the '30s and '40s that piqued my interest. I also heard local bands like Southern Culture on the Skids mixing in these influences."

In 1993, he started to put together what would become the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

"I'd always been good at putting a group together. It wasn't hard to find members. I found a lot of great people," he says. "We rehearsed for six months, and right after our first show, a local label signed us."

The band's second record, 1996's Hot, cracked the Billboard 200 charts, an unlikely hit among the grunge and gangster rap albums of the time. The music video "Hell" also found itself on heavy rotation on MTV between the Fugees and Spice Girls. The video features the band performing at an old-school radio station with several band members looking like they're about to break out in laughter. It all has a very tongue-in-cheek tone reminiscent of a late-night show skit, making you wonder if this was all a big joke.
Talking with Mathus, however, makes it apparent he genuinely loves the old-school music he's playing.

"I think earnestness and satire can work hand in hand," he says. "All the old blues and jazz had this aspect of laughing to keep from crying. They used double entendres and coded words so they could slip things under the censors. We completely embrace that black humor, but our music is 100 percent heartfelt."

Mathus and the rest of the Squirrel Nut Zippers will perform that heartfelt brand of music at the Parker on Thursday, February 9. "We have a ten-piece band with a rotating cast of singers. Everyone takes their turn at the mic," Mathus explains. "The musicians are all top-notch. It's wildly entertaining, and there's nothing else like it. It's serious music meant to seem effortless. It's a time capsule into the future."

Though the Parker is a theater with permanent seats, the Squirrel Nut Zippers approach every show precisely the same way, regardless of whether there's space to dance. "Sometimes these performing arts centers let people dance in the aisles," Mathus adds.

While Squirrel Nut Zippers were built on a fondness for a bygone era, the band is now entering its 30th year, old enough to inspire its own brand of nostalgia.

"It's like a double dose of nostalgia for the roaring '20s," Mathus jokes. "I can see us being passed down. Kids who came to our early shows are now bringing their own kids. Music is a social thing. It's wonderful to include everyone." 
Squirrel Nut Zippers. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 9, at the Parker, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; Tickets cost $35 to $65 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland

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